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Filmmaker Fights to Contain Climate ‘Monster’

For Nicolas Brown, the fight to stop the potentially catastrophic effects of global climate change is the challenge of his generation.

“For my parents, it was Martin Luther King Jr. and stopping the oppression and race problems,” he said. Climate change “is our generation’s battle.”

A globe-trotting director of environmental documentary films, Brown was in Costa Rica this week as one of his most lauded movies, the BBC film “Are We Changing Planet Earth?” was screened at the European Union Film Festival, which continues through next week in San José.

The documentary, which was followed by the sequel “Can We Save Planet Earth?”, was directed by Brown and narrated by world-famous naturalist and BBC naturefilm narrator Sir David Attenborough.

Brown, originally from the U.S. state of Colorado, lives in London and is working with the British Embassy to generate awareness around the world of global warming.

Brown is also working on a new documentary series for the BBC, “Human Planet,” which follows the highly acclaimed series “Planet Earth.”

Before leaving for his next stop in Mexico City, Brown sat down with The Tico Times to talk about global warming and Costa Rica.

He advocated Costa Rica take the lead in developing geothermal energy, tapping into the heat of volcanoes to produce abundant and clean energy. The film director, taking a break after screening his film for about 500 schoolchildren, also emphasized the importance of education.

TT: What was the reaction of the students who watched your film today?

NB: Kids recognize that climate change is important. Today, I always got the sense that they were gasping at the right places and they were moved by what was happening, obviously to things like the plight of the polar bear, but I think they also felt for the people of China.

This film is sort of an introductory film. It’s good for children. It’s not yet getting to the stage of asking what we are going to do about (climate change). It’s just asking the very basic questions of, “Is the planet changing?” and “What’s the evidence for that?” and we go into depth to show people the evidence.

We take you all around the world from the PacificIslands and the Great Barrier Reef to Amazonia, to the Arctic, to Europe and America – basically bouncing all around the globe looking at the evidence.

The evidence piles up, and then we ask the question: Are we certain that human beings are actually part of the equation, or is it just a natural thing that’s happening?

Then you start asking, are humans involved? And that is a much more difficult question to answer, and certainly a more difficult question to explain to high school students, or just even the British public.

Is the answer that humans are directly responsible for global climate change?

There’s no doubt. You don’t have to take my word for it. There’s something called the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC. There are several thousand scientists involved from all over the world and they won a Nobel Peace Prize (in 2007, along with former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, for work concluding that humans are affecting global climate change).

There are a couple of scientists that are out there that will always say, “No, humans are not involved.” But the analogy I use, and I borrow this off the senior scientist in the British government, is that if it were a football match, and you were to line up all the scientists that believe that humans are involved in climate change and you line up all the scientists that believe that humans aren’t part of the equation, it would be like having all the best players in the Premier League or the all-stars from the World Cup playing your local high school team.

You’ve heard of Oscar Arias’ Peace with Nature plan, and his goal of making Costa Rica carbon neutral by 2021. What do you think of that kind of proclamation?

I think that’s exactly the kind of proclamation we need to be making. It’s exactly the kind of thing we have to hold his feet to the fire on if we’re feeling like we’re not going to make it. It’s a very bold thing to do, but that’s what people need to do.

As I see it, Costa Rica is the country that all other countries in Latin America look towards for this kind of leadership. I know for a fact that in Brazil, Brazilians are in awe of Costa Ricans for being able to set aside large tracts of biodiversity and wilderness and get money from tourism and ecotourism and have a sustainable business in that way. So this is exactly the kind of thing that Latin American leader – which Costa Rica has to accept its position as being – needs to be doing.

And whether or not it’s realistic – I don’t know that much about the ins and outs about what needs to be done here, but I don’t think it can just be about planting trees. Planting trees is a Band-Aid, ultimately.

It’s a beautiful effort, and is very important. But ultimately what we’re talking about is the amount of carbon that cycles around from plants to trees and back to the atmosphere.

The problem is were digging down into the Earth and pumping in (to the atmosphere) a new source of carbon that took 250 million years to get down there and we’re just, within a period of 20 years or 50 years, pulling it right back up.

You have to hit it at the energy level. The thing that I’ve really been heartened by is knowledge that there’s a Canadian company working with the Nicaraguans to harness geothermal energy. And from one plant, they reckon they can provide all of Nicaragua’s energy needs five times over.

That’s exactly the kind of thing that Costa Rica needs to be doing. I think Costa Rica should crack geothermal – find a way to do it, prove it can be done and sell it to the rest of the countries in the Ring of Fire, because you’re one of the more stable countries in the Ring of Fire.

The one response I’ve gotten about geothermal is, “Oh, you know the national parks would never allow that.” You’ve got a lot of volcanoes. You could probably donate one to the future of your country, and I don’t think it would make it less of an attraction.

It could be like, “This is the volcano where we get all our power from, and in fact we actually supply all the power to several Central American countries.” I’d go see that.

That would be an added attraction, like if it were Poás. I wouldn’t feel ripped off, especially if it were a first and especially if it were something that was a Costa Rican homegrown industry that went on to change the world.

Would you say awareness about global climate change is growing very quickly?

Yeah, definitely. I think it’s phenomenal that with Al Gore’s film (“An Inconvenient Truth”) you can get people filling movie theaters.

I started making environmental films in 1990 after I graduated from college. I went to Dartmouth in New Hampshire. We used to struggle … trying to get money together for a film about the environment. And when we played it, it was a struggle to get it on (the U.S. public television network) PBS because PBS wanted money. Then, here I was back in 2006 being asked by BBC to make a film with the most famous naturalist in the world, George Attenborough, for BBC 1.

From the limited perspective that I have, people are hungry for this. Television companies are taking note.

How would you say that differs between the so-called developed world, like Scandinavia and much of Europe and the United States, and the developing world, like India, China or even Costa Rica?

I think we should never write off the developing world as not caring about the environment. If anything, many of them are much closer to their environment than we are in the urban and industrialized world. We also have to recognize that it is the poorest countries, particularly those closer to the equator, that are going to be hurt far more.

And I can see them understandably quite angry. The Tuvaluans weren’t too pleased. They’re the people whose island is sinking. When we were filming and talking to them, they weren’t too pleased that it was all these big industrial nations that have done things that have caused their island to be swallowed up by the sea.

I can only assume from the evidence that China takes it very seriously, India takes it very seriously.

The thing is, when a hurricane like Katrina smashes into the United States, it costs us a lot of money and it costs us a lot of lives, relatively. We had a little over a thousand people killed in Katrina.

What happens when Hurricane Andrew hit Central America? We’re talking about a much (bigger) magnitude. And there’s not emergency services out there picking people up in helicopters as houses are being swallowed up by mudslides. So they’re very much more affected, and then arguably more motivated to do something.

When you say scientists say we have about 10 years, that’s 10 years until … ?

The biggest driver of the climates happens to be the oceans, which is where the heat and raw energy get sunk into, as well as a lot of the carbon dioxide. Oceans have a tremendous lag, so they’re still going to be absorbing and heating up.

Say the human race just vanished right now. The world would go on heating for the next 50 to 100 years because the oceans take that long. That’s the result of what we’ve already done.

The thing about carbon dioxide is that once it’s in the system, it takes a lot to get it back out of the system. So if we don’t do something in the next 10 years, the problem is going to be so big, the probability becomes very high that we will have catastrophic climate change.

Within 10 years, if we don’t drop our emissions to a certain sustainable level, the models all tell us we’re going to have really serious catastrophic climate change. There is something a scientist says in the second film: “There are monsters behind that door. We have to do things now to make sure the monsters never come out from behind that door.”



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