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November 14, 2010
Film Review: Carbon Nation Celebrates Small-Scale Responses to Climate Change
    by Robert Kropp

The documentary profiles entrepreneurs and activists who have contributed to climate change mitigation, and recommends investment in green technologies.


Toward the end of the new documentary Carbon Nation, a number of suggestions for climate change mitigation by individuals scrolls down the screen. One of the suggestions, to invest in green technologies, both confirms the successes that have occurred already—the recently published 2010 Trends Report on sustainable investing states, "Environmental investing criteria related to clean technology and renewable energy…are leading investment themes"—and underscores the challenges of successfully addressing climate change in the absence of legislative resolve to act on the issue in the US.

Overall, the documentary, directed by Peter Byck, maintains an optimistic perspective, despite the vividly presented effects of climate change that are already underway. Portrayed in the film are entrepreneurs and community activists whose efforts, often at the rate of one building at a time, may not be making enough of an impact to reverse climate change, but whose examples demonstrate that the opportunities presented by mitigation can be profitable.

One such portrayal is of Cliff Etheredge, an elderly cotton farmer from Texas who banded together with other small farmers to create
Peak Wind, a wind power commune. Now, the town of Roscoe, which had been so downtrodden that even its Dairy Queen had closed ("The kiss of death for a small town," Etheredge's son said in the film), has some 400 small farmers earning royalties of as much as $15,000 per year for each wind turbine while still using most of their land for agriculture.

In keeping with the film's generally light touch, Etheredge, who lost his right arm in a farming accident, quipped, "You might say I did it all single-handedly."

Also portrayed in the film is Van Jones, the founder of
Green for All, a nonprofit organization working with business and government to create green jobs in underserved communities. Jones is seen leading an initiative, along with GRID Alternatives, whose Solar Affordable Housing Program trains workers to install solar electric systems for low-income homeowners, to install solar panels on the roofs of homes in the African-American community of Richmond CA. The initiative resulted in reduced emissions, cost savings, and green jobs in a community sorely in need of employment opportunities.

Bernie Karl, referred to in the film as the "Crazy Alaskan," developed a method for creating geothermal power with water heated to only 165 degrees. Formerly, water had to be heated to as high as 400 degrees to produce geothermal energy. Karl has partnered with United Technologies to develop geothermal units, and, according to the filmmakers, Goldman Sachs has predicted that the partnership will sell 250,000 units.

In an
interview with Bloomberg News, Byck, the director, said, "'An Inconvenient Truth' was marketed as a horror movie. We’re trying the opposite—we focus on solutions since I believe we can do a heck of a lot better."

Indeed, none of the solutions suggested by the film require further technological breakthroughs to achieve. Energy efficiency, from weatherizing private homes to retrofitting existing buildings, can substantially reduce the 40% of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions now produced by buildings. A 2009
report from McKinsey & Company found that a comprehensive national approach to energy efficiency would lead to energy savings of $1.2 trillion by 2020.

Even as simple a step as replacing incandescent light bulbs can have a significant impact. As one of the film's interviewees stated, "If every New Yorker would swap out their incandescent bulbs for CFLs, we could run the subways off the savings."

However, even though the measures presented by the film require no new technological breakthroughs, even reasonable steps are beginning to seem far-fetched in a political climate where many incoming legislators are self-described climate deniers. The recommendation of the film to "elect clean energy public servants" arrived too late, unfortunately, to make a dent in November's mid-term elections.

For instance, in the House of Representatives, whose energy committee led passage of the Waxman-Markey clean energy bill in 2009, three of the four Republicans seeking to replace Henry Waxman as chairman are climate deniers.

The chances of meaningful climate legislation in the foreseeable future, therefore, is next to nil, and even more remote is the possibility of a cap-and-trade program or another version of a price on carbon. In the Bloomberg interview, Byck said, "There are a lot of hidden costs to putting carbon dioxide into the air, and society pays them," and the film suggests that a price on carbon in a necessary cornerstone of a low-carbon economy. However, when John Shimkus of Illinois, one of the Republican contenders for the House energy committee chairmanship, describes climate change legislation as "the largest assault on democracy and freedom in this country that I've ever experienced," the political reality, as at odds with science as it is, is undeniable.

An example of the priorities of conservatives can be found in the experience of Van Jones, who in March 2009 was appointed by President Obama as advisor to the Council on Environmental Quality. A campaign, launched by Fox News commentator Glen Beck after Jones called for an advertising boycott of his show when Beck claimed Obama was a racist, succeeded in forcing Jones to resign his position in September 2009.

Despite legislative inaction, however, many large companies in the US have responded to the concerns of sustainable investors by realizing both the risks and opportunities presented by climate change and their strategies to mitigate it. A recent report entitled
The Carbon Management Strategic Priority found that 66% of companies in the S&P 500 now report their GHG emissions and mitigation strategies to the Carbon Disclosure Project (CDP).

According to the CDP, "Carbon management is being propelled to the forefront of business across multiple sectors through a number of market drivers, including energy costs, the growing cost of carbon, brand reputation, energy supply risks, employee expectations, investor requests and competitive positioning."

As Paul Dickinson, CEO of CDP, told SocialFunds.com, "The one thing about business people is they can read a graph."

The film, which is scheduled for theatrical release in January 2011, was shown in Brattleboro VT through the sponsorship of Marlboro College's MBA in Managing for Sustainability program.

 

 
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