7 of the Best New Documentaries About Global Warming
By Daisy Simmons
"It's not easy to watch."
That was a recurring introductory remark at screenings during the recent 2020 Wild & Scenic Film Festival. Held each year in the bucolic foothills of the Sierra, the five-day festival screens more than 140 environmental films, from artful meditations on the beauty of nature, to distressing stories of people on the frontlines of climate change.
The latter category held enough short and feature documentaries to fill up an entire weekend — and more. Throughout these diverse pieces was a common probing of the disproportionate impacts of climate change on the health and wellbeing of indigenous communities, people of color, and economically disadvantaged individuals.
Several films shared intimate stories of people who have lost, or will soon lose, their homes and customs to rising seas and oil and gas development in coastal Louisiana.
Others examined hard-hit communities in fire-ravaged California, including how fire compounds other pressures of daily life for immigrant families. In one film, for example, a woman says some families she knows plan to evacuate who, in an upcoming mandatory evacuation, think they simply will drive to the coast, climb down the cliffs, and take their chances on the shoreline itself, rather than risk running into customs officers at a shelter.
Several films also criss-crossed the globe to reveal connections between, for instance, climate refugees in Bangladesh and air pollution in Texas.
But even the most sobering films contained glimmers of hope, a theme the festival organizers took great pains to nurture — from activist workshops held throughout the weekend, to simple action-oriented steps available at each screening and at booths outside, such as signing a petition.
Seven Films to Add to Your Climate Watchlist
There were too many standouts at the 18th annual environmental film festival to list here, including several "Yuby Award" winners (named in honor of the Yuba River, which the festival was launched to help protect). Following are a few highlights that exemplify the human impact of climate change, in alphabetical order:
After the Fire (18 min. documentary, see trailer below)
For some, Sonoma Valley is the glamorous wine-studded landscape we see in movies. But for real-world residents, it's just home – or, it used to be, before the recent fires destroyed their own homes. This film follows several locals as they try to rebuild not just a home but a life. For example, there's the young immigrant mom struggling to find work, because the restaurants where she'd normally work have no customers. There's the senior sculptor who's lost his life's work, along with all his family heirlooms. The only thing he has left from his mother is a potted hibiscus plant, which he nurtures tenderly. Skyrocketing rents plague both their efforts. The sculptor must move in with his daughter, and the young mother says she's had to choose between rent and food. Neither is alone: "We're all scared, whether or not we have our papers," says the mom. This is a story of loss, but also of resilience – as evidenced perhaps best by the hibiscus not just once, when it miraculously survives the fire, but again later when, with care, it begins to bloom again.
Blowout: Inside America’s Energy Gamble (79 min. documentary, see trailer below)
"We're the sacrifice zone," says a resident of Port Arthur, Texas, where soaring cancer rates have been linked to nearby oil, gas, and petrochemical development. From there, through the Panama Canal and across Asia, the film connects global oil and gas activity to human life around the world. From a family displaced by sea-level rise in Dhaka, Bangladesh, to one considering moving from hurricane-soaked Panama City, Florida, Blowout packs in data of rising emissions and temperatures without sacrificing the human side of the equation.
Available to watch online at Amazon Prime, Fire TV, Roku, Vizio, and Apple TV.
The Condor and the Eagle (82 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Punctuated by vivid animation and music, this film opens with an old prophecy, one that's been recorded by indigenous communities across the Western hemisphere: "When the eagle of the North and the condor of the South fly together, the spirit of the land will reawaken." Now, as the 21st century unfolds, we see four indigenous environmental leaders helping bring this prophecy to life, working to reduce the impacts of oil and gas production across great distances, from the tar sands of Alberta, Canada, to the Amazonian jungles of Ecuador. They come together at global climate summits and marches, returning with new insight to work in their own communities. Their work ranges from crusading against "environmental genocide" in the Amazon, to fighting toxic emissions in a Texas town where too many kids are growing up with asthma and leukemia. It's an onerous journey, but by sharing traditional wisdom and conviction, these leaders offer hope to communities well outside their own domain.
Last Call for the Bayou: Five Stories from Louisiana’s Disappearing Coastline (53 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Shot on location in the Louisiana delta, this film boasts a diverse crew of real-life characters, from the self-proclaimed "Duck Queen" fighting for wetland preservation and the mud-tasting scientist (yes, he actually nibbles mud as part of his testing), to the third generation shrimper who's running out of work, and the aerial photographer documenting environmental change. Each in their own way is grappling with Louisiana's diminishing wetlands — every hour an area the size of a football field is lost. Can they find a way to restore the coastline without sacrificing the local economy? Together, their stories show how sea-level rise is already threatening livelihoods. As the photographer ponders, hovering a thousand feet above the shrinking barrier islands in a jetpack, "One major hurricane and we'll all be looking for a new place to live."
Lowland Kids (22 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Coastal Louisiana's Isle de Jean Charles is sinking, creating the first climate refugees in the U.S. mainland. To go behind the headlines, the filmmakers introduce Howard and Juliette, aka "the last teenagers" on the island, and their uncle, who's raised them here since they were small children. They've each grown up enjoying freedom and peace here, from late-night alligator watching and water fights to quiet sunset conversations. And they're not looking forward to moving: The teenagers worry about what it will be like to have close neighbors. Chris, the uncle, has lived his whole life on the island, and mourns that "part of me will always be here, because this is where life began for me." Asked how he feels about being called one of the nation's first climate refugees, he says it's strange, and yet, with rising seas and the forced move upon him, admits he hasn't been able to find a better word.
Mossville: When Great Trees Fall (75 min. documentary, see trailer below)
Winner of the festival's Spirit of Activism award, this film explores the deeply troubling impacts of industrial petrochemical development in Mossville, Louisiana — a community founded in 1790 by ex-slave Jack Moss. For generations, people of color lived here in peace, geographically insulated from the rest of the Jim Crow South. Today, however, the southwestern Louisiana community has been "erased," replaced by massive petrochemical plants, including the nearly complete new multi-billion-dollar project projected to produce more greenhouse gases than anywhere else in the state. The toll has already been dire, with mechanic and father Stacey Ryan reporting he's lost most of his family to cancer and other health impacts he blames on the plants' toxic emissions. But the losses aren't over. The company behind the new plant has forced most residents to move out, and Ryan is unwilling to budge. The audience sees his home become a surreal holdout in an increasingly decimated landscape: The neighbors are all gone, as are their houses. His fenced-in yard is suddenly dwarfed by sprung-from-nowhere industrial roads and buildings. We watch as his power and water are shut off, his mailbox eerily poking into relentless truck traffic. And we watch as his health and vitality slowly decline, all because he refuses to give up the home his grandparents built for a plant whose greenhouse gas emissions stand to threaten far more than the homes that once surrounded it.
The Story of Plastic (94 min. documentary, see trailer below)
When people think about plastic as a problem, they often think just about its end state: as waste carelessly strewn into the ocean, killing off seabirds and other creatures tragically having mistaken the inedible trash for food. But The Story of Plastic makes a strong case for rethinking that narrative. With global reporting, archival footage, and simple storyboard animation, this Yuby-winning film presents plastic as a primary contributor to climate change throughout its lifecycle, as a carefully orchestrated byproduct industry of oil and gas production. To lay out the global impact of plastic production, the film carries viewers across the U.S. South, to Belgium, Indonesia, India and China, exposing in each place the human and climate impacts of rapidly escalating plastic production and use.
Films about real-world people struggling with the effects of climate change may not be easy to watch. But as one filmmaker said in response to the comment that her film was sad, "I personally find these stories incredibly inspiring — there are a ton of people around the world working together to address these issues — and that gives me a lot of hope."
Note: Not all of the above films are available yet online. Keep an eye out for a local edition of the Wild and Scenic On Tour program, coming soon to roughly 250 events across the U.S.
Reposted with permission from Yale Climate Connections.
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By Jake Johnson
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By Alex Thornton
The Australian government has announced a A$190 million (US$130 million) investment in the nation's first Recycling Modernization Fund, with the aim of transforming the country's waste and recycling industry. The hope is that as many as 10,000 jobs can be created in what is being called a "once in a generation" opportunity to remodel the way Australia deals with its waste.
Waste Mountain<p>The need for a dramatic increase in Australia's recycling capacity pre-dates the COVID-19 pandemic. <a href="https://www.abc.net.au/news/2019-12-27/where-does-all-australias-waste-go/11755424" target="_blank">Australians create approximately 67 million tons of waste a year</a>, and like in many wealthy countries, much of that was sent overseas. That all changed when China announced it was <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2017/10/china-has-banned-foreign-waste-so-whats-the-future-of-world-recycling" target="_blank">banning the import of a huge range of foreign waste</a> and recyclables. Soon <a href="https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/05/malaysia-flooded-with-plastic-waste-to-send-back-some-scrap-to-source" target="_blank">other countries followed suit</a>, and Australia was forced to look for alternative solutions.</p>
Biggest exporters of plastic. Statista
Waste Export Ban<p>Australia has adopted a strategy of taking responsibility for its own waste. Starting in January 2021, it is phasing in <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/waste-export-ban" target="_blank">bans on the export of different forms of waste</a>. By mid 2024, Australia's home-grown recycling industry will have to deal with an extra 650,000 tons of waste plastic, paper, glass and tires.</p><p>"As we cease shipping our waste overseas, the waste and recycling transformation will reshape our domestic waste industry, driving job creation and putting valuable materials back into the economy," federal environment minister Sussan Ley said in a <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">statement to Reuters</a>.</p>
Timeline for Australia's waste export ban. Australian Government
Trash Into Treasure<p>The benefits to the environment of boosting recycling rates are well known – less landfill, less plastic in our ocean, reduced need for virgin materials, and lower carbon emissions. The Recycling Modernization Fund initiative aims to divert more than 10 million tons of waste from landfill, part of an <a href="http://www.environment.gov.au/protection/waste-resource-recovery/publications/national-waste-policy-action-plan" target="_blank">overall strategy to reduce the total waste generated per person by 10%</a>, and push <a href="https://www.environment.gov.au/system/files/resources/7381c1de-31d0-429b-912c-91a6dbc83af7/files/national-waste-report-2018.pdf" target="_blank">Australia's total resource recovery rate from 58% in 2017</a> to 80% by 2030.</p><p>But like many countries, Australia is focusing on the economic benefits of better waste management as well.</p><p>"This will mean Australia converts more waste into higher valued resources ready for reuse locally by manufacturers and brands in their packaging and products," Rose Read, CEO of the National Waste and Recycling Industry Council, <a href="https://uk.reuters.com/article/us-australia-waste/australia-to-set-up-132-million-fund-to-boost-recycling-following-export-curbs-idUKKBN247060" target="_blank">told Reuters</a>.</p>
Green Jobs<p>The great potential of the circular economy to create green jobs is being recognized across the world.</p><p>In the UK, the Waste and Resources Action Program has launched a <a href="https://wrap.org.uk/buildbackbetter" target="_blank">six-point plan which it claims could add $90 billion to the economy, and create 500,000 new jobs</a>. Investment in the circular economy forms a significant part of the <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/07/14/us/politics/biden-climate-plan.html" target="_blank">$2 trillion climate plan that Democratic candidate Joe Biden</a> is taking into November's US presidential election. And the <a href="https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/ip_20_940" target="_blank">European Union has put its Green New Deal at the heart of its plans for recovery</a> from the economic shock of COVID-19.</p><p>The World Economic Forum's <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_The_Future_Of_Nature_And_Business_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Future of Nature and Business</a> report identifies 15 systemic transitions with annual business opportunities worth $10 billion a year that could create 395 million jobs by 2030.</p><p>As is the case with Australia's Recycling Modernization Fund, a combination of private enterprise and government investment can offer ways to get people back to work by building a more environmentally sustainable economy.</p>
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The Great American Outdoors Act is now the law of the land.
<div id="e0008" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="ffc07febbf5d2d585ad06d3f43e2be56"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1290667833999929344" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">🚨Breaking News: The President has just signed the bipartisan #GreatAmericanOutdoorsAct. It will help: 🏗️ Restore… https://t.co/RPefKPMn7S</div> — Fix Our Parks (@Fix Our Parks)<a href="https://twitter.com/FixOurParksUS/statuses/1290667833999929344">1596554165.0</a></blockquote></div>
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By Andrew J. Whelton and Caitlin R. Proctor
In recent years wildfires have entered urban areas, causing breathtaking destruction.
Survivors left everything to flee the Camp Fire's path. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Wildfires and Water<p>Both the Tubbs and Camp fires destroyed fire hydrants, water pipes and meter boxes. Water leaks and ruptured hydrants were common. The Camp Fire inferno spread at a speed of one football field per second, chasing everyone – including water system operators – out of town.</p><p>After the fires passed, testing ultimately revealed widespread hazardous drinking water contamination. Evidence suggests that the toxic chemicals originated from a combination of <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">burning vegetation, structures and plastic materials</a>.</p>
Pipes, water meters and meter covers after wildfires destroyed them. Caitlin Proctor, Amisha Shah, David Yu, and Andrew Whelton/Purdue University
Dangerous Contamination Levels<p>Benzene was found at concentrations of 40,000 parts per billion (ppb) in drinking water after the Tubbs Fire and at more than 2,217 ppb after the Camp Fire. According to the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment, children exposed to benzene for a single day can suffer <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Benzene-Levels-in-Water.pdf" target="_blank">harm at levels as low as 26 ppb</a>.</p><p>The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recommends limiting children's short-term acute exposure to <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2018-03/documents/dwtable2018.pdf" target="_blank">200 ppb</a>, and long-term exposure to less than <a href="https://www.epa.gov/ground-water-and-drinking-water/national-primary-drinking-water-regulations" target="_blank">5 ppb</a>. The EPA regulatory level for what constitutes a hazardous waste is <a href="https://19january2017snapshot.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2015-06/documents/tclp.pdf" target="_blank">500 ppb</a>.</p><p>In early 2019, California conducted contaminated water testing on humans by taking contaminated water from the Paradise Irrigation District and asking persons to smell it. The state found that even when people smelled contaminated water that had less than 200 ppb benzene, <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/resources/Dissipatiion-of-Burn-Related-VOC-From-Water.pdf" target="_blank">at least one person reported nausea and throat irritation</a>. The test also showed that water contained a variety of other benzene-like compounds that first responders had not sampled for.</p><p>The officials who carried out this small-scale test did not appear to realize the significance of what they had done, until we asked whether they had had their action approved in advance by an institutional review board. In response, they asserted that such a review was not needed.</p><p>In our view, this episode is telling for two reasons. First, one subject reported an adverse health effect after being exposed to water that contained benzene at a level below the EPA's recommended one-day limit for children. Second, doing this kind of test without proper oversight suggests that officials greatly underestimated the potential for serious contamination of local water supplies and public harm. After the Camp Fire, together with the EPA, we estimated that some plastic pipes needed <a href="https://engineering.purdue.edu/PlumbingSafety/opinions/Final-HDPE-Service-Line-Decontamination-2019-03-18.pdf" target="_blank">more than 280 days</a> of flushing to make them safe again.</p>
Plastic pipes can be damaged by heat and fire contact. Andrew Whelton / Purdue University
Building Codes Could Make Areas Disaster-Ready<p>Our research underscores that community building codes are inadequate to prevent wildfire-caused pollution of drinking water and homes.</p><p>Installing one-way valves, called backflow prevention devices, at each water meter can prevent contamination rushing out of the damaged building from flowing into the larger buried pipe network.</p><p>Adopting codes that required builders to install fire-resistant meter boxes and place them farther from vegetation would help prevent infrastructure from burning so readily in wildfires. Concrete meter boxes and water meters with minimal plastic components would be less likely to ignite. Some plastics may be practically impossible to make safe again, since all types are susceptible to fire and heat.</p><p>Water main shutoff valves and water sampling taps should exist at every water meter box. Sample taps can help responders quickly determine water safety.</p>
<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9540d7e271306ed417112042a3efc9a4"><iframe lazy-loadable="true" src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/GnlrzI1wdAI?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span>
The Smell Test Doesn’t Work<p>Under no circumstance should people be told to <a href="https://www.waterboards.ca.gov/press_room/press_releases/2018/pr122418_voc.pdf" target="_blank">smell the water</a> to determine its safety, as was recommended for months after the Camp Fire. Many chemicals have no odor when they are harmful. Only testing can determine safety.</p><p>Ordering people to boil their water will not make it safe if it contains toxic chemicals that enter the air. Boiling just transmits those substances into the air faster. "Do not use" orders can keep people safe until agencies can test the water. Before such advisories are lifted or modified, regulators should be required to carry out a full chemical screen of the water systems. Yet, <a href="https://doi.org/10.1002/aws2.1183" target="_blank">disaster</a> after <a href="https://pubs.rsc.org/en/content/articlehtml/2017/ew/c5ew00294j" target="_blank">disaster</a>, government agencies have failed to take this step.</p><p>Buildings should be tested to find contamination. <a href="https://www.purdue.edu/newsroom/releases/2020/Q1/study-your-homes-water-quality-could-vary-by-the-room-and-the-season.html" target="_blank">Home drinking water quality can differ from room to room</a>, so reliable testing should sample both cold and hot water at many locations within each building.</p><p>While infrastructure is being repaired, survivors need a safe water supply. Water treatment devices sold for home use, such as refrigerator and faucet water filters, are not approved for extremely contaminated water, although product sales representatives and government officials may <a href="https://undark.org/2019/09/19/camp-fire-california-drinking-water-carcinogens/" target="_blank">mistakenly think</a> the devices can be used for that purpose.</p><p>To avoid this kind of confusion, external technical experts should be called in assist local public health departments, which can quickly become overwhelmed after disasters.</p>
<div id="71cf9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="e059d199e8368d282a31601e372e4dda"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1204068265980547075" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">The Los Angeles City Council's Planning and Land Use Committee signed off on an effort to expand the city's fire-re… https://t.co/fP8Z8mUq7R</div> — IntlCodeCouncil (@IntlCodeCouncil)<a href="https://twitter.com/IntlCodeCouncil/statuses/1204068265980547075">1575907219.0</a></blockquote></div>
Preparing for Future Fires<p>The damage that the Tubbs and Camp fires caused to local water systems was preventable. We believe that urban and rural communities, as well as state legislatures, should establish codes and lists of authorized construction materials for high-risk areas. They also should establish rapid methods to assess health, prepare for water testing and decontamination, and set aside emergency water supplies.</p><p>Wildfires are coming to urban areas. Protecting drinking water systems, buried underground or in buildings, is one thing communities can do to prepare for that reality.</p>
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