Film tells environmentalists to ‘cool it’

Sarah Lee Contributor
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In order to enjoy Cool It, Ondi Timoner’s docu-bio on Bjorn Lomborg’s environmental skepticism, one must be prepared to suspend one’s disbelief that the Earth is warming and that it is doing so because mankind has had a deleterious effect on the environment. If a viewer sees Timoner’s film and accepts that Danish environmentalist Bjorn Lomborg is not tackling the question of whether global warming is real but, rather, attempting to find better ways to address a serious manmade problem, then that viewer may find an engaging and exciting documentary.

What the film really offers is a study in the gradual change of thought of someone who, at one time, was a true believer. Lomborg, founder and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center (a think tank that seeks to economically prioritize the world’s greatest challenges), still believes in the dangers foisted upon the environment by a humanity too concerned with its own comfort and convenience to worry about the consequences of its actions. Lomborg takes issue with the alarmism of the modern environmentalist movement. In fact, Cool It offers itself as a direct rebuttal to An Inconvenient Truth, taking great pains to make the point that scaring people into action does nothing but terrify and immobilize, which leads to poor decision-making.

The general thrust of the film — shot in true, public-access, documentary style — is the assertion that global warming is a real phenomenon but that current approaches to addressing it are inadequate at best and disastrous at worst. The film suffers at times from poor lighting and lacks creativity, but it is nonetheless seamless in tone. It’s visually not bad, but it lacks a finished quality, which makes it seem, oddly, more authentic.

The film does vacillate a bit. It begins with the story of Lomberg’s discovery (after happening upon an article in Wired magazine about economist Julian Simon entitled “The Doomslayer”) that maybe — just maybe — the alarmism inherent in the modern environmentalist movement is a tad overblown. For at least 20 minutes, the viewer is inundated with the sad tale of a do-gooder facing censure by his peers for merely questioning the economics used to address global warming.

Lomborg then goes on to promise that his approach offers insight into emerging technologies that will address carbon emissions. He further promises to provide a budget proposal to fix the problem of global warming — in addition to other serious ills facing the world such as disease, famine, lack of potable water, etc. — that is a fraction of the amount proposed by governments today. And he delivers on that promise, although the viewer is left to trust that the admittedly respected economists he gathers together to crunch the numbers have contributed to his proposal. How they reached their conclusions is never explained in detail.

While the information on emerging technologies that claim to cut carbon emissions is edifying — technologies such as terra power, algae fuel, artificial photosynthesis and water splitting for fuel cells — the film comes across a bit like Lomborg himself: wide-eyed, passionately dedicated, eager, unrepentant and maybe — just maybe — a bit naïve.

But it is encouraging that he is at least challenging the status quo and risking the disapproval of his peers. What Lomborg hits on — and what should be taken seriously — is that throwing money in the wrong place won’t fix a problem. And it’s going to take both sides of the debate to stop that sort of wastefulness in its tracks.

Sarah Lee is an Atlanta native and freelance writer living and working in Washington, D.C.