20 October 2010

Cool It--Movie Review

Cool It is a documentary about Danish political scientist Bjørn Lomborg and his views on how the world should, and should not, address climate change.

He insists that the approaches taken so far to mitigate the threat of climate change just haven't worked, are unlikely to work, and cost far too much for the limited benefits they may provide. He says we need a different approach, and has used cost-benefit analysis to prioritize and recommend actions.

For a mere $250 billion a year, he calculates, we could deal with climate change, and eliminate disease and poverty too.

He objects strongly to the scare approach of An Inconvenient Truth (this film is not kind to Al Gore) and says, "We need to scale back the fear."

This may be perceived as dismissing the seriousness of global warming threats. And in fact he does minimize some threats. For instance he repeatedly talks about "one foot" of sea level rise in this century, which he says is about the same as we experienced in the 20th century and we handled that OK. (He likes The Netherlands' local geoengineering approach.) Most observers are projecting higher rises than that.

Lomborg downplays the risk of passing tipping points such as collapse of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice sheets. The film includes interviews with scientists saying how that is just not going to happen. Minimizing the risk of such catastrophic consequences is essential to his argument, since these consequences couldn't be reversed by geoengineering, which is his "insurance policy".

He has made a point of his (possibly revised) belief that global warming "undoubtedly one of the chief concerns facing the world today" and "a challenge humanity must confront". Indeed it was a Guardian article playing up his "apparent U-turn" that has put Lomborg back in the headlines recently (just in time for his film and book promotion tour).

His views do seem to have changed significantly from those put forward in 1998 in Verdens sande tilstand ("The Real State of the World", published later in English as The Skeptical Environmentalist). He would now invest significantly in dealing with global warming, rather than relegating it to much lower priority than fighting disease, poverty and other public policy issues. He now insists that for the amount the EU alone is proposing to spend trying to cut carbon emissions, with little probability of actually affecting warming very much, the world could deal with the climate change problem and other major social problems too if policy approaches were revised.   

He recommends investing a lot more in R&D (ten times as much--$100 billion a year) with the expectation that new technology can drive down the cost of alternative energy sources. Those sources will then replace fossil fuels and carbon emissions will be reduced at much less cost than the current heavy subsidization of low-carbon technologies and efforts to impose a price on carbon. He is very enthusiastic about whiz-bang technology and the film features interviews with numerous scientists which interesting ideas, including geoengineering schemes. Geoengineering, to "buy time" and to adapt, is an important element of his technology fix.

He repeatedly says the current approach to dealing with global warming is "broken" and "dumb". He throws a lot of numbers around which may or may not be adequately supported by research and sources. Some of his data is a bit out of date, which is inevitable in this fast-moving field.

I haven't read his books, The Skeptical Environmentalist of 2001, Global Crises, Global Solutions of 2004 (editor), Solutions for the World's Biggest Problems (editor) and Cool It: The Skeptical Environmentalist's Guide to Global Warming both of 2007, nor of course his latest book that is expected to be published in November of this year, Smart Solutions to Climate Change, Comparing Costs and Benefits. But I have heard him speak, and his message seems to still be pretty much in line with what is in the film. (The film is due to be released in the U.S. on 12th November 2010. It has been shown at the Toronto Film Festival and in teaser screenings around the country.)

Cool It starts out as a bit of a hagiography, which may be inevitable in films of this sort (An Inconvenient Truth has a lot of crusading Al Gore in it, after all.) Lomborg is shown to love his mother, to respect nature, to feed impoverished Kenyan kids, and to ride a bicycle. But eventually it gets into the argument and becomes more interesting.

The interviews with scientists supporting to some of his points are inevitably selective. But overall the film gives a good look at Lomborg's views and recommendations, which are not as loony or extreme as some of his detractors might suggest. He may be imprecise, even selective, about many points of climate science, but his basic argument that we are throwing a lot of money at the problem in ways that are unlikely to actually mitigate its effect has some weight.

Lomborg is a political scientist interested in the economics of action to deal with social problems like malnutrition, disease and poverty, not a climate scientist. His welfare economics approach is actually pretty far from the traditional environmentalist/green main stream. To some extent he is speaking a different language. But his arguments do add to the overall debate on what to do about climate change, when to do it, how to pay for it, and whether it is worth doing at all.

The film probably won't win any Academy Awards, but anyone concerned with climate change, who can watch it with something of an open mind, may find it interesting.

Photo by Emil Jupin from http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Bj%C3%B8rn_Lomborg_1.jpg

Lomborg is adjunct professor at the Copenhagen Business School, and director of the Copenhagen Consensus Center.

The film was Produced by Ralph Winter (a producer of the X-Men movies), among others, and co-written and directed by Ondi Timoner. Lomborg receives a "written by" credit.

A trailer for Cool It is here. The movie's official website is here.

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