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Climate Change Gets a Funny New Streaming Show

In the new show Getting Warmer, actor Kal Penn goes beyond the gloom and doom of global warming reporting in search of solutions.

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(Bloomberg) — Of course, one can joke about climate change. It’s just that almost all of the humor is more of the gallows variety. That’s not what Kal Penn set out to do on Getting Warmer With Kal Penn, the new streaming show out today from Bloomberg Originals.

“The fact that we got a show that was mostly positive and mostly solution-focused was the coolest thing,” says Penn, an actor and former political adviser to President Barack Obama. “The reason I love comedy is that it can be ambitious, offer solutions, and convey a sense of possibility.”

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In the 12-episode debut season of Getting Warmer, Penn hunts the frontiers of climate solutions and the people trying to make them work. All of the endeavors he comes across are interesting, even if some seem to make more sense than others.

A closed-loop battery recycling plant is emerging in the Nevada desert that promises to revolutionize the way we power electric vehicles. There’s the design studio working with oyster farmers in New York Harbor who have a low-tech plan to protect the largest US city from rising sea levels and superstorms. And then there are “crypto cowboys” in Texas planning to clean up the power grid by mining bitcoin, a process quite notorious for its extraordinary carbon footprint, and a plastics recycling manager trying his best – and fails – against mounds of stuff that are extremely difficult to recycle.

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When Penn first decided to embark on this project with Bloomberg Green’s team of climate journalists, he set out an overarching policy: let’s not doom. Anyone who sits down to watch a weekly streaming show about climate change knows enough to take global warming seriously. The audience doesn’t have to be smitten with the enormous stakes.

“By some estimates, we’re already screwed, and it’s just a question of how much,” Penn says of the standard way of thinking about climate change. “You have to kind of move on with a sense of possibility.”

This decision opens the space to ask simple questions with comprehensive, insightful answers about the state of the art in climate solutions. Why does the three arrows recycling logo end up on so many things that can’t actually be recycled? Have trading markets for carbon credits actually helped curb greenhouse gases? What does it take to build a low-carbon skyscraper? Should we all start drinking our own sewage?

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In addition to journalists from Bloomberg Green, Getting Warmer also includes segments from London-based filmmakers Jack Harries and Alice Aedy, co-founder of a digital studio called Earthrise. Each episode includes a short film in which Harries and Aedy delve into an unexpected practical approach to solving one of the climate challenges raised by Penn’s explorations.

The first episode of “Getting Warmer With Kal Penn” premieres today at 8 p.m. ET on the Bloomberg Originals stream, which can be viewed 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 catch new episodes every Thursday on Bloomberg.com – check this page for new videos each week, or check the Green Daily newsletter to be notified when shows are released.

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Bloomberg Green spoke to Penn by phone on Wednesday to look back on his experience in finding solutions. The following conversation has been edited and condensed.

What was the weirdest place you saw while reporting for the show?

I never thought about how batteries and cells for electric cars are made. It was really quite amazing to go to this Panasonic Gigafactory and talk to them about what it means to think of an electric vehicle as carbon neutral considering the manufacturing.

Did you end up looking at any efforts that didn’t seem to be working well, or at least not yet?

Entry into plastics recycling. You see all these companies paying to put the “this is recyclable” label on things when those things are practically not municipally recyclable. And that’s a big difference. Seeing all those cans of toothpaste tubes that people with the best of intentions were dropping off – the sheer volume and number of them was depressingly odd. This was probably our only episode that wasn’t about a scalable solution.

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With all the strategies that were tried there, was there anything that you really hadn’t thought of before?

I’m an idiot born and raised in big cities. The idea that your oil and gas comes from somewhere is something you never learn. It’s probably something we should learn! So for me it was off to the Permian Basin and meeting the men and women who extract oil and gas. It’s very easy for us to say, “They shouldn’t do that!” But who are the ones who absorb much 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, is it? The idea that there are people taking energy off the grid that would have been wasted, or taking energy that is in the process of being burned in natural gas flaring is an innovative idea. Personally, I’m not a big crypto guy, but I will support anyone who has a solution.

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They wanted to do an anti-doomsday climate show. But that was before you really got into anything and spent weeks talking to people who deal with climate issues every day. It’s hard stuff. Is your anti-Doom outlook still intact?

I hope we’ll be able to offer nuance that you can’t get with the doom and gloom approach. And no disrespect for these attitudes towards the climate. Clearly the stakes are high. But it was really great to see that so many people are developing so many solutions that it wasn’t possible to include them all. A very long two-hour film could have been made for each of these episodes. In fact, each episode could have been its own series.

Did you change anything about your own approach to decarbonization after doing this show?

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My energy consumption has changed in general. As a consumer, and as an audience that often has the means to make a choice based on income, education level, the zip codes you live in, the idea that many of us who have those choices, don’t make them, was a of great insights. The more we do this, those of us who can afford to make climate decisions, the faster solutions will be priced down to make them accessible to all. For an audience that might have more choices to make choices, I realized that.

The climate outlook itself changed quite a bit during filming. President Biden, who in some ways was your aide in the Obama White House, managed to get the landmark climate legislation off the ground. Did you notice that change while you were out there?

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We met a lot of people who said, ‘Look, this is going to be a huge infusion of capital.’ There were things like that that felt exciting. Big bills like these don’t pass without decades of support building up. So I was really happy for the proponents, many of whom may not even be anywhere in the climate. Perhaps you worked on climate issues during your studies and have now moved on. Well, that effort was worth it. My background is in advocacy. It’s not in business. It was enlightening to see that there are ways in which advocates can put pressure on companies or even find out who your allies are within companies.

Are there any solutions you couldn’t tackle that you want to try next time?

The links between working conditions and the way we source certain materials. This supply chain when it comes to battery manufacturing. Why are western companies going abroad for all that stuff? There’s a lot to explore without cynicism when it comes to how things could change.

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