Streaming Spotlight: climate change documentaries

Seven films to check out for Climate Week

by Jennie Kermode

Even today, when ships can sometimes sail across the North Pole unimpeded and we’ve seen Australians huddle together at the edge of the ocean enveloped in smoke from the burning bush, there are still people who doubt that man-made climate change is real, whilst others recognise reality but feel powerless to do anything about it. Film can make a difference to this. At the close of Climate Week 2020, we’ve picked seven of the best documentaries you can watch from home to improve your understanding and help you make a difference.

An Inconvenient Truth
An Inconvenient Truth

An Inconvenient Truth - Amazon Prime

The first really big climate change documentary, Al Gore’s investigation of the science underlying global changes, directed by Davis Guggenheim, was a revelation for many viewers. After a decade or more during which the general public encountered little more than vague speculation on the subject, it works through issues one by one, delineating the supporting evidence in a rigorous yet accessible way. Clearly a lifelong science nerd, Gore makes a surprisingly charming presenter, very different from what the dryness of his past political style had led viewers to expect. Although some of its stats are now out of date and some predictions have, alas, already come true, there’s still a good deal in this film that will enlighten and inspire.

Chasing Ice
Chasing Ice

Chasing Ice - Google Play

Few physical signs of climate change are quite as dramatic as melting glaciers and the loss of polar ice. National Geographic photographer James Balog spent years of his life trying to catalogue this process and director Jeff Orlowski tells his story in this film, as well as showing us some of the dramatic footage that Balog has captured. Images of calving ice sheets look like islands wilfully ripping themselves apart and will strike you with as much awe as any blockbuster thriller. Taking in the challenges of working in hostile environments and of trying to get people to understand what the images mean, the film benefits from Balog’s charismatic presence and balances the enormity of its subject with his one-man-against-the-odds story.

The Island President
The Island President

The Island President – Amazon Prime

Amber Wilkinson writes:- For some nations, climate change is something that they consider in the abstract but in the case of the Maldives - a group of about 2000 islands that lie just 1.5 metres above sea level - the problem is lapping at the doorstep. Jon Shenk's 2011 film comes at the problem from the perspective of the then-president of the country, Mohamed Nasheen, as he tried to get the world's attention at the Copenhagen Climate Summit back in 2009. Although time has moved on and the debate has become more urgent since, this is worth seeing, not just for its consideration of environmental change but for it's scrutiny of the fragility of democracy in the Maldives, a topic that has also increased in global relevance since.

Cooked: Survival By Zip Code
Cooked: Survival By Zip Code

Cooked: Survival By Zip Code - Amazon Prime

If you think that climate change is something that only affects people in low-lying places close to the ocean, think again. It’s not just flooding and ecological disruption that can turn lives upside down. Heat itself can kill. In the city, it’s the poor who die first. Judith Helfand started making this film after learning about the Chicago heatwave of 1995. Given that it had killed at least 739 people, why couldn’t she remember it? The impact of a heatwave is very different if you can afford air conditioning, open your windows without fear of crime, or travel away from the affected area. Here she looks at the impact of poor urban planning and questions the way that politicians hide behind claims that individuals should take more responsibility when they simply lack the power to do so. She also asks why increased mortality in some areas over time is not treated as seriously as it would be if those deaths were sudden.

Anote's Ark
Anote's Ark

Anote's Ark - Amazon Prime

Like The Island President, this film explores the impact of climate change on a small community forced to reckon with it abruptly. The archipelago of Kiribati is a tropical paradise, but according to expert predictions, within just a few decades no part of it will be left above the waves. The islanders have bought land in Fiji but to move there would be to risk surrendering their sovereignty and unique culture. In the face of this, some of them are looking at building an Ark – a technological solution, a new island of their own. Some people resent the battle against climate change because it requires them to start doing things differently, and perhaps they will find something to relate to in Matthieu Rytz’s film, which focuses on the plight of other people who wish their lives could go on as they did in the past. It also looks at what migration means when there is literally nowhere to return to.

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch
Anthropocene: The Human Epoch

Anthropocene: The Human Epoch - Amazon Prime

One of the things that makes climate change so difficult to tackle is the sheer scale of it. It can easily make human beings feel overwhelmed, powerless to act – and if you don’t already, the first half of Jennifer Baichwal’s documentary may well invoke that feeling in you, with its shocking examples of industrialised environmental destruction. What’s important, then, is to see how people are taking positive action both to undo some of the damage that the environment has suffered and to find new ways of living with the changes. In contrast to the dehumanising character of thee first half, the latter part of the film focuses on these small, personal stories, pitting the work of humanity’s constituent parts against its mass.

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth To Power - Amazon Prime

Made 11 years after its predecessor, Al Gore’s second venture into climate change filmmaking, this time made with directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, looks at how much – and how little – has happened in the intervening time. Though not as strong a film overall, it still has a lot to say, and moves beyond the immediate concerns of evidencing that climate change is real to look at its contribution to natural disasters, famines and civil unrest. The score and some aspects of the shooting style are over the top but Gore himself is as impressive – and as energetic – as before. Addressing the impact of the Donald Trump regime’s early stripping back of environmental protection regulations and defunding of science, it makes its case powerfully, and Gore noted at Cannes that film remains one of the best tools for doing that.

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