Politics At The Movies

Cool It

Directed by Ondi Timoner
Review by Malcolm Maclachlan

Do you care what happens to the world in 100 years? A thousand?  Ten thousand? And, from your perspective or mine, is there really any difference between the three?

This seemingly abstract point nagged me after watching “Cool It,” a somewhat balanced documentary about Bjorn Lomberg, the Danish statistics professor who has become a sort of climate change debate rock star, a darling of business groups and Fox News.

I wouldn’t be fair to call Lomberg a climate change skeptic. He’s more like a climate change slacker. He does not deny the reality of manmade climate change. He just wants everyone to chill out about it. In his book “The Skeptical Environmentalist” and in his constant, carbon-heavy ongoing world speaking tour, he argues convincingly that the current solutions aren’t working and far less convincingly that it won’t be so bad.

And that’s where we get to the existential point. Lomberg has looked at the numbers and claims that the world will not be that altered by the end of this century. He very well could be right. But the point of doing something about climate change was never that things were going to spiral out of control before lunchtime. It’s that things would slowly (from our human perspective) but steadily get worse – and that the “natural processes” that skeptics like to throw around would slowly but steadily accelerate. And even if things don’t get that bad while our current generations are still alive, what debt do we owe future generations?

“Cool It” does let Lomberg’s critics take aim at him. But it also portrays him in a positive light, a caring and enthusiastic guy with a sunny disposition who adores his Alzheimer’s afflicted mother and loves doling out lunch to impoverished slum children in Nairobi. With his thick blond hair and oversized Scandinavian button nose, he’s like a telegenic Cabbage Patch Kid of climate uncertainty.

But does Lomberg’s message have any weight? He’s neither a climate scientist nor an economist, the two fields he critiques, but a statistician who claims the numbers don’t add up. Much of the first part of the film focuses on whether he was guilty of scientific dishonesty – a charge that was leveled at him then dropped by the Orwellian-named Danish Committee on Scientific Dishonesty. The inquiry went away when they couldn’t show intent, but his work – frequently attacked as misrepresenting or misinterpreting data – wasn’t exactly exonerated.

Part of the key of Lomberg’s charm is his feel-good message about the things we should be doing instead. He talks about all the great things that would happen if the rich countries of the world invested in curing disease and bringing the Third World out of poverty. Fair enough. But he never seems to make the connection about what this would do to reduce carbon emissions. When people get richer, they tend to use more carbon, not less.

And he does accurately say that the current approaches aren’t working – a critique aimed mainly at cap and trade and the series of ineffectual climate meetings (Kyoto, Rio, Copenhagen) that produce nearly useless agreements which the U.S. Congress then doesn’t ratify anyway. What Lomberg fails to mention is that serious environmentalists aren’t much behind these “solutions” either. Cap and trade was always intended as a business-friendly compromise to the less palatable hard cap on emissions.

Along the way, Lomberg repeats many of the same arguments made by climate deniers over the years. This starts with the 1970’s warnings that the planet was cooling (which it likely would be minus the carbon we’ve put out). He goes into scientists saying that you can’t pin blame on Hurricane Katrina on climate change. This is true, but this is more of a matter of the inherent uncertainty of complex systems than an argument that everything is hunky dory. Polar bear population has gone up dramatically in recent decades – after decades of hunting sharply reduced their numbers. In other words, a bunch of true statements that aren’t especially relevant.

And he continually repeats the idea that pessimistic projections and fighting over the topic have alienated people – as if how we feel about climate change is the phenomena’s most important characteristic. Lomberg traces how the many feel-good things people do – fluorescent light bulbs, turning your lights off for an hour, etc – make no real difference. Again, no serious environmentalist will disagree with him.

What do serious climate change scientists want to do? There is a range of debate. But many would probably say it is key that governments make big changes first. Fund public transit instead of roads and underground water storage instead of dams. Yank subsidies for fossil fuels and fuel intensive industries, while investing in alternative energy research and delivery. Incentivize efficiency, etc. etc. Don’t focus on punishing the path you don’t want taken, grease the skids of the one you prefer – that is, of course, if you believe there is a problem.

This seems to be what Lomberg is proposing. Indeed the film’s strongest parts come in the second half, where they talk about using solar power to generate hydrogen fuel, research on batteries and algae-based fuels, and all sorts of other exciting things going on. Again, no one who follows this stuff needs Lomberg to tell them about it.

It also has one of the best discussions of geo-engineering–cooling the earth by putting particles or water vapor in the atmosphere–but glosses over some of the objections that have been raised. Overall, a mixed film that is liable to leave some viewers more confused about the topic, not less.

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More Movie reviews

By Tony Sheppard

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows: Part 1
Directed by David Yates

If you’re a huge HP fan and you’ve finally succeeded in convincing your non-fan friend to check out the latest HP film, you might want to reconsider. This isn’t the best film to choose as an introduction to the franchise. Not because it’s bad—it isn’t—but because it is least like the rest and not especially welcoming to the uninitiated.

Let’s recap. This is the film adaptation of the first half of the seventh and last book in the best-selling book series, with a second part to follow next year. Seven isn’t a random number – it’s the number of schools years in a British secondary education (the equivalent of the 6th to the 12th grades). Each book represents a school year, and all the previous books are based at the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. But this story breaks that mould, with Harry and perma-friends Ron and Hermione on the run from Voldemort and his perma-sycophants and in search of the elusive horcruxes. And if you don’t know what a horcrux is, you’re proving my point about this being an awkward moment to attempt to catch up.

It’s also a very dark and brooding film to watch – filmed in poorly lit forests and on bleak and barren hillsides – with fewer grandiose set pieces such as quidditch matches or dragon fights. There’s even a fairly gruesome injury in plain sight, and some partial nudity. In keeping with the aging characters, the maturity of the material has also increased over the seven books/films and, in a series that has flip-flopped between PG and PG-13, this one is in the l
atter territory.

That said, it’s a necessary chapter in the overall story and fans will likely enjoy it. But it certainly suffers from the problem of films that feel like they start on the fly and don’t actually finish.  This is more prominent given that the horcrux storyline began in book six and we’re only getting half of book seven here. 

If you’re the kind of fan who doesn’t bother to re-watch or re-read to maintain your currency over time, and who enjoys the stories but who isn’t about to win an HP trivia contest, it might even be beneficial to wait and watch the DVD just before the final part comes out later. I’ve read all the books and have seen all the movies to date, but I do tend to blur them all together somewhat in my mind and the extra fragmentary nature of the last outing isn’t helping in that regard. I probably would have preferred to watch a five hour movie than two movies several months apart. But I’m still glad I saw it, having not been given that option. Just don’t expect sunny skies or hi-jinks at Hogwarts.

Last Train Home
Directed by Lixin Fan

In a state where migrant workers are commonplace, and with the seeming craziness of Thanksgiving travel plans approaching, it’s fascinating to watch this account of the world’s largest migration of workers. In China, between 100 and 200 million migrant workers travel back to their home towns and villages for the Chinese New Year. They do this after, in some cases, waiting days or weeks to buy tickets and traveling hundreds or thousands of miles in crowded conditions for what is often the only trip home to estranged families and children all year.

The train station crowds in “Last Train Home” look more like a European soccer riot, as the train system suffers a power outage, and they make an American airport on the Sunday after Thanksgiving appear positively pleasant. For parents who have sacrificed their entire lives to send money home to rural families, there is a clear sense of desperation regarding the possibility of losing the only visitation opportunity as the holiday approaches. 

However, those visits themselves are strained as families that barely even know each other struggle for quality time together. In the family that the film follows, the conversations seem largely limited to the parents extolling the virtues of staying in school and the need to work hard in order to escape poverty. It’s like a year’s worth of parental guilt and adolescent rebellion all jammed into a few days, on an annual basis.

The film also has some pointed and amusing cultural references as, for example, a Chinese garment worker is amazed that the jeans they make for export to America have waist sizes that go as high as 40” – with room enough, in his estimation, for two Chinese workers. Another young, sharply dressed man on the train remarks that if he earns 2,000 yuan in a month, he saves 1,800. In comparison, he says, an American who earns 2,000 in a month would spend all 2,000, or possibly even more.

“Last Train Home” doesn’t offer any opinions or answers to the plight of China’s migrant workers, but it does provide insight as it observes them non-judgmentally, as they make and live with hard decisions and conditions that most of us will never deal with. It’s not easy to watch, but it has value. It might also help us appreciate the plight of our own migrant neighbors. 

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