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When it comes to climate crisis, Obama’s new nature doc has no bite

When it comes to climate crisis, Obama’s new nature doc has no bite

Obama walks with two park rangers

Obama walks with two park rangersYellowstone National Park in Wyoming, August 15, 2009. (Official White House photograph by Pete Souza

Barack Obama has entered the White House David Attenborough phaseJust in time Earth Day. Higher Ground, the film production company founded by Barack and Michelle Obama with a multiyear deal with Netflix, released a new five-part docuseries earlier this month called “Our Great National Parks,” narrated by the former US president himself.

The series is visually stunning. It was smart to focus on national parks around world, both because it gives the series a unique angle in a crowded field and because Obama has a claim of fame when it comes land conservation. 22 new parksTo the US National Parks system and ProtectedNearly 550,000,000 acres of habitat has been saved by Obama, more than any US president in history. But the framing is also the series’ fatal flaw; at times, it seems Obama is taking a five-hour victory lap—not necessarily for his own conservation work, but for humanity’s. Climate change is mentioned but only in passing. To say less about the crisis facing the planet would be climate misinformation. And compared to other recent nature docuseries, like “Our Planet,” “Our Great National Parks” is downright regressive.

Many of the parks featured in the series were chosen because of Obama’s personal connection to the locations. Obama walks along a beach in Hawaii, his birthplace. One episode features Tsavo National Park (Kenya), where his father was born. Another highlights Gunung Leuser National Park in Indonesia where Obama spent several years as an infant. The series is punctuated by personal reminiscences about these places and Obama’s relationship with nature in general.

The filmmakers managed to capture a rock iguana, only recently discovered and, Obama informs us, never before filmed, as well as a kind of flatworm “so new it’s yet to be named.” There’s a delightful and surprising shot of a Japanese macaque riding a miniature sika deer—how common can that be? This series also has more people than other ones of its kind. This is partly because many national parks are places for outdoor recreation or are close to cities, villages, and towns. But this is where the groundbreaking work of “Our Great National Parks” ends.

The series heavily relies on two nature documentary tropes, awe and aww. There are so many adorable baby animals. The first episode features a baby. Von der Decken’s sifakaA white-furred, black-faced lemur clings to its mother while she leaps across a field filled with towering, unnaturally tall limestone spires. A female puma hunts for her cubs, but when she strikes out, they feast on a carcass—one her daughter from a litter the year before stashed away for later. The older sister returns to retrieve her kill and her younger brother is unable to stop her from throwing her child into a mud puddle. A sea otter is seen swimming around Monterey Bay looking for a safe spot to keep her pup while she hunts shellfish. And then there’s the juvenile Andean condor learning to fly, which checks both “awe” and “aww” boxes.

The series hardly addresses how animals are adapting—or not—to a warming world. Instead, it mostly tells stories of incredible animals doing ordinary things to survive—like elephants finding water underground by smelling and digging with their trunks. Climate change is mentioned almost as a glancing afterthought, or a minor detail: “In recent years, Kenya’s climate has become less predictable and more extreme.” In the Patagonia episode, when the camera turns to brilliant glaciers, Obama says, “Relatively few of these icy giants remain,” without any mention of why that might be, or what it means for animals, ecosystems, or people.

Obama does not go into more detail about specific species’ threats in the first episode. He explained that the Green Sea Turtles nesting on Raine Island are in serious danger. “Today, the accelerating pace of climate change is having a devastating impact,” Obama recites. “The hatchling’s sеx is determined by the temperature inside its nest. Hotter sands mean that up to 99 per cent of eggs that hatch here are now female. And there’s more. As the planet heats and the waters rise, nest sites could flood, drowning eggs. With much of the beach just inches above sea level, Raine Island is at serious risk.”

This leads into Obama’s most forceful words on climate crisis in the whole series: “It’s been said that we’re the first generation to feel the impact of global warming, and the last that can do something about it. Our parks, like the rest of the planet, are now threatened by extreme weather, escalating pollution, and biodiversity and habitat loss.”

Obama avoids pointing fingers here, except to say, “Some of it, the result of the choices we all make in our daily lives” while the camera lingers on a pile of plastic bottles. Obama, what about the rest?

From there, he quickly shifts back to optimism: “We can turn things around,” he intones. “If we act now. In some protected places, we already have.” As evidence, he points to the recent protection of endangered mountain gorillas in Rwanda.

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Strangely, Obama’s message is much less urgent now than it was in 2016, when he addressed the country from Yosemite. “Here in Yosemite, meadows are drying up, bird ranges are shifting farther northward, mammals are being forced further upslope,” Obama then. “Yosemite’s famous glacier, once a mile wide, is almost gone. We are also facing longer and more costly wildfire seasons.

“Rising temperatures could mean no more glaciers in Glacier national park, no more Joshua trees in Joshua Tree national park. Rising sea levels can threaten the Everglades’ vital ecosystems and even iconic icons like Ellis Island or the Statue of Liberty. That’s not the America I want to pass on to the next generation.”

Obama rang a 5-alarm fire at the time; why does he act like saving the planet is a done deal now?

Obama campaigned for president on a platform of hope, and hope is the prevailing message of “Our Great National Parks.” His narration projects competence, and calm. Yet, in the face of climate crises, calm and complacency is what the world needs most.



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