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Racing Extinction reveals the impact of climate change on the atmosphere

USC’s Norman Lear Center presents a preview of the environmental documentary

Extinction, film screening,
Racing Extinction examines our role in the potential mass extinction of half of the world's species. (Photo/Oceanic Preservation Society)

If there’s one message to take away from Racing Extinction, the new environmental documentary from Academy Award-winning director Louie Psihoyos (The Cove), it’s this: If climate change goes unchecked, humanity won’t go out with a bang but more likely with a whimper.

Hollywood, Health & Society, a program of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s Norman Lear Center, presented a preview of the documentary on Aug. 24, followed by a panel discussion and Q&A that featured Psihoyos, a renowned photographer who has shot for National Geographic, Time and The New York Times and whose work has been shown on the National Geographic and Discovery channels; Margaret Leinen, director of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography; Gina Papabeis, a co-producer of the film; and Ted Richane, the film’s director of social media impact.

Save the oceans

Like a slow-motion asteroid — the cause of the last great mass extinction 65 million years ago known as the Cretaceous-Tertiary, which wiped out the dinosaurs — the world’s 7 billion plus population has become the driving force behind the greatest loss of species on the planet. It’s estimated that half of those on Earth could vanish within a century. According to one of the most current calculations, scientists have catalogued about 1.6 million existing species.

The film, which takes a distressing look at the destruction of creatures great and small, features Psihoyos’ team of activists, artists and videographers using undercover methods as they travel the world to “expose illegal international trading of wildlife and marine life . . . and reveal the disastrous impacts of climate change on our atmosphere” and especially on oceans.

director Louis Psihoyos (The Cove)

Director Louie Psihoyos (Photo/Howard Pasamanick)

Psihoyos’ work is rooted in the Oceanic Preservation Society, a nonprofit that he founded in 2005. Headquartered in Colorado, the society’s mission — as stated on its website — is simple: Inspire people to save the oceans.

Our evolutionary ties to the ocean are profound. It is part of our primordial past.

“It’s not for nothing that our blood is salty,” Leinen said during the discussion. “We come from the ocean.”

We’re extinguishing species before we even know they exist.

Margaret Leinen

Then, referring to the impact we’ve had on the Earth’s biodiversity, she said: “We’re extinguishing species before we even know they exist.”

Woven into the film’s sobering narrative are poetic scenes of captivating beauty, like the one where Psihoyos’ divers perform a slow ballet with a majestic blue whale. Or the moment when Chris Clark, a bioacoustic scientist at a Cornell University laboratory, plays a modified audio recording of the mournful sigh of a whale, unheard in the real world because the giant mammals use a frequency beyond our hearing capabilities.

The human epoch is a mere blip when it comes to life on Earth. Psihoyos said that if you imagined the billions of years of our world’s existence to date as a 24-hour period, humans would come in a few seconds before midnight. Yet despite being “the new kid on the block,” the impact of humans on the planet is being felt like no other species. As another filmmaker, Louie Schwartzberg, plaintively asks at one point: “Why would you want to disrupt something that took billions of years to evolve?”

Mass extinctions

All of the five mass extinctions that have taken place on Earth share one common characteristic — a massive atmospheric increase in carbon dioxide. But nothing compares with the spike in the amount of that greenhouse gas occurring right now with climate change.

“We are burning through fossil fuels that took billions of years to lay down,” author Elizabeth Kolbert (The Sixth Extinction) says in the film. “It’s reversing geological history.”

Despite its dark side, the film is not short of inspiration, as the number of scientists, conservationists, activists and others interviewed on camera issue an urgent call to action. Others appearing in the film include Tesla’s Elon Musk, race car driver Leilani Münter and primatologist Jane Goodall.

“We always think that there’s somebody else who’s going to be around to save these animals,” Psihoyos said. Instead, the director said, it’s up to us. What happens to this planet is now in our hands.

“In 200 years, those people will look back at this particular period and ask how we allowed all those amazing creatures to vanish,” Goodall said.

“People must be educated to become better stewards [of the planet],” she said. “If we lose all hope, then people fall into apathy. There’s still a lot worth fighting for.”

Racing Extinction will be released theatrically on Sept. 18 and televised in 240 countries Dec. 2 on Discovery channels.

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