Is it an oxymoron: a global warming movie with a positive message? Not any more.

Researchers from the University of California, Berkeley, recently found that how global warming messages are delivered makes a difference: people who believe the world is just are far more likely to accept the science if presented with a positive, solutions-based message as opposed to a negative message warning of dire consequences. A message “coupled with a potential solution,” the authors concluded, can be “communicated without creating a substantial threat to deeply held beliefs” and is therefore more likely to be heard.

Interesting idea. Equally interesting is a new movie that’s just hitting screens in selected cities and putting that hypothesis to the test: Carbon Nation, directed by Peter Byck. (Full disclosure: one of its producers is a member of the Duke Board of Trustees.)

In contrast to other global warming documentaries (An Inconvenient Truth) and fictional flicks (The Day After Tomorrow), Carbon Nation goes light on the consequences theme, building instead a motif around solutions.

Meeting the Challenge

The opening montage introduces the characters to come, each stressing a different approach to addressing global warming and culminating with the movie’s main message: yes, there is a problem, but its solutions represent “opportunity.”

The problem is simple but challenging: the world consumes about 16 terawatts of energy. How much of those terawatts can be provided without resorting to fossil fuels? A lot, answers the movie. For proof we’re whisked to various corners of America (with a brief detour to China where green seems to be the new red) to meet entrepreneurs and visionaries busy developing and deploying new low-carbon technologies. Among the often familiar solutions is many a twist: energy efficiency, wind power, solar power, plug-in hybrids, geothermal energy (produced from waters far below the high temperature considered necessary), a recycling program (that recycles the potent greenhouse gas warmer Freon found in old refrigerators), and algae-based biofuels.

Interestingly, this global warming movie features no bad-guy carbon emitters. Director Byck e-mailed us his thoughts on this: “I don’t think the oil, coal and natural gas companies are committed to emitting carbon. They are committed to making money. I want to find the ways for energy companies to make money with clean energy, and leave the carbon in the ground, where it belongs.”

Unconventional Messengers and a Can-Do Spirit

The narration by Bill Kurtis — American Justice and Investigative Reports — gives the movie an overlay of measured authority while its playful style and fast-paced
editing give it an MTV feel. The real people populating the movie, many of whom could be your next-door neighbor, are no doubt intended to convince viewers that you don’t have to be an elitist, techno geek to tackle global warming. Not to imply that any global-warming tacklers are.

Texan Cliff Etheredge, cotton and wind farmer (Photo: Peter Byck)

First up is Cliff Etheredge, a Texas cotton farmer aiming to turn a nice profit on his field of wind turbines. Etheredge is not your typical global warming activist. He’s a one-armed (lost the other in a cotton machine), cowboy-hat wearing, jeep driver bent on revitalizing Roscoe, Texas — a place on the decline, he says, ever since the Dairy Queen shuttered. If he succeeds? Says Etheredge, “You might could say I did it single-handedly.”

Another memorable character, Alaskan Bernie Karl, is a geothermal-energy enthusiast. When asked about climate change, he replies that folks living in his neck of the Arctic woods would have to have theirs heads in the sand (well, he mentioned a different place, but you get the idea) to deny global warming. But does he think man is causing it? “No,” he says, adding quickly, “But that doesn’t make any difference. I want clean water. I want clean air.” The message: you don’t have to believe in man-made global warming to join the “carbon nation.”

Former Army colonel Dan Nolan (Photo: Peter Byck)

The blue-collar bastion of our red-white-and-blue military is also part of the story. Former army colonel Dan Nolan — a so-called “Green Hawk” — says the military views its dependence on oil as a strategic liability. Why? For one, some of the biggest targets in war zones are the fuel-supply routes. And so our own military is working as quickly as possible to wean itself off petroleum through energy efficiency and biofuels. Nolan put it like this in an e-mail to us: “Climate change leads to war. … No one hates war more than a soldier. That is why going green makes sense for [the Department of Defense] DOD, the nation and the world.”

Could this movie change hearts and minds the way other global warming movies failed? Could be. Who knows, we may soon see cotton-turned-wind farmer Cliff Etheredge take the stage in Oslo to accept that ultimate prize, single-handedly, of course.