PASADENA, Calif. -- Climate change is at the heart of Showtime's nine-part docuseries "Years of Living Dangerously" (10 p.m. Sunday), which features an assortment of celebrities focusing on one particular aspect of climate change. Actor and former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger is among the executive producers of the series, and he also hosts a segment along with actors Don Cheadle, Jessica Alba, Harrison Ford, Matt Damon, Michael C. Hall and journalist Lesley Stahl. The first episode of the show is available for free viewing online at http://s.sho.com/1ikYkat.
Sunday's series premiere, "Dry Season," focuses on the effects of extreme drought and deforestation. Mr. Ford travels to Indonesia for a report on the impact of greenhouse gases through deforestation from the production of palm oil. Mr. Cheadle visits a Texas town where a meat-packing plant closed, and residents believe it was due to drought. And Pulitzer prize-winning columnist Thomas Friedman travels to the Middle East to see how climate change can impact volatile political situations.
Of course, climate change itself has become a politically charged issue, but producers want the program to provide clarity for viewers.
"Our hope is that this show will be able to transcend [politics], because what we're doing is we're putting a human face on this," said executive producer Daniel Abbasi at a January Showtime press conference during the TV critics winter press tour. "Politics are covered, but the path into the story is through people that are experiencing this, how they're understanding their experience, the questions they're asking. They want to understand the cause increasingly as the events get more severe."
Climate change may typically be seen as an issue of concern to liberals that's scoffed at by some conservatives, not every producer on the show sees it that way.
"Actually, Republicans have been in the forefront of this issue," said series creator/executive producer David Gelber, a former "60 Minutes" producer. "For many, many years George H. W. Bush was absolutely clear about the need to do something about this. In the 2008 election, the candidate who had the best record on climate change was McCain, not Obama. He was very, very strong on the issue and very outspoken. There has been, of course, some kind of partisan dispute about it, but a lot of Republicans for many years were very good on it."
Executive producer Jerry Weintraub said climate change is not a liberal conspiracy.
"It's a good issue for the Christian right because they believe God does everything. I believe in God. I'm a spiritual man, and I believe totally in God," he said. "When a guy like Rick Joyner in Charlotte, who has a huge, huge following, gets up on the pulpit and preaches that this is all crazy and it's a liberal conspiracy and it's this and it's that --."
"That's when it becomes a problem," said actor Ian Somerhalder ("The Vampire Diaries"), one of the correspondents in "Years of Living Dangerously."
But why use celebrities when some viewers object to the mixing of celebrities and politics? Won't some viewers dismiss the show simply because of that combination without even tuning in?
"There were three presidential debates in 2012. This issue, which really is the biggest story out there right now, didn't come up in one of those debates," Mr. Gelber said. "So it seemed to us really important to make sure we had reach with this series, and we decided that we would find people like Ian who are passionate about the issue, who are not necessarily experts. We didn't want them to be experts. We didn't want an actor to be opining, to be giving their point of view about this issue. We wanted them to be asking questions on behalf of the audience, and they've done it spectacularly well."
Mr. Abassi, who serves on the governing body of the U.S. National Climate Assessment, said the team was selective about which celebrities it used and didn't choose actors based on a marquee name.
"We wanted people who had a real commitment to this," he said. "These are not cameo performances. Obviously, Gov. Schwarzenegger has been an extraordinary leader, but Harrison Ford is on the board of Conservation International, does a phenomenal story for us on deforestation in Indonesia. So this is a global story. Matt Damon has co-founded a group called Water.org, and you all probably know it, an incredibly smart individual. ... Don Cheadle is a UN environmental ambassador. So we chose people that already have this passion for the issue, and then we gave them an opportunity to do something that most of them hadn't done before, which was go into the field as correspondents. They relate to people. They're charismatic. They draw people in, and that's scientists. It is a robust scientific consensus. Unfortunately, [scientists are] not the greatest communicators in the world. So this is a translation exercise."
"I think we should put scientists in acting classes," Mr. Somerhalder said, seemingly joking.
But Mr. Schwarzenegger said it wasn't a bad idea.
"Since I've gotten involved in this issue over the last 10 years, since I've become governor of California, I was always wondering why is it that this message doesn't penetrate," he said. "And I think that Ian just hit the nail on the head that maybe scientists have to take acting classes because sometimes -- they have to, of course, because they get peer review with notice and they have to throw around the numbers and the facts and the statistics and all of those things -- but the things that they talk about a lot of times don't really resonate with the general public. So I always felt that there was a communications gap and a communications problem between the subject of global warming and bringing ordinary people in and making them part of the movement."
Mr. Schwarzenegger said there needs to be a simple message.
"All of the great movements have one thing or two things in common. One of them is that they all start on a local level. So it does not happen out of Washington or Moscow or Beijing or London or any of those capitals. It starts on a grass-roots level, but the other thing is that they are very simple messages," he said. "If you think about the Apartheid movement, it's very simple: 'Let's stop being prejudiced, everyone is equal.' The human rights movement. If it is the woman suffrage movement, it just simply says let women have the right to vote. So there's the independence movement in India, let India be independent. So these are very simple messages, and I think the environmental movement only can be successful if we are simple and clear and make it a human story. Showtime is, therefore, such a great asset to us in having those shows that we are showing is they're human stories, and only actors really will get the ultimate attention. The scientists would never get the kind of attention that someone in show business gets. And this is why it's very important when you are an actor and you are in the entertainment business or when you are a professional athlete, that you look at that power that you have, the power of communicating and use it for something positive."