Reviewed by Rusty Pritchard
Flourish magazine | Fall 2010
Sometimes the second version of a film idea is better than the original. In 1969 and again in 2003, The Italian Job’s Mini Coopers allowed bank robbers to escape a traffic jam they had caused by squeezing through tight spaces and driving on sidewalks. Both versions of the movie are crowd-pleasing action flicks with star-studded casts. But the latter film was smarter, faster-paced, funnier, and better-edited.
Three weeks ago a remake (really a sequel) of a previous global warming movie was released. Bjorn Lomborg, the self-styled “skeptical environmentalist,” based his first feature film, Cool It, on his book by the same name. Like its darker predecessor An Inconvenient Truth, starring Al Gore, Cool It features a famous person despised by large numbers of people, spends considerable time humanizing that star by showing old family movies and recounting dramatic personal tensions, and has a recurring PowerPoint theme. But like the updated Italian Job, Cool It is faster-paced, funnier, and better-edited than its An Inconvenient Truth. It may even be smarter.
Given that Lomborg is the bête noir of mainstream environmentalists, one would think that the messages of these two films would be polar opposites. They weren’t. The similarities are as striking as the differences.
Lomborg and Gore agree that global warming is real, that people are causing it, and that it is a significant problem. Lomborg is often portrayed as a climate change denier, and the confusion is understandable given that real climate change deniers love quoting Lomborg. But Lomborg has never disagreed on the fundamentals of climate science. Like Gore, he is given to quoting the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which he acknowledges as the best source of data on global warming. And Lomborg credits Gore’s cheerleading on global warming action for putting the issue on the international agenda.
Lomborg also agrees with Gore that it is possible to do something about global warming. But he faults Gore for having an insufficient imagination about what that something might be. Cool It’s underlying critiques of the Gore agenda are two-fold: first, it is reckless to rely mainly on “scaring the pants off people” to motivate us to address global warming, and second, Gore’s main proposed mechanism for solving global warming, a cap-and-trade system for carbon pollution, won’t work. Alternatively, Cool It suggests a broad menu of policy interventions and investments (including malaria eradication, clean water and sanitation, assistance with HIV/AIDS, etc.) that will make people better off, and investments in green technology and green energy that will reduce the need for fossil fuels.
As a vehicle for its critique of Gore’s proposals, Cool It shrewdly contrasts the visions of the future of first and third world children. Lomborg visits a classroom in a Kenyan slum, where he finds children envisioning the future in terms of houses, cars, adequate medical care, and education. In a beautiful, poignant moment, the children hold up their drawings of their hopes and look into the camera. The message: proposed climate change policies threaten to smash these dreams for a better life.
Next we see Lomborg in an English school, where frightened children describe the impending climate catastrophe with drawings of a flooded, ravaged earth. The message: climate change activism leads to exaggerated and unrealistic fears, far out of proportion with what most scientists expect to occur.
Interviews with leading scientists and engineers drive home the point that doing something about climate change will involve a portfolio of actions, including adapting to coming changes rather than trying only to stop them, and investing in clean energy. The film romps through a series of upbeat short segments on developing energy sources like wind, solar, wave, and nuclear energy, pointing out that the main missing ingredient is investment in research and development. On the issue of adapting to climate change, Cool It is sanguine about responding to sea level rise, lowering the local temperature in cities by controlling urban heat islands, and engineering the climate at a global level. Surely the most controversial technology, geo-engineering as a backstop to other efforts, receives approbation in the film from none other than the late Steven Schneider, a climate scientist who otherwise detests Lomborg and all he tries to do. But Cool It acknowledges that we need a last-ditch option in case the worst scenarios are realized.
Film is a manipulative medium. Our thoughts and emotions are being directed by an outsider, and for the film to work we must be willing to suspend disbelief (even for a documentary). Cool It challenges us to think first like poor third world children, then like terrified first world children, and finally like engineers and inventors who are optimistic about solving global warming. Environmentalists will find themselves on their guard throughout the film, just as skeptics were on their guard throughout An Inconvenient Truth. Nit-pickers will find nits to pick, and ideologues will trash the whole project. I think Lomborg vastly exaggerates the cost of capping carbon, but most environmentalists should applaud the reminder that there are many, many tools in the toolbox.
To that end the film is inspiring. The political ends to which it will be put are multiple and often nefarious, but the message is ultimately one of stewardship. These problems can be solved, it may cost less than we think, and we ought to start now. The film ends with an exchange between Lomborg and a Democratic congressman who assures Lomborg that America’s greatness and depth of vision will allow it to address global warming and the world’s other great developmental trials. Lomborg’s reply is a direct challenge: Why haven’t you been doing all this already?
Rusty Pritchard is a resource economist and the co-founder and president of Flourish.