TIME health

Solving the Mystery Flu That Killed 50 Million People

The deadly 1918 flu pandemic
The 1918 flu pandemic killed an estimated 50 million people Photo Researchers via Getty Images

Researchers have wondered for decades why the 1918 flu disproportionately killed so many young people, but a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences suggests the answers are in the pattern of past flu infections

Years ago the environmental historian Alfred Crosby was at Washington State University, where he was teaching at the time, when on a whim he decided to pick up an old almanac from 1917. (This is apparently the kind of thing historians like to do in their spare time.) He looked up the U.S. life expectancy in that year—it was about 51 years. He turned to the 1919 almanac, and found about the same figure. Then Crosby picked up the almanac from 1918. The U.S. life expectancy in 1918 had fallen to 39 years. “What the hell happened?” Crosby told the New York Times writer Gina Kolata in her book Flu: The Story of the Great Influenza Pandemic of 1918. “ The life expectancy had dropped to what it had been fifty years before.”

What happened was the 1918 influenza pandemic. A virus that usually does little more than make people feel awful for a few days killed an estimated 50 million people worldwide, if not far more, with 650,000 people dying in the U.S. alone. The flu killed more people in a year than the bubonic plague killed in a century in the Middle Ages. Worst of all, this flu disproportionately took the lives of men and women in their 20s and 30s, while often sparing the very old and the very young—two population groups that are especially vulnerable to the flu in most years.

This has confounded scientists for almost a century, but a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) puts forward a fresh answer to one of the enduring mysteries of medical science. Researchers led by Michael Worobey of the University of Arizona reconstructed the origins of the 1918 pandemic, concluding that the pathogen arose when an existing human H1 flu virus acquired genetic material from a bird flu virus. That new H1N1 flu virus was able to evade immune systems, which helps explain why it infected more than a quarter of the U.S. population at the time. But it was young adults between the ages of 20 and 40 that died in the greatest number—and Worobey’s study suggests that the unusual death pattern was due as much to flus of the past as it was to the flu of 1918. “Prior immunity, or lack of it, seems to be the decisive factor,” says Worobey.

Flu viruses are constantly changing and mutating, which is why we can’t develop a lifelong vaccine for it the way we can for more stable viruses, like the ones that cause smallpox or the measles. A flu virus has two parts: hemagglutinin and neuraminidase proteins, shortened to HA and NA (and just H and N when naming a virus). It’s the HA protein that seems to drive our immune system response, as Worobey put it in a statement:

Imagine a soccer ball studded with lollipops. The candy part of the lollipop is the globular part of the HA protein, and that is by far the most potent part of the flu virus against which our immune system can make antibodies. If antibodies cover all the lollipop heads, the virus can’t even infect you.

Worobey and his colleagues looked back at the kinds of flu viruses that were in circulation in the decades preceding the 1918 pandemic by examining antibodies found in old blood samples. (Your immune system will produce customized antibodies in response to a flu infection, and those antibodies will remain in your body, which allows scientists to identify the genetic makeup of the virus that led to their creation.) It turns out people born between 1880 and 1900—the generation hit hardest by the 1918 flu—were mostly exposed during childhood to a H3N8 flu virus that began circulating during an earlier pandemic in 1889, but not to an H1 virus, which meant that generation had virtually no antibodies to fight it off.

By reconstructing the genetic origins of the 1918 flu, Worobey found that a version of that H1N1 flu virus was circulating for years before the pandemic began. Because flu strikes most commonly in childhood, those born after 1900 were more likely to have had previous exposure to an H1N1-like flu virus, which would have offered them some protection. Meanwhile those born before 1880 were more likely to have been exposed to the H1N8 flu strain that was prevalent when they were children. In both the very young and the old, having earlier exposure to an H1 flu—even one different from the strain that caused the 1918 pandemic—offered a level of protection not present in those who had never been infected by an H1 strain. That could explain the unusual mortality curve in the 1918 pandemic.

1918 flu mortality curve
The researchers found a remarkable overlap between death rates in various age groups in 1918 and childhood exposure to an H3 flu virus that was mismatched with H1N1 pandemic virus. Credit: Michael Worobey

Thankfully, no flu pandemic since 1918 has been anywhere near as deadly. The 2009 swine flu pandemic killed an estimated 284,000 people worldwide, comparable to flu deaths in a non-pandemic year. But two avian flu viruses — H5N1 and H7N9 — have for years been periodically jumping the species barrier and infecting human beings. And like the 1918 flu, H5N1 and H7N9 are unusually deadly, particularly for the young and elderly, respectively. “Lots of different age groups might be exposed to these viruses, but the virus that kills them is the one that’s mismatched to the virus they encountered as a child,” says Worobey.

The PNAS paper suggests that this might be due to past flu patterns as well, with both groups having been exposed to flu viruses in their youth that offered them little protection against the new pathogens. If either virus were to mutate to the point where it could spread easily in the human population, the results could be catastrophic.

But the PNAS paper offers hope that doctors could begin to design flu vaccination strategies that compensate for the strains that different age groups never experienced as children. Down the line, scientists may even be able to develop a universal flu vaccine that targets parts of the virus that almost never change from strain to strain. “This work is encouraging that possibility,” says Worobey. If we’re smart, the global catastrophe that was the 1918 pandemic will remain confined to the history books.

TIME health

Almost Half of Homeless Men Had a Previous Brain Injury

Homeless people and TBI
Past traumatic brain injuries were correlated with homelessness Getty Images

A new study of homeless men found that 45% of the subjects surveyed had experienced traumatic brain injuries in the past. Brain injuries can cause both cognitive and personality problems that researchers don't yet fully understand

Traumatic brain injuries (TBIs) happen in a moment: a jarring collision while playing sports, an accidental fall, a sudden bomb blast. But their effects can last for a lifetime. Cognition and decisionmaking abilities can be damaged. Mood and behavior can shift suddenly, sometimes resulting in increased aggression or reduced motivation. While most people who suffer a TBI will be able to continue on with their lives unchanged, a subset of victims are never the same. The trajectory of their life is altered permanently.

Just how altered isn’t clear, but a new study published in the journal CMAJ Open offers some sobering data about a possible connection between TBI and homelessness. Jane Topolovec-Vranic, a researcher in trauma and neurosurgery at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, surveyed 111 homeless men recruited from a city shelter to see whether they had suffered a TBI sometime in their past. She found that 45% of them had experienced a traumatic brain injury at some point in their life. (Sadly, most of her subjects’ TBIs resulted from assault.)

“You could see how it would happen,” she says. “You have a concussion, and you can’t concentrate or focus. Their thinking abilities and personalities change. They can’t manage at work, and they may lose their job, and eventually lose their families. And then it’s a negative spiral” — a spiral that, for the men in Topolovec-Vranic’s study, ends up in a homeless shelter. There’s no clear data on how prevalent TBI is in the general population, which makes it difficult to say for sure whether the homeless men in Topolovec-Vranic’s study were injured at an unusually high rate. Hers was also a small study, which limits any larger conclusions about the connection between TBI and homelessness.

But the more we learn about the long-term effects of TBI, the more worrying such injuries become. Another study recently published in the Journal of Adolescent Health found that nearly half of all newly admitted adolescents to the New York penal system had a history of TBI. Studies have also shown that military veterans who suffered a TBI are more likely to commit suicide than those who didn’t.

Our brains are extraordinary machines, and we now know that they continue to change throughout our lives — for the better and, sometimes in the case of TBI, for the worse. Homelessness is sad enough in its own right, but the thought that a single traumatic brain injury could make that fate more likely is truly tragic.

TIME Environment

It’s Hard Out There for a Honeybee

Honeybees
Honeybees still face a variety of health threats Photographer's Choice RF via Getty Images

Honeybees in Kenya are infested with parasites, but they still thrive — unlike their American cousins. Are there lessons for U.S. beekeepers?

Commercial honeybees might be America’s unluckiest laborers. They’re infested with pests like the Varroa destructor mite and the Nosema ceranae parasite; infected with diseases like the Israeli paralytic virus and the tobacco ringspot virus; dosed with pesticides like clothianidin and imidacloprid; starved of nutrition thanks to crop monocultures; shipped around the country to be worked half to death in almond fields and apple orchards; and victimized by a still mysterious malady called colony-collapse disorder (CCD). It’s little surprise that U.S. beekeepers lost about a third of their colonies over the winter of 2012–13, and if early reports from states like Ohio are any indication, this year could be even worse.

But there’s a place where honeybees are apparently doing much better: East Africa. In a study that came out recently in the journal PLOS One, researchers from Kenya and the U.S. surveyed honeybee populations at 24 locations throughout the African country. And the scientists found that while honeybees in Kenya suffered from some of the same problems as their Western counterparts, the African bees remained much more robust. “I was amazed by the lack of manifestation of ill health in the bees,” Elliud Muli, lead author on the paper, told National Geographic.

What’s protected the Kenyan honeybees? African honeybees rarely encounter the sorts of pesticides that are in heavy use on American farms — and which pose a clear danger to American bees. The African bees also generally stay in one place, while the biggest honeybee keepers in the U.S. will move their colonies thousands of miles for major events like the California almond-tree pollination, which requires an astounding 60% of all hives in the U.S. Without those additional stressors, the Kenyan honeybees seem capable of thriving even in the presence of dangerous pests.

That doesn’t mean that pesticides alone are causing CCD — but they sure aren’t helping, as even the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has begun to realize. Last year the EPA ordered changes in the labeling of neonicotinoid pesticides, which have been linked to high rates of honeybee deaths and which have been banned in Europe. American honeybees also suffer from a lack of nutrition, as bee-friendly wild spaces are converted into corn or soybean fields that offer them little forage.

A Department of Agriculture program announced this winter will put $3 million toward encouraging farmers and ranchers in the Midwest to plant bee-friendly plants on the edges of their fields. That will help, but far more must be done. As I wrote in our TIME cover story on the subject last year, it’s as if the modern American environment itself is hostile to the health of honeybees. Even the hardest-working members of the animal kingdom can only take so much.

TIME TIME 100

The Green Heroes of the TIME 100

Tom Steyer is on the TIME 100
Steyer is one of several TIME 100 honorees fighting for the planet Harry E. Walker/MCT via Getty Images

Energy, climate, food and the environment—a number of selections from the TIME 100 are fighting for the planet

It’s that time of year again. The TIME 100 list of the most influential people in the world is officially out, and while boldface names like Beyoncé, Pope Francis and Robert Redford will get most of the attention, there’s also a surprising number of figures whose influence extends to the environment. A quick rundown:

  • Tom Steyer: Steyer became a billionaire as a bold hedge-fund trader. Now the San Francisco financier is betting some of his fortune on climate change, spending tens of millions of dollars to support candidates who are willing to act on global warming—and punishing those that won’t. Suddenly the Koch Brothers have competition.
  • Katharine Hayhoe: The bubbly Texas Tech climatologist has been doing work on climate change for years, but she came to the country’s attention earlier this month when she was featured in the premiere episode of Showtime’s global warming documentary Years of Living Dangerously. What sets Hayhoe apart from most climatologists is her faith: She’s an evangelical Christian, and proud of it. She’s made it her mission to bring the facts of climate change to her fellow believers.
  • Alice Waters: Waters all but kicked off the locavore revolution when she opened her Berkeley restaurant Chez Panisse in 1971. But in recent years she’s turned her focus to children, using her pioneering Edible Schoolyard Project to push the idea that kids should be able to learn about food and farming in schools. Waters continues to change the way Americans eat—from the ground up.
  • Yao Chen: Every Chinese knows the air quality in their country is bad and getting worse. But not every Chinese is willing to say that out loud. Yao is the exception. The beloved movie star has more than 66 million followers on Weibo, China’s microblogging network, and she uses that platform to raise concerns about the country’s poisoned air and water.
  • Jack Ma: The founder of the Chinese e-commerce site Alibaba, Ma has become one of China’s richest businessmen. But last year he stepped back from his business to become the chairman of the Nature Conservancy’s China program, taking on his country’s catastrophic pollution.
  • Kathryn Sullivan: NASA may get all the glory, but the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) forms the backbone of U.S. climate and weather research. NOAA is led now by Sullivan, part of the first class of female astronauts and a veteran of three space shuttle flights—including the one that deployed the Hubble Space Telescope.

 

TIME Environment

Lead Didn’t Bring Down Ancient Rome—But It’s Still a Modern Menace

Roman aqueducts led to lead contamination
Aqueducts like this one contaminated Roman tap water with lead Moment via Getty Images

Lead levels were high in ancient Rome's tap water—but not high enough to cause the collapse of its civilization

You could fill a book with theories on why the ancient Roman Empire declined and fell—which, in fact, is what the 18th British historian Edward Gibbon did in his magisterial Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. But if you don’t have time to read the 3,000 or so pages in Gibbon’s full work, here’s one very simple theory: it was lead. Canadian scientist Jerome Nriagu published an influential 1983 paper arguing that high levels of the neurotoxin lead—which contaminated water and other beverages through lead aqueducts and lead cups—caused mental disabilities and erratic behavior among members of Roman high society. Nriagu even reviewed the personalities and habits of Roman emperors between 30 B.C. and 22o A.D.—a list that includes notorious nutjobs like Nero and Caligula—and concluded that two-thirds of them suffered from symptoms of chronic lead poisoning. It’s hard to keep an empire going when your living god of an emperor has been brain-poisoned.

An empire brought down by one of its signature innovations, the aqueduct — it’s a theory that has stuck with the public, although experts have long been skeptical of its merits. It turns out that the theory was half-right: In a new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), a group of French and British researchers report that the tap water in ancient Rome was indeed contaminated with lead, with levels up to 100 times higher than those found in local spring water at the time. But while Roman tap water might not have passed modern-day standards, it’s almost certain that the contamination wasn’t extensive enough to be responsible for the collapse of Roman civilization.

As lead author Francis Albarede of Claude Bernard University in Lyon told the Guardian:

Can you really poison an entire civilization with lead? I think it would take more than lead piping in Rome to do that.

Still, any amount of lead can pose a danger to the human brain, especially those of young children, so Rome’s contaminated water couldn’t have helped. In fact, the more researchers learn about lead, the more dangerous it seems—and the more important it becomes to get lead out of the environment. There’s a fascinating body of research, summed up in this excellent piece by Mother Jones‘s Kevin Drumm, that links the drastic drop in violent crime in the U.S. over the past two decades to the phasing out of leaded gasoline in the early 1970s, which greatly reduced lead levels in the environment.

The theory is that children in the 1940s, 50s and 60s were exposed to high levels of lead in leaded gasoline and lead paint. High blood lead levels are directly correlated with a loss of IQ points. But more than that, lead seems to particularly damage the parts of the brain linked to aggression control and executive function. Lead seems to affect boys more—and men, of course, make up the vast majority of violent criminals. When those lead-exposed boys became young adults in the 1970s and 80s, it wasn’t surprising that so many of them fell into violent crime. But once they aged out by the 1990s, that cohort was replaced by a generation of children who largely hadn’t been exposed to high levels of lead, and violent crime dropped.

But while most—though not all—American children are no longer exposed to high levels of lead, it’s still a major problem in poorer countries around the world. NGOs like the Blacksmith Institute are working to clean up lead contamination, though far more needs to be done. Lead may not have brought down the Roman Empire—you’ll need to go back to Gibbon for that—but two thousand years later, it’s still a public health menace.

TIME Environment

The Earth Is Changing Rapidly. Can We Change Too?

Antarctica used to be warm
Moment/Getty Images

On Earth Day, we celebrate a planet that has nurtured human life. But it wasn't always so nice—and as the climate changes, it may get worse

I had the chance to see the Grand Canyon last week for the first time, and I can tell you this: it is really big. So big, in fact, that I led my partner on an endless walk along the rim, searching for the entrance a trail that would take us some of the way down the canyon. It turned out that I misread the map scale just a tiny bit. I think she may have forgiven me by now.

Of course, there’s more to the Grand Canyon than its sheer size: Its exposed rock reveals some 2 billion years of Earth’s geologic history, a span of time that is unfathomable by human beings (our species Homo sapiens is about 0.00005% as old as the oldest rock found in the Canyon). And even that time period covers less than half of the Earth’s age. Our planet is ancient, and the only constant over the course of its 4.54 billion-year history has been change—albeit change on a scale that almost always unfolds far too slow for us to realize it. If the Earth seems as solid as the ground beneath our feet, that’s only because we haven’t been around long enough to see just how unstable it really is.

That’s something to keep in mind as we celebrate the 45th Earth Day. Human civilization has flourished over the past ten thousand or so years largely because our species has been fortunate enough to arise during a Goldilocks (not too warm, not too cold) climatic period known as the Holocene. It’s an age that has proven ideal for agriculture and other activities that now support a human population of 7 billion-plus. But it hasn’t always been this way, as a new study that was published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences demonstrates.

A team led by Yale University scientists used a new method to determine temperatures in the Earth’s past, measuring concentrations of rare isotopes in ancient fossil shells found in Antarctica. The researchers found that during the Eocene epoch—about 40 to 50 million years ago—temperatures in parts of Antarctica reached as high as 63 F (17 C), with an average of 14 C (57 F). That’s far above the mean annual temperature of Antarctica’s interior today, which registers at a frosty -70 F (-57 C), and closer to the kinds of temperatures you’d see in today’s San Francisco. Seawater around parts of Antarctica was even warmer, a balmy 72 F (22 C)—or about the same temperature as the tropical seas around Florida today.

If there were people living 40 million years ago—there weren’t, FYI—they could have been snorkeling off the coast of Antarctica’s Ross Island.

Why? Carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere during the Eocene were much, much higher, perhaps as high as 2,000 ppm or more. Even though human beings have been pouring carbon into the atmosphere by the gigaton for decades, that’s still far higher than current levels, which stand at a little above 400 ppm. But even that increase has helped global temperatures rise by about 1.53 F (0.85 C) since 1880, and despite 45 Earth Days since the first in 1970, global carbon emissions just keep on growing, reaching a record 36 billion metric tons in 2013.

As Brad Plumer puts it over at Vox, our chances of keeping global temperature increase below 3.6 F (2 C)—a figure governments around the world have adopted as a climate change red line—seem vanishingly small:

If you look at the current rapid rise in global greenhouse-gas emissions, we’re on pace to blow past the 2°C limit by mid-century — and hit 4°C or more by the end. That’s well above anything once deemed “dangerous.” Getting back on track for 2°C would, at this point, entail the sort of drastic emissions cuts usually associated with economic calamities, like the collapse of the Soviet Union or the 2008 financial crisis. And we’d have to repeat those cuts for decades.

Needless to say, that’s unlikely. Barring some major political or technological revolution, our Earth will likely change more in the decades to come than it has for the entire lifespan of human civilization—and that change almost certainly won’t be for the better. As the PNAS study shows, the climate we think of as stable—the “long summer” of humanity—has been drastically different over the course of Earth’s deep past. The Earth will change. The question for the Earth Days to come is whether we can change, too.

TIME Environment

Portraits of the Planet for Earth Day

Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006.
Looking at the Icebergs, Near Franklin Island, Ross Sea, Antarctica in 2006. Camille Seaman

Google+ and TIME teamed up to find beautiful pictures of our planet. Selections made by TIME's photo editors are featured on the massive NASDAQ billboard in Times Square on Earth Day.

The NASDAQ billboard in Times Square features Google+ users' earth day photos selected by TIME's photo editors.
The NASDAQ billboard in Times Square features Google+ users’ earth day photos selected by TIME’s photo editors. Wesley Houser / Google

Mars is nice and Jupiter has a big red spot, but there’s no more gorgeous planet in the known galaxy than Earth. On a day when we tend focus on the threats to the Earth—which are many—we should also take time to celebrate the varied beauty found throughout our home. Google+ collected photos from around the world tagged with #MyBeautifulEarth, and TIME editors culled through the images to find the very best. The pictures that appear below are visual reminders of the Earth’s diversity, from fathomless oceans to glowing volcanoes to alpine glaciers. The only constants are color—and overwhelming beauty. This planet is a never-ending feast for the eyes, which is one more reason why we should try to take care of it, on Earth Day and every day.

TIME Environment

Even Advanced Biofuels May Not Be So Green

Corn waste used for biofuels
New research shows that next-generation biofuels made from corn waste aren't so green Photographer's Choice via Getty Images

Environmentalists have long worried about biofuels like corn ethanol. But a new study shows that even advanced biofuels, which use waste from crops like corn to make fuel, may hurt the climate

Back in 2008, TIME published a controversial cover story with a simple line: The Clean Energy Myth. TIME’s Michael Grunwald made a damning case against the ethanol industry, arguing that the massive subsidies for biofuels intended to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by cutting demand for oil actually had the opposite environmental effect:

“The basic problem with most biofuels is amazingly simple, given that researchers have ignored it until now: using land to grow fuel leads to the destruction of forests, wetlands and grasslands that store enormous amounts of carbon.”

The years since have seen rounds of opposing studies on the environmental effects of bioenergy, even as the amount of biofuel produced has continued to rise. The U.S. is expected to use almost 5 billion bushels of corn to produce over 13 billion gallons of ethanol this year, thanks chiefly to government mandates. But research has also linked the use of crops like corn and soybeans as fuel to the rise in global food prices in recent years. (In 2013, four of every ten bushels of corn producing in the U.S. went to ethanol, almost as much as was used to feed livestock.) And improving gas mileage and rising production of domestic oil—thanks to the recent shale boom—have undercut the argument that biofuels are needed for energy independence.

Still, biofuel advocates have always pointed to the development of second-generation biofuels that will get around some of those environmental drawbacks by using the waste products of crops like corn or by tapping non-food plants like switchgrass or wood chips. Though those next-generation cellulosic fuels have proven difficult to develop on a commercial scale—it’s been chemically challenging to tap the energy locked in cellulose—there has been some progress recently, with major cellulosic ethanol plants from companies like DuPont and Abengoa Bioenergy.

But now it turns out that even next-generation biofuels may be worse for the climate than the fossil fuel-based sources they’re meant to replace. A new federally-funded study published in Nature Climate Change has found that biofuels made from corn waste release 7% more greenhouse gases over the short term than gasoline. That’s because by using corn waste like stalks and cobs as a fuel source, farmers aren’t letting the plant residue remain in their fields, when over time it would enrich the soil with carbon. The carbon gained by swapping out gasoline with next-generation ethanol made from corn waste doesn’t make up for the additional carbon lost by the soil. While next-generation biofuels are better for the climate over the long term, the study concludes they’re not green enough to meet federal standards for subsidies, which require cellulosic ethanol to produce at least 60% less carbon than gasoline. And without those subsidies—which amount to $1 per gallon—the nascent advanced biofuel industry could be smothered in the crib.

That should be extremely worrying to the biofuel industry, which has been counting on the growth of advanced biofuels as subsidies for corn ethanol are phased out. The Renewable Fuels Association—an ethanol trade group—was quick to criticize the Nature Climate Change study, noting that earlier research concluded that corn residue could be removed for fuel without reducing the amount of carbon in soil. And Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) spokesperson Liz Purchia said in a statement that the study “does not provide useful information to the life-cycle greenhouse gas emission from corn stover ethanol.” University of Nebraska Professor Adam Liska, who led the Nature Climate Change study, noted that using some of the corn residue to produce electricity—where it could help replace far dirtier coal—could make next-generation biofuels greener. So could the adoption of other cellulosic sources, or even algae. But most of the next-generation biofuel plants that are close to completion will be using corn residue as an early fuel source.

The reality is that the biofuel industry is in trouble. For the first time ever, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change explicitly warned about the environmental risks of uncontrolled biofuel development in its most recent report on global warming. Given the political power of the farmers who directly benefit from ethanol subsidies—and the paucity of other immediate options to reduce the climate impact of transportation—biofuels aren’t going away. But the industry has a long way to go before it can prove that biofuels—even next-generation options—aren’t a clean energy myth.

TIME Environment

The Docu Series Years of Living Dangerously Tries to Close the Climate Gap

Years of Living Dangerously
Showtime presents "Years of Living Dangerously," a groundbreaking documentary event series which provides first-hand reports on those affected by—and seeking solutions to—climate change. The Years Project—Showtime

The world is on fire in the new series on Showtime. But the project will only make a difference if it can convince climate skeptics

There’s a fascinating moment during the first episode of Showtime’s new climate change documentary, Years of Living Dangerously. The actor Don Cheadle, in one of three concurrent segments in the premiere, had visited the impoverished Texas town of Plainview, which was hit hard by a recent drought—one the show links in part to climate change. But Plainview is a conservative and religious town, and virtually no one Cheadle speaks to thinks that global warming is real, let alone that it has anything to do with the drought. That’s not surprising—there is a huge and growing partisan difference on climate change, with a recent Gallup poll showing a 38 point difference between Democrats and Republicans on the issue.

Afterwards Cheadle sat down with the Texas Tech climate scientist Katherine Hayhoe and her husband Andrew Farley. Hayhoe obviously believes in climate change—she’s authored dozens of peer-reviewed papers on the subject—but unusually, she’s also an evangelical Christian, as is Farley. He’s also a confirmed Republican, but he tells Cheadle that while his wife has convinced him that climate change is real, the politics still get in the way. And then Cheadle says this:

I guess that’s really what it is is that if you accept climate change, then I have to vote for Obama…. Or if I say it’s not real then I can stay with my political affiliation and I can stay with the church and everything is all good because really what most people want to do is I think avoid conflict.

As Andrew Revkin points out over at Dot Earth, Cheadle has essentially stumbled onto what’s known as cultural cognition theory, the product of work by the Yale Law School Professor Dan Kahan. Ezra Klein on his new site Vox has a great explanation of cultural cognition theory, but what it essentially means is that we all belong to tribes that might be defined by our political or cultural leanings, and that we’ll do almost anything to avoid conflict with those tribes—even “subconsciously resist factual information that threatens their defining values,” as Kahan puts it. Cheadle is right—when it comes to climate change, identity trumps facts.

That fact helps explain the enormous scale of the challenge that Years of Living Dangerously faces. A documentary series that will air on Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern for the next nine weeks—opposite Mad Men, which just seems unfair—Years uses celebrities like Cheadle and reporters like Tom Friedman to tell the story of how climate change is impacting the world today. And that story is heavy on disaster, as the trailer shows:

I had a chance to watch the first episode on Wednesday night in New York at the Ford Foundation, which helped finance the series. For the most part it’s a strong work of documentary journalism, with richly shot and compelling stories. The premiere features Cheadle in Texas, Friedman in Syria—where drought has helped drive the civil war—and Harrison Ford journeying to the rapidly deforesting jungles of Indonesia.

If Friedman’s segment suffers from the sheer horror of Syria—it can be difficult to focus on the diffuse threat of climate change when there’s an ongoing civil war that has killed over 150,000 people—Ford (and his producers) ably demonstrates the massive environmental and social damage left by deforestation in the world’s fourth-most populous country. The scene when Ford helicopters across a rainforest that suddenly turns to stumps and char will stay with viewers.

While there are always nits to pick—Friedman doesn’t mention the role that overpopulation has played in stressing Syria—I was impressed by the relatively measured way the series took on the tricky science of attributing disasters to global warming, at least in the first episode.

But Years isn’t just a work of TV journalism, a super-sized series of 60 Minutes-like pieces about climate change. As James Cameron, the series’ executive producer, told Reuters, the aim is to convince people that global warming is an existential threat that demands major action:

The devastation to the planet that we’ll be experiencing in the next century is really, I think, pretty unfathomable for most people, and I think that what the series can do is to bring it home and make it real, make it real in people terms.

For a large chunk of the U.S.—most of the Democratic party—that message has already hit home. But as long as the partisan gap on climate keeps growing, the kind of broad national action that would make a difference will never happen. I suspect that’s why the series’ producers send Cheadle to Plainview in the first episode, immediately addressing—in a respectful way—the cultural roots of climate skepticism. But can Years shake that skepticism?

In a New York Times column, Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus of the Breakthrough Institute argue that the terrifying imagery of the series will actually turn people off:

A frequently cited 2009 study in the journal Science Communication summed up the scholarly consensus. “Although shocking, catastrophic, and large-scale representations of the impacts of climate change may well act as an initial hook for people’s attention and concern,” the researchers wrote, “they clearly do not motivate a sense of personal engagement with the issue and indeed may act to trigger barriers to engagement such as denial.” In a controlled laboratory experiment published in Psychological Science in 2010, researchers were able to use “dire messages” about global warming to increase skepticism about the problem.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus are right that a large body of research has shown that catastrophic imagery can actually backfire, almost as if audience remembers respond to the horror by sticking their fingers in their ears. (Full disclosure: I’ve participated in a few panels at Breakthrough Institute conferences in the past.) You can see that when Cheadle asks people in Plainview about the drought, and they respond, essentially, that such catastrophes are natural. That’s cultural cognition again—in Plainview, it’s far more socially disruptive to say that the drought could be connected to rising carbon emissions than it is to say that the disaster is simply an act of God. Perversely, as the destruction ramps up—wait until the series gets to Hurricane Sandy—those responses only seem to harden.

Shellenberger and Nordhaus argue that a messaging strategy based primarily around solutions would have better luck dislodging that skepticism. It looks like Years will address responses to global warming in episodes to come—some of the future segments include Jessica Alba on how corporations are cutting carbon emissions and Olivia Munn on Jay Inslee, Washington state’s climate warrior of a governor. But every indication is that disaster will be the dominant note in the series.

I can’t blame Years’ producers for that—scenes of biblical floods and collapsing glaciers make for far more compelling TV than wonky discussions about the pros and cons of nuclear power. And we do live in a dangerous world—thanks to the intersection of population growth, an increasingly interconnected global economy and yes, warming. I hope that as Years unfolds, it finds time to report on the need to adapt to those dangers. We need to do what we can to slow the pace of global warming, but we also need to build a more resilient society, one that can absorb the superstorms and megadroughts of the future, bending without breaking.

The reality is that no one really knows how to close the partisan gap on climate change—and if Kahan’s cultural cognition theory is correct, it might just be impossible. By pitching some of its segments directly at the sort of people who feel that accepting climate change means abandoning some of their core beliefs, Years is at least taking that challenge seriously. And when this series is over, that effort may be more lasting than all the imagery of storms and wildfires and chaos that will fill the screen for the next nine weeks.

TIME Environment

Wal-Mart Could Make Organic Food Cheap—and Eventually, Plentiful

Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif.
Customers enter a Wal-Mart store on Feb. 20, 2014 in San Lorenzo, Calif. Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

The retail giant says it will sell some organic products at 25% below what its competitors cost. That's good for the organic market

If you still think organic food is something for hippies and vegans—and best of all, hippie vegans, though that might be redundant—it’s time to update your cultural stereotypes. This morning Wal-Mart announced that it would begin carrying products from the Wild Oats organic line—and that it would offer the goods at prices that are at least 25% cheaper than their organic competitors. Wal-Mart, the Bentonville behemoth that became the biggest retailer in the world by ruthlessly lowering prices, wants to make organic food cheap. And that could make the organic food market go supernova. “If we can make the price premium disappear, we think it will grow much, much faster,” Jack Sinclair, executive vice president of grocery at Wal-Mart U.S., told reporters.

Organic has already been growing rapidly. Though the category still accounted for just 4% of total U.S. food sales at the beginning of 2012, organic sales rose to 10.2% that year, or $29 billion. A decade earlier, organic sales were just $8 billion. And this rapid growth is occurring even as sales at traditional supermarkets have been slumping. A wide swath of customers are switching to organic food when they can, and chances are even more would make the move if they could afford it: internal research at Wal-Mart found that 91% of its customers would buy “affordable” organic products if they were available. Over at Fortune magazine—another Time Inc. title—the editors are hailing the organic star Whole Foods on the cover of their latest edition:

The Austin-based chain is one of the country’s most successful retailers — its revenue has doubled and profits have tripled since 2007 — defying dismal grocery industry trends by offering consumers a mix of organics, truly delicious prepared foods, and an expanding array of staples under its 365 house brand. Now, having conquered affluent suburbs and trendy urban areas, Whole Foods is out to win over the rest of America.

In the short term, Wal-Mart’s move—which for now will be confined to staples like olive oil and tomato paste—could actually raise prices for some organic foods. That’s because the demand for organics has been outpacing the supply —this year there’s been a shortage of organic milk in many places, and organic egg production has dropped even as demand has increased because the price of the organic feed needed for the hens that lay the eggs has skyrocketed. (The example of milk is instructive: sales of whole organic milk nationwide increased 17% from January through October 2011, compared with the same period in 2010—even as sales of conventional milk over those months fell by 2%.) Under U.S. Agricultural Department rules, it also takes at least three years for farmers to switch from conventional crops to organic ones, so there will likely be a lag.

Still Wal-Mart’s unique, um, talent for getting suppliers to do what it wants will likely ensure that organic supply will rise to meet that growing demand over time, at prices that are less than what consumers have been accustomed to paying. The cognitive dissonance is inevitable—for the hardest-core of organic shoppers, the ones who long ago turned away from conventional groceries because of health and environmental fears, Wal-Mart is up there with Monsanto as a symbol of all that is is evil in the food world. But Wal-Mart has actually been selling organic products for years with a lot of success. And just as the company’s adoption of energy efficiency and renewable energy—while not without problems—has helped push those technologies towards the mainstream, Wal-Mart’s embrace of cheap organic could have a major impact on the American diet and farming. Scale is a hell of a thing.

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