‘This Changes Everything’ Director Avi Lewis On Why He’s Disappointed With President Obama On Climate Change

'This Changes Everything' Director Avi Lewis
Courtesy CDI

Canadian director Avi Lewis’s climate change-themed documentary “This Changes Everything,” made in tandem with the eponymous best-seller by journalist and activist Naomi Klein, who is his wife, launched from the Toronto film festival in September. It has since screened around the world in the run up to climate change conference which opened today in Paris. Lewis recently spoke to Variety after a special screening at the Italian Chamber of Deputies in Rome.

We’ve seen documentaries that ring alarm bells about global warming before. What struck me about “This Changes Everything” is what it shows about global activism against it. Was that the main thrust of your piece from the outset?

Yes. Social movements give you an opportunity to zoom in and actually enter the lives of people that have huge stakes in an issue. From a cinematic point of view I think it’s a critically important zone to focus on. Then from a political point of view, it just so happens that this is a very interesting moment in the climate movement: we had the kind pre-Copenhagen climate movement 1.0, which was really about big environmental groups inside the beltway trying to influence policy and policy-makers. And that approach largely failed. But now you are starting to see this really interesting phenomenon of place-based struggles around the world – the film profiles a number of them – where people are defending their land and air and water against the fossil fuel industry and other industrial threats. Naomi and I felt that in the five years we’ve spent researching this project that there is real momentum in this model of social movements fighting local struggles and joining up with others and using victories to leverage policy victories.

You make a point of showing President Obama boasting about the millions of miles of new gas and oil pipelines his administration has approved. But Obama has since launched his Clean Power Plan. Isn’t he also contributing to the cause?

The United States under Obama has become the number one oil producer in the world, surpassing Saudi Arabia, because of shale oil and the massive increase in drilling that Obama has authorised. This is not a well understood part of Obama’s legacy. A lot of people have sort of said: ‘hasn’t he had a change of heart!’. I respectfully disagree. This was the president who in his victory speech said this was the moment to start slowing the rise of the seas. He always understood the urgency of climate change. At the same time he is also a deeply pragmatic politician who announced from day-one and pursued until this day an “all of the above” energy strategy involving massive increases in fracking and offshore and onshore drilling as well as climate action. But you can’t have it both ways; the science is really clear: there is only so much carbon we can burn and have a chance of avoiding catastrophic climate change.

Do you see climate change as an issue in the current U.S. presidential campaign?

I think Obama is doing some good things in the twilight of his presidency and he’s shifting the conversation. I think the Republican denial is starting to crack. The latest polling does show that the majority of Americans really do understand that this [catastrophe] is real, and that we are causing it. You see on the Democratic side that the phenomenon of Bernie Sanders is really pushing Hilary Clinton to take really stronger positions on climate, because they are reflecting their base. And I think that’s pretty exciting.

Since the Toronto world premiere how has “This Changes Everything” been contributing to the cause?

We set out a very ambitious distribution timeline because of the Paris climate conference. So, after premiering on September 13th we basically saw the rest of the time until the summit as our entire launch window which uses all platforms. In most territories around the world we’ve had a brief theatrical launch, followed immediately by digital and in many cases community screenings at the same time. In North America, five weeks after launching at TIFF we had special event screenings in seventy theatres across the United States. On the same day we launched exclusive on i-Tunes, and also opened it up for community screenings across the country. I’m not sure if anyone has done that before. We work with a great distributor in the U.S. called Abramorama and they’ve been willing to take a risk and embrace a new model. In the three weeks after we made it available for community screenings in most countries in the world we had more than 1,000 requests for community screenings from 25 countries and our sales agent, FilmBuff, is servicing them directly.

In the documentary you point out this paradox that climate change deniers are the only ones who really understand what the fight against it really entails.

Naomi got interested in the phenomenon of denial in the United States. When she started looking into the think tanks that were really the biggest megaphones for climate denial it struck her like a lightening bolt that really dealing with the climate crisis is going to require a fundamental challenge to the economic logic of our time. And the only people who really understand that are the climate deniers. Because they understand that if you really want to deal with the seriousness of this crisis with the urgency that science demands, we need massive government regulation; we need huge increases in public spending; we need an energy system run in the public interest, not the private interest. In other words it’s Milton Friedman’s nightmare. But for those of us on the Left it offers the possibility of actually addressing injustice and inequality that is the hallmark of our economy in the way that we respond to the greatest existential threat we’ve ever faced.

 There are a lot of celebrities involved in the production: Alfonso Cuaron is one of the producers, and Danny Glover and Pamela Anderson are also listed in the production credits. How did that happen?

Alfonso is a special case in that he has been a friend for years and has been on board from the beginning. Initially he just let us use his name for fundraising, but eventually got really involved in the creative process. The others are mostly a new relationships for us, and to be totally honest they reflect Naomi’s Twitter feed. One day Naomi told me that Pamela Anderson retweeted her a lot. When I got in touch with Pamela she was really knowledgeable on the subject of pipelines. I think it’s a reflection of a growing consensus on climate: celebrities are citizens too and we are all kind of feeling like the political class is not responding with the urgency that we know is required.

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