The breakfast plenary session at the annual conference of the Society of Environmental Journalists is typically devoted to a single topic, one which organizers believe has emerged as absolutely key to the group’s fundamental mission. At this year’s conference, the topic was phrased in the form of a provocative question: “Is Communicating about Climate Change a Lost Cause?”
As it happens, that’s the very question that was on my mind one gray, drizzly afternoon back in January of 2011, while my wife and I walked near our home in Studio City, California. How do you go about communicating the enormity of climate change to people who may be receiving only snippets of (sometimes conflicting) information at a time -- and who may, furthermore, lack the patience to connect all the dots?
I’m a writer. My own answer to the question, then, was to write a play about Dave Keeling. Why him? Because it occurred to me that if you were really trying to explain the intricacies and impacts of global warming, then one of the simplest and most direct ways of doing so would be to tell the story of this dogged scientist who opened the door to our modern understanding of climate change. And the most effective version of this story, I was convinced, would be one that took full advantage of all the drama surrounding his discoveries (see "Air Apparent").
Charles David Keeling (1928-2005) -- known as “Dave” by friends, family, and colleagues -- was the first scientist to measure global levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide with true accuracy and consistency. In 1955, he presented the first atmospheric CO2 measurement for the entire planet -- an achievement that no one before him had thought possible, or, for that matter, necessary.
That initial calculation -- measured in parts per million of volume, and arrived at through synthesizing different readings Keeling had made in remote locales around his home state of California -- was 310 ppm. From that moment on, Keeling was both professionally and personally bound to the task of measuring atmospheric CO2, and indeed spent the next 50 years of his life completely dedicated to it. His findings have found their most famous expression in the “Keeling Curve,” the line graph depicting the steady, relentless rise of CO2 throughout the second half of the 20th century, and into the current one.
As a writer who has made environmental issues his primary focus, I already knew that putting a human face like Dave Keeling’s onto the climate-change issue was key to making the larger points I wanted to make. And that’s why, during that drizzly afternoon walk with my wife, I felt like fate must have been at work when it placed before me a highly recognizable, and much-beloved, face: a face that I knew, as soon as I saw it, could be the face of Dave Keeling in any staged production about the man and his work.
It belonged to the actor Mike Farrell, who happened to live in the neighborhood. As my wife and I were passing his house, he was minding his own business, coming through the front gate of his house while taking out his garbage and recycling. Mike, of course, is most famous for having played the character of B.J. Hunnicutt on the TV series M*A*S*H for seven seasons, although since then he has earned as much of a reputation for his dedicated activism as he has for his television career. I had met him in passing at a few neighborhood council events, but I couldn’t say we knew each other well.
Nevertheless, as he fed a week’s worth of glass and plastic into his large recycling bin, I walked up, (re-)introduced myself, and announced -- in as earnest a voice as I could muster -- that I had an idea to write a play about Dave Keeling. “You’ve probably never heard of him,” I said. “Very few people have. But I think you’d be very good as Keeling. And please believe me when I say that I’m not doing this for any of the usual reasons,” which, in Hollywood, meant fame or riches. “I just want to inform as many people as I can about global warming.”
We parted with an informal agreement: I’d send Mike a few pages -- which I had yet to write -- and he’d be happy, he said, to have a look.
I went home and began working. A play like this, I determined, would have to sneak up on its audience -- first charming and amusing it, then informing it, and finally alarming it. I decided that the first half would be about Keeling’s life: his childhood in the Midwest; his love of mountains and of nature; his decision to become not a “scientist-for-hire” by corporate oil or petrochemical companies, but one who could dedicate his life to conducting “pure science in nature.”
Then, in its second half, the play would cover Keeling’s life as a carbon dioxide researcher. It would follow him from the time he took his first measurements as a postdoctoral fellow at Caltech to his remarkable discovery that a single, global level of atmospheric CO2 could be calculated and expressed at any given time. And of course the play would go on to put this revelation into the larger context of climate change, as Keeling explained to the audience how his later research confirmed a grim hypothesis: that carbon dioxide acted like a thermostat for the entire planet. As CO2 levels went up, in other words, temperatures rose accordingly; as those levels went down, temperatures fell in tandem.
This story, with its determined protagonist and its inherent drama, was clearly the story to tell. But how could it be performed on a stage? What’s more, how could I structure it in such a way as to persuade an actor like Mike to want to help me tell it? A conventional play, with conventional characters and conventional scenes, simply wouldn’t work. But a one-man show -- a play that allowed Dave Keeling to tell his own story, and in doing so explained the ramifications of his discoveries about CO2 directly to an audience -- stood a good chance, I thought.
By September of 2011 I had sent a first draft to Mike. He let me know right away that he liked it, but had one significant reservation: to him, the play read like a lecture, not a drama. With this in mind, I reworked it, trying to inject pathos and humor wherever I could -- such as at the play’s beginning, which depicts Keeling listening to Rush Limbaugh on the radio as the conservative talk-show host angrily denounces climate change as a hoax.
The changes did the trick. By the following January, Mike was committed to the project. We also had a director, Kirsten Sanderson, with whom Mike had worked previously. Summer of 2012 found us in workshop mode: Kirsten and I would listen to Mike reading the play; the pair would ask me questions and suggest changes; and I would insert these changes into what was becoming the final script. More than a hundred slides were added to the production, along with some music. It was actually taking shape.
There were artistic squabbles, as there always are in these situations. Mike thought the ending I wrote was too dark. “You’re telling people it’s hopeless,” he told me at one point. “They’ll just give up.” I disagreed. “I’m not saying it has to be hopeless,” I countered, “but it is hopeless, if we let it happen.”
Finally, this past September, Dr. Keeling’s Curve opened in a four-week limited engagement at the Blank Theatre Company in Hollywood. Mike was phenomenally believable and engaging as Keeling. Audiences came, and laughed, and soaked it all up, and asked intelligent questions that confirmed they had grasped the play’s fundamental message. Some audience members -- noticeably disturbed by what was being suggested in the play’s content -- would come up to me afterward and ask: “What can we do?”
So where does Dr. Keeling’s Curve go from here? The future is uncertain, but exciting. We’ve had some interest in adapting it for television. Personally, I’d love to see the play staged all over the country, especially in New York and Washington. Mike has discussed his interest in doing a tour of colleges and universities. Whatever transpires, the play has the unique potential over time to become even more topical: one wonderful advantage to putting on a play about Dave Keeling (as opposed to making a film about him) is that new climate-related events -- such as Hurricane Sandy, for example – can be incorporated into performances as they occur.
My experience writing and producing the play so far has made one thing very clear to me: the answer to the question I posed to my wife (and myself) two years ago is a firm no. No, communicating effectively about climate change is not a lost cause. Journalism, published research, advocacy measures, and political messaging all have important roles to play in letting the world know what it means for atmospheric CO2 to have risen from 310 ppm -- which is where it was when Dave Keeling first measured it -- to 391 ppm, which is where it is today. Happily, art has a role to play as well.
George Shea is an environmental journalist and children's book author who is currently at work on a Mountain Press book for young readers : "What's
So Chilling About Climate Change?" Recently he chaired a panel of
representatives from NRDC, RAN and the Sierra Club at the...George Shea is an environmental journalist and children's book author who is currently at work on a Mountain Press book for young readers : "What's
So Chilling About Climate Change?" Recently he chaired a panel of
representatives from NRDC, RAN and the Sierra Club at the Animal Rights 2011 National Conference.MoreClose
OnEarth is published by the Natural Resources Defense Council. The opinions expressed by its editors and writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the policies or positions of NRDC. Learn more.