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4 Must-See Climate Films in 2017

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Photo credit: To the Ends of the Earth

By Daisy Simmons

When climate denial and "alternative facts" pervade the body politic, it's time to zoom in on the science. Climate change is real and its effects are already visible—even more so when you can see them play out on the big screen.

The 15th Wild and Scenic Film Festival, in Nevada City in January, was rife with such evidence. Unlike most film festivals put on by big production companies, this one is produced by a nonprofit environmental organization called South Yuba River Citizens League—and powered by 700 of its volunteers. The organizers' passion is clear and so is their intent: to inspire audiences to take action on the challenges facing our planet. With climate change at the top of that particular list and 120 films running over the course of a weekend, it's safe to say this reviewer faced no shortage of opportunity to sit back, relax and learn.

From the gravely sobering, to the relentlessly hopeful, to the darkly comedic, this year's standout climate-related films showcased the range of feeling one might have about climate change. A few themes ran through each, however. Several pointed to a need for a complete transformation of the economic system, connecting the dots between energy, economy and environment. They also highlighted major momentum in the renewable energy sector. But most fundamentally, they went to the experts for the facts, then wove together compelling narratives to bring climate science—and action—to life.

Following are four recommendations for provocative, intelligently made films that can make audiences think, feel and act.

1. The Age of Consequences (Jared P. Scott, U.S. 2016)

This harrowing yet dispassionate story opens with stark footage (like this) of soldiers scrambling out of trenches, some to, some away from the mushroom cloud rising in the distance—a fitting introduction for a film that suggests we are already perilously close to a new order of global disaster. From there, tension is sustained throughout, as some of our nation's highest ranking military and State and Defense Department leaders walk us through eight concrete ways in which climate change is emerging as a grave threat to national security.

Graphically illustrating how years of unprecedented drought have contributed to the rise of radicalization in Syria, Afghanistan and Sudan, as well as catastrophes yet to come, such as sea-level rise and mass displacement in Bangladesh, the film lays bare the implications for global conflict. It also shows the vulnerabilities at home, from Katrina to Superstorm Sandy's crippling effects on New York City, to projections that the world's largest military base, in Norfolk, Virginia, is on track for frequent flooding as soon as 2040.

The film traverses the world and the offices and libraries of major military leaders to show the cascading impacts of climate-related disasters like extreme weather, drought, sea-level rise and food shortage on other pressures … like poverty, conflict, capacity issues and migration, all together making existing vulnerabilities even more fraught.

Throughout, we learn the many ways that leaders like former Secretaries of State Madeleine Albright and George Schultz and Marine Brigadier General Stephen Cheney have worked to call attention to the deep connection between security and climate change. And yet their warnings have often fallen on deaf ears, because some people still don't accept that climate change is happening.

In what may be the film's most memorable comment, former army officer and artillery tank driver Michael Breen points out that if 99 percent of intelligence experts told him there was an ambush ahead, he would listen—he wouldn't say there was a 1 percent chance of no ambush. In this age of consequences, the film suggests, we cannot afford to ignore the vast majority of scientists' warnings. And yet, Breen later argues, we're not even engaging in the first line of defense.

The story ends with a call to action. Just as the precise future of climate change impacts is unpredictable, so too is the human potential to rise to the challenge. Wrapping up with a veritable PSA for renewables and for programs that connect veterans with clean energy jobs, the film closes with the reminder that there is still time left to act. And time is the one resource we can't replenish.

What now? Watch the trailer. Read The Tropic of Chaos, which outlines the convergence of poverty, violence and climate change; and or the Union of Concerned Scientists' report on sea rise and naval bases. Learn about the Solar Ready Vets project.

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The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.

"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.

The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.

"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."

The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.

"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."

Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.

Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.

That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.

Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.

If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.

"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."

To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.


"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."

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