As The World Burns

Melting Planet: An Interview with Toxic Comedy

An award-winning film company documents American?s attitudes about global warming. Is the public really indifferent?

| Mon Apr. 18, 2005 2:00 AM EDT

In the fall of 2004, the four film producers who make up Toxic Comedy Pictures embarked on a pre-election, cross-country road-trip to “take the pulse of America” on the topic of global warming. Their Do-You-Care? Mobile (and no, the irony of driving a large van 3000 miles was not lost on the activists—see their blog) was a traveling billboard: on one side was an image of a drought; on the other, a flood. It read: “Two words you won’t hear on the campaign trail” and invited interaction with onlookers by answering with a game-show style puzzle: “G_ _ B _ L _ _ R _ _ NG”.

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Their pre-election adventures, and much else, will feature in their forthcoming film, Melting Planet, which explores how global warming, the “mother of all environmental problems," is already affecting citizens and communities. In making the film, they've had to confront challenges familiar to any activist who's tried to galvanize the public on this issue: How do you make an issue happening “in the future” urgent today? What does it take to make the average person care? And why is there this enormous gap between what scientists are saying and what the government is suggesting, what the media is telling, and what the people are thinking?

Searching for answers, the crew hung out with author Ross Gelbspan as he promoted Boiling Point, his newest account of the lack of urgency felt by the public about climate change. They watched as the big environmental groups strategized on how to ride the press coverage of Hollywood’s action-packed sci-fi, The Day After Tomorrow. They talked with “Save our Syrup” farmers in New Hampshire, whose wind- and solar-powered maple tree farm—along with the entire syrup industry of the Northeast-- is threatened by a hotter climate. They spoke with attendees of a Bush rally in Pennsylvania, where many felt that global warming, while it may be important down the road, isn’t something to worry about now. In California, they spoke to the activist behind the Pavley law, a bill establishing precedent-setting regulations on automobile emissions, and they filmed the hubbub surrounding the presentation of the controversial paper, the “Death of Environmentalism” at the University of California at Berkeley.

Toxic Comedy is currently in the initial throes of editing and wrapping up filming for Melting Planet. Dan Gold and Judith Helfand (whose previous film, Blue Vinyl, a documentary about polyvinyl chloride, was nominated for an Emmy) and Adam Wolfensohn recently took a break from their work to talk to Mother Jones.

 

MJ: Environmental problems aren't the typical stuff of comedy. What made you want to take a comic approach?

DG: Toxic comedy is a way of getting people to be open to serious topics, of using humor and irony to capture people’s imagination. Our previous film, Blue Vinyl, was about persistent organic pollution, but if you were to tell somebody you’ve got a documentary for them to watch about that, you’re going to find a very, very tiny fraction of the population that’s going to make plans to go.

MJ: What models, if any, are you drawing on?

DG: Shakespeare (laughs). I think he called it “tragicomedy.”

JH: If there was persistent organic pollution in the time of Shakespeare, he would have been making toxic comedy.

MJ: What was your goal in making Melting Planet?

DG: We wanted to find characters where you can identify that their lives are being affected by global warming today. Judith and I were both at Sundance in 2003. We were in the midst of researching about global warming and meanwhile we’re at 8000 feet in Park City, Utah, and people are walking around in sandals and shorts in January.

They were having one of the worst ski seasons in the history of Park City. We met this snow-maker from New Zealand, a very unhappy Kiwi, drinking a beer in a hot tub and wondering when he was going to get to go back to work. In order to make snow, it has to be below 26 degrees, and when it is clearly not going to be 26 degrees, these guys don’t even get called into work. It was at that moment that we decided we’re going to start shooting this film.

MJ: Did you end up finding other characters in similar situations?

DG: Well, it led to a guy who was in charge of grooming the slopes at that resort who expressed an interest in making alternative fuel for his old Mercedes Benz, which is a diesel-run vehicle. He had heard you could take used French fry grease, process it, and make your car run off it and it would be less harmful to the environment. We followed him through the trials and tribulations of discovering how to make biodiesel out of the French fry grease from the local bar that he frequents. He eventually got his old Mercedes to run on it.

We looked at the footage and saw that it was a great story but it was also a very minor solution to a very major problem. We needed to grapple with other aspects of global warming. The strongest story we could find, at least in America, was in Alaska.

JH: Our co-producer, Chris Pilaro, had gone the summer before and spent a bunch of days in Shishmaref. He was there when the first North American community voted on whether the whole village should pick up and move to escape the global warming problems they were facing.

DG: Now it’s sort of the poster village for global warming in the Arctic. But we went up there in the summer of 2003 and spent about ten days in the little village of Shishmaref, meeting people whose homes had either fallen into the ocean or were moved before they fell in. After we came back, we spent quite a bit of time really analyzing how global warming was represented in the press. The direction of our work became the challenge and history of messaging. Ultimately, is it really true that if the American public really understood this better they would be more supportive of whatever it would take to head global warming off?

MJ: How did you try to capture and answer this with the film?

DG: We thought it would be interesting to use The Day After Tomorrow, this big Hollywood blockbuster about New York City suffering an abrupt, global warming-induced Ice Age, to measure how people were perceiving global warming. We documented the way the press was dealing with presenting the film and got people’s reaction to that, which was very revealing because we realized there are huge grey areas of confusion where people really weren’t able to separate fact from fiction.

But a lot of people were very scared by the film. They just didn’t know what they could do, which is actually one of the biggest problems politically, for activists, to convince people that something that they could do in their own lives would make a difference. It’s often pointed out that solving global warming is very different than solving the ozone problem, where by phasing our aerosols you could make a huge difference.

On a sort of parallel track we’ve also talked to people about finding the “crying Indian” for global warming--the “crying Indian” being a TV advertisement about littering where a Native American dressed in native garb was standing by the side of a highway with cars speeding by and a bag of garbage gets tossed out, lands at his feet, and the camera pans up to show this tear coming down his cheek. It was a very effective thing, so part of our fascination with the messaging about global warming is the inability for anybody to have really come up with a “crying Indian” yet.

One of the other messengers we’ve been looking at is the Weather Channel. They hired their first climatologist, Dr. Heidi Cullen—most of the folks who work there are meteorologists or extreme-weather experts--to look at the weather pattern over very extended periods of time. They decided to take a formal stance on global warming and say yes, global warming is real, it’s happening now.

JH: We’ve been trying to follow the education of Heidi Cullen because she’s a serious, rigorous scientist who now has to turn her science to soundbites.

DG: Another key thing we followed was a gentleman named Rick Piltz, who recently resigned from his job in Washington, D.C. after 12 years, working for a program that oversees all of the federally-funded science that’s done about climate change. He’d spent far too long in a position where he felt the science was not getting out because it was being held up in very politically-motivated processes of, essentially, censorship. He was frustrated beyond belief at the difficulty of allowing that scientific information to flow freely.

MJ: Where does your tour of the swing states in the Do-You Care mobile come in?

DG: It took eleven or twelve clicks on the mouse to be able to find the term “global warming” somewhere on John Kerry’s website, and it was hidden in there under “Energy Independence.” And so we became interested in finding out what people thought across the country as to why this topic is not even mentioned at all.

JH: We were also wondering if our truck--and the images we brought with us, plus facts--might make people care, or could push those undecided voters one way or another.

DG: It was a tall order--the trip was trying to serve many masters. On the one hand we were looking for swing states in addition to looking for places we could find biodiesel in addition to finding places we could tie into global warming stories in addition to finding solutions. Within all that, we were also trying to get to New Mexico in time for the election, and we had less than three weeks. So it was a whirlwind.

MJ: What were some of the most hopeful signs you encountered crossing the country?

DG: The thing that stands out are wind turbines. We saw them in a number of places and we visited with a wind farmer.

AW: Farmer Will was in Pennsylvania, Will’s Acres was the name of his farm. He was certainly not an activist, not really an energy entrepreneur, not a technologist. He was a dairy farmer who just realized he could supplement his income by putting these turbines up on his farm. He’s right in the middle of coal country--from his farm you could see strip mines, essentially. It was a fantastic symbol of the new technologies taking the place of the old.

The one other solution that struck me was California taking the lead in local greenhouse policy and fuel economy standards with the Pavley Bill. We spoke to some solar energy experts in Las Vegas, and the story there was one primarily of frustration for lack of subsidies, funds, and research money in this country.

MJ: On the flip side, do you have any not-so inspiring stories in terms of the American public’s attitudes about global warming?

DG: One of the most sobering things we’ve found is how quickly politicized global warming becomes, it’s like lighting a fuse. That one particular homeowner in Pensacola specifically—here’s our truck, it’s missing certain letters to engage the person looking at it and to have some fun with figuring out what we’re talking about: “What’s two words you won’t hear on the campaign trail?” And then we have “global warming” spelled out, but its missing letters, kind of like in hangman or Wheel of Fortune. It took him just a moment to say, “Global warming.” And then he looked us straight in the eyes and told us, “This is Bush country.” There was literally barely a moment’s pause between realizing that we were talking about global warming and his response.

So it really brought home just how many folks don’t see this as a scientific issue. It’s a political hotbed, and cultural in many ways, because for him, who would be talking about global warming but some liberals from the Northeast who probably paid us to come down there?

MJ: By the end of the film, do you offer any conclusion or solutions, or do you just let the characters—the solutions and the problems—speak for themselves?

DG: We’re not there yet, but we’re certainly very tuned in to the debate raging around the “Death of Environmentalism” paper. Chances are, our film will reflect a similar sentiment--that there is not going to be one single solution to global warming. But perhaps the first step is a consciousness of how urgent this problem is. We don’t want to make a doom-and-gloom film, but at the same time, we really want to make people stop and reflect on how nonchalant people are about this.

AW: I think it’s been clear to environmentalists for a long time, even before the “Death of Environmentalism,” that to run any policy on a purely environmental platform is not a good strategy. From allegiances with hunting clubs for wilderness protection to the Apollo Alliance, allegiances are clearly all the rage these days.

The debate is sort of encapsulated in two quotes: One is Robert Kennedy Jr. saying that if people only had the facts about global warming and understood how urgent this issue was, then they would take action, the right policies would come up and people would support the right candidates. And then you have the George Lakoffs and the Death of Environmentalism folks who say that you can throw all the facts you want to people, but still global warming is so poorly positioned in this culture that you’re not going to get anywhere. So it’s not a question of picking the scariest fact-- this river or this drought or this hurricane or this species extinction--you just have to take a radically different approach.

DG: As Thomas Friedman wrote in a recent article—it’s going to be very hard to explain in the history books that President Bush, with an energy crisis looming right in his face, managed to miss the opportunity to rally the American spirit, which is essentially the ability to solve any problem. [Tackling] global warming can mean the creation of millions of new jobs, new energy technologies, and increased competition for American industry, up against the growing success of alternative energy industries in Japan and Germany and the Netherlands. The first thing is a shift from scaring people into the gloom-and-doom to talking about how energy independence can be a solution on many fronts.

MJ: When can we expect Melting Planet? And where can we see it?

DG: We’re trying to get it together to apply with thousands of other documentaries to be considered to be shown at Sundance, so we’re hoping that by the end of this year, we’ll be done. If not, it will be done very soon thereafter.