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Courtesy of Roadside Attractions
An Alternative Truth: 'Cool It' Addresses Climate Change
Online Articles: November 2010


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Editor's Note: Cool It comes out March 29 on DVD through Lionsgate.

The latest documentary contribution to the climate change debate is Cool It, an adaptation of Bjørn Lomborg's controversial book, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Whereas Davis Guggenheim's An Inconvenient Truth tells us to be afraid about the impending apocalypse, Cool It makes a somewhat schizophrenic, if not reassuring, counter-argument: Climate change may not be as bad as we think, but even if it is, there are some compelling solutions. Cool It also picks up where Judith Helfand and Daniel Gold's 2007 doc Everything's Cool left off--at the heart of the struggle of scientists and journalists to capture the public imagination and draw our collective attention to the need to take action.

But where these earlier films stress the importance of carbon reduction and individual responsibility, Cool It operates under the assumption that it is unrealistic and perhaps unfair to expect society to lower its consumption, especially in the "developing" economies of China and India. Lomborg instead puts forth a two-pronged approach: First, we must look at climate change in the context of systemic problems like disease and malnutrition and address those problems simultaneously; second, we must invest in solutions, high- and low-tech, that will combat global warming in the most cost-efficient manner.

While some viewers may disagree with the underlying assumptions of the film--that global warming projections have been exaggerated to create fear and that we can solve climate change in large part through investing in new technology--the film's focus on presenting concrete solutions should mollify, to some extent, even the most skeptical.

Cool It is a collaboration between Lomborg, Interloper Films, 1019 Entertainment and Roadside Attractions and is opening in theaters around the country on November 12. We spoke with director/producer/co-writer Ondi Timoner about experiences making the film.

 

Bjorn Lomborg, subject of Ondi Timoner's Cool It, which opens in theaters November 12 through Roadside Attractions. Courtesy of Roadside Atrractions

 

 

 

IDA: What inspired you to make this film, and what were your concerns?

Ondi Timoner: I was approached to make the film, and I didn't know much about climate change at the time. Beyond An Inconvenient Truth and a few newspaper articles, I really hadn't focused on it, but I was concerned as a mother of a five-year-old at the time. I had to remind myself, as I was feeling overwhelmed with the subject matter, that the reason why I love documentaries is because I get to learn so much.

So I decided to meet with Bjørn Lomborg for what I thought would be breakfast, and it turned into a five-hour session. Because of his reputation I was definitely not going to sign onto this without guaranteeing that this guy was legitimate and worth supporting. I left there feeling that he was a font of information, and that his perspective was really interesting. I realized that the fact that I don't know a lot about this, and that I need it explained and broken down, may actually make me the perfect person for this job, because I would know how to make it relatable to audiences.

He had me convinced by the end that we need to investigate why we are just attacking climate change when there are two billion people without clean drinking water in the world, and there are people dying needlessly of malaria. If we're going to spend $250 billion on Kyoto, and $250 billion of our GDP on cutting carbon, we could actually be curing all people who are dying needlessly of malaria at the same time. And these are the people that are most vulnerable to climate change.

I was sensitive to not getting in bed with the Republicans on this film, and I wanted to really make sure that this wasn't going to be some kind of right-wing propaganda film. But at the same time, if [Al] Gore is going to call this the greatest moral issue of our time, is that really accurate? Or is it a huge moral issue that so many people live below the poverty line and die needlessly from disease, while we live in relative luxury? That seems to me to be a huge moral issue as well.

I also felt like the controversy around Bjørn was sort of directly related to why we don't have a lot of alternative energy solutions now--it's because of financial interests and political interests that silence ideas that aren't part of whatever they're trying to get financed.

For example, somebody that we interviewed is an engineer who invented wave energy in 1973. It got shut down by the energy council in the UK because the council is controlled by the nuclear people, and the nuclear people wanted the financing for themselves. As a result, we don't have wave energy. And that was kind of like what I felt was happening to Bjørn, with him being called a "parasite" and a "scourge."

 

Courtesy of Roadside Atrractions

 

 

IDA: As a filmmaker, what were your biggest challenges in adapting a book into a documentary, and what do you think the film accomplishes that the book perhaps doesn't?

OT: Well, a film needs to be entertaining, first and foremost. It has to move, it has to flow. It's got to build an argument, and it's got to let that up and go into another. It's got to be like a song. It's got to have dynamics. So, that was the real challenge: How do I bring this to life?

It was also very important to Bjørn and to the producers that we discuss some of the worst-case scenarios that were laid out in An Inconvenient Truth and how they may not be as extreme--we might not be facing the end of the world tomorrow. And I thought, how do I go about taking something that's pretty much the Bible when it comes to climate change, and get audiences to have an open mind about it, and also calm them down so they could then think about solutions?

So my approach to the film was to, first of all, lay out who this character is who's going to be our guide into this very heavy world. Let's show all sides. Let's empower the audience. We show the card and say, "This is the guy. He's going to be accused of scientific dishonesty; here are the battles he's fought."

And then we get into the fact that for 18 years we've had climate conferences and nothing's been done. Why? Well, there's only one single solution that's being offered and it's not anything anybody can conceive of actually doing. That's not working, right? It's broken. The definition of insanity is attempting to do the same thing again and again and expecting a different result, right? So it's a little bit crazy and there's been a lot of money going around with climate negotiators and mediators, etc. But we the people aren't getting the full picture.

Bjørn's most compelling argument was that the reason we don't switch out fossil fuels now is because alternative energy is too expensive. We're not going to stop heating our homes or cooling our homes or taking airplanes. We're not going to stop these modern conveniences, and we can't ask China and India, who are coming out of poverty, to stop either, until it's just less expensive to use solar or wind or nuclear or algae or whatever.

Bjørn says that's just not going to happen, and I thought, Well, that makes perfect sense. Why is everyone saying, Cut carbon now? We should be saying, Pay a carbon tax right now, $0.06 at the gas pump. If we did a $7 per metric ton carbon tax, we'd raise $273 billion annually, and we could actually apply that money towards making the solutions viable faster.

To me the solutions were by far the most intriguing part. I thought, What's going to be exciting here is going and seeing all of the things that we are doing that can be done. All the scientists who are on the brink of solving this issue need R&D money to know what the repercussions of their inventions are going to be, so that they can speed the process of making them viable.

I wanted to really empower audiences with the knowledge of what is going on out there and that we're really just at the tip of the iceberg of all the solutions to climate change. And there are adaptation solutions. Cooling a city, for example, can be as easy as painting the streets a lighter color, and the rooftops a lighter color, and adding trees and adding water features. That can bring down the temperature ten degrees Fahrenheit. We could do that in all of these urban heat pockets in the world for a billion dollars.

I tried to break it down into three categories: geo-engineering, adaptation and alternative energy solutions. And then I challenged Bjørn. I said I'll make the film, but you need to leave the audience with a budget of exactly how you propose this money should be spent. And go see kids in the developing world, and kids in a school in England who are measuring their carbon. See what the different concerns are through the eyes of the children. That wasn't in the book, but it's in the movie.

 

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

 

IDA: I haven't read the book, but it seems like the film is more solutions-oriented than the book. Is that accurate?

OT: Yeah, exactly. I constantly had to push Bjørn. Bjørn is a contrarian by nature. He fights against, and he argues against, and he debates and debates. And I wanted the film to really have a life of its own and take us to places we've never been.

 

IDA: The title of the film, Cool It, does suggest that we as a society might be overreacting to climate change, or at least, reacting to it in an overly dramatic, the-world-is-coming-to-an-end kind of way. Are you concerned that people might use the film to undermine the call for individual and collective action?

OT: That's definitely a concern of mine, but it's not at all my intention. I didn't choose the title of the movie, and I wanted to steer away from it, and constantly did. I didn't have final cut, but the film still follows my structure.

I really wanted to not start with attacking An Inconvenient Truth upfront. I felt like that was a really bad move. Gore's contribution in bringing this issue to our consciousness is really important, and can't be diminished. The whole aspect of saying "It's not that bad, don't be scared" --that's a Bjørn thing. He thinks that the fear is really paralyzing people from actually doing something. I don't know that I agree with that. The film is a collaboration; it couldn't just be me. I probably would have minimized that section even more in the film.

What I learned was that we have absolutely no idea what's going to happen. The sky could fall tomorrow. Antarctica, Greenland, could disintegrate in the next year. The UN climate panel is the main body that we all rely on for that data, and Bjørn states what the findings of that panel are in the film. They say it's not going to be 20 feet of sea level rise, it's supposed to be one to three feet by the end of the century, and we can deal with this.

But I'm reluctant to say what's going to happen, or what's not going to happen. And I don't think that should be the focus, and I hope that's not the takeaway of the film. That we have to do something about it is something that we all agree on, or not all of us--maybe there are some Tea Party members who don't agree, but most rational human beings understand that climate change is real, man-made, and also not man-made. It's also just cyclical, and the way the world goes.

But one thing that we have as human beings that the dinosaurs didn't have, is reason, and technology, and science, and our brains. We caused the acceleration of this process, and we need to apply our minds to stopping it. We need to finance those great minds that are working to solve this problem. It's not whether or not things are going to get worse faster or slower; they're getting worse.

I'm a Democrat, but for me, the polarization of the issue is a huge part of the problem,. But I would never want the film to be used as a vehicle for stopping things. I hope that it causes us to say, "Well, why isn't this stuff happening right now? Let's get it going!"

 

Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

 

IDA: It's interesting to hear you talk about An Inconvenient Truth and that your preference would have been to not emphasize the critique of that film as much.

OT: I did a lot of fighting to make it not a focus and I pushed it back in the film, 20, 30 minutes back, whereas other people involved in the film wanted it right upfront. I said, "There's no way you can just go ahead and take this guy from Denmark, who most people haven't heard of in America, and say, ‘OK, he's going to be your new Al Gore; listen to him. We're going to tell you how Al Gore exaggerated.' You're going to have everybody getting up and walking out of the movie theater."

You've got to say who this guy is, show where he comes from, really get into him as a character and lay out the whole landscape before you start getting into An Inconvenient Truth. Those are powerful images, seeing Florida and New York under water. I think it's important that we know that the science doesn't support that right now.

 

IDA: As a viewer, even though I did see An Inconvenient Truth and was holding it up, I thought it was interesting to introduce that skepticism and remind us that just because we're being presented with facts by Al Gore, that doesn't mean that everything is true. But then my response was also, Should I be viewing this movie with the same skepticism? I wanted to just go along for the ride, but at the end, I wasn't sure in which version of the truth to believe.

OT: Well, here's my advice to you: Don't believe any of it. Just believe and understand the one thing that everybody agrees on: there's a problem. And do believe this: Since 1992 our leaders have been meeting around the world and coming up with no agreement, and that is a fact. Those who did agree on Kyoto didn't really do it. The only agreement that has been reached is EU 2020, and that has been extremely inefficient.

Our film doesn't say, "You shouldn't do something." It's just that An Inconvenient Truth, as powerful as it is, and was, doesn't leave us with any solutions beyond changing our light bulbs, and so it's overwhelming; it's totally terrifying.

I think like any powerful bright light or comet, there's a vacuum behind it, and I was hoping that this film would fill that vacuum and empower audiences to say, "OK. There are all these amazing solutions out there that are being developed, and we need to get those to the marketplace faster. We need to do something about this." And unfortunately, and I pushed Bjørn on this, we can't do anything as individuals. We need to actually do it as a group. We need to do it on a macro level. We need to push our politicians and start saying, "Hey, we don't mind a carbon tax. Don't be terrified, we'll still vote for you." Most of us can afford that. But almost none of us can afford to switch to alternative energy right now because it's too expensive. We all need to get together and do something here.

 

IDA: I really did appreciate how much of the film was focused on systems-thinking and presenting solutions. But seeing the part with Hollywood celebrities, talking about all these little eco-friendly things they're doing, it did seem to be poo-pooing that kind of individual action and portraying it as a bit of a fad. Is there still a role for the reduction of individual consumption? The assumption the film presents is that we're all going to keep riding planes and that we need all of the modern conveniences that we have. It seems like there might be some middle ground where we do also have to make individual compromises.

OT: I pushed that as well. I had to remind Bjørn to say, "By all means, do these things." But they don't represent a huge part of the reduction. There was a journalist in England who set out to zero his carbon, and he managed to cut it in one year down by 20 percent. And he had totally changed his life; he didn't drive a car anymore, he never took an airplane, his family was probably going to kill him. By the end of it, they said, "Congratulations! What are going to do to celebrate?" And he said, "I've got the whole family tickets to Jamaica." And in that one move of flying to Jamaica, he cancelled everything he'd done.

So there's this unfortunate reality that we need to figure out on a much bigger level. For example, how we power our airplanes. That's why the algae part of the film is pretty cool. The fact that NASA is focusing on that is heartening. We need to figure out how to power our lives, because we're not going to stop doing these things.

But yeah, I recycle, I change light bulbs to more energy-efficient light bulbs, I turn off all the lights and try to unplug things. Everyone should still do that. It's not about, "Oh, let's just waste some more because, hell, it's not going to make a difference." I really hope that's not what people understand from this film. They need to understand,That's not going to solve the problem. We've got to do more than that, and we've got to do it now.

And we've got to not forget about the people that are suffering and dying needlessly in the developing world, because they are the ones most vulnerable to climate change. They're the ones that don't have any ability to irrigate or survive or weather the storm, especially when half the family is dying of some disease that's poverty-based. I do take issue with the statement that climate change is the greatest moral issue of our time. I understand that it is one great moral issue, but it should be addressed hand-in-hand with other issues. I really did like that about Bjørn's argument.

 

IDA: Well, I did think that the budget that he outlines in the film is really compelling, and how $250 billion could solve not only climate change but also other very pressing issues around health and education. So I was wondering whether that proposed budget has actually been officially presented to the EU or to any other governmental body and if so, how did they respond?

OT: I don't think so. I think it's basically been outlined in this film and the film is just coming out now, and a lot of action will happen in the wake of it. We've got our hands full just finishing a film this complex in just a year!

 

IDA: In addition to the theatrical release, are you planning to do any kind of outreach campaign with schools, or governments or nonprofits?

OT: I know that the website is hopefully going to be a center for a lot of these ideas. Bjørn has talked about how awesome it would be, sort of like what [Bill and Melinda] Gates do, to have the top 50 solutions chosen and then finance all of them at some expense. And even if most of them fail and a few succeed, then we've done great. It'll be very exciting to see where the conversation goes from here and what happens, and hopefully it doesn't stay just a conversation.

 

Ondi Timoner, director/producer/writer of Cool It. Courtesy of Roadside Attractions

 

IDA: What about you personally? Do you think you'll continue to explore environmental issues in your filmmaking?

OT: Maybe. I've done the collision of art and commerce with Dig!. I've done the prison system with The Nature of the Beast, and I'm actually just starting to talk with Robert Downey Jr. about doing a project with prisons. It will be about transitioning inmates out of prison in a very innovative way. I've always been very interested in that issue--whether or not our prison system actually rehabilitates people and how we transition people back into the world so that they don't return to prison. And that's an important financial issue for all of us, too. It's really expensive keeping so many people in prison, and we're not turning them into productive citizens most of the time.

I did Join Us, which is about four families that leave a church that they believe actually might be a cult and they check into the only accredited cult-treatment center to be deprogrammed. The clinic breaks down the techniques of mind-control, which actually applies across many issues like the "war on terror."

And then I made We Live in Public, which is about the Internet's effect on our lives, and now Cool It, about climate change. I like the fact that I am sending up lots of different subjects. Quite selfishly, it's my way of learning, too. So I'm not an environmentalist who came to this project. I'm a filmmaker and a storyteller first and foremost and, if something moves me, I may get into that.

If I did another film about the environment, I would focus on water. I shot a documentary that I completed a short film on--there's definitely a feature there--about a dam in Africa that was cutting off the oldest living civilization in sub-Saharan Africa from water and about the African Development Bank, which is tied in with the World Trade Organization. Once again, it's an example of financial interests taking people and their lives. Even a UN Heritage site, the Great Mosque of Djenné, all of that is just flying down the proverbial river because of the $26 million they could get.

Water is going to be the major issue. It's amazing that we have lived on this planet for so long and all of the scientists haven't yet figured out a way to turn seawater into drinkable water--and we're going to run out of water!

But right now I'm transitioning into doing what I like to call "pre-scripted actor films." I don't like to call them "dramatic" or "narratives" because I'd like to think that most of my films are dramatic and have narratives.

I'm making a film right now about Robert Mapplethorpe, the photographer. So I'm going back in the direction of art and stretching my wings by making a film with actors and a script. I'm working with the Sundance Institute, and it looks like James Franco might star as Robert Mapplethorpe.

 

Shira Golding is a filmmaker and graphic designer currently working on a documentary about renewable energy in Ithaca, NY, as well as a peak oil musical called We Can't Stop. www.shirari.com

Great interview!

Really excited to see this film. I'm a huge fan of Ondi's work.