When filmmaker Ondi Timoner announced, during a family dinner, that she was making a documentary about the firebrand climate change non-alarmist Bjørn Lomborg, she found herself under attack. “My sister got very emotional and said, ‘Don’t distract me from global warming by saying malaria should be solved,’” recalls Timoner, summing up Lomborg’s argument that global warming isn’t as imminent as some have claimed and that it makes more sense to dedicate our resources to tackling more urgent global crises first.
Lomborg, a Danish academic who directs an economic think tank in Copenhagen, spent years researching the science and economics behind mainstream approaches to climate change and published the results of his findings as a collection of essays entitled, The Skeptical Environmentalist. Though Lomborg considers himself a left-leaning humanist and environmentalist, his book set off a firestorm among Greens who accused him of being a global warming denier. As a result, Timoner, 38, was initially hesitant when she was approached to direct a film about his contrarian approach to saving the planet. “I was aware of Bjørn’s reputation and skeptical of him. But after our initial five hour meeting, I came away convinced he had a take on the environment that was worthy of putting my film-making skills behind.”
Each of Timoner’s previous two films — 04′s “Dig” and 09′s “We Live in Public” — took home the Grand Jury Prize for Best Documentary at the Sundance Film Festival. Timoner hopes to continue her streak of status-quo challenging filmmaking with her take on Lomborg’s story in “Cool It,” in which she paints a portrait of him as a controversial figure whose potentially groundbreaking ideas have been misconstrued. “One of the things that attracted me to Bjørn’s argument — and it’s one of the things that turns people off Bjorn — is that it’s extremely practical,” she says. “It makes perfect sense to me when he says, ‘We’re not going to be able to cut carbon or reduce our consumption until alternative energy is less expensive. Developing countries like china and India are not even considering cutting carbon because they just came out of poverty and we got rich off burning carbon fuels and they’re wondering why they should give up their air conditioning or their car? So why not focus on problems we can solve? Shouldn’t people be fortified against disease and have better drinking water and better shelter and be able to combat global warming?”
“In that context, Al Gore saying that global warming is the greatest moral issue of our time became difficult for me to stomach,” Timoner continues “There are two billion people without clean drinking water and thousands and thousands of children dying needlessly every day from incurable diseases based solely on poverty. I don’t think it’s a distraction. I think it’s an important thing that needed to be said.”
Still, challenging Al Gore’s assumptions in the environmental arena is like stepping onto the tennis court opposite Rafael Nadal: It’s an invitation to be pummeled. And that’s essentially what’s happened to Lomborg, who has been treated like a heretic by the academic and environmental communities, some of whom spew their venom at Lomborg early on in the film. For the most part, however, the Cool It’s Greek chorus of scientists, professors, and Nobel Laureates reinforces Lomborg’s claims about the ineffectiveness of current climate change strategies. One particularly resonant factiod — if everyone switched to driving Priuses, the impact on the climate would be infinitesimal — provides a provocative segue into a sure-to-be-controversial montage of stars like Leonardo DiCaprio and Ed Begley Jr. talking about how they’re saving the planet by driving hybrids and turning off their electronics.
Timoner is not unlike Lomborg — Both seem compelled to poke and prod at society’s most sacred cows. But after her early run-in at the family dinner table, she’s now confident she can handle (and even embrace) any heat that comes her way as a result of making “Cool It.” “When we screened at the Hamptons Film Festival, people got to the part challenging the claims in “An Inconvenient Truth” and I saw them fight the urge to walk out,” says Timoner. “Most everyone who stayed felt like they really learned a lot and were charged up by the solutions. In a way, this is the first positive film about global warming. It’s like, we have a problem but let’s break it down and let’s see what we can do. I think we all need that right now.”