Years of Living Dangerously Recap: Episode 5, True Colors

A few hours before Episode 5 of Years of Living aired, two groups of scientists announced that “a large section of the mighty West Antarctica ice sheet has begun falling apart” which will almost surely lead to sea levels rising 10 feet or more in centuries to come. The three to four foot rise projected in this century means big trouble for coastal cities like Miami, New Orleans, New York and Boston.

The news was another sobering reality check that climate change is here, and in Episode 5, we meet more people who’ve been affected by it. Longtime New York Times journalist Mark Bittman plays a losing game of phone tag with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s office, in an effort to interview the governor about climate change, Sandy and the delicate matter of just how Garden State communities should rebuild. On the other side of the country, actress/comedian Olivia Munn visits Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to see how the climate change campaigner fared in his challenging first year of office.

Stories of the Week

Christie and the Storm

Hailed for his bipartisan leadership after Sandy, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie joined President Obama to comfort traumatized New Jersey residents, appearing everywhere in his trademark monogrammed fleece. As correspondent Mark Bittman says, many at the time were impressed by Christie during those first days, yet troubled by his refusal to acknowledge the role of climate change in amplifying the storm.

As this series has shown, the debate over a) whether climate change is a reality and b) its probable causes and/or solutions is crippling US politics and large-scale policymaking. The culprits? Many politicians (like Christie) take money from Koch Brothers’ backed groups – such as the Americans for Prosperitywith whom Bittman chats.

“Years of Living” continues to be most evocative when featuring everyday people and climate scientists. Bittman rides around the nearly uninhabitable Union Beach, New Jersey with town engineer Bobby Burlew, whose job is helping residents make agonizing decisions to rebuild, elevate or demolish their homes.

For a little inspiration, Bittman also visited Rotterdam, where Dutch planners have successfully managed their low-lying lands under threat of sea level rise for years, including the Delta Works, the world’s largest system of dams, dikes and storm surge barriers and the “Room for the River” plan. That plan works with rivers, by using landscaping, increasing flood channels and resettling people living in flood plains, resulting in lower inland water levels all around.

(Interesting note: former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg called on the Dutch for help while drafting PlaNYC, the comprehensive climate change plan transforming his metropolis across from New Jersey.)

The Governor

Washington State Governor Jay Inslee was elected on a platform of combating climate change and boosting the local economy; ex-Daily Show correspondent Olivia Munn follows his first year on the job. Upon taking office, Inslee immediately introduced a climate change bill to the state legislature that would create a bipartisan workgroup to tackle Washington State’s greenhouse gas emissions. Inslee is optimistic and eager, having left his longstanding position as a US Congressman to do more good (he hopes) and battle climate change (rather than arguing with Republicans over its existence).

It turns out that plenty of powerful climate change-skeptic Republicans are in the Washington State legislature, too, though. (Who knew?) In short order, Inslee’s bill has all references to “climate change” stripped from the text to enable passage and his bipartisan workgroup’s planning is stalled. Inslee decided to use his executive powers to bypass the legislature (where possible) to enact environmental policy.

“Carbon belongs in our bike frames, not in our atmosphere.”

In the meantime, the Evergreen State became the proposed site for an extremely controversial coal export scheme. While Americans are burning less coal, Asian demand is booming, so if companies can find a way to export their excess supply, it’s a win-win for their dwindling profit margins! The proposal would entail schlepping the coal across the country via train from the mines to ports on Washington State’s coast. While environmentalists protest the plan, labor groups who backed Inslee’s campaign are in favor of the project, pitting the two Democratic constituencies against each other. Inslee doesn’t offer his opinion one way or another. (Perhaps a political homage to New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s oh-so-careful handling of fracking?)

Except he sort of does. Inslee requests an extremely thorough environmental assessment report for the proposed port site, factoring in the costs of emissions and pollution created by the coal were it burned in Asia. (Hello, externalities!) On top of that, in a local city council election whose winners will be responsible for issuing the first port permits, candidates opposed to the plan win – so we end on a bit of an up note.

Voices from Episode 5

  • “We need to incrementally pull back and restore [this land] as dune or wetlands. We can’t sustain this over time; it’s environmentally and financially unsustainable.” – Mark Mauriello, former NJ DEP Head and Founder of NJ Association for Floodplain Management
  • “I feel like this state put funnel cakes before families and that’s a shame.” – Union Beach, NJ resident at town forum after Sandy
  • “Carbon belongs in our bike frames, not in our atmosphere.” – Washington Governor Jay Inslee

To Take Action and Find out More

On the impacts of industry lobbying on US politics: “Fossil Fuel Political Contributions Have Grown 11,761 Percent

On Sandy and the food, water and energy nexus: “Superstorm Sandy and a Few Nexus Lessons

Find out more about the Power Past Coal campaign.
To share your story about how you’ve been impacted by climate change with the Years of Living Dangerously team, let them know here.

To discuss the series on social media, join us in conversation with @YearsofLiving on Instagram, @YEARSofLiving on Twitter or @YearsofLiving on Facebook using #YEARSproject.

Check out previous Years of Living Dangerously recaps!


Episode 2, The End of the Woods

Episode 3, The Surge

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

Episode 5, True Colors

Episode 6, Winds of Change

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain