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Toronto 2010: Is the global-warming threat overstated?

September 13, 2010 |  7:00 am


Documentary smackdown is one of those pleasant oxymorons, like graduate student, or entertaining VMA telecast. But for a movie with and about wonks, Ondi Timoner's "Cool It" manages to start a fracas or two with Al Gore and his "An Inconvenient Truth" while offering its own thought scoops to slurp down.

Timoner's movie, which world-premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday evening and will be released in theaters this fall, espouses mainly the point of view of one Bjorn Lomborg, a Danish environmentalist whose views somehow manage to seem both provocative and prosaically sensible.

Lomborg is the author of a 1998 bestseller titled "The Skeptical Environmentalist" as well as the "Cool It" of this movie's title. Mainly, it seems from this film, he travels the world researching and speaking out about his own brand of eco-justice. Lomborg isn't exactly skeptical about climate change, but he does think that a) there's a disproportionate amount of resources spent on it relative to the world's other problems and b) the solutions to global warming, even when they should be undertaken, are often unimaginative and cost-ineffective.

Timoner's film follows a similar format to Davis Guggenheim's 2005 Oscar winner -- it's constructed around a touchstone lecture -- though with more outside talking heads and less professorial-style explanation. (The director behind the wild digital-media doc "We Live In Public," Timoner is behind the camera but mainly silent, as Lomborg not only appears in much of the film but narrates it.)

The Dane, a boyishly likable sort who speaks near-flawless English, goes after Gore for scaring us too much and for the feelings of hopelessness the former vice president creates with some of his more starling claims. Lomborg also gets plenty of scientists to roll their eyes at Gore's alarmism.

Speaking to 24 Frames, Lomborg continued the skepticism about Gore's message. "This isn't an anti-Al Gore film; all the people who were energized by "An Inconvenient Truth" are good people. But it is a corrective to some of Al Gore's scenarios," he said. "'An Inconvenient Truth' certainly put global warming on the map, but it did so by scaring the pants off people. That doesn't motivate people to make sensible decisions. It just puts them in panic mode. I want to show what we can really do if we want to tackle this problem."

Though occasionally the Gore-ishness seems gratuitous -- it's not as though Lomborg disagrees with the basic diagnosis that the greenhouse gases are causing a rise in the Earth's temperatures -- some of the interviews with scientists about "Truth" serve as an intriguing perspective on a film many of us take as a given.

As for its more substantive claims, "Cool It" doesn't actually look as much at environmental science as you'd think. Lomborg is instead very interested in the allocation of resources toward the world's biggest problems. Many of his solutions are simply common sense (e.g., some say the fight against global warming is necessary in the fight against malaria, but Lomborg says that's too indirect; better to spend money on medical research).

The accuracy of some points is hard to divine from the doc itself, but, if true, they are thought-provoking. Lomborg argues, for instance, that some of the efforts to curb carbon emissions are too expensive relative to the very small incremental temperature reductions they'll bring about. So instead of, say, changing to more environmentally friendly light bulbs, we should be pushing politicians to make alternative energies more affordable.

But it's the last section of the film in which he gets most provocative. Lomborg claims that at least part of the solution to global warming should lie with climate engineering, in which the rising mercury is moderated not by mankind producing fewer carbon emissions, but by simply redirecting the warmth outward. Painting streets white, for instance, would mean less heat absorbed into the surfaces of our cities. There's also a water-bound machine from an out-of-the-box-scientist that would send particles into clouds, thickening them so they can better absorb the sun's rays.

It sounds whimsical, but Lomborg marshals plenty of facts and credentialed talking heads to make his case for this kind of engineering. And, in any event, he's saying it's a stopgap, not the grand solution.

"Cool It" isn't always convincing, but it's enlightening, brain-nourishing stuff. And with a long discussion with the audience following its premiere, Sunday's was the kind of movie event -- informal, eye-opening, with just the right amount of heat -- that Toronto does best. We can only wait for Gore to make his sequel.

-- Steven Zeitchik

Photo: Bjorn Lomborg in 'Cool It." Credit: Roadside Attractions


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