UMaine professor featured on Showtime series

  • University of Maine professor Paul Mayewski was featured in the Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously starring Harrison Ford, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Matt Damon.

    It’s a thriller with an ending that has yet to be written.

    Executive producer James Cameron, who has also directed the blockbustersAvatar, The Terminator and Aliens, describes Years of Living Dangerouslyas the biggest survival story of this time.

    The documentary, developed by David Gelber and Joel Bach of 60 Minutes, depicted real-life events and comes with an “adult content, viewer discretion advised” disclaimer. The nine-part series that premiered April 13 shares life-and-death stories about impacts of climate change on people and the planet.

    Correspondents, including actors Ford and Damon, as well as journalists Lesley Stahl and Thomas Friedman and scientist M. Sanjayan, travel the Earth to cover the chaos. They examine death and devastation caused by Superstorm Sandy; drought and lost jobs in Plainview, Texas; worsening wildfires in the U.S.; and civil unrest heightened by water shortage in the Middle East. The correspondents also interview policymakers, some of whom refute the science or are reluctant to pursue legislation.

    And they speak with scientists who go to great lengths, and heights, to conduct climate research. Mayewski, director of UMaine’s Climate Change Institute (CCI), is one of those scientists. He appeared in the series finale at 8 p.m. Monday, June 9.

    Climate change, Mayewski says, is causing and will continue to cause destruction. And he says how scientists and media inform people about the subject is important.

    “There are going to be some scary things that happen but they won’t be everywhere and it won’t be all at the same time,” he says. “You want people to think about it but not to terrify them so they turn it off completely. You want them to understand that with understanding comes opportunity.”

    In February 2013, Sanjayan and a film crew joined Mayewski and his team of CCI graduate students for the nearly 20,000-foot ascent of a glacier on Tupungato, an active Andean volcano in Chile, to collect ice cores.

    Sanjayan calls Mayewski “the Indiana Jones of climate research” for his penchant to go to the extremes of the Earth under challenging conditions to retrieve ice cores to study past climate in order to better predict future climate.

    Sanjayan, a senior scientist with Conservation International, wrote in a recent blog on the Conservation International website that while people may distrust data, they believe people they like. He thought it would be beneficial to show the scientific process at work and to introduce the scientists’ personalities to viewers. “He’s the sort of guy you’d want to call up on aWednesday afternoon to leave work early for a beer on an outdoor patio,” Sanjayan writes of Mayewski.

    So for the documentary, Mayewski was filmed in the field — gathering ice cores at an oxygen-deprived altitude of 20,000 feet atop a glacier with sulfur spewing from nearby volcanic ponds. “It’s a strange place to work,” Mayewski says, “but it’s where we can find amazing, productive data.”

    He was also interviewed at home, where he enjoys his family, dogs and sailing.

    Mayewski likes the series’ story-telling approach. Scientists, he says, need to explain material in a way that is relatable, relevant and empowering.

    Take for instance Joseph Romm’s baseball analogy. Romm, a Fellow at American Progress and founding editor of Climate Progress, earned his doctorate in physics from MIT.

    On the Years of Living Dangerously website, Romm writes, “Like a baseball player on steroids, our climate system is breaking records at an unnatural pace. And like a baseball player on steroids, it’s the wrong question to ask whether a given home run is ‘caused’ by steroids. Home runs become longer and more common. Similarly climate change makes a variety of extreme weather events more intense and more likely.”

    Mayewski says it’s also imperative to provide tools that enable people to take action to mitigate climate change as well as adapt to it. “When we have a crystal ball, even if the future is bad, we can create a better situation,” he says. “We have no choice but to adapt.”

    Maine is in a good position to take action, he says, especially with regard to developing offshore wind technology. “Who wouldn’t want a cleaner world, to spend less money on energy and have better jobs? We will run out of oil at some point but the wind won’t stop,” he says.