Watching the new documentary Cool It reminded me of sitting through creationist films on Sunday morning in youth group. The lead character, in this case Danish economist and statistician Bjorn Lomborg of The Skeptical Environmentalist fame, is an easy going, affable guy who says he wants to cut through the hype and get to the "real story."
In the church films, the narrator was cast as an intelligent outsider who questioned the powerful "establishment" of scientists, academics and educators, all of whom were foisting on the public the doctrine of evolution. In Cool It, Lomborg is cast as the brainy Dane who dares to question mainstream environmentalism.
However, there are a number of serious problems with this approach. Although filmmaker Ondi Timoner (who made the fantastic rock doc DIG! in 2004) shot a brisk-moving, engaging film, one has to wonder if it will do more harm than good, as in fact one of Lomborg's critics asked on camera.
For one thing, it's a bit laughable to cast environmentalists as the establishment, when they're largely the outsiders looking in global power plays made by multinational corporations, governments beholden to entrenched fossil fuel interests and international agencies like the IMF and World Bank.
Further, Lomborg's central thesis in the film is that all the money earmarked by the European Union, and considered by other countries, to address climate change is a colossal waste, when what we should be doing is spending the money on green technologies (the figure he uses is $250 billion). That sounds reasonable and practical, except when you realize that this is no zero sum game. In other words, the European Union is not proposing taking $250 billion and simply sending it up a smokestack, it will be investing much of that money in green technology, exactly as Lomborg suggests.
Lomborg spends considerable time talking up emerging green technologies, like solar, wind and wave power, fuel cells, and algae biofuels, as if he is the only one who has thought of these, failing to mention that it is environmentalists who have been on the forefront of pushing these efforts for decades. He makes a big point of picking a fight with greens over more controversial technologies, namely next-generation nuclear power and so-called geoengineering (purposely changing the climate). In this he comes across as a "technofixer," someone who believes that humankind can innovate ourselves out of every problem. The suggestion that we got ourselves into trouble in the past with this very thinking is simply swatted away.
Lomborg skips over how he is actually going to raise the $250 billion, although in the past he has suggested using a carbon tax like that favored by the Sierra Club (a mainstream group) and leading climate scientist James Hansen.
Like a creationist film that pokes holes in carbon dating techniques by showing how the technology has occasionally misdated historical objects, Cool It makes much of the recent controversy of factories in China and India producing toxic chemicals just so they could get paid by Europeans to destroy them. So some industrialists took advantage of a loophole to make a buck, big surprise. That doesn't mean all efforts to address climate change are doomed.
In all his complaints of how addressing climate change would "cost so much money," Lomborg never addresses the fact that spending money on green technologies will also stimulate the global economy. So when economists tell us that we should go shopping, why don't they mean we should go shopping on green technologies?
Also like a creationist film, Cool It is loaded with experts who aren't specialists in the subject at hand. In this case, there is a raft of economists, especially Nobel laureates, MDs and the like. That's fine but they aren't climate scientists, so when they start interpreting the actual science of global warming that can be a problem. The few critics are carefully edited and are shown to be hostile and edgy. The Stanford professor, perhaps the biggest critic, comes across like a harried old (establishment) man, compared to the young, relaxed Lomborg.
The film is not dissimilar from Oliver Stone's controversial W, which many on the left criticized for overly humanizing George W. Bush and not holding him accountable for the problems he caused. The stories of Lomborg ripping out his parents' plantings to make way for a failed windmill project, or his (unsubstantiated) stint at Greenpeace, do make him more relatable. But despite this, and his genuine frustration at being targeted (and eventually cleared) for alleged scientific dishonesty, there is still something off about Bjorn Lomborg. Just as there is something off about George Bush.
At one point in the film, he acknowledges that environmentalists have criticized his books and lectures, but he says, "They never said 'this is where he did it wrong,' they said 'he's dishonest.'" That is patently false, and shows that Lomborg is either in fact dishonest, or perhaps hopelessly out of touch (and which may explain why he seems to think he has the only answers). In fact there have been numerous and extensive accounts of Lomborg's many factual errors, in the highly respected science journal Nature, by Scientific American, by bloggers, energy experts and many others.
I went into the film with an open mind, but then I realized that Lomborg is like the outsiders who sweep in during election season and claim that the incumbents have it all wrong, even though what they're actually proposing is either more of the same, or stuff that's still half-baked. Challenging the status quo is essential, but so is getting your facts straight.
Check out what our Green Conservative thought of the film.
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