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on Nov 10, 2010

Acclaimed documentarian Ondi Timoner has a knack for picking wildly unpredictable subjects and then going all in, detailing the drama of self-destruction from an insider’s vantage point. Both Anton Newcombe, the fiery frontman of cult-rock mainstays The Brian Jonestown Massacre and Josh Harris, dotcom entrepreneur and Internet stunt artist, were brilliant, fascinating personalities dancing along the edge of personal and professional annihilation in Timoner’s previous Sundance Grand Jury Prize–winning films, Dig! (2004) and We Live in Public (2009). So one imagines the intrepid documentarian hunting around for another larger-than-life character to hitch her cameras to, a mad scientist, perhaps, who’s also a personal catastrophe-waiting-to-happen. Instead, in best-selling Danish author Bjørn Lomborg (The Skeptical Environmentalist), Timoner found a paragon of pragmatism whose controversial ideas about climate change belie the fact that he’s got a solid head on his shoulders.

In Cool It, which she unveiled at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival, Timoner outlines Lomborg’s personal background as a Greenpeace activist and environmental researcher in Copenhagen before tackling the ideas that have made him a divisive presence in the global-warming debates, including his lobbying against the Kyoto protocols. Essentially, Lomborg’s position is that while global warming is unquestionably real and man-made, the threat of imminent planetary extinction, according to the data, has been overexaggerated; our laborious efforts to reduce carbon emissions, furthermore, while heroic and well-intentioned, will cost billions and result in barely perceptible gradients of thermal change a century from now. In the meantime, the world is facing other large-scale crises such as malaria, AIDS, and lack of clean drinking water that urgently need to be addressed. At one point, we see Lomborg delivering a point by point refutation of Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation in An Inconvenient Truth to a U.S. college audience, a sequence that amply demonstrates why he’s so reviled and discredited in some sectors of the science community. (Others, however, like eminent Yale professor Freeman Dyson, are supporters.) Timoner’s film really gets rolling, though, as we accompany Lomborg to different laboratories where innovators are working on green alternatives to carbon such as solar, wave, and algae energy, a fascinating sequence of mini science lessons outfitted with animated graphics. Cool It doesn’t offer fail-proof solutions (Nathan Myhrvold’s cloud-brightening schemes might be the most out there) so much as suggest a change of course in our general thinking, with a renewed focus on actionable, cost-effective strategies (one idea: paint the rooftops of Los Angeles and other dense urban centers a temp-dropping white) for a sustainable future.

Filmmaker spoke to Timoner about environmental hysteria, carbon tax, and mind control. Roadside Attractions opens Cool It on Friday.

Filmmaker Ondi Timoner Courtesy Roadside Attractions

Filmmaker: You’re not really an issue-driven filmmaker. And in this case, the project was proposed to you. What was the appeal here in doing something closer to advocacy filmmaking?

Timoner: I actually started out making films about women in prison. I made a film when I was at Yale called Voices from Inside Time and then another about one woman’s whole life [behind bars], and that was called The Nature of the Beast, my first feature-length film. I’ve always been interested in film as a tool for thought and change and education, but the reason I made Dig! in the way that I did was because people weren’t watching documentaries back then. They thought of them as too educational to be entertaining. I was aware of that and thought the only thing I could do was film something highly entertaining that would recreate the serendipity of life.

Filmmaker: Did you know much about the climate-change debate going into this project?

Timoner: It was a topic that interested me because I am a mother—at the time of a 5-year-old boy—and I was curious if there would be a habitable planet for him to live on. I was also curious why nothing was being done. It seemed incredible that all these climate conferences were failing all the time, and that’s all I knew. I had to remind myself, since I was daunted by the material, that the original reason I got into filmmaking was to learn. So this was a return to something I have done before, and a challenge to say okay, now, with everything I’ve learned, can I turn this very heady, very complex material that I don’t even grasp into something interesting?

Filmmaker: What kinds of things did you challenge Bjorn on when you first met?

Timoner: I made sure before taking the film on to interview Bjørn for a good five hours. It was supposed to be an hour-long breakfast, and I grilled him. He ended up answering everything so thoroughly, and had such knowledge. I went and checked up on that. There’s only so much fact-checking you can do when it comes to climate, because it’s all models. But I made sure that he wasn’t some right-wing climate denier.

Filmmaker: Did you always intend to use that much footage from Gore’s film?

Timoner: I’m a Democrat and a liberal, and I’m wary of something being positioned as the anti-An Inconvenient Truth, because I credit that film with bringing all of this into our consciousness. We wouldn’t be talking about this if it weren’t for Al Gore, he’s done incredible work. But he used worst-case scenarios to get everyone’s attention and although they could happen, they’re most likely not going to, according to the U.N. [data]. Bjørn felt like that was a really important part of the film and so did the producers.

Filmmaker: Much of what Cool It has to say goes against the grain of thinking about the issue.

Timoner: People don’t want to hear that we can’t cut fossil fuels right now until alternative energy is less expensive, and yet it’s absolutely true. There’s no way I’m going to take a horse and carriage back to L.A. I’m going to fly on an airplane. All of us as individuals are too small to do anything very significant about cutting carbon. We have to push our politicians to do a carbon tax, actually. Bjørn [supports] a $7-per-metric-ton carbon tax, which is equal to the damage we do—it’s exactly fair and equitable, and it means success at the gas pump  per gallon, so we can afford it. It’ll show up on your electric and gas bill, but it’s not enough to drive businesses abroad, it’s not enough to break anybody’s bank, and it’s enough to raise $270 billion annually in the U.S. alone to partially execute the budget that he makes at the end of the film.  I made him promise that he’d make a budget, because I said to him, “I don’t want to make another social-issue film that leaves everyone with nothing concrete to hold onto!”

Filmmaker: Since you’re used to working independently, did you have any qualms about what the producers of the film were expecting from you?

Timoner: They were very aware that they wanted the film to appeal to everybody, and I hope that it does. There were different investors, and I don’t know what everyone’s interests were. I don’t think we all share the same politics but that’s part of the point of the film. We need to come together. We can’t continue to let the polarization that’s happened around this issue continue to stop us from taking action.

Filmmaker: In the past, you’ve really immersed yourself in the lives of people you are documenting, like Anton Newcombe and Josh Harris. This was different in that sense.

Timoner: I have a crazy, wild side that loves to go on these journeys and follow characters who embody the story, like Josh Harris in We Live in Public, who’s a walking cautionary tale or Anton from Dig!, who’s at war with the record companies. But Bjørn was just so darn pragmatic, it really appealed to me.

Filmmaker: One of the things I felt was instructive and useful about the film was being introduced to these underfunded, experimental fields of research, like wave and algae energy. Putting that on people’s radar is really important, because we need to know what the alternatives are and what green energy might actually look like.

Timoner: Those were my favorite parts. Every day at a lab with an engineer or a scientist, I felt the film coming alive and I felt hope myself, because it was something I could relate to people. Bjørn had a really good idea, which was to fund 50 of the top research scientists, and if only two succeed in making alternative-energy solutions that are less expensive, we’ve solved it. There are people like [M.I.T. photosynthesis expert] Daniel Nocera out there who in eight or nine years is going to have this water-splitting thing down, and he’s such an inspiration. There were five [other] scientists who have been halted in their progress. I didn’t include these in the film, but Paul Reiter quit the U.N. climate panel, and Chris Landsea of the [National] Hurricane Center quit, because [the organization] was claiming that hurricanes got stronger from global warming. I wanted to make a segment relaying the controversy around Ivor Van Heerdon who says, you know, that Katrina’s disaster was manmade and then gets fired from the LSU hurricane center. And then there’s Bjørn [himself], who gets shut down and accused of scientific dishonesty. Both sides use tactics like this, and I think there’s fear. It’s such a hot-button topic, like abortion, that everybody goes crazy.

Filmmaker: There’s an almost cultish feel to certain kinds of end-times environmentalist rhetoric. Were you thinking at all about the connecting points between what you’ve done in the past, especially on Join Us, and Bjørn’s contrarian stance with regard to this kind of hysteria?

Timoner: It absolutely was at the forefront of my mind. I realized I was kind of destined to make this movie was when I discovered all this shutting down of information, with people having to quit their job or because what they said didn’t follow the single-solution party line. You know, “Cut carbon by 50 percent or you’re the devil. This is the greatest moral issue of our time.” Certainly it’s up there, but the fact that 2 billion people don’t have clean drinking water is pretty amoral. It does remind me of my film Join Us, which follows four families who leave a church they realize might be a cult. They check into a treatment center where they can be deprogrammed and then go back and try to prosecute the cult leader. It’s another dramatic unfolding tale that I made when Bush won the election in 2004 because I was thinking America must be under some kind of mind control to re-elect a president conducting a war that we knew was predicated on a lie. I studied the war on terror and the way that we are kind of herded into position by fear. We don’t go assassinate people [who disagree], we just discredit them. And then no one listens to them anymore. But if this film is somehow embraced by both sides, then we succeeded.

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