Hot Docs 2016: 'Age of Consequences' director talks climate change and security

OpenCanada’s Krista Hessey speaks with Jared P. Scott about his latest film, Age of Consequences, as it premieres in Toronto: ‘This is not your left-leaning hippie outfit, this is the Department of Defense saying that climate change will burden the economy.’

Age of Consequences
PF Pictures

Jared P. Scott is no stranger to the frontlines of climate change advocacy. Past documentaries he has co-directed (Disruption and Do the Math) have centred around climate change organizing, environmental degradation and power of the fossil fuel industry. In that sense, his latest film, Age of Consequences, which premiered at the Canadian International Documentary Festival, Hot Docs, on Sunday, feels like a natural succession. The film dissects the perilous impacts of climate change through the lens of national security and global stability.

The film is presented as a visual risk assessment of sorts. From the Arab Spring to the current refugee crisis to geo-political tensions in the Arctic, the film investigates the destabilizing effects of climate change through detailed case-studies. Over a year and a half, the award-winning filmmaker interviewed military personnel, Pentagon insiders and researchers who have spearheaded advocacy efforts within the corridors of the most powerful institutions in the United States.

OpenCanada spoke with Scott about the indirect link between climate change and growing security threats, environmental policy in the U.S. and the role film plays in keeping the conversation around climate change alive.

You have directed two other films on the intersection between climate change and societal tensions – why did you choose to approach the topic from a national security perspective this time? 

I feel the U.S. needs to do so much more than we're doing as a country…I think it is important for people in this country to have a better understanding of [how national security intersects with climate change]. That is not to say though that it does not apply to the national security [of] every country in the world. We understand that national security is international security. It's tough in a globalized world to pull those things apart.

Climate change is an issue I think about every day and I was trying to figure out how to have a more robust conversation about this and how we can do more to mitigate the consequences of arguably the biggest crisis since we've come out of the caves. We have made climate change films before and focused on social justice and a number of [other] important aspects that have been able to foster action and dialogue. There is something that organizers look at called the spectrum of allies; you have your active allies, passive allies, neutral participants, and then you have your passive opposition and active opposition. What we're hoping to get is not just the active allies and passive allies, but hopefully the more neutral bystanders. This is an issue that some people get, they know it is happening but they can't see and touch it; they don't understand how it really relates to their life. It isn't a tangible kind of thing; it is an esoteric environmental issue. Obviously, it is not [really], but I understand why people feel that way. I feel that way. It is this slow emergency. 

There are a ton of climate change films. There is a ton of media. At some point my eyes glaze over and you can't take anymore. We're desensitized to it; we have a certain cognitive capacity for it. So what we wanted to do was to break through that. How do we make sure the dust doesn't settle? [We wanted to] try to bring this back up and shed light on part of the conversation that is being had already and robustly in a lot of these quarters. We found this community of people that are in what I call the climate and security space. They are not your typical identified environmentalists, a lot of these people are admirals, generals, Pentagon insiders, security experts, risk assessment analyzers – they're all looking at climate change the way that the armed services often do, which is a field that doesn't award illusions. They look at data and facts. As the old saying goes, everyone is entitled to your own opinion, but you're not entitled to your own facts. So what they're doing is looking at [climate change] as a risk assessment. And that's what we also try to do in this film, to better understand what the consequences to our actions might be. In that, I think we have unpacked the forensics and case studies and then we put together a really compelling case to see this in a different way that hopefully allows others to have a framework to have a discussion that isn't being had as much as it should be. 

It was interesting to see how many high-ranking military personnel and veterans have been ringing alarm bells for a long time on this issue. The Doomsday Clock says we're at three minutes to midnight – how much trouble are we really in?

 Look, this is one of the biggest crises that we are facing. Climate change is the linchpin of all other issues. We also have to recognize that, like other planetary boundaries that we're running up against, there are a number of issues that are overlapping. It is troublesome, right? We can map it, we can look at it in a linear way and we can see that things are progressively getting worse. We can draw those conclusions – that's just forecasting. Our film is just that, we are looking at what is happening in the world right now and saying this is going to happen again. What's really frightening are scenarios which go beyond forecasting [and predict] what the future might be based on a number of factors that we can't quite experience yet in the present. From what I understand from talking to everyone in the film, I don't think we're capable of preparing for that. 

 The film illustrates the multifaceted societal consequences of inaction on climate change in a very dystopian way. In your view, what kind of action is necessary?

What we can do is adapt, become more resilient as a society, and mitigate. They go hand in hand. Mitigative measures is about radically transforming how we use and produce energy. We know that fossil fuels are the primary driver of climate change. We are paying for decisions that we have made since the Industrial Revolution. Human activity has fundamentally altered the chemical composition of not just the atmosphere and the oceans, but the whole planet. We are starting to see the ramifications of that. 

There's another discussion worth having about winners and losers. Climate change doesn't affect everyone equally – there will be better growing seasons in Russia, Canada will benefit in some ways – but we know that the global south is going to lose out, the people who are the most vulnerable are going to be the most affected. That starts to raise questions about global justice, and that's another very important conversation to have. We tried to show aspects of that in this film, but it is not a justice-oriented film, it is more of a security-oriented film.  

 What is it going to take to see that kind of drastic action? Entire coast lines of the U.S. and other developed nations going under water?

As we lay out in the film, climate change interacts with current societal tensions. It exacerbates food shortages and other socio-political factors. We're going to see a lot more intra-state conflict. I think we're going to keep seeing [new research] like the study that came out last year which quantified the fact that climate change is linked to the onset of a conflict which I think will wake people up to what we’re trying to get people to think about in this film. It may be a number of really bad events short of cataclysmic disaster that are going to need to happen before we're able to really have people wake up and see this. Though, I really hope that is not the case.

The problem with this issue is that as time goes by, the odds of us getting out of this unscathed are worse and worse. You pass a bill, get consensus...it is a whole process and there are reasons why politics moves slowly. But in terms of timing, the political time [that it takes to address climate change issues] is way too slow and often falls way too short of what we need. Even the Paris Agreement, by most estimates we are still looking at 3.5 degrees Celsius warming above the 2-degree limit. Also, it's all voluntary, I mean, Jesus. It is tough thing. The problem with these particular crises is that is it governed by a physical progress and as it keeps changing, time makes it worse. In that sense it is a unique issue because it is going to get more difficult [to deal with] and it is going to keep costing more to address it. We can't just wait for a catastrophic disaster, we have to see [the warning signs] now, we have to try and prepare for these now, [because] it is going to be increasingly difficult. As Leon Fuerth, a former national security adviser, says in the film, in any strategic system or strategy, time is the most precious resource. It is the one thing that cannot be replenished. We know climate change is happening; we know that a large part of it is irreversible and it would be a shame if we waited for cataclysmic disaster to try and act.

This is not your left-leaning hippie outfit, this is the Department of Defense saying that climate change will influence resource competition and place burdens on economies

In terms of prescriptive ways to address that, we need to dramatically change how we use and produce energy. We need to look at all of our systems – from the things that we buy to the things that we eat – that destroy our planet and stack the deck against us. We have to look at all of these [factors] and have a reckoning. There are certain legislative things we can do now, like a carbon fee (I like to avoid the word tax). It isn't crazy to think that companies should internalize their externalities. You can find people from all political persuasion and walks of life that believe in putting a price on carbon. We need to attack this on all sides. This film is really trying to bring awareness to a discussion that is existing right now in some policy circles and make sure that it is still there for the policymakers, but also providing a really compelling framework for the public to get involved. It is awareness, that galvanizing of people, [through which] a film can be a tool to hopefully get more people involved. Then we may get more public support for a carbon fee, have more people that take part in non-violent civil disobedience. This is not your left-leaning hippie outfit, this is the Department of Defense saying that climate change will influence resource competition and place burdens on economies these are the effects of threat multipliers that will create conditions that will enable terrorist activities. Now hopefully we can have a kitchen table conversation about it.

As the film highlights, today’s most pressing global issues from conflict in the Middle East to uprisings in parts of Africa are linked to the effects of climate change. Do you think we are now starting to see a shift in influential politicians’ ideology on climate change?

Every year it is getting better. This is important, and Bernie Sanders brings this up to but you have to be careful because in our sound bit driven media, people go oh, climate change is a huge risk to our national security, then they poke holes in it. It is very complicated how everything interrelates, and you have to be careful about how you explain that, but the concept is very simple: climate change makes everything worse, and will affect our national and global security. It's important that people are talking more about it. The UN has been talking about this since 2007 and beyond. And in the Security Council, not just the General Assembly. But it all comes back to time, right? We're really behind on this. 

But then again you also have Ted Cruz, who is a notorious climate change denier, running for president.

And that's really unfortunate. It's one thing if the policy solutions are politicized, there should be a robust debate. I’m not surprised that in our hyper partisan era there are a number of ideological views on how to deal with climate change, that is to be expected. But, to politicize this issue as a matter of fact or not is a tragedy. 

 Another way to look at it is to have empathy for people. It's tough and there are a lot of people out there that don't want to admit their lifestyle is unsustainable, people might say that those people don't want to admit the free market is wrong. To say to those people that, by the way, your world view is all of sudden destroying the planet. So in some ways I have empathy for that. For the average person, it is difficult to come to grips with [the fact that] we are both perpetrators and victims because at the end of the day we are all beneficiaries of fossil fuels, right? People don't want to think that driving their kids to soccer practice in an SUV is a problem. And it is easy to point to people like me and say, you're a hypocrite. How are you getting to Toronto [for the Hot Docs festival]? Are you flying? Yeah, I am. Instead of pointing the finger we should try not to villainize each other because we are all part and parcel to this problem. 

 I can see why there is a tendency to deny it. It is convenient, it is very inconvenient to accept it because when you accept something you have to deal with it. If you're ignorant you get a pass. Once you understand and see the light, what are you going to do?

How do we get people to really confront climate change without feeling helpless?

 It's tough because the solutions, the alternatives, aren't so clear. We can't pull up to just any gas station right now and choose a number of alternatives. There is this one liquid that you have to put in your car. What can you do? Right now I'm trying to lobby my building in New York to put solar panels on the roof, but that's a tough process because I rent. This is one of those things that we're going to keep fighting for a long time. There's a commitment, not just for a more participatory, democratic experience but to try to get some kind of reform implemented. You have to be cautiously hopefully, [and hold] a sense of sobering optimism that allows you to get up in the morning and keep fighting.  

And what role can film play in that process?

 For one, I think film is really the availing storytelling medium of our time. It is the way a lot of us come to understand the world around us, and we do that through stories. You could read your paper, I could read my paper, you could watch your cable news, I can watch my cable news. We can get exposed to different materials and I think it is helpful to have a film that is well researched and thought through and obviously entertaining to act as vehicle for us to have some sort of baseline to have this conversation, then interact and exchange ideas around it. That's the power of film. It brings people together.  

At the same time, I don't want to over-inflate the role of film. If this [film] provokes a huge kitchen conversation across the globe I would be over the moon, then we would have done our jobs. But the fact of the matter is, I'm just trying to play my small part and I say that humbly and without ego. 

Screenings

May 4, Hart House Theatre

May 7, Revue Cinema

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.