Thursday, October 15, 2009

Living in "the age of stupid"

The climate change film The Age of Stupid has being doing the film fest rounds, including a recent premiere here at the Vancouver International Film Festival. This pseudo-documentary tells the story of "a man living alone in the devastated world of 2055, looking at old footage from 2008 and asking: why didn’t we stop climate change when we had the chance?". In other words, you and I are living in the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from scientists about climate change.

After watching the film, I'd add this: We are the age of stupid because we are not heeding the warnings from psychologists and social scientists about communicating climate change.

The film presents a truly catastrophic vision of the impacts of climate change by 2055, supposedly based on mainstream scientific projections. It made me wonder if I'm subscribing to the wrong journals. In the film, the world is devastated by battles, Sydney's burning, London is flooded by what appear to be meters of water and the Arctic is a wave pool. The planet is in such peril that all of humanity's great works, the contents of all national museums and galleries, are stored in one Arctic facility for safe keeping. This vision of the future, where humanity is threatened by extinction from climate change, does not come from science.

The goals of the film and the associated promotional campaign are to raise awareness about climate change and motivate action. The catastrophe framing might, in political speak, stir up "the base"; motivate people already lobbying for climate change action. It will probably alienate the rest of the audience. When presenting with an argument entirely based on fear of catastrophe, most of the audience will either conclude that climate change is impossible to solve or dismiss the film and the science on which it is based (cognitive dissonance anyone?). The film is particularly vulnerable on the second count, as its vision of the future diverges quite wildly from actual scientific projections.

There's no need to exaggerate the impacts of climate change. In this case, it really is a shame. The interviews with six real present-day people, including a British wind turbine developer, an Indian airline owner, an New Orleanian petroleum geologist, which make up the bulk of the film are fascinating.

2 comments:

Tyler said...

"When presenting with an argument entirely based on fear of catastrophe, most of the audience will either conclude that climate change is impossible to solve or dismiss the film and the science on which it is based (cognitive dissonance anyone?)."
I don't agree with this. For example, look at Swine Flu. Earlier this year, people were inflicted with fear of a catastrophe. However, they didn't dismiss the science--they embraced it. Scientists acted quickly to develop a vaccine, and the public took extra precautions to prevent the spreading of the virus.

As for exaggerated impacts, the direct impacts might not be as big as described in the movie, but others caught in the chain reaction could prove to be more unpredictable. Eg. Einstein said all it would take to end the world would be to wipe out our population of honey bees. Change our climate by a few degrees, and we just may do so.

Simon D said...

The message needs to fit the problem. Fear of catastrophe works for immediate personal issues. The swine flu fear is about personal health and it's a complete different time scale than climate change. And society is being asked to take simple extra precautions, not to make serious structural changes. That's where the dissonance comes in.