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In the end, Cool It offers some good advice to world leaders on how to tackle the problems of global climate change. Unfortunately, before it gets there, it lets its subject Bjorn Lomborg settle some old scores.

Let it Come but Be Prepared

Lomborg cools his heels
Lomborg cools his heels

I didn’t know who Lomborg was before this movie. The climate scientist in my family didn’t either, although he had at least heard of Lomborg’s book The Skeptical Environmentalist. I know now that Lomborg is the founder of a think tank, a speaker, and a professor (his university degrees are in political science, not atmospheric science).

The neat thing that Lomborg has done is to overlay economic thought to the issue of global climate change. He invited Nobel-prize-winning economists to study the best ways to spend humanity’s global-climate-change-fighting money. Their conclusion, in short, is not to spend money on carbon reduction or cap-and-trade, but to invest it in new energy technologies including some geoengineering projects, education, and health care. Let sea level rise, they say. Let’s just be ready for it.

If this were all there were to Cool It, it could have been a neat little documentary. These ideas hold appeal to left-leaning environmentalists right-leaning fiscal conservatives, and those of us in the middle who just like science and technology.

Tempest in a Teapot

As Cool It tells us, Lomborg’s notoriety has a lot to do with the reaction to his book The Skeptical Environmentalist. Clips from news talk shows show fiery reactions from the left and the right. One expert, Stephen Schneider, is caught on amateur video at a book signing denouncing Lomborg as a danger to climate science.

(Strangely, Scheider shows up later in interviews making Lomborg’s case, and a postscript dedicates the film to Schneider, who died this summer. But even that farewell is tainted with mistrust ... it says something along the lines of “though Schneider disagreed with Lomborg on some issues, he wasn’t completely wrong,” as though disagreeing with Lomborg and being right are usually incompatible.)

Luckily, I missed all that brouhaha when the book came out; I couldn’t care less about it. Director Ondi Timoner and Lomborg clear up the misconceptions: Lomborg is not a climate-change denier; he does believe it’s real; he does believe it’s human-caused. And beyond that, I would have liked Cool It to move on to the ideas from the Nobel prize-winners. But apparently, the reaction to the book touched a nerve, and Lomborg takes the first half of the film to settle old scores.

Cool It belabors Lomborg’s defense, and mixes it with messages that, frankly, sound a little paranoid. Lomborg says that “the establishment doesn’t want to hear a new viewpoint,” without ever explaining which person or people he’s accusing. To make matters worse, we never get to hear the substance of the disagreements, only the ugly tone.

Then Cool It makes Lomborg look even more victimized by these attacks when it cuts to a scene of Lomborg spending time with his sick mother. I was beginning to think that Lomborg thinks of himself as a climate-change martyr on a par with creationist martyr Ben Stein.

Convenient Untruths

Cool It includes footage of British schoolkids who misunderstand what global warming is. One child says that the earth will get “very very very very hot.” Another tells the camera that she regularly loses sleep over global warming. The documentary uses these interviews to make the point that “we” have done a bad job of explaining the mechanics of climate change. The implied villains in this case is are Al Gore and the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, (and not necessarily the specific teacher of these two children).

In fact, Lomborg demonstrates two specific examples An Inconvenient Truth was wrong about. Specific hurricanes aren’t attributable to global climate change (as implied by that movie’s poster), and malarial mosquitoes aren’t spreading because of temperature changes. Neither point, you’ll notice, is what the schoolchildren got wrong.

Picking a fight with Al Gore over global warming is a good move, strategically. It generates controversy and sells tickets. Unfortunately, it also distracts from the more interesting and relevant ideas in Cool It. It also makes me feel like a tool, as though my attendance will be used as political capital in some fight I want nothing to do with.

There are some interesting ideas in Cool It, and those ideas are worthy of inclusion on our national and global debate on what to do about climate change. I just wish Timoner, her editors, and the producers would have done a better job of focusing on those ideas, and keeping the petty personal and political fights out of it.