Filmmaker Ondi Timoner travels the world with author Bjorn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist) exploring the real facts and true science of global warming and its impact. Amidst the strong and polarized opinions within the global warming debate, the documentary follows Lomborg on his mission to bring the smartest solutions to climate change, environmental pollution, and other major problems in the world.
Cool It is a documentary that implores us ordinary folks to calm down and stress less about global warming. The way this hyped-up, TV news mag-style gab-fest tells it, the man-made environmental crisis that 'green’ scientists and their accomplices talk about so much is exaggerated. It doesn’t dispute that there’s a problem with pollution, green house gases etc. It only wants to change the conversation to one where 'good sense’ controls the argument rather than unseemly panic and unhelpful hysteria.
[Lomborg's] an ordinary guy, the anti-intellectual’s intellectual
Cool It sets out to unmask the mischievous power politics on the part of well-placed individuals whose aim, the movie argues, is to cover their collective bottoms with a shield of spurious claims and scarifying possibilities. It also wants, ever so reasonably, to advance a few modest proposals on how the world can best be saved from humankind’s wastefulness and spendthrift greenies. Or maybe those priorities should be the other way round? Anyway, Right On.
The movie’s hero and true subject is Danish economist Bjorn Lomborg, who gained a special kind of notoriety as a 'global-warming denier’ over a decade ago when he published The Skeptical Environmentalist. Soon after it went into print in English in 2001, he was lauded 'a Global Leader of Tomorrow’ by the World Economic Forum, while Business Week named him a 'star’. Still, the book, which is the basis of this film, directed by doco veteran Ondi Timoner, was denounced as bad-science in Denmark and Lomborg’s claims were condemned in the specialist scientific media as 'misleading’, 'flawed’ and 'dishonest’.
Timoner has no time for a detailed exploration of this controversy. The Danish Committees on Scientific Dishonesty’s findings are explained away in a snappy, fast-moving vignette thick with sound bites – none of which grip – with Lomborg as chief witness: 'They were coming out with this verdict," he says here, 'that would essentially say they couldn’t prove me dishonest, but that was only because I was too stupid to be dishonest, but I was in breach of scientific good conduct." Without any sense of irony, Lomborg says he is aghast at the transparency of the DCSD political motivations.
Talking big and playing modest, Lomborg says the argument over what to do about humankind’s interface with the environment and stakes like clean, sensibly-budgeted renewable energy sources are issues that are: 'bigger than me". Not for Timoner. Even with a huge cast of talking heads – many esteemed figures in environmental science who, if the movie is to be believed, don’t share many opinions on problems let alone solutions – Lomborg ultimately dominates the screen and all debate. In the director’s construct, this blond, boyish fortysomething who speaks English with an accent and energy that recalls, un-unnervingly, an American televangelist, is the perfect 21st century powerbroker for the digi-generation; he’s a martyr to common sense and a player as well.
Appropriating the nagging style of tabloid TV, Timoner seeks to redeem Lomborg as both a human being and an intellectual heavy hitter. Blomborg’s personal assistant tells us he’s a nice chap, really. We see him visit his ailing, aged mum. He’s an ordinary guy, the anti-intellectual’s intellectual; whenever Timoner wants to buttress one of Blomborg’s arguments as one that meets the needs of, you know, 'people’, she’ll cut to a chorus of vox pop’s in assent. And throughout there is Blomborg in statesman mode; avidly listening to the dear-in-the headlights fretting of school kids in England or Kenya.
Children and their fears – understandable and even sensible – are a leitmotif. The film may urge calm but it starts off with the 'apocalypse’. In its first moments, kids’ drawings depicting the end of the world fill the screen, while a fragile little voice asserts: 'Everyone is just gonna die"¦ I’m scared that it’s gonna happen quite soon."
These terrible feelings, Lomborg says, are real and must be taken seriously. They are not to be understood as a complex cultural moment but an artificial creation. Lomborg blames alarmist lobbyists and fellow travellers (that is, un-reconstructed scientists) for these passions but especially An Inconvenient Truth; it’s frightening our children, you see. 'Global warming is real," he says here, 'but the scare tactics used to motivate people have gone too far."
Indeed, Cool It can be seen as a cunning rejoinder to David Guggenheim’s box office hit. Al Gore’s slideshow was its main dramatic feature; here Timoner threads Blomborg’s own travelling slide show – filmed at Yale in a Church-like auditorium – throughout the narrative. Blomborg uses this forum to not only demolish Gore’s claims but also admonish his aesthetic and mindset: 'I understand that a lot of people want to show they care, but it’s not about feeling good about yourself." Trouble is, Cool It comes off as arrogant instead of reasonable; where Gore is inclusive, Blomborg enacts a guru-like persona. His line of chat is full of cheap shots intended to spook the audience into seeing environmental science as the province of cranks, do-gooders, the fiscally irresponsible, and the naïve. Timoner’s film is a ga-ga partisan to Blomborg’s line. It doesn’t argue; it declaims.
Cool It is dedicated to the late Stephen Schneider, a major figure in environmental science and a Blomborg critic. It would seem a magnanimous gesture; but it plays as bad faith. Schneider is frequently quoted here but he’s edited as an angry gnome; a teacher scolding a smart and rebellious kid.
Whatever the relative merits of Blomborg’s arguments – and much of what he says has a stinging power (he’s especially good in exploring energy alternatives like geo-engineering) – Timoner’s technique ultimately and ironically undercuts him. Cool It asks for calm in the eco debate while screaming loudly about how wrong-headed everyone but Blomborg and his allies are. In its reliance on emotion over intellectual rigor, its faith in the cult of personality and its crass manipulation of emotive imagery, like angel-faced kiddies, Timoner is mobilising the kind of sleazy manipulative strategies that would make a network news hack think twice.