‘Cool It’ Film Review: The Devil Is in the Details E-mail
Monday, 08 August 2011 00:00  |  Written by Rick Theis | Review

Lomborg photo on his 'Cool It' Book CoverCool It is a film about Bjørn Lomborg and his proposition that limiting the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere is not the best way to reduce the threat of global warming. He prefers instead that we rely on geo-engineering. That is, he touts man-made, technological solutions—akin to those that have caused this crisis in the first place. The film is based on his error-riddled book, The Skeptical Environmentalist, which has made him the scourge of environmentalists everywhere.

The Prince of Darkness?
The film begins by illustrating just how deeply Lomborg is reviled in ecological circles; some of the film’s interviewees literally recoil at the first mention of the man’s name. Then, step by step, Cool It rehabilitates Lomborg’s image by painting a fawning portrait of him. It’s the kind of vanity documentary I imagine the Devil would surreptitiously make and clandestinely distribute. But, unlike some environmentalists, I don’t think Bjørn Lomborg is the Devil. Then again, based on literature about Satan, it would certainly be within the purview of the Prince of Darkness to fool me.

Before I get to an objective critique of the film, I’d like to explain why that is difficult. I attended a critics’ screening at New York’s beautiful Bryant Park Hotel followed by a reception in the hotel’s bar. There I met and talked with the film’s subject, Bjørn Lomborg, and its director, Ondi Timoner (who also directed Dig!). What they told me changed my already negative view of the film for the worse.

In his trademark black T-shirt, the youthful, blond and blue-eyed Bjørn Lomborg looked the stereotypical Dane. What is it about Danes, especially those wearing black? They always give the impression of being extremely healthy and intelligent. Lomborg is certainly the latter. And for those who are dying to know (Hugo Chavez, are you an EcoHearth reader?), Lomborg did not smell of sulfur. However, the film had definitely left me with the impression that something was rotten in the state of Denmark. It wasn’t long before director Timoner let slip some information that confirmed my suspicion.

A Shocking Revelation
After a few pleasantries, I questioned her about the film’s exceedingly sympathetic portrait of Lomborg. Timoner said that she had tried to present opposing views, but that nearly every environmentalist she approached, including Al Gore, refused to appear in the film. It seemed odd to me that most of those who think Lomborg is setting back the environmental movement wouldn’t want their views represented in an objective documentary. So I pressed for more details. That’s when Timoner dropped a bombshell: “This was a work-for-hire,” she admitted. “I didn’t have the right to a final cut of the film, [Lomborg] did. It was changed from my original edit. It’s not structured the way I would have structured it.”

Armed with this information, I next spoke with Lomborg. I pointed out to him some of the film’s flawed logic and the dearth of hard data in the film to back up its assumptions. He admitted the potential for disaster in geo-engineering, his preferred solution to global warming, but argued that scientific solutions would be so much less costly and disruptive to society than cutting back on fossil fuels. He added that since geo-engineering research was cheaper yet, at least it should be pursued. I didn’t buy it. There are plenty of examples of man’s attempts at manipulating nature going awry. And in the case of global warming, we are betting the whole planet—perhaps even the very existence of our species—on our supposed understanding of the extremely complex ecological system we inhabit. It seems the height of human hubris.

Lomborg patiently and confidently discussed these and other issues with me. Then I told him the film seemed to me to be an excessively one-sided portrait of him and asked who funded it. Suddenly he seemed ill at ease. He shifted his weight from foot to foot. His eyes darted about. And he stumbled a bit as he explained that he had approached an “independent producer” with his idea to make the film to spread the word about his position on environmentalism. The producer was able to raise the money and voilà. I asked if he had had any control over how the film came out. He admitted, “Well, yes. In my contract with the producer I have the right to control what goes in the film.” Then Lomborg quickly excused himself.

A Sham Documentary
So what did I think of the film before I knew that the subject controlled the final cut? I thought it played fast and loose with the truth about global warming and that it was an overly sympathetic and sentimental look at Lomborg. Cool It portrays him as an earnest and objective scientist, good son, avid nature lover and environmentalist from a young age. To help prove the latter point, the film tells the story of how, when Lomborg was a boy, he and his friend dug up his father’s garden in order to install a windmill they’d built. Although it was meant to show that Lomborg was into alternative energy from a young age, I can’t think of a more apt metaphor for Lomborg’s position on the environment: Rather than working with and protecting nature, man can use science and technology to improve upon it. To solve the problem of global warming, Lomborg thinks mankind should rely on the same short-sighted, profit-driven, science-based methods that have gotten us into this mess.

Lomborg’s position in the film and companion book is that present efforts to stop global warming are neither cost-effective nor even effective. He alleges, for example, that the European Union’s $250 billion 20-20-20 pledge (its plan to reduce greenhouse gases to 20% of 2000 levels by the year 2020) will decrease global temperatures by less than one degree by the end of the century. Yet, he never mentions just how much the atmosphere might heat up if we do nothing. The difference between that number and the EU reduction is the relevant statistic.

Sloppy Research and Writing
My copy of the new American version of the book, on which the film is based, has 181 footnotes, about one per page of text, and 43 pages of references. This may convince the casual observer that all the book’s “facts” and conclusions are well substantiated. Yet there are many leaps of faith, logical fallacies, unproven assertions and false assumptions in the book and film—so many, in fact, that there are entire websites devoted to exposing them. By far the most comprehensive is the Lomborg Errors site. It offers meticulously detailed fact-checking of the British and American editions of his book, and the film.

This site exposes examples of plagiarism and myriad factual errors—evidence of sloppy research and science at best, intentional deception at worst. The site gives circumstantial evidence of the latter, pointing out that “[a] normal person would apologize or be ashamed if concrete, factual errors or misunderstandings were pointed out - and would correct the errors at the first opportunity given. Lomborg does not do that. For example, when The Skeptical Environmentalist was heavily criticized in a review in Nature, Lomborg´s reaction was: ‘If I really am so wrong, why don´t you just document that?’ - and then, when this was documented, he ignored the facts.” The site goes on to illustrate specific instances of Lomborg’s failure to correct proven mistakes in his work.

There are at least two books having the purpose of addressing errors in Lomborg´s book. One, A Skeptical Look at the Skeptical Environmentalist, was written by esteemed biologist and two-time Pulitzer Prize-winner E. O. Wilson. Another, The Lomborg Deception was authored by Howard Friel.

The Final Act?
As the evening wound down, Lomborg came back to where I was sitting. He said he had lost his jacket and wondered if I’d seen it. This left me with the impression of him as an innocuous absent-minded scientist, which may be true. On the other hand, if Lomborg is indeed the Devil, it may have been a manipulative attempt by him to soften his image—an echo of a much more elaborate deception: his pseudo-documentary, Cool It.

Additional film reviews:
The Film ‘Farmageddon’ Says It’s 1984 for Small Farmers
The Film ‘Ingredients’ Is a Peek at a Better Food Future
Green Movies: The Best Environmental Fictional Feature Films
Green Films: The Best Environmental Documentaries

Additional resources:
Creative Ways of Cooling the Planet: Alternatives to Alternative Energy

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