The #DOXAfest feature documentary Running On Climate (Saturday 2 May, 5.45 pm) looks at the lengths scientists will go to highlight the dangers of climate change. While some of them, like climate scientist Andrew Weaver, will run for political office, others, like SFU professors Mark Jaccard and Lynne Quarmby, display acts of civil disobedience, often with heavy hearts.
Weaver made headlines when he was elected the first BC Green Party Member of the Legislative Assembly on May 14th 2013 in Victoria's Oak Bay – Gordon Head riding. Jaccard, Professor Energy and Materials Research, made news of a different kind, when he was arrested during a coal train blockade in White Rock in May of 2012. Quarmby, the chair of SFU's molecular biology and biochemistry department, was arrested protesting the Kinder Morgan / Trans Mountain pipeline on Burnaby Mountain in November 2014.
What unites them is the notion that scientific proof of climate change does not suffice to raise the public's awareness.
Journalist Robert Alstead, a Scot who moved to Vancouver two decades ago, wrote a monthly movie review column for Common Ground Magazine from 1993 to 2015 with a special focus on documentaries about social and global change.
Running on Climate is his sophomore, self-funded, feature-length film, after the 82-minute documentary You Never Bike Alone (2006). Consequently, much of Running on Climate was filmed on a bicycle.
"This is a special person," remembers Weaver, when asked about Alstead. "He followed us on the bike everywhere." Alstead would often commute from his home in East Vancouver to Victoria with his bike (bus and ferry rides included), carrying light gear in a backpack. He would follow Weaver planting lawn signs and "waving" at cars passing by. The bicycle enabled Alstead to swiftly move filming locations in the small riding.
Alstead spoke with RW about the making of his film:
Reel West: When & where was the film shot?
Robert Alstead: I covered Andrew Weaver's election campaign from on the eve of his nomination 18 October 2012 through to election day on 14th May 2013 with a follow up interview a year later. It's set mainly in Oak Bay-Gordon Head, which is one of the Victoria ridings. There's some campaign and protest footage in Vancouver, including oil tankers and the Kinder Morgan terminal. That's the heart of the film, but there's archive media dating as far back as the 1950s (the Keystone XL and White Rock coal train blockade footage, for example, is activist footage from 2011 and 2012). More recent footage includes interviews with SFU professor of microbiology Lynne Quarmby and the Burnaby Mountain protest, which is as recent as December 2014 and I interviewed James Leaton from Carbon Tracker Initiative in London, UK, in August 2014.
RW: How would you define the creative vision of your film?
RA: I wanted to cover the issue of climate change in a way that didn't leave the viewer at the end of it feeling like he or she had been run over by an unstoppable global catastrophe. The scientists in Running On Climate tell us the stakes are high, but it also looks at ways in which individuals - in particular scientists - are acting to help prevent catastrophic climate change through civil disobedience, running for election, or campaigning for somebody - in this case Andrew Weaver - who will highlight climate change and the need to transition to a low carbon economy. It attempts to make a huge, apparently insurmountable problem more personal and immediate through the people who are trying to make a difference. I also wanted to show what acting on climate means in terms of some of the policies (without getting bogged down in that) and in terms of organizing. I chose to focus on BC in an election year because I live here and BC is Canada's gateway for the export of fossil fuels to Asia.
RW: You interview several politicians, scientists and activists engaged in the climate justice movement. Why did you focus on Andrew Weaver as the main character?
RA: When I first heard he was running that's when I thought it would make a great documentary. Weaver has the scientific credentials to talk about climate change, having worked on four of the IPCC's assessment reports, as lead author on Working Group 1. He was running for a party that had never won a seat in its 30 year history - the BC Green Party - so there could be a little bit of history in the making. He also struck me as a passionate, articulate, man of action. After an initial telephone call and some emails back and forth he agreed to give me access to himself and behind the scenes with the campaign, which I felt was important to distinguish it from run-of-the-mill news. It was quickly apparent that Weaver is comfortable in front of a camera and comes across as a quite a charismatic and likeable fellow on screen, so that was another reason for sticking with him.
RW: Choosing a political candidate running for election with the Green Party is risky, but your gut feeling turned out to be right. What were your thoughts when the positive results for Weaver were confirmed?
By election night, I knew Weaver would win. It was really a case of by how big a margin and whether other BC Greens (in particular Adam Olsen would win a seat). I didn't know Weaver would win when I set out on the project, though after seeing Green Party of Canada leader Elizabeth May's breakthrough in 2011 in the federal election I realized that the political landscape had radically changed on Southern Vancouver Island and Weaver had a very good chance. That sense really hit home with the Victoria federal by-election in November where Green Party of Canada candidate Donald Galloway came very close in an NDP stronghold (which is why I included that in the film). A week or so before election day, a couple of schoolboys were telling me that Andrew Weaver was going to win. "How do you know?" I asked. "Because he has the most signs," came the reply.
That said, there was always a danger of an upset or surprise so I definitely felt a sense of relief when Weaver won on election night.
RW: As a journalist, you have been interested in environmental issues throughout your career. What was most surprising to you during the making of this film?
RA: The reaction to Weaver's paper in the journal "Nature Climate Change", comparing the global warming impact of the Alberta tar sands with coal. In the paper, Weaver and Neil Swart concluded that the global warming impact of the "proven" (as in economically viable) reserve amounts to 0.03C warming (although, others point out all the "oil in place" in the tar sands is the equivalent to all the carbon that we can afford to burn and would bring much more warming). The paper was a real hot potato, providing fodder for pipeline proponents and raising the ire of anti-pipeline campaigners. Running On Climate goes quite deeply into the issue of the climate impact of the tar sands, because it's such a contentious one.
RW: It's funny that after the intro montage, the first time we see Andrew Weaver in the film is in a car sequence. Why did you choose this footage to start the film?
RA: That was the most honest thing to do. That was my first meeting with him: he's driving to pick his son up at school on a typically rainy west coast fall day. It's a quotidian activity that many people will relate to and as he's driving he's introducing parts of the riding that he's grown up in and now hoping to win. To be fair he drives a small car (a "bucket on wheels" he calls it) even though he could probably afford to drive something more luxurious. It's also fairly clear from the film that, although he's passionate about the issues, he's not your stereotypical greenie (if there is such a thing).
RW: Showing films about environmental issues at film festivals visited by well-informed intellectuals could be compared to preaching to the converted. What are your plans to reach a broader audience, and, if you reach them, what is the one message you would like them to take away from your film?
RA: Climate change is pretty hard to avoid now with a constant flow of extreme weather events and records broken in the news (e.g. 2014 was warmest year on record). It impacts every aspect of our lives - health, infrastructure, economy, as well as the environment. So there's probably a growing market for this kind of documentary. We're looking for wider distribution via traditional and digital channels. We hope to reach younger audiences, because they are the ones that will inherit the political decisions of today. Hopefully, the film will reinforce that sense that they need to be a part of that decision-making process.
RW: Thank you for the conversation!
The film is followed by a Justice Forum discussion with panelists Andrew Weaver and Lynne Quarmby. Saturday 2 May, 5.45 pm at the Vancity Theatre.
It will be the first time Weaver sees the film, who says he hopes the audience will be inspired both by his personal story – a scientist without any political past manages to get elected as the province's first green MLA – as well as by his message of intergenerational equity, meaning to prevent the negative impact of climate change on future generations.
By Katja De Bock
Photos of Andrew Weaver courtesy of Robert Alstead / icycle.ca
Photo of Robert Alstead by Katja De Bock
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