Let’s leave aside the irony or synchronicity of writing about Bjorn Lomborg’s talky climate-change documentary Cool It in the midst of an East Tennessee cold snap. Lomborg, the self-proclaimed “Skeptical Environmentalist,” has his issues with Al Gore, but he’s not the kind of guy to make facile jabs based on yesterday’s weather. He begins the film (adapted from his book of the same name) by stating unequivocally that he thinks the planet is heating up, and he thinks it’s a man-made phenomenon.
In fact, if all you know of Lomborg is this movie, you might find him kind of charming and utterly unthreatening. It quotes some critics of the Danish political scientist saying harsh things about him—he is called “the devil incarnate” at point—but those characterizations are hard to square with the affable, boyish, blond-fringed fellow who traverses the globe in T-shirts and jeans, making earnest speeches about poverty and nutrition.
But this is all, of course, only part of the story. Lomborg found international fame (and condemnation) a decade ago by attacking the post-Kyoto consensus on climate change, arguing that fears of global catastrophe from a warming world were overblown. His credentials on the subject are shaky—the movie never entirely makes clear that he is not a climate scientist, relying instead on his former membership in Greenpeace to establish his environmentalist bona fides. What he mostly does, using his background as a statistician, is to crunch the various numbers and predictions offered in different climate-change scenarios and argue that, basically, the worst cases are extremely unlikely and shouldn’t shape expensive policy decisions. Instead of spending hundreds of billions to reduce carbon output, he says, the world should put that money toward more immediate problems of food, disease, and economic development.
All reasonable-sounding as far as it goes. But Lomborg’s writings and lectures exist in an explicitly political context that the film barely acknowledges. His celebrity is largely thanks to his embrace by interested parties with their own reasons for resisting restrictions on carbon emissions. He is a hero on the American right, frequently cited by the Heritage Foundation, National Review, and other ideological free-marketeers. While Lomborg presents the central question as, “Should we spend our money on fighting global warming or fighting poverty,” many of the people promoting his work have a much narrower interest: preventing or at least delaying any serious changes in how we produce and consume energy.
Still, Cool It has its points of interest. The first is Lomborg himself, who for all his disingenuousness (and/or naiveté) is an agreeable narrator and protagonist. Good-natured and optimistic, he wants us to believe that A.) things aren’t so bad, and B.) we can make them better. In public lectures and one-on-one conversations with scientists working on various kinds of alternative energy, he evinces a gee-whiz faith in human resourcefulness. The movie contrasts this with the doomsaying proffered by people it characterizes as alarmists—most notably Al Gore, who is of course also not a climate scientist, and whose own movie, An Inconvenient Truth, is referenced and occasionally rebutted throughout.
It is easy to concede some of Lomborg’s complaints. A video made for the opening of last year’s climate conference in Denmark is laughably hyperbolic, showing a young girl scrambling for shelter in a landscape battered by earthquakes, floods, and hurricanes. Lomborg conducts his own interviews with some bright young students who are convinced the Earth is about one degree shy of apocalypse. Is it really worth terrifying our children like this, he asks?
But the film, ably directed by indie documentarian Ondi Timoner (she made the Sundance winner DiG!, about two rock bands), has its own brand of breezy oversimplification. It sometimes verges on the hagiographic, showing Lomborg lingering and laughing with his Alzheimer’s-afflicted mother at one moment, then dispensing food to hungry African children the next. If Gore comes across in a few brief clips as a sonorous stuffed shirt, Lomborg is shown as something like a low-key, self-effacing saint—never mind the ego involved in writing and starring in a movie based on his own book.
More seriously, the film doesn’t pretend to offer any discussion of actual climate science. By conceding that the problem is “real,” Lomborg sidesteps the intellectual pitfalls of the most ardent global-warming deniers. Instead, he prefers to talk about all of the other things we should worry about more. But of course, there is no guarantee or even likelihood that, say, just because the United States decides not to enact a cap-and-trade policy, we are suddenly going to start spending billions and billions more on Third World hunger or disease prevention. Lomborg presents politics as a question of doing either this thing or that thing; he doesn’t seem to recognize that it is just as often a fight between doing something or nothing.