For all the hysteria and finger-pointing surrounding climate change, there actually have been several solid documentaries exploring the issue’s science. Mostly lacking, though, has been sober analysis of the political will required to comprehensively address global warming given the economic challenges that poses and the conflicting agendas involved. Enter “Frontline” and producer-writer-reporter Martin Smith, who delivers a smart, concise examination of the topic — including hurdles that must be cleared before anything concrete can be accomplished. The documentary does little to assuage concerns that government and industry won’t be motivated to act until it’s potentially too late.
Smith goes well beyond shots of polar bears paddling in the Arctic, explaining why an orchestrated response has been so elusive despite overwhelming scientific evidence. Yes, there have been climate fluctuations in the past, but as glaciologist Lonnie Thompson notes, never before has the Earth been populated by 6.5 billion people.
“We are standing at the precipice of hell,” warns Indian environmentalist Sunita Narain, adding that if population-rich countries like China and India begin consuming resources the way Americans do, “then the planet is doomed.”
Fundamentally altering patterns of energy use, however, can’t be achieved overnight, and significant changes will inevitably entail goring somebody’s ox — whether it’s coal-mining states, the oil companies or the automotive industry. (Smith records a devastating exchange with an Exxon flack, blankly staring at her after a mealy-mouthed non-answer to a question about the company’s lobbying efforts using surrogate groups to deny the existence of global warming.)
Clearly, there has been little foresight associated with the problem, which explains why Detroit kept churning out bigger gas-guzzlers — and consumers kept driving away in them — ignoring previous commitments to produce more fuel-efficient vehicles.
At the same time, politics continues to skew what measures are adopted, from those pushing Ethanol to efforts to curb carbon emissions. And as Smith notes, a global recession raises legitimate economic anxiety that will “crimp governments’ ability to act and … make it more difficult for America to take the lead.”
Ultimately, “Heat” dares to be frustrating in its reluctance to provide easy answers. And if watching it makes you start feeling hot under the collar, well, better hope that’s the only reason the temperature is rising.