Naomi Klein gained worldwide attention last year with the release of her latest book This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. the Climate, collecting glowing reviews from all corners of the environmental community, as well as from more mainstream commentators. Her focus on the key relationships between free-market capitalism and the consequential difficulty in placing significant limits on carbon emissions, as well as the grassroots battles taking place around the world by communities whose livelihoods, local environments and even health were threatened by seemingly unstoppable forces of large-scale global companies looking to dig, mine and pump for various fossil fuels, were praised for her meticulous research and accessible narrative. In a field where providing a fresh perspective feels increasingly difficult, she appeared to have successfully moved the conversation a few steps forward.
Sadly, the film version falls someway short of doing the same. Where the book was fresh, the film feels repetitive and clichéd. Where the book was well-structured and logical, the film is disjointed and disorganised. And where the book succeeded in appealing to experts and laymen alike in explaining the complicated climate science and economic processes involved in this debate, the film appears to have no idea who it is talking to. Some scenes are needlessly detailed and complex for the average cinema-goer, and yet explanations such as what the 2°C temperature limit is are far too simplistic for anyone already well-informed about the issue of climate change. Both groups are successfully alienated.
Klein’s case studies are interesting, but lacking in significant connection to justify jumping from one to the other within the same film. Organised protests by local communities in Alberta, Montana, Greece and India are inspiring, but there is scant mention of the bigger picture these isolated events are taking place within. Similarly, the immense growth in the mass production of solar panels in China, and Germany’s drive towards small-scale renewable energy generation, are both interesting, but presented with little of the critical and nuanced commentary which was so successful in her book. Understandably, this is much harder to do in 90 minutes than over nearly 600 pages, which simply begs the question whether Klein and her director husband Avi Lewis should have attempted to replicate so much of the book on film.
One element which does translate well is the constant emphasis that the argument against the uncontrolled consumption of fossil fuels isn’t all about carbon emissions and what we commonly think of as ‘climate change’. Additionally, there are the undeniably negative consequences on local people in the near vicinity of fossil fuel mining and burning plants; from the Alberta tar sand to coal-fired power stations across China and India, people are becoming sick from exposure to the toxic chemicals involved in the energy generation process. With a relentless emphasis on the plight of individual people in these locations, including visits to many homes and families, she drives home the argument that, irrespective of what impact greenhouse gases may have in the environment, the need to transition from fossil fuels can be justified on the basis of saving the qualify of life of these people alone.
The question is: will this change everything? Probably not, and Klein and Lewis would themselves probably admit they never expected as much. However, a title like this does invite the inevitable question. Sadly, although there are hints at intelligently finding common ground with opponents of climate action, even those in the ultra-conservative think tank Heartland Institute, and trying to reach sensible compromises advocating measures such as moderate transitions away from fossil fuels over a long time-frame, Klein’s unashamedly left-wing rhetoric is – rightly or wrongly – unlikely to win her many friends aside from those already in agreement. In that sense, any hope of this film changing much at all feels wildly optimistic.
The hype generated by this film, firstly off the back of Klein’s book, and secondly due to its successful showing at the recent Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), means the audience for This Changes Everything is likely to be larger and more diverse than most films about climate change, which may be significant. Therefore her message may reach new audiences in a way which could be regarded as a success. However, it doesn’t shake the feeling that ultimately this may have been something of a missed opportunity.