This review originally appeared at Christianity Today Movies and TV.
I had a professor in graduate school who was fond of saying that if you allowed him to define the terms of debate he would win every argument.
Perhaps the truthfulness of his assertion is one reason why so many of our contemporary debates about the most polarizing issues—abortion, global warming, stem-cell research, gay marriage—descend so quickly into meta-arguments. There is winning the rhetorical argument, I am fond of telling first-year writing students studying argumentative writing techniques, and then there is actual persuasion. We invest so much time in the former, often to the point of not caring about how we win the argument, that we frequently fail miserably at the latter.
Polemics in the form of documentary, like political speeches or ads, too often invest all their energy in revealing the tricks of their opponents’ trade rather than advancing their own arguments. They are all rebuttal (condemnation, actually), no affirmative argument. For the first thirty minutes or so of Ondi Timoner’s documentary about Bjørn Lomborg, author of The Skeptical Environmentalist: Measuring the Real State of the World and outspoken critic of An Inconvenient Truth, I feared that it would fall into this familiar, depressing pattern of preying on political associations and identity politics to simply make barbs about those with opposing views and do nothing more.
Funny thing, though, once the film exonerates Lomborg from the mutually exclusive charges that he is a feckless idiot providing ammunition for those who would fiddle while the world burns and a knowing hypocrite who lies for a living, it actually settles down into an interesting, thought-provoking, and useful examination of the pros and cons of various approaches for dealing with global climate change.
It is worth underlining in the strongest possible terms that Lomborg is not a climate change denier. The first words out of his mouth are “global warming is real, and it’s an important problem.” Despite attempts by some media outlets and opponents to paint him as the agonistic antithesis of Al Gore, his only disagreements with global warming activists (at least as presented in the film) are about how to respond to the problem, not whether or not it exists. He is openly dismissive of cap and trade policies, and he rightly points out that promises to limit consumption are easy to make but seldom kept. He cautions that too much investment in technology that is still in its primitive stages may retard rather than spur development, recommending more investing in research and development than alternative energy sources as they are currently available. He is more open to geoengineering attempts than those who worry about unintended consequences of trying to compensate for global warming rather than merely slow it. (For a less enthusiastic examination of geoengineering possibilities, I highly recommend Robert Greene’s Owning the Weather.) Alternative? Controversial? Sure. But there’s nothing here that warrants alarmist silencing of dissenting opinions.
Cool It is not above its own rhetorical tricks to score points. The scene where Lomborg visits his Alzheimer-plagued mother comes off as largely out of place and designed to elicit sympathy rather than agreement. The most vocal critic of Lomborg who participates in the film, Stanford’s Stephen Schneider, is edited to sound like a petty, jealous rival, complaining that “[Lomborg] comes from nowhere, he’s published nothing” and yet “he’s constantly cited” by climate change deniers. I generally find the creation of such straw-man opposition to be counter-productive to the ethos of the argument being offered, but I suppose one could argue that these scenes are a necessary reminder that ad hominem attacks and smear campaigns are not tools used by only one side of the political spectrum.
The film is a social and political argument, not a religious one, but it does touch very lightly on the moral implications of social policy. It may actually be on this ground that it is most effective at undercutting An Inconvenient Truth. Gore’s presentation often cites the concept of our generational legacy, questioning the morality of leaving a broken world to our descendants. Lomborg, in contrast, more often focuses on inhabits of other cultures, powerfully introducing the question of why the (potential) suffering of future generations is looked at more urgently than that of our neighbors (local and global) today. Could global warming activism, I asked myself as I was watching the film, be a political equivalent of the Pharisaical practice of Corban?
*This review was based on a screener of the film labeled which was sixty-one seconds longer than another DVD labeled as the “Final Theatrical” version of the film. I have not done a scene-by-scene analysis to see where those differences are, and I suspect for most viewers the edits will be minute and not substantively alter their experience or estimation of the film. That there are slightly different versions of the film being distributed pre-theatrical release is worth noting in case there are factual, descriptive discrepancies between published reviews.