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Charles Ferguson finds climate peril and possible hope in 'Time to Choose'

Air pollution in some parts of China is at a crisis level, as noted in the documentary,
Air pollution in some parts of China is at a crisis level, as noted in the documentary, "Time to Choose."
Representational Pictures

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No one can blame Charles Ferguson for being pessimistic.

The documentary filmmaker has analyzed the military-industrial complex in "No End in Sight" and looked behind the curtain of economic collapse in "Inside Job." But even after completing his newest film, "Time to Choose," which took him to five continents to study the causes and effects of climate change, he still sees room for hope.

"There has been an enormous amount of progress in our understanding of both the problem, and the things we can do to solve it," Ferguson said. "So if we care enough, and if we get our collective act together, we can address climate change — solve it, stop it and, in fact, the world would be better for it."

The Frame's host John Horn sat down with Ferguson at the Telluride Film Festival to discuss the film, what he learned about climate change, and where he sees progress.

Interview Highlights

It’s probably a little facile to describe this as a documentary about climate change, because it’s really not. That’s kind of the organizing theme, but it’s also about agriculture, it’s about transportation, it’s about education, it’s about access to electricity. As you were starting to work on the film, did those ideas present themselves? In other words, did the scope of the film grow as you started your research into unexpected directions?

It did grow. It grew enormously to an extent that was at first quite scary. And then afterwards, it turned out to be quite revealing. I had not understood — before I undertook to do the research for, and then make, this film — how deeply connected the forces were that are causing climate change to many other problems that plague us in the world. And I came to realize that, in fact, the same things that are causing climate change are also deeply connected to economic inequality, political corruption, to our health, our personal health through our diet and, of course, to many environmental problems, including, but not limited to, air pollution.

It’s clearly very important to you that this film look good. There’s a lot of footage shot from airplanes, I suspect some footage shot from drones. How important as a filmmaker was it to present this film in as beautiful a way and also as horrifying a way as possible, visually?

It was very important to me. When I was making this film, I found myself quite awed by the magnitude of the subject, by the magnitude of the stakes, and by how beautiful the world [is]. And not just the natural world, but also the world that we have constructed. I find cities beautiful, and architecture, and many of the best things that we have created as the human race will disappear if we don’t deal with this problem. And I felt that it was very important to convey the beauty of the world and how much we would lose if we don’t deal with this.

There’s a lot of evidence in the film about how governments treat people and the environment, usually not favorably. There’s a lot of corruption, a lot of lack of attention for how their behaviors are affecting the climate. Did you get any interference from countries or corporations as you were making this film that interfered with your journalism?

We did get some, and we avoided a lot by filming covertly. All of our filming in Indonesia was covert and illegal. Indonesia is not a nice country, at least its government is not a nice government. A foreigner filming in Indonesia without a journalism visa is committing a crime punishable by five years in prison. And when I was filming in Indonesia, two French journalists were on trial for this crime and were convicted. In addition, aerial filming in Indonesia requires military escorts, and it requires permission of the people that own the land that you’re flying over, and needless to say ...

I don't think you had that permission, did you?

We did not have that permission.

Tell me about that plane trip.

That plane trip was extraordinary. First of all, we couldn’t get in for four days, because the smoke caused by burning season was so severe, it closed all of the airports in the region. The smoke was so severe it caused severe air pollution all over Singapore and Malaysia, hundreds of miles away. And when we were able to fly in and land, it was in conditions that, I guarantee you, would never, never be permitted in the United States or Europe. Not only would you never fly a plane in those conditions, but the National Guard would be out. It was unbelievable. I had never seen anything like it, and I hope never to again. So we were able to fly because of connections to somebody who owned an airline — I’m not going to say more — and we were able to fly using false flight plans that we filed, and, you know, we gamed the system.

We were able to fly and we rigged this plane with cameras, and I was in the plane. And people had told me about palm oil and deforestation, and told me that it’s quite scary and vast and shocking. But I had never really seen it before. And when I took that airplane flight, my mind was blown. For hundreds of miles, you just see devastation. Hundreds of miles. And then you see these palm oil plantations, and then you see the fires, and then you see the smoke, and then you see the logging.

You visited a lot of countries in researching this film. There are some that are doing incredible work about renewable energy. Who, in your mind, is at the top of that list?

Well, if the state of California were a nation, then it would be California. I am enormously, deeply impressed with Governor Brown and with Mary Nichols, who’s also in the film, who is in charge of implementing these policies and with the other people who are doing this in California. The other region is Northern Europe. Northern Europe is tremendously impressive. Germany has a political problem with a very powerful coal industry but, even so, is moving rapidly towards renewable energy in its electrical grid. All of Scandinavia — Holland, Denmark — very, very impressive places.

The film is very specific about steps that governments and huge multi-national corporations can take to improve their climate behavior. But on an individual level, are there things you learned that changed the way you live your life and the kind of things that you do on a daily basis that for people who watch the movie are actually attainable?

There are. For example, I live in Northern California, and about a year ago I purchased an electric car. And when I go back to California in about a year or two, I plan to get solar power on the roof of my house.

If I don’t have the means to buy an electric car, or I don’t own a house in which I could put solar cells, what can I do as somebody who might live in an apartment, who’s working-class? Should I stop eating food that has palm oil in it? 

Well, yes, try not to use palm oil, and you’ll find that a surprising number of things use palm oil. Depending on what your situation is, talk to your landlord about getting solar power on the roof of your apartment building. This is actually a large problem, the issue of the people who rent but don’t own, and the owner doesn’t care, and the owner doesn’t pay the electric bill, and so on. But there are laws that are starting to address this. If you can’t afford an electric car yet, then maybe get a hybrid, maybe try to live in a place where you can bike or walk to work, or you don’t have to drive as much. Try to eat organic food when you can and, of course, where you stand depends on where you sit. There are people who will watch this film that own businesses and can put solar power on the top of their factory. There will be people who watch this film who will be mayors of cities. There will be many different things you can do depending on where you live.


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