Years of Living Dangerously: Must-Watch Moments of Season One

Big congrats to the team behind Years of Living Dangerously, which won an Emmy on August 16 for Best Documentary; the series was also nominated for Best Documentary writing! Proceeds from the series' DVD sales and online views will help fund Season 2.

Watching Years of Living Dangerously reminded me why I got involved in environmental causes to begin with. I was in turns touched, frustrated, grief-stricken, fascinated, excited and grateful to get to know the stories and people we met over the course of the series, which has a lot of heart. I know watching documentaries about climate change could seem like homework to many people; they must be inherently depressing, bleak and even boring, right?


Stories showing what people around the world are doing right now to say “enough already” are what drive the series. They’re why this show is so engaging to watch. (It’s also beautifully shot –did I mention its Best Doc Emmy?!) Ultimately, Years of Living Dangerously offers uplifting reminders of what determined people who love their homes and communities can do to help care for them.

Skeptics, also represented in the series, argue here and elsewhere that we’ll adapt; that’s why our species has survived this long, right? And hasn’t this been a cooler summer than usual, anyway?

Here's the thing. We’re not going to magically resolve the battle over climate change, nor does the series pretend to. After all, change is hard any way you slice it; so is having a productive conversation about one of the most polarizing issues of our time. How to best have that conversation is a crucial part of the larger story here. Addressing humans’ role in climate change could help solve many other collective problems. Figuring out how to conserve water could help prevent wars. Moving towards solar and other clean renewables (sorry, natural gas!) could help stave off rising seas. Switching to LEDs could save industries or governments millions of dollars.

To give you an idea of how the series tackles such complex problems and questions, there is a recaplet for each episode of Years of Living Dangerously (with a link to the full recap).

We’d love to hear your thoughts on the series and how it did – or didn’t – touch you. See you in the comments!

Episode 1, Dry Season

Available online in full, the premiere includes stories about carbon emissions produced by deforestation, the heated debate in US culture and politics about the causes of and possible solutions to global warming and what Syria’s civil war suggests about a scary future in an ever-drier Middle East.

Must-watch moments:
•   Uh oh, Indy! Check out Harrison Ford’s infuriated response to an overflight of charred, formerly forested land, the habitat of endangered orangutans and other species.
•   Don Cheadle’s visit with Evangelical Christian and internationally-renowned climatologist Katharine Hayhoe. The great-humored, down-to-earth yet impassioned Hayhoe became something of a Twitter celebrity after this episode first aired.

Episode 2, The End of the Woods

The Governator heads to the fire line and Harrison Ford continues his Indonesian palm oil tour. (Spoiler alert: he was not, as press suggested, deported from Indonesia.) Whether owing to drought-fueled megafires or to satisfy our voracious appetites for palm oil in, well, everything, our forests are paying a horrible price.

Must-watch moments:
•   Orangutans!
•   Hotshot firefighters sitting around a camp talking shop with Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Episode 3, The Surge

Two major weather issues that relate to climate change's effects on coastal areas, often with disastrous effects: El Niño and Superstorms. It’s the first of a few stories that touch on the aftermath of Sandy in the New York/New Jersey area. Dr. M. Sanjayan’s interview with climate scientist Kim Cobb sheds light on the deadly amplification climate change brings to El Niño phenomena, which killed more than 20,000 people and incurred $33 billion in damages during the 1997-98 cycle.

Must-watch moment:
•   Pat Dresch’s recounting of her family’s harrowing, deadly night when Sandy came ashore in Staten Island. (There is also bonus footage online of the first responders who headed out into that flooded, murky maelstrom to rescue their neighbors.)

Episode 4, Ice and Brimstone

In which The Vampire Diaries star Ian Somerhalder sits down with an Evangelical Christian father and daughter who fundamentally disagree about climate change while 60 Minutes correspondent Lesley Stahl explores Arctic oil and gas development amidst ice melts and rising seas in Greenland.

Must-watch moment:
•   No doubt many of us recognize the inter-generational struggle over politics examined by the Joyners, which makes Anna’s presentation during her dad’s church service all the more moving.

Episode 5, True Colors

Mark Bittman plays a losing game of phone tag with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie's office, while Daily Show alum Olivia Munn visits Washington State Governor Jay Inslee to see how the climate change campaigner fared in his challenging first year of office. It’s a hard truth that most policymaking, like sausages, isn’t pleasant to watch get done. That certainly holds true at the state level, but that’s exactly where much environmental policy is getting made these days.

Must-watch moment:
•   Mark Bittman’s car ride with Union Beach, NJ town engineer Bobby Burlew in the immediate aftermath of Sandy. It’s hard for Burlew – and many of us watching, I daresay – to forego empathy seeing what the mess looked like up close.

Episode 6, Winds of Change

This episode's theme: where goes our energy future? America Ferrera checks out renewable energy supporters and climate change critic James Taylor of the Heartland Institute. Mark Bittman is back for another investigation, this one on fracking and its impact on our atmosphere.

Must-watch moment:
•   America Ferrara’s entire conversation with the Heartland Institute’s James Taylor. It’s hard to pinpoint the most amazing moment in this whole series, but one of mine sure is this interview.

Episode 7, Revolt, Rebuild, Renew

Jessica Alba looks at an Environmental Defense Fund program bringing environmental management to corporate America. Chris Hayes went to New York's Far Rockaways to visit with another community devastated by Hurricane Sandy. And Thomas Friedman found a story about Egypt's Arab Spring taking him in a direction he hadn't anticipated: to Kansas.

Must-watch moment:
•  Spot the aluminum cans thrown away after a recycling presentation and the lightbulb going off over an exec’s head as he realizes just how much green lightbulbs can save his balance sheet.

Episode 8, A Dangerous Future

Matt Damon examines heat waves, whose frequency and deadly impacts are expected to keep rising. Thomas Friedman brings us to Yemen where bone-dry villages engage in deadly life-and-death struggles for water. Michael C. Hall heads to Bangladesh, where millions are destined to lose their land as sea levels rise.

Must-watch moment:
•   Michael C. Hall has a knack for emotional TV moments (Six Feet Under finale, anyone?) and this one’s a whopper. A Bangladeshi garment worker who’s rehabbing after his traumatic injury in the Rana Plaza disaster shows Hall his rural home – or rather, where his family migrated after their ancestral home was lost to two cyclones in two years.

Episode 9, Moving a Mountain

"Why should we care about climate change? And, to a lesser extent, "What can we do about it?" The season finale featured an interview with President Barack Obama, an amazing glacial expedition in the Andes and the conclusion of Michael C. Hall's poignant trip to Bangladesh.

Must-watch moment:
•   The series’ first season wraps up on a well-earned thoughtful, hopeful note, with a montage scored by Alexi Murdoch’s All My Days. And I don't know about you, but I love a good montage.

See you next season!