Climate Hustle is an independently produced documentary feature from self-proclaimed investigative journalist Marc Morano, who seeks to expose the truth about climate change science, which Morano and his collection of talking heads believes is a hoax perpetrated by the country’s liberal political figures. Remember your reaction to this sentence. I’m going to ask you to come back to it.
A few days earlier, I had come to this theater and there was a goose near the bushes by the front door, menacing anyone who approached her like some winged sentinel.
The movie I’m here for isn’t listed on the matinee or the box office bulletin.
“Are you showing…” I don’t know why I hesitate.
“Climate Hustle?” the young man asks expectedly from behind the glass. He’s maybe 17 years old and his tone is completely void of affectation.
“Yeah, I’m reviewing it,” I offer. I have no idea why I feel the need to offer an excuse.
And I’m not reviewing it. This isn’t a review. Let’s call it an exercise in understanding.
He sells me a ticket, which costs five dollars more than a standard movie and I immediately wish I had researched to know where the film’s profits are going.
“Theater seven, inside and to the left.”
There’s a couple walking ahead of me who seem to be about 45 or 50. I heard the ticket taker give them the same directions and I am a little disappointed that my hope for an empty theater is already ruined. This would have been a great live tweet scenario.
I had just heard about this “special event” a few days earlier, when a short advertisement played before my showing of The Jungle Book, teasing the involvement of Sarah Palin and Bill Nye the way a club DJ might hint at a freestyle battle between Eminem and Aesop Rock. Or, maybe more accurately in this case, between Eminem and Ben Stein. See, I’m already showing my bias. That’s why I can’t review this film.
Given the generic-ness of that pre-movie advertisement and the near complete absence of advertisement outside of the theater, it seemed like the one-night-only Climate Hustle showing (with a special follow-up panel discussion featuring Sarah Palin and “comments from Bill Nye”) might be the kind of thing that would draw low attendance.
But then when I take my obligatory restroom trip, I find an older gentleman talking to himself at the urinal and laughing at the sink and… well, call me an asshole if you must, but it seems a safe assumption he and I are heading to the same place.
There’s no sign over the door to the balcony theater showing this strange new manifesto. For a moment, my counter-paranoia gets the best of me and I think of how secretive this feels. The absence of the film from all the appropriate advertising spaces, the extra five dollar fee, the unmarked theater, the geese keeping guard. It’s almost like finding the Fight Club of willful ignorance and mindless conspiracy theories.
I’m 17 minutes early and when I walk in, one-quarter of the seats are taken. I sit where I always sit. A few rows back from the screen and in the center. I pull my collar around my face like my North Face is a trench coat and I’m a spy in a dime store novel.
Before Climate Hustle starts, there are no previews, just this awkward extended featurette in which the Climate Hustle filmmakers pat their own backs, speak to how funny their film turned out to be, confess the danger of making “all of this science” palatable to laypeople, and, most prominently, trumpet their courage for having made this film. Propaganda about how good the propaganda is, I guess.
As this plays, more people pour in. I expect mostly angry middle class men but I’m wrong. The only constant quality of all the attendees is that they’re all white. Make of that what you will.
A father with his teenage son sit at the end of my row. Then enter some husbands and wives, more fathers and sons.
The self-comedian from the restroom walks in with a seat cushion, a large popcorn, a large drink, a bag of candy. He’s struggling to sit with all these things and when I offer to help, he chirps a harsh “No!” and that marks the only point of the evening in which he elects brevity.
There’s a mom accompanied only by her maybe four year old daughter who looks up at me as she passes and I try to figure out how to make my eyes say, “Always read all books.”
Two muscle bound 20-somethings sit behind me and, I swear, they bump fists as one of them says, “Bro, I’m just so happy to see this many people here that care.”
I want to ask them, in this exercise, what exactly is there to care for? Aside from being given the freedom not to care about a very significant issue. But, I’m not doing that. One, I mentioned that they were muscle-bound. Two, I have no intention to protest, but I’ve seen what happens to ideological opponents at Trump rallies and I know Trump supporters and climate change deniers are not a 1-to-1 match but I am not willing to risk measuring the gap in that Venn Diagram. And three, I’m the last person with whom this crowd wants to share attendance. Not because I’m a liberal (though, I think most people would say I am), but more so because, even though I’m 32, I still feel like a reluctant runaway from my home energy state, watching from the outside in as people like Marano unabashedly muddy the environmental issues in ways that make the region more hopelessly chained to a sinking industry. So I pretty much sit on my hands and hold my face forward, denying the urge to shake my head or let it collapse in frustration. Stillness as a form of protective yoga.
As strange as it is to for me to discuss a movie by observing its attending crowd, there really is no other way for me to analyze its value other than through its existence as a cultural artifact rather than a work of art. Certainly, I promise, the film and its makers would prefer I not discuss its cinematic value, with its hokey-ass literal checklist structure, its charmless host, its PowerPoint presentation-quality swipe cuts and graphics, its cow fart comedy (again, literally), its quarter-baked scientific evidence, etc. etc. I can’t imagine anyone who has seen more than five documentaries gauging this as “one of the good ones.” The only thing worth discussing about this film is the reaction from its pointedly chosen audience.
And this audience is the most expressive I’ve sat with in a long, long time.
When the movie shows a collage of climate change scientists articulating their warnings, the screen appearance of one particular older scientist leads someone in the theater to announce “There he is. I got into a fight with him.”
Throughout the movie, a smarmy actor randomly pops up in the bottom corner of the screen and pantomimes expressive over-reaction and the crowd loves this device. Some even applaud it.
Most of Climate Hustle is structured atop of and around clips of An Inconvenient Truth. One segment shows Al Gore’s now-famous Carbon Dioxide/Global Temperature comparison line graph with its seemingly terminal contemporary end spike and someone loudly proclaims, “It’s Gore’s IQ chart.” Folks laugh along, even though the joke would suggest that Gore is an upward trending genius. No matter. The tone was insulting. That’s enough. If integrity and sense mattered to this mission statement, none of us would even have a movie to watch.
Doubling up on the dizzying absurdity of this particular exchange, the host pulls the chart back through millions of years, potentially hundreds of millions (long before civilization, at least, if not long before humans) in order to prove that these spikes have in fact occurred before on our planet. It all happens too quickly for anyone to note when these last poisonous eras occurred or to realize that this counter-evidence destroys the common Young Earth creationism theory that our planet is only a few thousand years old. “Is this the tale that Al Gore is letting wag the dog?” Morano surmises with unearned condescension before calling a dog into the near solid-black frame. The crowd chuckles at the crack without even bothering to observe that the dog is almost as dark as the screen behind him and virtually undetectable were it not for the wagging tale against the host’s arms.
The nearly invisible dog, incidentally, is my favorite part of the movie.
And while there is no strong science in the film, there are plenty of examples of science dismissal posing as science. Climate Hustle harps on the low ratio of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere and the small impact that man has on that carbon dioxide level, which is a point that climate change scientists, as I understand it, readily concede in their insistence that climate and its influencers make for a complex system. The movie rings all the familiar bells. What about the sun and volcanoes? Consensus denied that the solar system was heliocentric before Galileo! If it’s global warming, why is there so much snow? A baseless comparison even equates climate change with phrenology. I couldn’t make that up. All of these trademark points get vocal “Mhms” and “Yeps” from the crowd.
And then there’s the exasperated headshakes at dozens of times that the movie discusses “left science” or “science on the left.”
Climate change, as science and not a talking point, isn’t political. Science, that is, consensus data obtained through the scientific method and observation of the geological and fossil records, can not be political. The dissenters of the “climate change narrative” like to press upon the point that science should never be uncontested, it should never be dogma. Which is true, but it doesn’t mean that the dismissal and exclusion of inadequate contesting points is a form of oppression or religious expulsion. The pursuit of scientific knowledge, but particularly the pursuit of such violently necessary knowledge, can only slow to prove its integrity against viable counterpoint. Climate Hustle ain’t that. Science is susceptible to better science, and, were the contending science better, their science would not be expelled.
But Climate Hustle isn’t aiming to create or improve science. Its ambition isn’t even intellectually curious. It’s clear in its closing chapter that Climate Hustle has three goals: to obfuscate existing scientific thought, to stand up a dark and imposing enemy, and to heighten fear of this mean, oppressive strawmen. “We will not let them win this,” is the central thesis, but we is the only pronoun in the thesis that has a concretely assumed antecedent. We is the viewing audience, connected by their presumed political affiliation. In that sense, the film is just propaganda (which can not be usefully reviewed, right?), and thus, it makes sense that the movie would step aside to allow for words from a propagandist figurehead.
Immediately after the film, the screen is overtaken by a shot of four individuals seated in audience of a room full of people. This is the advertised post-movie discussion panel. The only person recognizable is Sarah Palin. Palin presses her heels together and rocks anxiously back and forth. She’s fidgety and anxious and more than one person in the theater half whispers, “Oh, she’s going to let ’em have it.” Well, sort of. The first question goes to the former Alaskan governor, a simple inquiry as to whether she believes the climate change narrative is driven by political agenda. She struggles through a two minute long single sentence built of detached thoughts that sounds something like a drunk beat poem about polar bears and suing the federal government. It’s predictable, batshit nonsense. And yet, it earns vocalized approval.
It’s true and perhaps necessarily observed that people like Marc Morano — those people who either intentionally promote ignorance or at least knowingly involve themselves in imperative matters in which their voices do not belong — are not good people. It’s also true that Sarah Palin is an absolute fucking moron. But this singular assessment has little value outside of entertaining her detractors. What will eventually be more important to note for contemporary America (even if we rightfully forget this film altogether) is that our culture, on every end of the political spectrum, has built a landscape that allows these sort of people stand up as icons and spokespersons. We are collectively — left and right — culpable here. Each side is complicit in the creation of its enemy.
So, while I can’t measure any filmic value in Climate Hustle, I can say that it stands as definitive proof that our identity-obsessed country has lifted the value of the –ism and the –ist suffixes above whatever truth-concerned idea or term that might prepend it. Proof that we now run away from common ground conversation in fear of having our traceable sense of self lost in the muddy meeting space. We have all become convinced that an identity needs a counterpoint, that any establishment of I or me needs to be hated or under attack by them perhaps even more than it needs to believe in its own accuracy and truth.
An idea can be strong without it being structured against strong opposition. It’s been a long time since that has felt true. We have traded intellectual self-actualization for the easier method of defining the self through the negative—understanding who we are by pointing at who we definitely are not. This is either the causal factor for or symptomatic of the political divisiveness and wound-like chasm in our population, the wonky structure upon which bad people and bad ideas can climb to prominent positions on the backs of voters who aren’t low-information voters, but stubborn anti-information voters.
Sure, it’s most observable in jerks like Marano and idiots like Palin. And for me and anyone liberal-minded enough to make it through the earlier condescending crowd-bashing segment of my essay, we can note it in the toe-tapping biased audience of the Climate Change special event. But why was I so eager to write them in terms of dismissal? What did I even expect to gain from attending this show if not a comfortable measure of my self not being them? What was the nature of your thoughts when you read the opening explanation of Climate Hustle? Did it include any variation of the word them? Or those people?
This is the self-evaluative rabbit hole that I spiral into as my mind reduces the panel discussion to a series of honking horns falling on deaf ears. I don’t even stick around to see what carefully-selected “recorded comments from Bill Nye” are included. I walk out of the theater as quietly as possible.
As I leave, I notice there’s a sign taped on the glass exit door that reads something like: “Warning! Geese outside are aggressive. Customers should not attempt to approach. Thanks, Management.”
“Huh. Must be something in the weather,” I laugh to myself without thinking, before looking around nervously and moving faster to my car.