Beyond the climate debate

Doc Films screens Michael Nash’s internationally acclaimed documentary Climate Refugees.

By Mitchell Kohles, ’12

In October 2006 Michael Nash read a report by the UN that claimed that there were more refugees as a result of climate change than of political or religious conflict. At the time, he wasn’t sure what that meant.

“I used to think climate change was about polar bears and Iceland,” said Nash, whose documentary film Climate Refugees screened at Max Palevsky Cinema in late June.

The film bypasses the debate over the science of climate change and focuses instead on the humanitarian crisis of people forced from their homes by rising sea levels and tropical storms. “For two years, I traveled through 47 countries in search of the human face of climate change,” said Nash when he introduced the film.

Nash’s film marked the end of “Migration: Causes and Consequences,” a three-day conference organized by the Center for International Studies (CIS) and the Program on the Global Environment (PGE) in which community members and educators from various fields learned about the social, legal, and economic issues confronting climate refugees.

“They were extremely interested in the topic of migration, and the screening was the culminating event of the conference,” said Jamie Bender, assistant director for programs at CIS.

After the screening, Nash joined Koko Warner, from the UN University-Institute for Environment and Human Society, and Mark Lycett, director of PGE, in a Q&A panel discussion with the audience.

Climate Refugees has received criticism from both sides of the aisle—the right claims Nash is an alarmist; the left criticizes him for opening the film with Newt Gingrich—and the panelists discussed the state of the debate over climate change in America. Although he hoped the film would be apolitical, Nash admitted, “Honestly, I think the right is better at selling a bumper sticker than the left is at telling the truth.”

After the film debuted at the 2009 Copenhagen Climate Summit, Nash and a friend hopped into a cab just as two Chinese diplomats working at the UN entered the cab from the other side. The four men decided to split the fare and went out for dinner. Later that night, one of the men said something that Nash will never forget. “Make no mistake about it, the world is going green, and nothing would make us happier than for the US to continue having this debate for the next ten to 15 years. We’ve been trying to catch you for a century, and we’re going to blow by you in half a generation.”

Nash avoids discussing climate science in the movie, and during the panel discussion he explained why, for him, the debate doesn't matter all that much anymore. After a long day of filming in China, a man on his film crew said something cut through the political debate: “We better hope that man is causing this, because if he isn’t, how the hell are we going to stop it?”

July 14, 2011