An image of deforestation as seen in "Earth Emergency." (Photo: Screenshot)

New Documentary Explains Extreme Weather Emergency

The new PBS documentary “Earth Emergency” is essential viewing for anyone who wants to understand extreme weather's causes and what can be done about it.

Emmy-nominated director Susan Gray's timely documentary, Earth Emergency, is not only a wake-up call to policymakers and the public, but a sort of "Extreme Weather for Dummies" that explains the fatal factors wreaking havoc on our environment.

This fifty-two-minute nonfiction film uses animation and explanatory superimpositions of words and symbols over images to illustrate the points being made onscreen by climate experts and notables, along with insightful narration by actor Richard Gere.

"We can start the change now. We, the people."

Earth Emergency opens with comments by the Dalai Lama and Swedish eco-rabble-rouser Greta Thunberg, who reappear throughout the production to warn about the unfolding climate catastrophe. Various scientists thoughtfully elucidate the religious and activist messages of the Tibetan Buddhist and Scandinavian youth leader, spelling out in basic terms what exactly is causing climate change.

George Woodwell, the ninety-one-year-old cofounder of the Environmental Defense Fund and a global warming awareness pioneer, explains "tipping points" and "feedback loops"--key concepts essential for grasping how extreme weather is created, generated, and perpetuated. These chain reactions amplify and accelerate the destructive trends being unleashed upon the planet by human activities, in particular the emission of greenhouse gas. The aptly named Earth Emergency zooms in on four dangerous feedback loops: the heating up of tropical, boreal, and temperate forests; the melting of the permafrost; changes in the atmosphere; and the melting of ice in the North and South Poles.

A case in point is the Amazon, which, as narrator Gere notes is "two million square miles . . . in nine countries." This vast rainforest, commonly called "the Earth's lungs," has long absorbed carbon dioxide, the heat-trapping greenhouse gas that is a major source of global warming, thus helping to cool the planet. But Mike Coe, director of the Tropics Program at the Woodwell Climate Research Center, contends that "20 percent of the Amazon has been lost," threatening to transform this vast swathe of South America from "a net sink to a net source of carbon."

"Deforestation makes [the land] dryer," observes Coe. Logging of temperate forests in the southeastern United States also contributes to this deadly process, and Coe points out trees can be "used for commercial purposes or [kept alive] to cool the planet."

According to Woodwell Climate Research Center's Jennifer Francis, there has been so much dramatic ice decline that "we call it the 'New Arctic' now, with a 40 percent loss of reflectivity. The landscape of the Arctic has changed irrevocably"--something that's a matter of concern for not only the polar bears and penguins.

"The rise of sea level is due to melting ice," says narrator Gere. "There will be a 100-foot rise [in sea level] if Greenland and Antarctica melt, [which] will cause the feedback loop to spin out of control," and presumably inundate coastal areas.

Earth Emergency proceeds to document how these patterns impact the jet stream and are driving the creation of hurricanes. The narrator ominously sounds the alarm: "Extreme weather events now are the norm, not the exception."

In addition to all of the dire forecasts of doom and gloom, this documentary offers hope and a course of action leading toward what the Dalai Lama calls "a green new world." MIT's Kerry Emanuel declares: "I'm encouraged by the fact that other countries have de-carbonized their electricity sector in ten to twelve years. I know we can do it. But we have to put the incentives in place."

Fittingly, Greta Thunberg has the last word in Earth Emergency. Delivering a speech, as we approach the tipping point of no return the Swedish climate activist demands bold leadership, asserting: "We can start the change now. We, the people" can right the course and avert the impending eco-apocalypse.

To its credit, this documentary renders cloudy, complex subjects comprehensible, by combining climate experts' clear discourses with images that graphically illustrate the points they are making. Director Susan Gray and co-writers Bonnie Waltch and Barry Hershey have made an educational, entertaining "red alert" accessible to a mass audience.

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