Everything’s Cool

YOU MIGHT THINK that if a former vice-president can make an Oscar-winning film about global warming based on a PowerPoint presentation, there’s no room for any more climate change documentaries on American screens. An Inconvenient Truth is a fine film, but there’s one problem: no global-warming-denying Republican is ever going to be convinced by Al Gore. They just don’t like the guy.

But a new film seems to do the impossible: it manages to be funny about global warming without being glib and ironic. Daniel Gold and Judith Helfand, best known for their paean to the evils of toxic siding, Blue Vinyl, tell the story of American misconceptions about climate change by asking a very clear question: why is it that public perception of this issue is so divergent from scientific understanding? For many years now scientists have been in near consensus about the serious impacts of human industrial activity on the temperature of the planet, yet many Americans still think this is an issue with two sides worthy of debate.

Helfand and Gold answer their question by presenting profiles of people wrapped up in the topic of climate change. The film’s got Bill McKibben and Ross Gelbspan, two writers who first covered global warming in the press in the 1980s. McKibben is shown, twenty years after The End of Nature, leading the largest global warming protest in the nation. Gelbspan tries to retire but is lured back into the limelight because he’s so angry with media ignorance on this issue. An especially interesting thread follows Heidi Cullen, a climate scientist with a PhD from Columbia University who becomes a Weather Channel talk-show host for the only weekly TV series devoted exclusively to global warming. Michael Shellenberger and Ted Nordhaus appear in all their slickness as the PR guys for some new kind of environmentalism no one can quite pin down.

But the two least known characters profiled in Everything’s Cool are the ones most likely to convince the skeptics. Rick Piltz was hired by the Bush administration to research and write global warming reports for each region of the United States. His boss, Philip Cooney, later changed the wording in his reports and eventually ordered them buried and ignored. When Piltz leaked this information to the press, America was finally alerted to our government’s specific disinformation campaign on this critical issue.

I showed this film to my students at an engineering school, where some of the smartest kids remain skeptical of the importance of climate change. When they witnessed the plight of Bish Neuhouser, a snow groomer at a Park City ski resort who tries to convert all his equipment to run on biodiesel, they finally became interested. This regular guy’s homespun techie efforts and the outrageousness of the Bush administration’s carefully plotted lies got to them. Everything’s Cool has the goods to convert the staunchest skeptics, and that’s the highest compliment that a global warming film can get.

David Rothenberg has written and performed on the relationship between humanity and nature for many years.  He is the author of Why Birds Sing, on making music with birds, also published in England, Italy, Spain, Taiwan, China, Korea, and Germany. It was turned into a feature length BBC TV documentary.  His following book, Thousand Mile Song, is on making music with whales.  It was turned into a film for French television. As a composer and jazz clarinetist, Rothenberg has eleven CDs out under his own name, including On the Cliffs of the Heart, named one of the top ten CDs by JazzizMagazine in 1995 and a record on ECM with Marilyn Crispell, One Dark Night I Left My Silent House.  His latest book on insects and music, along with a companion CD, was published in April 2013 by St. Martins Press under the title Bug Music.  It has been covered in the New Yorker, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, on PBS News Hour and on Radiolab.