Earth: The Operators' Manual

Earth: The Operators' Manual

An operator’s manual helps keep your car or computer running at peak performance. Earth science can do the same for the planet. To illustrate the evidence and the way forward, host Richard Alley, takes viewers on a High-Definition trip around the globe, from New Zealand to New Orleans, telling the story of Earth’s climate history and our relationship with fossil fuels.


In New Zealand, we go deep into a crevasse in the Franz Josef Glacier to understand how the advance and retreat of massive glaciers during Earth’s Ice Ages is tied to changing levels of carbon dioxide. In Denver, Colorado, we peer over Alley’s shoulder at the National Ice Core Lab to see how records of temperature and atmospheric composition trapped inside chunks of ancient ice conclusively demonstrate that today’s levels of CO2 are higher than at any time in the past 400,000 years, due largely to our burning of fossil fuels over the past several hundred years. And we see why the Pentagon now believes that climate change is real and how responding to those challenges is part of the military’s future strategic objectives.

Then it’s on to locations where developments in sustainable energy, and a diverse cast of inspiring Earth “operators,” are already proving it’s possible to do things differently. A solar power plant near Seville, Spain, provides electricity to 200,000 homes – promising news for the sunniest place in the world, the deserts of the U.S. Southwest, where solar energy could provide for 80% of Earth’s current use. On the North Island of New Zealand, a geothermal generating station is a reliable source of carbon-free energy. Next up, Brazil, a land of cars running on flex fuels using sugarcane ethanol; then it’s on to the gas-guzzling city of Houston, which under the leadership of Mayor Annise Parker is working to support e-vehicles and get fifty percent of its power from wind by 2030. In a fascinating and surprising segment filmed at the Army’s Fort Irwin and the Marine Corps’ Camp Pendleton, members of the U.S. military explain why they have made it a priority to significantly reduce reliance on fossil fuels. And in Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing, we see how China, the world’s largest energy consumer, is evolving from “the factory of the world” into “the clean-tech laboratory of the world,” in the words of Peggy Liu, chairperson of the Joint U.S.-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.

This special dispenses with controversy, partisan debates and political stalemates and focuses on the beauty and bounty of the planet, human ingenuity, and the many reasons to be optimistic about our future. As Alley says, if enough of us get involved, “we can avoid climate catastrophes, improve energy security, and make millions of good jobs.”

Video Segments

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Richard Alley and a diverse roster of inspiring Earth "operators" from all over the world are proving it's possible to do things differently.

Meet the cast
Program host Richard Alley is a Professor of Geosciences at the Penn State University, winner of the 2009 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, and a member of the National Academy of Sciences. He once worked for an oil company, is a contributor to the UN panel on climate change (the IPCC), has testified to Congress about climate change, and served as a “tour guide” to Senators visiting the glaciers of Greenland. As he says about himself during the program: “I’m a registered Republican, play soccer on Saturdays, and go to church on Sundays. I’m a parent and a professor. I worry about jobs for my students and my daughters’ future.” Alley is author of the companion book to the special, published by W. W. Norton & Company.

Rear Admiral David Titley, formerly Oceanographer and Navigator of the Navy, and a contributor to the Pentagon’s Quadrennial Defense Review, which in 2010, for the first time, cited climate change as a “threat multiplier”: “[C]limate change is happening, and there is very, very strong evidence that a large part of this is, in fact, man-made.” Titley is the Director of the Navy’s Task Force Climate Change.

Annise Parker, Mayor of Houston, Texas, whose city is – perhaps surprisingly – the #1 municipal purchaser of renewable energy in the United States. In the program, she says: “Well, if you’re going to tackle energy efficiency, you might as well do it in a place that is a profligate user of energy. And when you make a difference there, you can make a difference that’s significant.”

Greg Wortham Mayor of Sweetwater, Texas, whose community has benefited from tax revenues resulting from massive wind farms.

Rancher Steve Oatman, who may be uncertain about climate change but knows America needs clean energy.

Peggy Liu, chairperson of JUCCCE, the Joint US-China Collaboration on Clean Energy.

Marty Schoenbauer, Executive Director, Beijing Office, U.S. Department of Energy.

Brigadier General Robert Hedelund, Commanding General, Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory.


Earth: The Operators’ Manual travels the globe – from New Zealand to New Orleans – seeking a better understanding of our relationship to fossil fuels, as well as sustainable solutions for a healthier planet. “ETOM” was produced in High Definition and taped worldwide in Xi’an, Shanghai and Beijing (China); São Paulo, Rio de Janeiro, Ceara and Iguaçu Falls (Brazil); Marrakesh and the Sahara (Morocco); Seville (Spain) and high on the heavily-crevassed snowfield of the Franz Josef Glacier and at “Hell’s Gate” hot springs and geothermal reserve, Rotorua (New Zealand.) Production continued across the United States, from New Orleans to the California coast, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii to the Algodones Dunes, near Yuma, Arizona, at the National Renewable Energy Lab, and at the National Ice Core Lab in Denver, Colorado.

Additional Information

Check out the Annotated Script with links to the climate science and sustainable energy solutions seen in the program and Richard Alley’s Global Warming FAQS.

Earth: The Operators’ ManualProduction Credits & Acknowledgments

Energize Your School: ETOM for Educators. Links to register as an Educator and get access to download high resolution segments for in-class use, plus special resources for teachers and informal science educators.

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