Feb 1, 2023
Climate Change Gets a Funny New Streaming Show
(Bloomberg) -- You can, obviously, tell jokes about climate change. It’s just that almost all the humor tends to be of the gallows variety. That’s not what Kal Penn set out to do in Getting Warmer With Kal Penn, the new streaming show that comes out today from Bloomberg Originals.
“The fact that we got a show that’s mostly positive, mostly solutions driven was the coolest thing,” Penn, an actor and former policy aide to President Barack Obama, says. “The reason I love comedy is that it can be aspirational, it can offer solutions, and it can offer a sense of possibility.”
The 12-episode debut season of Getting Warmer finds Penn on the road chasing after the frontiers of climate solutions and the people trying to make them work. All of the efforts he comes across are interesting, even if some make more apparent sense than others.
There’s a closed-loop battery recycling factory rising in the Nevada desert that promises to revolutionize the way we power electric vehicles. There’s the design studio working with oyster farmers in the New York harbor who have a low-tech plan to protect the biggest US city from rising sea levels and superstorms. And then there are “crypto cowboys” in Texas who are plotting to clean up the grid by mining bitcoin, a process that’s rather infamous for its extraordinary carbon footprint, and a plastics-recycling executive trying his best —and coming up short — against mounds of stuff that’s extremely hard to recycle.
When Penn first decided to set out on this project with Bloomberg Green’s team of climate journalists, he established one overarching guideline: Let’s not do doom. Anyone sitting down to watch a weekly streaming show about climate change knows enough to take the warming world seriously. The audience doesn’t need to be hit over the head with the enormous stakes.
“By some estimates we’re already screwed and it’s just a question of to what degree,” Penn says of the default mindset around climate change. “You kind of have to keep pushing with a sense of possibility.”
That decision opens the space for asking simple questions with expansive, revealing answers about the state of the art in climate solutions. Why does that three-arrows recycling logo end up on so much stuff that can’t really be recycled? Have trading markets in carbon credits actually managed to help curb greenhouse gas? What does it take to make a low-carbon skyscraper? Should we all start drinking our own wastewater?
In addition to Bloomberg Green’s journalists, Getting Warmer also features segments from London-based filmmakers Jack Harries and Alice Aedy, co- founders of a digital studio called Earthrise. Each episode includes a short film in which Harries and Aedy go into depth on an unexpected practical approach to solving one of climate challenges raised by Penn’s explorations.
The first episode of Getting Warmer With Kal Penn will be released today at 8 p.m. Eastern on the Bloomberg Originals stream, which can be watched by downloading Bloomberg’s streaming app or you can find the show on Apple TV, Roku, Samsung TV, Fire TV or Android TV. And you can watch new episodes on Bloomberg.com every Thursday — check this page each week for new videos, or check back with the Green Daily newsletter to be notified as shows are released.
Bloomberg Green spoke to Penn by phone on Wednesday to look back at his experience traveling around in search of solutions. The conversation below has been edited and condensed.
What’s the weirdest place you got to see while you were out reporting for the show?
I never considered the way batteries and cells are made for electric cars. So going to that Panasonic gigafactory was really pretty amazing and talking to them about what it means to think of an electric vehicle as actually carbon neutral, taking into account the manufacturing.
Did you end up looking at any efforts that seemed to not be working great, or at least not yet?
Getting inside plastics recycling. You see all these companies that pay to put the “this is recyclable” label on stuff, even though these things are not practically, municipally recyclable. And that’s a big difference. To see all these tubs of toothpaste tubes that people dropped off with the best of intentions — the sheer scope and numbers of that was weird, in a depressing way. That was probably our one episode that didn’t touch on a scalable solution.
Of all the strategies being tried out there, was there anything you really hadn’t considered beforehand?
I’m an idiot who was born and raised in big cities. The idea that your oil and gas comes from somewhere is not something you ever learn. It’s probably something we should learn! So for me it was going to the Permian Basin and meeting with the men and women who extract oil and gas. It’s very easy for us to be like, “They shouldn’t do that!” But who are the ones sucking up a lot of it? It’s us. We were actually out there looking at crypto. Whether you love or hate crypto is irrelevant to our crypto episode, because it’s not going anywhere, right? The idea that there are people out there taking energy that would have been wasted off the grid, or taking energy that’s just burned off from flaring natural gas, it’s an innovative idea. I’m not a big crypto guy, personally, but I will root for anybody who has a solution.
You set out to make an anti-doom climate show. But that was before you really dug into everything and spent, you know, weeks talking to people who are tackling climate problems every day. It’s hard stuff. Is your anti-doom outlook still intact?
My hope is that we’re going to be able to offer nuance that you don’t get with the doom-and-gloom approach. And no disrespect to those takes on climate. Obviously the stakes are dire. But it was really great to find that there are so many people building so many solutions that it wasn’t possible to include all of them. For each of these episodes you could have done a very long two-hour feature. Really each of the episodes could have been its own series.
Did you change anything about your own approach to decarbonization after doing this show?
My energy consumption in general changed. As consumers and as an audience that often has the means to make a choice based on income, level of education, the ZIP codes you live — the idea that many of us that have that choice don’t make it was one of the big takeaways. The more that we do that, those of us who can afford to make climate choices, the quicker the price of solutions will come down so that they’re accessible for everybody. For an audience that maybe has more means to make choices, that was something that became clear to me.
The climate outlook itself changed rather significantly while you were filming. President Biden, who in some sense was your co-worker in the Obama White House, managed to pull off the landmark climate legislation. Were you picking up on that change while you were out there?
There were a lot of people we met who said, ‘Look this is going to bring a huge infusion in capital.’ There were things like that that felt exciting. Big bills like this don’t get passed without decades of support that’s building. So I felt really happy for advocates, many of whom might not even be in climate anywhere. Maybe you worked on climate when you were in college and now you’ve moved on. Well that effort paid off. My background is in advocacy. It’s not in business. It was eye-opening to see that there are ways advocates can put pressure on businesses or even figure out who your allies are inside companies.
Are there solutions you didn’t get to tackle that you want to check out next time?
The ties between working conditions and the ways we source certain materials. That supply chain when it comes to battery manufacturing. Why do Western companies go abroad for all that stuff? There’s a lot to explore, without cynicism, that looks at how things might change.
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