A Supernatural Murder Mystery Gets Lawmakers to Focus on Climate Change

The Capitol played host to a screening of the Arctic drama ‘Fortitude.’

Peter Daszak, president of EcoHealth Alliance (left); Simon Donald; Rep. Ted Lieu, D-Calif.; and Greg Dotson of the Center for American Progress discuss climate change in Washington, D.C. (Photo: Ted Lieu/Facebook)


Promoted byPromoted by Pivot
Jun 5, 2015· 3 MIN READ
A veteran journalist and former White House correspondent for Politico, Joseph Williams is a freelance writer, blogger, and essayist in Washington, D.C.

It’s rare for science, art, and politics to intersect; it’s rarer still for a U.S. congressman to join forces with a European television screenwriter on the issue of climate change, arguably the most important item on the global agenda.

It’s nearly inconceivable that some of the nation’s most powerful lawmakers would gather in a theater below the Capitol Dome to do just that, with a television show—a supernatural murder mystery set in Norway’s Arctic Circle—as the centerpiece of the discussion.

Yet House Majority Whip Steny Hoyer, Sen. Ed Markey of Massachusetts, and Rep. Ted Lieu of California joined Simon Donald, executive producer of the Pivot TV series Fortitude, on Wednesday for a screening of the pilot episode and a panel discussion on climate change.

Fortitude comes at the issue from a completely different angle,” Donald told the audience. “We can go in under the radar and personalize and make psychologicaly effective all the issues people are unwilling to face up to.”

The series is set in the imaginary town of Fortitude, a tiny glacier- and mountain-bound settlement on Svalbard, a chain of Norwegian islands in the Barents Sea near Iceland. The town, comprising 800 souls and four police officers, is described as the safest town of the world—yet is the scene of the grisly murder that sets the plot in motion.

But the backdrop of the fictional crime—a picturesque, remote island that’s become a harbinger of global warming—and real-life climate change are as integral to the plot as Sheriff Dan Andersen, an ambivalent hero, or his partner, Frank Sutter, an Afghanistan war veteran.

Melting ice caps near Fortitude reveal a prehistoric mystery, a find that leads a pair of hardscrabble coal miners—facing unemployment because the mine is nearly tapped out—to try and cash in. The mayor, facing her town’s economic extinction, pressures a scientist to produce a favorable environmental-impact report on a tourism project. A research scientist comes to town to study the strange behavior exhibited by apex predators such as polar bears.

And everyone, by law, must carry a powerful rifle: Because the polar bears’ habitat and hunting grounds are rapidly disappearing, they’ve begun to use humans as a new food source.

Related: A New Threat to Polar Bears Makes It Hard for Them to Find Mates

After the screening, three climate change experts—Peter Daszak, president of the EcoHealth Alliance; Liz Perera, the Sierra Club’s director of climate change policy; and Mike MacCracken, chief scientist for climate change programs at the Climate Institute—joined Donald and Lieu on a panel discussion about global warming.

Donald said he didn’t set out to make a show to teach people about the basics of what climate change is; people, he said, have been inundated with warnings about CO2 pollution for decades.

“Climate change is an issue that people have known about for a long time,” he said. “People find it difficult to react in a new way.” So he started out imagining a story about what would happen if something terrible emerged from the ice.

“The story led us into the Arctic. The ingredients in the story could only happen there,” he said. “And once we got there and we started to pay attention to the reality of what was going on, it brought in all these elements” that involve global warming.

That included problems on the set: Though the series is filmed in Iceland, there wasn’t enough snow. Donald said he had to use detergent foam on the ground and bits of paper standing in for falling snow to make the frigid climate seem real.

“We had to import it,” he said.

Daszak, Perera, and MacCracken agreed: The details in Fortitude are spot-on, from the polar bear eating a human in the opening scene to the cracked ice floes that frame the carnage. Even a child who falls unconscious and is diagnosed with the mumps, or so it seems, is ripped from the global-warming forecast.

Scientists predict “tens of thousands of additional deaths every year in the U.S.,” including “these new diseases we expect to see,” Daszak said. “Maybe five, six, seven completely new diseases, any one of which could lead to the new HIV.”

Perera said those changes are happening now, pointing to longer allergy seasons and those personal stories of “someone in your family who suffers from asthma and allergy, and what their day-to-day life is like and how it is getting worse.” At the same time, she said, Sierra Club polls show Americans are gradually coming to understand how global warming is having an impact on their lives.

“And we all know these impacts are not falling equally,” she added, noting the poor, the elderly, and minorities are already bearing the brunt of climate change’s effects.

Mission accomplished, Donald said: “Scientifically, [Fortitude] is almost plausibly real. But more than that, it’s incredibly effective and frightening, and it brings the notion that these consequences to this general global warming, in terms of what’s coming out of the permafrost and changes on the edge of the arctic—it personalizes it.”

In his remarks before the screening, Markey swatted away doubts that a television drama in the mold of The Sopranos or Game of Thrones could move the needle on such an important issue. He noted that shows like Will and Grace and Modern Family helped change viewers’ opinions on gay rights, and Fortitude could be as groundbreaking.

“We know the power of TV,” Markey said. “Even fictions can change hearts and minds.”