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Burning

Year: 2021
Studio: Amazon Studios
Director: Eva Orner
Cast: Daisy Jeffrey, Tim Flannery, Greg Mullins

Not long before watching this movie I read Vaclav Smil's influential How the World Really Works, which changed the outlook I would have had on the film if I hadn't read it.

The debate around climate change seems to be full of human-scale superlatives around claims we need to do something now, we're almost too late, global warming will be unstoppable if we miss a widely publicised 2050 target that the media (and many cliamte activists) tend to treat as a Doomsday clock, etc, all spoken as if the world's going to blow up and kill us all in a few months.

And look, I'm a left winger and a climate change believer too, unlike my parents' generations and the conservatives they keep voting for who ignore the threat one generation after another (this film take particular care to put the boot into the tone deaf response by then-Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison).

So it's easy to get caught up in the almost-hysterical language we use to talk about the urgency facing us these days and feel like a clock is ticking down its final minutes, like a solar storm that's going to wipe out communications or an asteroid on a collision course.

I might have been fooled by Smil's work. He might be an uncommonly erudite and level-head conservative and climate change denier himself – not like the foaming-at-the-mouth politician or industrialist with paymasters from the coal, oil and gas industries like Morrison was. I don't think he is because he was quite up front about acknowledging that climate change was real, man made and escalating, but I might be wrong.

But as he points out, they were saying we were on the brink of catastrophe and the earth was running out of time back in the mid 1980s. I'm not suggesting we do nothing, but a system as big as climate change plays out over centuries. If it's been too late to stop it we're not going to do so now, even if we completely stop burning fossil fuels tomorrow. Things won't stabilise until our great grandchildren are getting ready to retire, maybe longer.

All of which is a way of saying that sometimes, climate hysteria and 'if we don't do something now we're all going to die'-style platitudes are a bit overzealous.

There's nothing wrong with the message of the film, but without having read a moderate assessment of climate change so soon before watching it, I didn't quite buy into the shrieking terror of it all.

The main foal point is the devastating 2019/2020 bushfires in Australia, which it chronicles as they close in on the small towns they razed like Cobargo, talking to some of the people who were there and who have unique perspectives and knowledge of the topic like former NSW fire service commissioner Greg Mullins and environmentalist author Tim Flannery.

And the science is not only solidly presented but (and I realise this runs somewhat counter to what I said above) very scary, especially when they start talking about areas that have never burned before being dry enough to go up.

Also in seeming contrast to my feeling like we can get too panicked about it all, it's among the most effective documentaries you'll watch for its power to make you feel what was going on as the people in the film experienced it.

Not just the pictures and video but the descriptions are terrifying – of the fire being so fast and ferocious it sounded like a freight train or tornado, of it being so large the smoke and heat created their own weather systems, of a smoke front rolling across a small town in midmorning that was so thick it made verything as black as midnight.

I was also struck by Daisy Jeffrey, the activist who became the public figure of a series of youth protests about climate change across the country. I have no doubt kids are scared and do have the courage of their convictions, and I've been just as frustrated as they have with the inaction of successive governments everywhere being paid for by the resources industry.

But I also couldn't help thinking about Vaclav Smil's views again, about how fossil fuels have become so entrenched in the economy because of what they provide in modern life (plastics, fertiliser) it'll be harder than most people realise to dislodge them. While these kids were marching down the street chanting, hashtagging Instagram pictures and becoming famous later on with book deals that cement how cool they are, I really wanted to ask them if they were preprared to give up everything fossil fuels have made possible (like hashtagging and Instagram).

It's a great film full of solid science, a very robust and well argued message and the tactile experience of how horrible it must have been like to try and live through it, but (and I'm not suggesting there's any debate about climate change science) it represents a lot of the narrow shrillness of left-leaning climate debate that need to be measured with views that aren't just about being rebellious or making you sound like Chicken Little.

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