NEVADA CITY, CALIF. – When climate denial and “alternative facts” pervade the body politic, it’s time to zoom in on the science. Climate change is real, and its effects are already visible – even more so when you can see them play out on the big screen.
The 15th Wild and Scenic Film Festival, in Nevada City in January, was rife with such evidence. Unlike most film festivals put on by big production companies, this one is produced by a nonprofit environmental organization called South Yuba River Citizens League – and powered by 700 of its volunteers. The organizers’ passion is clear, and so is their intent: to inspire audiences to take action on the challenges facing our planet. With climate change at the top of that particular list, and 120 films running over the course of a weekend, it’s safe to say this reviewer faced no shortage of opportunity to sit back, relax, and learn.
From the gravely sobering, to the relentlessly hopeful, to the darkly comedic, this year’s standout climate-related films showcased the range of feeling one might have about climate change. A few themes ran through each, however. Several pointed to a need for a complete transformation of the economic system, connecting the dots between energy, economy, and environment. They also highlighted major momentum in the renewable energy sector. But most fundamentally, they went to the experts for the facts, then wove together compelling narratives to bring climate science – and action – to life.
Following are four recommendations for provocative, intelligently made films that can make audiences think, feel, and act.
The Age of Consequences (Jared P. Scott, USA, 2016)
This harrowing yet dispassionate story opens with stark footage (like this) of soldiers scrambling out of trenches, some to, some away from the mushroom cloud rising in the distance – a fitting introduction for a film that suggests we are already perilously close to a new order of global disaster. From there, tension is sustained throughout, as some of our nation’s highest ranking military and State and Defense Department leaders walk us through eight concrete ways in which climate change is emerging as a grave threat to national security.
Graphically illustrating how years of unprecedented drought have contributed to the rise of radicalization in Syria, Afghanistan, and Sudan, as well as catastrophes yet to come, such as sea-level rise and mass displacement in Bangladesh, the film lays bare the implications for global conflict. It also shows the vulnerabilities at home, from Katrina to Superstorm Sandy’s crippling effects on New York City, to projections that the world’s largest military base, in Norfolk, Virginia, is on track for frequent flooding as soon as 2040.
The film traverses the world and the offices and libraries of major military leaders to show the cascading impacts of climate-related disasters like extreme weather, drought, sea-level rise, and food shortage on other pressures … like poverty, conflict, capacity issues, and migration, all together making existing vulnerabilities even more fraught.
Throughout, we learn the many ways that leaders like former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and George Schultz and Marine Brigadier General Stephen Cheney have worked to call attention to the deep connection between security and climate change. And yet their warnings have often fallen on deaf ears, because some people still don’t accept that climate change is happening.
In what may be the film’s most memorable comment, former army officer and artillery tank driver Michael Breen points out that if 99 percent of intelligence experts told him there was an ambush ahead, he would listen – he wouldn’t say there was a 1 percent chance of no ambush. In this age of consequences, the film suggests, we cannot afford to ignore the vast majority of scientists’ warnings. And yet, Breen later argues, we’re not even engaging in the first line of defense.
The story ends with a call to action. Just as the precise future of climate change impacts is unpredictable, so too is the human potential to rise to the challenge. Wrapping up with a veritable PSA for renewables and for programs that connect veterans with clean energy jobs, the film closes with the reminder that there is still time left to act. And time is the one resource we can’t replenish.
What now? Watch the trailer. Read The Tropic of Chaos, which outlines the convergence of poverty, violence, and climate change; and or the Union of Concerned Scientists’ report on sea rise and naval bases. Learn about the Solar Ready Vets project.
To the Ends of the Earth (David Lavallee, Canada, 2016)
Emma Thompson guides the audience through a journey that chronicles the rise of extreme energy, detailing the economic costs of more intensive energy production, and the people and wildlife caught in the crossfire.
To set the stage, the film begins with a reminder of the many ways energy is embedded in our daily lives – far beyond the food we eat and vehicles we drive. Thus begins the film’s crash course in energy and economics 101, with background on how conventional crude oil petroleum was once relatively cheap in economic terms – until the first few years of the 21st century. That’s when the industry turned to “extreme” sources, like tar sands, tight oil, shale gas, and shale oil, which are all far more expensive to find, extract, and process than old wells.
In other words, “this is not your grandfather’s oil industry.” Extreme energy extraction, as the film describes, represents a giant step down in terms of energy return versus energy invested (EROI). That’s because once upon a time, investing one barrel of oil in oil development could yield an average of 100 barrels of oil (100:1 EROI).
But that was back in the 1930s, when oil seemed to bubble out of the ground faster than people could find it. Fast forward to today, when “affordable,” easy-to-tap sources are running out. With the intense processes required to extract shale gas, for example, the EROI drops to 10:1—and much lower after three years.
More than simply being an economic argument, however, the film forces its audience to also consider environmental and human costs. For example, are we adequately accounting for fracking’s being a major source of methane emissions, a greenhouse gas far more potent than carbon dioxide? What about its impact on humans and wildlife? For example, around Canada’s high Arctic region – the epicenter of unconventional oil and gas exploration – massive ships are conducting seismic testing, which happens around the clock and can be heard half the Atlantic away. An Inuit village mayor shares his concerns that this noise is devastating animal populations that the Inuit hunt to survive.
There’s also the Canadian farmer who stands to lose his land to shale gas development, the river conservationist in Utah fighting to protect the Colorado River, and the Simon Fraser University professor engaging in civil disobedience to protect public land from exploration. Together, these individuals help the film make its case that many people are already being affected by the energy industry’s impact on climate – and they’re taking action.
What now? Watch the trailer, and read The Perfect Storm: Energy, Finance and the End of Growth, which drills into the EROI theory.
Forget Shorter Showers (Jordan Brown, 2015)
“Would any sane person think [individual action] could have stopped Hitler?” From this provocative opening question, an irreverent narrator makes a strong case against focusing on personal responsibility in a time of climate crisis. Instead, the argument goes, focus should go to holding corporations and governments accountable.
Based on an essay of the same name, the narrative comes to life with vibrant footage that’s jarringly incongruous. For example, while pointing out that “An Inconvenient Truth” suggested personal changes, like swapping out a lightbulb, images of manufacturing plants and snarled traffic flash across the screen.
Core to the filmmakers’ perspective is the idea that even if every individual did make a radical change, it would always be a pittance compared to, say, what the business community and governments might bring to the table.
But rather than leaving its audience with a sense of powerlessness, the film lays out one clear way forward: acting decisively together to stop the excesses of the industrial economy.
Now what? Watch the movie here. Go on; it’s short!
The Future of Energy: Lateral Power to the People (Brett Mazurek, Maximilian DeArmon, Missy Lahren, US, 2016)
The filmmakers on scene for the festival described their film as a love letter – an apt description for a film that crosses the country to show people who are enthusiastically pushing away from fossil fuels and toward 100 percent renewable power.
“We were just looking for people that inspired us,” says writer-producer Maximilian DeArmon of the journey that took them across the country to meet an array of civic leaders, energy experts, and passionate volunteers who are contributing to the renewable energy revolution.
In some cases, the stories are practical success stories. For example, the Republican mayors of Greensburg, Kansas, and Lancaster, California, have shown in their towns that advancing renewable power on a large scale can have major benefits and profitability. This, DeArmon says, indicates that investing in clean energy is doable “even if the federal government doesn’t go for it.”
The film is aesthetically uplifting, too, teeming with evocative portraits of people and places across our vibrant planet and punctuated by original music from Michael Franti. There’s also the amusing “ZNE Cribs edition” segment, an MTV-style tour of an enviable green home that produces all its own energy and can even charge a car.
But despite its focus on the positive, the film is by no means Pollyannaish. Weaving in psychological and philosophical themes, the narrator poses questions such as, Does relying on dead energy (from fossil fuels) affect our psychology? If so, why continue to use it when we could be tapping into the living energy of the sun?
And then there’s the real mind-bender: How can people handle the uphill battle it will take to achieve a clean-energy society, particularly at a time when so much doubt exists that one is possible? Eco-philosopher Joanna Masey advises our narrator, “Get used to it.” There is so much happening on the grassroots level, she says: Just keep going.
Closing on a rousing Goonies-esque sentiment that now is “our time,” the film says we each have a chance to make a difference. “The future is in our hands. The question is what do we do with it?”
Now what? Watch the trailer, read up on experts featured in the film like 350.org founder Bill McKibben and the author of the Third Industrial Revolution, Jeremy Rifkin, and check out the filmmakers’ suggested action plan.