This year, the Geological Society of America is rolling out their SWITCH Energy Awareness campaign . The centerpiece of the campaign is a documentary film, SWITCH, which purports to be about the need for a transformation in the world’s energy systems. Recently, I attended the Chicago premier of the film, presented as part of the Environmental Film Series of the Lutheran School of Theology. I had high hopes for this film. They were disappointed. Given the mismatch between what the movie promises and what it delivers, it would be more aptly titled, “BAIT AND SWITCH.”
The film is soporifically narrated by Scott Tinker , of the Texas Bureau of Economic Geology, who was also the major content advisor for the film. This a guy who has never met a fossil fuel he didn’t like. Dramatic footage of giant coal seams being merrily blasted to bits and carted off by hefty he-men driving 400 ton trucks are interspersed with wide-eyed kid-gloves interviews of energy-industry workers and executives in which Tinker looks like he’s overdosed on Quaaludes by way of preparation. There are a few segments on renewables thrown in, and even the token environmentalist or two, but the impression you get over most of the film is that only the fossil fuel guys have the right stuff.
Fossil fuels are unrelentingly portrayed as powerful, cool and desirable. Problems are swept under the rug, or given only the barest mention, mostly as a prelude to casual dismissal. Shots of the giant scar of an open pit coal mine in the Powder River basin cut over to shots of a credulous Tinker nodding like a bobble-headed doll while the foreman explains to him how it will all be all right because they saved the topsoil and will put it all back the way it was. Maybe that’s true, but given the intuitive implausibility of recreating a living, breathing ecosystem from the lunar lanscape the mining created, one would like to see at least a little probing of how well that all works out. Imagine Tinker coming upon a bunch of kids fiddling with a disemboweled flayed cat. This is how I imagine the interview would play out:
TINKER: Looks like you guys got yourself a dead cat there!
BOYS: Yep, did it ourselves. But dontcha worry, we saved the fur, and we’re gonna put everything back JUST THE WAY IT WAS!
TINKER: (glassy-eyed and nodding) Why, that’s just AMAZING!
Be that as it may, you never get to see or hear anything about mountain top removal coal mining (hint: they don’t save the mountaintop and put it back). On a tour of the Alberta Tar Sands, you get to see the insides of an antiseptic lab where happy technicians reverently pass around an adorable little flask of dilute bitumen (it looks so pure don’t you just want to drink it right down) while Tinker gapes in awe, but you never get to see the vast scale of environmental destruction wrought by tar sands mining outside. And while the film eventually gets around to loving natural gas, it skirts around the paradox that the tar sands consume a relatively low-carbon clean fuel (natural gas) that could be used directly as transportation fuel, to produce a dirty high carbon product (dilute bitumen and petcoke). Happy drillers on a mighty Shell offshore platform duly tsk-tsk about the big Oopsie! that was the Deepwater Horizon blowout, while assuring viewers that they’ve got that one licked, and golly no that couldn’t happen to us. Why, they even have Internet so they can get advice from the mainland if they need it!
Renewables, in contrast, are portrayed in a way that makes them seem wimpy — mainly by making inappropriate comparisons between small scale distributed power production sites and massive centralized power plants or oil production facilities. Tinker makes a lot of noise about the fact that the solar thermal site he visits in Spain was clouded over during the whole time they were filming it, which is probably meant to teach some lesson about intermittency, but instead leaves the viewer with a vague impression that renewables are not to be trusted. The film manages to say some nice things about the benefits of wind power in West Texas, and about Icelandic geothermal power, but on the whole the potential for renewable power comes off as fairly marginal, maybe the sort of thing little countries like Denmark or Iceland or Norway can rely on, but not big important places like us.
The truly fatal flaw of SWITCH, however, is that it never comes right out and explains why it is so critical for the world’s energy systems to switch off of fossil fuels, and why time is of the essence in making the switch. There are some oblique references to CO2 emissions, but no mention of the essentially irreversible effect of these emissions on climate, of the need to keep cumulative emissions under a trillion tonnes of carbon if we are to have a chance of limiting warming to 2 degrees C, or of how short the remaining time is before we hit this limit at the rate we are going. On the contrary, SWITCH positively revels in the idea that fossil fuels will never run out, given a high enough price (which, by the way, is probably not true). The clueless Washington Post review of SWITCH shows how utterly the film has failed in what should have been its prime educational mission. The reviewer writes “Why not continue to use coal and oil while developing other energy sources and technologies?” The answer, my friend, is that CO2 is forever, and its effects are not nearly so pretty as diamonds. But neither the reviewer, nor any other viewer, could be expected to learn this from SWITCH.
You begin to suspect something is really wrong when the first guy on screen to say something about climate is Richard Muller, of Berkeley Earth Surface Temperature Project fame, who managed to convert himself from a climate change denialist to a lukewarmer by arduously and noisily rediscovering what every working climate scientist already knew to be true. What Muller has to say about climate is that burning fossil fuels will cause the Earth to warm by about 2 degrees (“if the calculations are right”), but it’s going to be too expensive to stop it so we’ll just learn to live with it. There are so many things wrong with Muller’s statement that I hardly know where to begin. First, it is far from clear that a 2 degree warmer world is one that we can adapt to, or that the damages caused by such a climate would not overwhelm the costs of keeping it from happening in the first place. Second, if climate sensitivity is at the high end of the IPCC range or even beyond, we could be facing far greater than 2 degrees of warming even if we hold the line at cumulative emissions of a trillion tonnes of carbon. Third, even if climate sensitivity is at the middle of the IPCC range, that 2 degree figure assumes that we hold the line at burning one trillion tonnes of carbon (and we’re already halfway there). There are probably enough economically recoverable fossil fuels to go way beyond a trillion tonnes, which would take us to truly scary territory, especially in conjunction with high climate sensitivity. It gets worse once you realize that Muller’s cheery dismissal of the problem is essentially all you’re going to hear about the connection between fossil fuel burning and climate disruption. OK, so if the producer’s aim is for this film to play well in Nebraska, you can understand why he might not have wanted Tinker to interview somebody like Jim Hansen who’s been on the front lines of the climate wars and spent time in pokey for it, but how about Susan Solomon or Isaac Held, or Myles Allen or Richard Alley? How about any real climate scientist at all who could give an honest appraisal of what the world is going to be like if we continue unrestrained burning of fossil fuels — especially if fossil fuels never run out, as this film so cheerily predicts.
SWITCH is made to appeal to fans of an “all of the above” energy strategy, but it never confronts the fact that if we want to preserve a livable climate, “all” simply cannot include continued (let alone expanded) use of fossil fuels for very much longer. The biggest challenge we face is not learning how to extract every last scrap of fossil fuel, but learning how to leave most of it in the ground. This fault pervades every nook and cranny of the film. When discussing carbon capture and storage (CCS), an interviewee quite rightly declares that the only clean coal would be coal burned with CCS; Tinker goes on to lament that we could make coal clean, but it’s too expensive so we won’t do it. The only conclusion to be drawn from this would be that in that case coal has to be crossed off the energy menu. But instead Tinker moves on without ever giving a thought to this discomforting conclusion. And it is not very comforting to hear Steve Koonin (former chief scientist for BP/Amoco and currently Obama’s Undersecretary of Energy) and Ernest Moniz (head of MIT’s energy program, Obama’s pick to head the DOE, and a major natural gas booster) spend so much time on screen defending fossil fuels. “It can’t be all bad,” says Koonin, in reference to coal. Well, actually, from here on in, coal is all bad, and the less of it anybody burns, the better.
The segment on the developing world fails because it never addresses the question of what pattern of development could sustainably provide a decent standard of living for the worlds’ poor. Instead, in essence, it asks the question of what it would take to remake the world in Scott Tinker’s image — with all the energy usage that entails. In fact, you never get to see anybody but Tinker’s family using energy in their home, so you get no impression of how much access to a mere 200 watts of reliable power could transform the lives of poor Indians or Africans. At the outset of the film, Tinker arrogantly sets up his own energy consumption in his life as a Texas professor driving his oversized car from his sprawling house in the sprawling suburbs to wherever he is going in the course of his day as the measure of the energy required to support “a person” throughout the rest of the film. SWITCH shows no awareness that living in cities in and of itself leads to a lower carbon footprint, and that sound urban planning can multiply this advantage. This is an especially glaring omission, since most of the world’s people now live in cities, and the proportion is set to increase in the future. SWITCH never tells you that China could attain the standard of living of France without increasing its emissions at all, just by increasing the carbon efficiency of its economy to the current French level; nor does it tell you about China’s growing efforts in that direction, including most recently, a carbon tax. What SWITCH teaches you about the developing world is: They’re all gonna want cars and big houses like us, and they won’t go low-carbon because it’s too expensive, they’ll never pay for it and we won’t pay for them to do it either, so their emissions will soon swamp ours and nothing we do to reduce our own emissions will make much difference. It’s pretty much the standard “But … China!” argument promulgated by opponents of action to protect our climate. The fact that we will all pay for the consequences of a wrecked climate never figures into any of the costs mentioned in this movie.
SWITCH plays Pollyanna on energy technologies to such an extent that I found it off-putting even when the film was advocating things I basically agree with. I think cheap, fracked natural gas has made a useful contribution to reducing the growth rate of US CO2 emissions, but I cringe when SWITCH parrots the industry-sponsored myth that we have a sure 100 year supply of natural gas (we don’t ). Further, as Michael Levi’s cogent study points out, natural gas has at best a very short-lived role as a bridge fuel. Moreover, if cheap natural gas kills off renewables and next generation nuclear, it is not only a short bridge, but a bridge to nowhere. I think expansion of nuclear energy has an essential role to play in decarbonizing our energy supply, and I greatly admire the success France has had with their transition to nuclear electricity. But I doubt I would have found the credulous interviews with American and French nuclear workers particularly reassuring if I weren’t already familiar with the issues from other sources. Even the segment on Norwegian hydropower, with which SWITCH auspiciously opens, manages to give the false impression that most Nordic hydropower is free-run hydro with a relatively light footprint on the environment; In fact, Norwegian and Swedish hydropower rely on a massive network of dams and reservoirs which have disrupted the lives of indigenous peoples killed off salmon runs, and destroyed whole ecosystems. When the Suorva dam created Akkajaure in Northern Sweden, it drowned a biologically diverse chain of lakes and wetlands and turned off what used to be Europe’s largest waterfall.There is no question that hydropower is an important component of a carbon-free energy supply, but it is not helpful to sweep its environmental costs under the rug. Hydropower provides an example of the kind of difficult choice about conflicting environmental goods that global warming forces upon us. Given the facts, some of us might prefer a few more nukes to a few more Suorvas.
Way at the end of the film Tinker finally gets around to the benefits of energy conservation, but by then it’s too late. The message has already gotten through that we’re really good at fossil energy so why bother, especially since the developing world is going to burn them up anyway? None of the incomprehensible moving lines on graphs which are supposed to make the case for the importance of conservation make a dent in this impression. Tinker’s big ideas about conservation seem laughably puny: a new water heater, a bit of attic insulation, and driving his kids to school in … golf carts! One wonders what’s wrong with his kids, or his neighborhood, that they can’t walk or ride their bikes.
It would be easy to shrug off this film if it were just a matter of another hack with a minicam following Bjorn Lomborg around, but this has the backing of the GSA. The GSA has its share of members in the fossil fuel industries, but it is a respectable scientifically sound organization, which has taken a decent position on global warming. The GSA has not only blessed the film with its prestige, but is heavily promoting it as the anchor of its energy awareness campaign, with solicitation for Inconvenient Truth style “ambassadors” to promote the film’s agenda, and even a K-12 educational component. I think I do understand how the film took a wrong turn somewhere along the line. If you want to change minds and touch the heartstrings of a new audience rather than just preaching to the choir, it is probably more effective to find common ground in talking about solutions rather than by scaring the pants off people by talking about the scary consequences of global warming. I’m entirely sympathetic to this approach. But there’s a difference between positive messaging and losing sight of the nature of the problem that needs to be solved, to the point that one even loses sight of the message that needs to be conveyed. That is where SWITCH not only takes a wrong turn, but drives right off the cliff.
The GSA ought to distance itself from this fiasco. Schools should avoid it like the plague. Without being kept on life-support by the GSA, the film is so boring it will probably die a natural death. This film is a lot like those “duck and cover” movies that I saw as a kid, from which I learned that I could survive a nuclear strike if I put my head down against the lockers and covered up with a winter coat (just hope The Bomb doesn’t get dropped in summer). The message of SWITCH is the climate equivalent of the infamous quote by T.K. Jones, Reagan’s civil defense planner, that when it comes to nuclear war “If there are enough shovels to go around, everybody’s going to make it” . In the case of SWITCH, the message that gets across is that if we keep figuring out ever more ingenious ways of extracting fossil fuels, and maybe burn more natural gas, insulate our attics and drive our kids to school in golf carts, everything’s gonna be OK. We have a right to expect better from the GSA, and the sooner SWITCH disappears from the public discourse, the better.