Anyone with a Netflix queue has access to more doomsday documentaries about climate change than they’ll ever have the time — or patience — to watch. It would be easy to group Time to Choose, the new film from Charles Ferguson, who won an Oscar for 2010’s Inside Job, into that fatalistic lot (an algorithm inevitably will), but the film amounts to a different sort of statement. Optimism sets it apart. Narrated by a very tranquil Oscar Isaac, Ferguson’s documentary spends more time documenting the technologies and processes we’ve created to save ourselves then dwelling on our myriad means of self-destruction. This is a film about a convenient, but deeply unnerving truth: We have agency.
Ferguson talked to Inverse about why big business and green energy can be friends, his strategy for dealing with climate change naysayers, and why driving a Tesla Roadster doesn’t get old.
What makes right now the “Time to Choose”?
That seems to be what everybody involved in this issue believes, and I’ve come to agree with them. This is a very urgent problem and we have a very short period of time in which we can change course to avert what could be a very, very catastrophic situation for our planet. But at the same time, we also now, for the first time, have the ability to address these problems.
Could you elaborate? What could we do now that we couldn’t do five or 10 years ago?
Many things. The progress that’s been made with regards to renewable energy technology and battery technology has been truly extraordinary. Both wind and solar power right now are maybe 80 percent or 90 percent less expensive than they were a decade ago. There’s considerable progress with batteries for electric cars as well. There’s also been a lot of progress in sustainable agriculture. Now, sustainable technologies are broadly competitive or soon will be broadly competitive.
What sets your documentary apart from the other documentaries that have been made? So many of the climate change opponents have grown deaf to the cries of advocates, so it seems like a new approach is needed.
I tried to be inclusive and universal and non-ideological and non-political. The film covers many nations and geographies and many different personal circumstances. I tried to avoid making ideological or dogmatic statements about what kind of economy, what kind of political system worked. I think that people who deny the existence of climate change are already in the minority; I think that that particular battle is being won, and soon will be won for many different reasons. I’m not too concerned about that. I do think that’s important to appeal to individual self-interests as well as their general principles — I tried to do that, to show that the same things that cause climate change also cause many other immediate problems. Dealing with climate change doesn’t have to destroy your life or impoverish you. In fact, it can make your lives more pleasant, and longer, and healthier.
Your point about individual self-interest comes across in the somewhat neutral stance you have on big businesses. They bear much of the blame for getting us into the climate change mess, but now that solar and wind energy are lucrative, they might also save us. Is this the point you were trying to get across?
It’s not necessarily that they’re going to save us, but they could make a positive contribution. And I was also trying to make the point that these are major profit-making businesses; they don’t do things that are financially suicidal. They’re doing this on a very large scale, which suggests that these technologies are not economically disastrous.
Your film suggests that developing nations that don’t have electricity now might sidestep coal and gas dependence altogether and adopt solar energy right off the bat. Is it feasible to believe these practices will be adopted on a wide scale?
Yes! I’m very optimistic about that. These issues are complicated. It turns out that the kind of thing that works for residential household solar power in a place like Kenya is not quite as easily or thoroughly useable in industrial contexts — to run a production company, you can’t just use the same kinds of individual rooftop solar panels. But that aside, there are solutions that work for that part of the economy, too. It will be an enormous step forward for, say, Bangladesh and Africa to be able to use that kind of solar power. It’s coming extremely quickly. At the current growth rate of that industry, in another 5 years, certainly within 10 years, everybody in Africa and everybody in South Asia will have electricity for the first time in their lives. And that’s an astonishing thing.
How did you decide on Oscar Isaac to narrate your film?
We wanted to have someone who had an awareness of these issues, which he does. We just thought it would be kind of cool to have somebody that was younger and just becoming well known. We thought of approaching senior people — Robert Redford and others — and more power to them, and they’re obviously eminent, prominent people, but we just thought it’d be cool to have someone a little younger, a little hipper, a little more plugged into the way younger people are thinking about these questions.
What do you hope Americans viewing your film will do right after seeing it?
Americans can do several things, ranging from what organizations they can join, what political candidates they can support, to individual lifestyle choices — how much meat they eat, what their diets consist of, whether they live in the city, and whether they live in a way that permits them to walk and bicycle around, what kind of car they purchase, whether they get solar power in their house.
What measures have you incorporated into your own life?
I already didn’t eat very much meat, but now I don’t eat meat at all. I got myself an electric car; I must confess that I spent the money on a bourgeois electric car because I like fast cars. It’s a Tesla Roadster. My wife has a different car; the other one is a very boring, useful hybrid.
I’m guessing a Prius?
Going forward, we might need to give up dreams of driving flashy, super-fast cars in general, for the sake of sustainability.
That’s not true at all! I’m really happy to report electric cars have much better acceleration than internal combustion engines. We’ll be able to have a lot of fun with electric cars.