American filmmaker Ondi Timoner's enthralling-to-the-point-of-dizzying documentary Cool It brings to life its namesake - Bjorn Lomborg's 2007 book that challenged popular thinking about how to manage climate change, and urged instead a reset of global economic priorities.
The film explores many ideas from that book and from its bestselling, still-controversial 2001 predecessor, The Skeptical Environmentalist - in a nutshell, the books argue that the planet is better off than many environmental pundits (like Al Gore) say it is. Cool It also goes behind the scenes into Lomborg's personal history and his current, jet-setting-activist life as he searches for answers to large-scale global problems.
The 45-year-old Danish political scientist has been called one of the most influential people in the world. He's been called other things too. Timoner delivers a lengthy montage of archival news footage and sounds bites from interviews with Lomborg's supporters and detractors, building him up as someone who provokes heated debate at high levels.
Timoner is known for Sundance Festival-winners Dig! (2004), about music as art and commerce, and We Live In Public (2009), about a social experiment. Both documentaries follow groups of people over an extended period of time while focusing on the trajectory of enigmatic male protagonists who inspire almost cult-like followings.
At first, it seems Timoner is taking a similar approach with Lomborg - a charismatic yet down-to-earth fellow who operates on the world stage. His personal and academic past and his recent post-book activities initially provide the narrative thread on which to hang the development of and reaction to his ideas. We are tight at his side for a while, joining him at speaking engagements, ground-level fact-finding trips to impoverished areas and even, in a touching, unrushed sequence, on his monthly visit to his mother, who has Alzheimer's. A common-sense hero to some, a dangerous mind to others, Lomborg is still just a guy who loves his mother.
But competing narratives emerge. Lomborg starts in on a lecture that we sense will provide the film's spine, and it keeps coming up in arguments against cap-and-trade proposals and other notions. Then the film gets into Lomborg's spirited debunking of statements made about the fate of our planet in Gore's An Inconvenient Truth - and that provides direction for a while.
Lomborg also convenes the Copenhagen Consensus Centre, a think-tank of hand-picked economists, to take a theoretical budget of $250-billion (an amount the European Union has proposed to spend on reducing its carbon footprint) and do a cost-benefit analysis of alternative ways of improving life on Earth. We are told that improving education and health care in Third World countries offer a better return on the dollar than current strategies for reducing global warming. It's not exactly a straight trade - fewer polar bears for less malaria, for example - but you get the picture.
This exercise is intended to advance a range of ideas that are then expanded upon toward the end of the film, such as some nifty geo-engineering inventions for cooling the planet in a hurry.
On one hand, the multiple threads make the film feel less like an argument and more like a compendium of ideas. Still, I wouldn't lose a minute of Cool It. There is compelling information here, concisely and entertainingly conveyed. Besides Lomborg, an array of fascinating, intelligent scientists, economists and other academic types weigh in on various topics. Jam-packed but never disorienting, Cool It will definitely get your head spinning.
- Directed by Ondi Timoner
- Classification: G
Special to The Globe and Mail