REVIEW: Ondi Timoner's Cool It Showcases Skeptical Environmentalist
Positioned as a pragmatic antidote to the panic-attack tactics of prominent global warming docs, Cool It, as even its title suggests, implores the well-intentioned hordes and top-tier policy makers to just chill for a second. Based on the controversial 2007 book of the same title by noted enviro-contrarian Bjorn Lomborg, Cool It provides a documentary platform for the ideas that Lomborg has been espousing, much to the established movement's distemper, since he published his first book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, nine years ago. To her credit, director Ondi Timoner (DiG, We Live In Public) has recruited at least one Lomborg critic -- a Stanford professor -- to voice dissent, but his dismissals seem based in pedigree rather than fact; by the end of the documentary they are essentially stumping for the same solutions.
But then despite the usual invocations of a baking planet and its flooded shores, global warming is a super-snowy problem, both scientifically and politically. Lomborg claims to have clear-cut answers to go with his controversial stance. And while it is heartening to hear them, Timoner seems untroubled by the danger of an overwhelmed public (and the anti-green brigade) seizing on Lomborg's sound bite -- Things are not nearly as bad as they (and by "they" I mean "Al Gore") say -- and not staying tuned for all of the qualifiers. On the flip side, if science is by definition inexact, why are so many so quick to insist that Lomborg is not just bad for the movement but wrong? Timoner attempts -- with talking heads, travelogues, and a little alarmist flair of her own -- to articulate Lomborg's central idea that not doing enough good might be the same as doing harm.
Of course many of the personal, behavioral decisions we are encouraged to make contribute to a greater good that is separate from global warming politics, or even quantifiable results; they have a logical, human imperative. It is simply and irrefutably better -- more responsible and alive to the planet we live on -- to recycle waste when one can, rather than contribute to billions of tons of trash; reducing waste and consumption are clearly the ideal social (and moral) options for a growing population; finding renewable energy sources only makes sense for the exact same reasons. (The film doesn't touch vegetarianism, so I suppose neither will I.) It's discomfiting, then, to watch Timoner follow scenes in which British schoolchildren talk earnestly of switching off light bulbs with Lomborg's good-luck-with-that revelation that such changes, even on a grand scale, are next to meaningless. People will only do the right thing, he says -- or at least the right thing that amounts to more than a hill of beans -- when the price is right.
Lomborg is focused at the policy level, and promotes a broad spectrum of changes that will affect global warming -- which he believes is a real threat -- both directly and indirectly. The current protocols, when they are adopted at all, focus on carbon taxes and cap-and-trade energy policy -- both long-lead solutions that Lomborg points out are extremely expensive and have only fractional margins of improvement built into them across the next century. For the low, low price of $250 billion, he has sketched out a plan that will address some of the things that can be done right now, such as painting urban centers white (seriously) and funding geo-engineering research to brighten the clouds like big, reflective teeth. The alternative energy suggestions are equally radical, and pleasingly organic: Algae farms that eat carbon dioxide and emit energy; a water-splitting process that mimics photosynthesis to help store solar power.
Lomborg himself is a faintly Gladwellian character, a Dane in trainers with funny hair and the hushed, gently modulated oratorical style of highly paid speakers. Timoner includes a sweet but misplaced montage of Lomborg visiting his ailing mother, as if to counteract the introduction we are given to him as the enfant terrible of the solar-power set. It's the kind of thing, along with the rolling, synthy, relentless score, that gives the film the late-night whiff of infomercial. When not squeezing in personal endorsements Timoner follows her subject across campuses and international borders, where he asks leading questions of Kenyan kids and traps the aforementioned Brits in their own adorably good intentions. Burn!
For a viewer weary of doomsaying statistics and equally tired of the politicking marring a clear environmental imperative, the rebuttals offered in Cool It are frustrating and encouraging in equal measures. As Freeman Dyson points out, it took 50 years to make the transition from coal to oil. The next paradigm shift will take at least as long, and will not be a triumph of science over the entrenched, trillion-dollar energy industry, but a marriage of the two. In choosing not to balance Lomborg's perspective more vigorously, Timoner seems to endorse the implicit suggestion that in the meantime the rest of us need only sit and wait -- or better yet pick up a copy of his latest book.