By Ray Pierrehumbert
2 April 2013
(RealClimate) – 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. [more]