A polemic documentary film centered on a demonized but doggedly courageous climate change crusader and his statistics-laden slide show—Sound familiar? While Cool It and its globetrotting subject, Bjorn Lomborg, author of the identically titled book upon which the film is based, offer the flattery of imitation, it quickly becomes clear this is not An Inconvenient Truth. Instead, the film positions itself as the rational middle-way between global warming denialism and Al Gore-styled catastrophism. In this it largely succeeds. Whether the middle way is the right way is another question.
The film’s thesis is that anthropogenic global warming is real and worthy of concern, but world leaders’ approach to the problem is not a solution at all. The answer to global warming lies not in treaties and carbon-cutting legislation, but in cost-benefit analyses, alternative energy research and development, and planetary-level geo-engineering. In other words, we should remove politicians and environmentalists from the debate and usher in the economists and engineers.
Many who sincerely worry about the effects of climate change are ready for a Plan B. As the film notes, despite repeated aspirational promises delivered from Rio de Janeiro in 1992 on up through the failure of Copenhagen in 2010, nothing much has happened on the world stage to rival the rise of China and India as carbon-emission superpowers, and they are unlikely to take their collective foot off the gas any time soon.
Crayon drawings of big houses and cars colored by neatly uniformed African schoolchildren drive home the point that the developing world wants to consume the American dream, and people there have little room for climate change fears when health care and education are foremost on their minds. Meanwhile, in the U.K., pampered children are losing sleep because of an exaggerated global warming nightmare that leaves no land for penguins and polar bears. Our fears in the wealthy West, the film argues, are generally overblown and our priorities are misplaced.
Lomborg, the Danish professor with a boyish face and a love of Anderson Cooper-style black t-shirts (what else would one wear to a congressional hearing?) is presented as a likeable person who loves his mother (the filmmakers make sure we learn that he visits her once a month) and has cared about the environment since he was a child. Staged flashback footage shows how he developed his current views after first setting out in the opposite direction—on an intellectual quest to disprove the work of planetary optimist Julian Simon, the late University of Maryland business professor and Cato Institute fellow. Al Gore and his film are battered, but not overly belittled, and lots of smart people with impressive titles (including contrarian but well credentialed scientists like Freeman Dyson and Richard Lindzen) show up to say how much they like Lomborg.
Even one grumpy climate scientist, the late Stephen Schneider, who has nothing good to say about the self-proclaimed “skeptical environmentalist” at the start of the film, later appears to be on board with several of Lomborg’s favorite ideas. Thankfully, the film asserts, if we will just let the professor’s Copenhagen Consensus group of economists and scientists divvy up the money we might otherwise spend on unproductive carbon reductions, we can tackle a world full of problems for the same price as a fractional reduction in temperature.
In contrast to An Inconvenient Truth, the tone of Cool It is thus largely upbeat. Indeed, the audience is never given much, if any, cause for alarm. Lomborg embraces the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports, but he focuses on toning down the hysteria of those who go beyond the IPCC predictions rather than addressing the gloomy outlook of the predictions themselves. Like Julian Simon, now his intellectual inspiration, Lomborg believes that humanity has never had it so good. In short, the producers of Cool It are betting that a sugarcoated pill will go down easier than a bitter one.
Still, one should think hard about what is being swallowed. The philosophical basis of the film is that we humans can innovate our way out of any problem. As one self-congratulating scientist says, “The solution is us.”
The film operates in what British scientist Mike Hulme describes in his worthwhile book Why We Disagree about Climate Change as “the myth of Babel.” Using Hulme’s biblical terms, men like Lomborg and Simon look back and see that the good old days of Eden were not so good after all, and they look forward and see not an unstoppable coming Apocalypse but an opportunity to further flex mankind’s muscles.
Operating from a worldview diametrically opposed to Lomborg and Simon’s, Bill McKibben, author of the recent Eaarth: Making a Life on a Tough New Planet, or his philosophical mentor Wendell Berry would instead advocate for humbly accepting environmental limits and working in community within them. (Incidentally, both have argued for this approach from a biblical basis.)
But for Lomborg and his merry band, not even the sky is the limit. Like the tower builders of ancient Babel, modern geo-engineers are ready to make a name for themselves by raising a 25-kilometer high ladder to the stratosphere to deliver sun blocking sulfur aerosols. Meanwhile, down on earth, bio-technified algae and the newest generation of nuclear reactors will continue to power our high-energy lifestyle, and giant sea dams and floating houses aim to protect New Orleans from the next Katrina. It all sounds so very promising, as long as everything goes according to plan.
While the rich among us may indeed be able to survive and adapt, little is said of climate change’s impact on the world’s poorest nations which understandably have their attention directed elsewhere. And what of the world’s currently fragmented ecosystems, with their endangered flora and fauna? Such biodiversity—which may need a new Noah’s Ark to save it—is nowhere to be found in the cost-benefit analysis Professor Lomborg scrawls on his blackboard. And even though climate change may be the mother of all unintended consequences, no allowance is given for the possibility that a plethora of new climate change-fighting technologies will bring with them unintended—and environmentally unfriendly—side effects.
To be sure, Cool It raises worthwhile arguments and the filmmaking is top notch with two-time Sundance award winner Ondi Timoner at the helm. Any who think that simple tokenism like turning off the Eiffel Tower’s lights for an hour will be enough to make a global difference are rightly challenged by the film, as are those who place their faith in political processes that have so far produced only hot air.
Why those same politicians will now efficiently dedicate billions to Lomborg’s plan is left an unanswered question, though. Perhaps world leaders will be wowed by the supposed economic rationality of it all; or perhaps, as demonstrated in Cool It’s closing scene, when Lomborg politely but firmly turns a blustery congressman’s words back on him, we’ll be left in another decade to wonder why we still have not taken the problem of climate change seriously.
Maybe we need more than just a good plan. As commentators like David Brooks have pointed out, the emerging science of the brain is calling into question the fundamental basis of the economic theory that underlies Lomborg’s analysis, namely the assumption that man is primarily a rational actor. In Why We Disagree, Mike Hulme argues that there are elements of this debate that “lie beyond the reach of science, economics and politics.” Yet, neither Cool It nor An Inconvenient Truth move beyond these spheres, and in the end, both Lomborg and Gore are arguing, “I can fix this mess if you’d just listen to me and do as I say.” In fact, while disagreeing on the efficacy of an international treaty, both of their technology-based and sacrifice-lite solutions are surprisingly similar.
The gift of human creativity will certainly play an important role if the challenge of climate change is to be met, but the technological optimism of Cool It borders on hubris. As Mike Hulme notes: “The physical transformation of our climates now under way show both the extent of our inadvertent and unwanted agency, but also the limits of our science-saturated and spiritually impoverished wisdom. Humility thus becomes a virtue.” While it is hard to doubt Lomborg’s good intentions, this is not a humble film. Thus, many will be, and should be, left lukewarm by Cool It.
John Murdock works as a natural resources attorney in Washington, D.C. and serves as an editorial advisor for Creation Care magazine.
Cool It will be released on DVD on March 29th.
Cool It film website.