The Age of Consequences: the nexus of climate and conflict

The Age of Consequences is a documentary film exploring how climate change stressors interact with societal tensions, sparking conflict. The film unpacks how water and food shortages, drought, extreme weather, and sea-level rise function as ‘accelerants of instability’ and ‘catalysts for conflict’, with grave implications for peace and security in the 21st century

The film is being shown in Australia as part of the Transitions Film Festival. Green Agenda editor, Clare Ozich, spoke to the film’s writer, director and producer, Jarad Scott, about the rationale behind making a climate film focused on security, the concept of interconnectedness that is central to the film, and making documentaries in the time of Trump.

Green Agenda also spoke to Jarad last year about his film, Requiem for the American Dream, featuring Noam Chomsky on the principles of concentration of wealth and power. A film (and an interview) that now provides a useful background to the conditions leading to the Trump Presidency.


Edited Transcript

Clare Ozich: Can you tell us a little bit about the film and what was the impetus behind it, and why that particular focus?

Jared Scott: I think that my journey as a film maker and a story teller has led me through films that have tackled climate change from the perspective of the climate movement. Although I think that our intentions were to reach out to as broad an audience as possible, we often found that the message was resonating mostly with our active allies, it’s an organising term if you think of a spectrum of allies. I’m very proud of the work that we’ve done with Disruption, and Do the Math, both climate change films as well as on inequality with Requiem for the American Dream, which we talked about last year. Why we set out to make this film is, I think, we were trying to reach out to a different group, knowing that our core document audience would still watch this. We were hoping that it might be a tool. That’s what film is supposed to be, it’s supposed to be a tool for discourse and dialogue and a starting point, not an ending point.

AoC_Poster_smallWe were hoping that people could use this, maybe as an olive branch to some of the more conservative friends and family to say, “Hey, here’s another way to look at this, here’s another perspective about climate change.” It happens to be a huge, national security issue here in the United States. Of course that goes for countries around the globe and I think it’s 75 to 80 per cent of countries, when the American Security Project did a survey, have determined that climate change is a threat to their national security. Of course security really means global security, because we live in a globalised world, where everything’s connected. You can’t really silo off these countries and their respective security, as much as I think that, with the Brexit and what’s starting to happen here and elsewhere, people might think that’s possible. No, we live in a very highly interconnected world and a climate change doesn’t respond to boundaries, and these problems don’t respond to borders.The way our economic world is set it is also borderless.

I think that was the impetus, to reach out to new groups of people, outside the climate sphere, people that consider climate change to be some kind of esoteric environmental problem. Maybe they get it a little bit, but they don’t quite understand how it tangibly impacts their life. And I get it, it’s difficult. Depending on where you live in the world and what you focus on. I think that we have a finite pool of worry, and if you’re worrying about paying your bills and whether your kids are getting good grades, or they’re at school, or you’re able to have a good job or whatever it might be, it’s tough to think about this giant problem that seems out of grasp. Not just in terms of understanding it, but also doing something. I have empathy for people, I’m there too. I’m a victim of this as well as a perpetrator.

In some ways we all benefit from cheap fossil fuels and I think that it’s tough to look in the mirror and think, well, I’m the problem. Or my way of life is the problem. I think with the more conservative crowd, to think that the free market enterprise is the problem. These decisions that we’ve made that have brought people out of poverty and done some good. Obviously with some collateral damage there and some negative side effects, that to look at that and go, “Well, How can this be the problem? How could me taking my kids to soccer practise be the problem?” I think that after this long tangent I’m doing here, I think that ultimately national security seems to make people’s ears perk up. I say two degrees Celsius we’re on track to hit that and that’s the unsafe level and there’s this red line. The agreements put forward in Paris looks like it is maybe six degrees, and there’s this whole emissions gap. Wow, my eyes glaze over, you lost me.

we live in a very highly interconnected world and a climate change doesn’t respond to boundaries, and these problems don’t respond to borders

Actually, in this film we didn’t put any science, any numbers, and I think those are all important that has happened to move me and still moves me. What we wanted to say was, “Look let’s start from the point that this is a problem.” Let’s get the science out of the way and say, “Look, here’s an institution regardless of what you might think about foreign policy decisions in the past 20 years, or 100 years or beyond. The institution, the military, the Department of Defence here in the US is still a trusted institution among a lot of people here.” We have congress in the single digits often. We have a lot of faith lost in our political system and our elected leaders. A lot of people are angry at just about everything, including experts on science or whatever it might be.

You have all this unfocused anger, you have all this marginalisation of our population, you have all this cognitive dissonance and then I think that when people hear that the Pentagon’s talking about this, I think it makes people stop and think and consider that. Because at the end of the day, whether you’re on the Republican side, the Democrat side, the far left, the far right, or somewhere in the middle, everyone respects the troops, and respects the institution of the Department of Defence. Now, people on the left talk about military spending and the problem with that, and the industrial complex, and there’s all these things you have to consider. The end of the day, you push that aside and note that this is a problem. I think most will recognise it is. But large institutions like the Pentagon saying it’s a problem, over and over, I think that resonates differently than a lot of great work by a number of people that I admire and applaud for their efforts when I’m talking about this issue. For certain people and for certain subsets of this country, especially, the Pentagon resonates a little more with them, or so we hope.

America has a lot of sway world. If we decide to lead on an issue, that matters.

Clare Ozich: It is a film that is quite US-centric and I think that one of the reasons for that is that perhaps other countries don’t have the same degree of faith or trust in their military institutions in the way that the US does. What’s your thinking in terms of it being quite US-centric and the fact that climate change is a global issue? When the movie is being seen in other parts of the world, there is a kind of centering of the US where a lot of people see the US as a big part of the problem of both climate change and indeed interference in various conflicts around the world?

Jared Scott: First off, why do you ask? Well, I’m American, or I’m from the United States I should say, people get upset and say you’re American, especially my Latin American friends. I’m from the United States and I think as a resident, as a citizen here, as a film-maker, this is my main target audience. There is a lot of people here, we have over 320 million people in this country and there’s a lot of people that still don’t get it. I think given the US is still the largest emitter per capita, we’re still the largest emitter in the aggregate. China’s passed us recently, for total annual output of emissions. But we still blow everyone out of the water in terms of our polluting and our addition to the climate problem. I think that we have a responsibility in this country to own up to that. America has a lot of sway world. If we decide to lead on an issue, that matters.

We need to lead on this issue. The whole industrialised world needs to lead on this issue. If they don’t it’s going to be tough to have the Global South to follow suit, or the developing world, I should say. If the industrialised countries in the world don’t own up to what they’ve done, especially the United States, then it’s going to be tough for us to reach these targets that we’ve set in Paris and more ambitious ones that will be set in the future. I think because the root of the problem is we need to own up to that over here, I think that’s why I’m trying to move the people here. We need to lot of popular support. I think it does exist. Clearly with the new administration and the Republican controlled Congress as well as a number of state legislators and state governors, the odds are not in our favour for leading on climate any time soon, and that’s frightening. I think that we need to wake up the public.

The way democracy is supposed to work is we are supposed to hold our elected officials accountable. This is what the people want and what they demand and if you don’t do it then we’re going to vote you out. If you don’t do it we’re going to make some noise and we’re going to be onto you and we’re going to hound you and we’re going to make our voices heard. That’s how it’s supposed to be. It doesn’t always seem like it’s going to be work out that way, but that’s how it’s supposed to work in theory. I think that we have a responsibility, as a country, to own up to this. I think that’s why we targeted our American brothers and sisters here the most. I also think that people across the globe will see this film. People are always interested to know what’s going on in the US and I think that the US perspective, for films, doesn’t always hurt the film. You guys probably spend way too much time talking about DJT [Donald Trump] than you probably like to. The news in the US happens to be global news. I think that it’s important to show the perspective over here and what people are talking about.

pentagonI think that what we wanted to be careful with here, is not to act like we’re letting the US get off with this free pass, or that we’re trying to militarise the issue. It is important to understand that the military itself isn’t chomping at the bit to get involved in climate change adaptation. They’re not chomping at the bit in any way to get involved with consequence management. In fact what they’re saying is, “Hey, this is a problem and you guys need to deal with it.” You, being civil society. This is a civil society problem, and we mention it in the film. The military is ultimately doing a risk assessment. They’re saying, “Hey, we need to understand how this all fits together, because we’re going to have to potentially deal with it.” But it isn’t their job to fix it and we never say that it is. It isn’t. It is our job as civil society.

I think like I said, harking back to what I said before, that when a warning comes from … scientists … I don’t know who the best voice is on getting the word out about the threats of climate change. Scientists are used to presenting information and adding voice to the scientific process, having things peer reviewed and presenting that information. They’re not used to being spokespeople on TV or writing articles. They’re not a PR machine, they’re not supposed to be. Same with the military, they’re not a PR machine as well, but I think that when, like I said before, when they say something about this and they say that they’re looking at it, that they have to consider it. And when all they do is look data and they look at facts, and they look at all these things to determine what they should be prepared for, what they need to be prepared for, I think that matters. Whether it’s intentional or not, it becomes a powerful mouthpiece, people pay attention, maybe more so than a scientist. Maybe more so than someone else who has been making a clarion call.

At the end of the day you have 80 minutes. At some point you have a certain cognitive capacity and after that you check out. This is already chockfull of a lot of stuff. We went to great lengths to make sure that it wasn’t too overwhelming and that everything was clear. We used the graphics, we used the sound. We tried to use all the story telling techniques to not just punch you in the stomach or give you this cinematic experience, or show you these on the ground moments and things like that. It also has to be clear, it has to fit together in a way that makes sense and is logical, if I lose you as a viewer then I haven’t done my job.

What we do in the film is we show how climate change is one of the factors that interacts with all these other socio political factors.

Clare Ozich: I’ll pick you up where you finished off. Because one of the things I did want to talk to you about was the way that you had structured the film and you talked about using the graphics. One of the key themes is this one of interconnectedness. You’ve got the way that not just that climate and security related, but how all these other issues come into that, whether it’s migration, whether it’s poverty, whether it’s drought and hunger. I think it is quite a powerful the way that you’ve constructed that and shown that inter-connectedness through the film. I’d like to hear your thoughts on how you came up with that and what you see the usefulness of it as?

Jared Scott: I think a lot of us have heard this notion of connecting the dots on climate. I think that’s a certain speed of thought, I think with that in mind, we tried to open it up and pivot to a perspective that connects but in the sense of a risk index, or what we call the nexus of risks. What we do in the film is we show how climate change is one of the factors that interacts with all these other socio political factors. It’s not just that climate change enters the picture and therefore you have conflict. It’s the way that climate change interacts and when you have poor governance over here and a failure to adapt over here and food shortages already over here that are exacerbated, and unemployment, bad governance, poor wealth for example. Whatever it might be, there’s all sorts of things that you have to consider and climate change comes in and it interacts with all sorts of problems

helicopterIt’s actually a really simple concept to understand. Climate change makes everything worse. It agitates things that are already there, problems in our society. And it can come in, it can exacerbated it or, as the military likes to call it, be a threat multiplier. It makes everything worse. I think most people can wrap their head around that. In the film we have the luxury in a visual medium of using our nexus and try to have that weave in and out so you see that we’re focusing on certain factors within the nexus. There’s multiple factors happening at once, I think in each case study we hit about three, sometimes, four. Because we didn’t want to overload the viewer, just give you a few takeaways. In Syria, in the fertile crescent, we talked about drought, displacement, conflict and how that civil war then ultimately resulted in terrorism. With the Arab Spring we talk about heat waves which happens the same times as droughts, then you have food price spikes and then you have unrest, and ultimately, conflict.

We really wanted to hammer this home. This is happening, this will keep happening and it’s happening now. I think that interconnected nexus helps you understand. I think also we tried to also be cautious with how it is that we’re displaying this problem. We don’t want to overshoot it or to sensationalise it. We went to great lengths not to, both in the footage we used and there’s no drums that kick in, there’s the palm trees started blowing. Actually we’ve probably been criticise for telling people too much, too often times in the film say, “Well, remember it’s just one of the factors that can lead to this or that.” We wanted to make sure that we were kind of conservative with how it is that we lay that out.

Clare Ozich: In some ways it is a relatively simple story, in that it’s the basics of life that climate change effects and that comes through quite clearly – food, water, shelter. That when those things are put under more pressure that’s when you are going to see great potential for conflict.

Jared Scott: Actually, to interject. This is not a new story, we’ve seen this happen with the Little Ice Age and the Great Crisis. We’ve seen this happen in the year without summer, 1812. Climatic factors have always caused unrest and conflict. In the film we mentioned the Tang dynasty and the Maya civilization. That’s way back in the historical record, you don’t have to look that far back, to even Europe and I think in the 16th/17th century when you had a lot of strife because of climatic shifts. It’s just now, that’s always been the case, but now we’re saying, we’ve put our fingerprint on it. Now there’s human induced, human interference and you have to account for within that climate change. The idea that climate is a factor, nothing new, and if people accept that 97/98% of the scientists have made it clear that we are the reasons for human induced caused climatic changes, then it’s fuel on an already burning fire.

Clare Ozich: These aren’t always easy issues to be looking at all the time. We’re talking about war and conflict, we’re talking about the existential crisis of the climate. In fact I read today that the Doomsday Clock’s been moved a little bit closer to midnight, the closest since 1953. The reasoning for that is both the inaction on climate change but also the escalating potential for conflict between countries that have nuclear weapons. You actually open your film with an atomic explosion. As a documentary film-maker, looking at these issues, how do you do that? How do you look at this stuff so closely and so intently?

Jared Scott: I don’t know, I think that you get this wild idea and you have the passion to embark on something. Then you start doing it and then you realise, oh my god I made a two year commitment, or longer. Then the reality catches up and it’s a long, hard slog. I think that I’m like anybody, I pay attention to the news and I wonder what I can do about it. I wonder how I can understand these issues better. Maybe it’s me forever trying to reconcile the fact that I never went and got a PhD or something and these films become like dissertations. We dive in and I have so much respect for journalists, like yourself, for other story tellers, for anybody who takes the time to tackle these big issues and spend countless hours working to try to figure out a way. Not just to unpack them, and digest, but hopefully to make them entertaining so it’s not stuff that we are forced to consume but things that we want to consume.

I’m happy to play our small part in that. I do feel we have a responsibility. We can all be out there making horror films and we’ll probably make a lot more money doing it. There’s a certain responsibility and I think using what it is that you’re moderately good at to try to craft a story that might make a difference. Like I said, I’ve got so much gratitude to all the people out there that do this, that allow me to read an amazing expose, or to watch a film. Because you can read that in 20 minutes and you can watch that film in 80 minutes, and they’ve probably spent countless days, months and years working on it. I hope that right now, more than ever, that good journalism and good story telling continues to break through the noise, and we have more signal than noise and more accurate, truthful signal than noise, because we need it.

Clare Ozich: That leads on very nicely to my next question, which was that last time we talked quite a bit about the role you see for documentaries in social change. Obviously that’s been a big part of your work over the last few years. But things have changed somewhat significantly in your country since we spoke last. I wondered if you have any reflections about making these sorts of documentaries in the age of Donald Trump?

Jared Scott: Once again I think it comes back to what we tried in this film. Are you going to make stuff that’s going to ricochet around in that echo chamber that you already live in? Is it going to be more confirmation bias, to use that term? How do you reach those other people? If we don’t improve the educational system, basic critical thinking skills, basic media literacy skills, then I don’t know what does it matter what we create. If the fundamentals aren’t there? I am not trying to single anyone out, or any segment of society. I think that we have to have an enlightened citizenry to have the market place of ideas truly function. We have to have an educated populace to really have the discourse that I believe should take place after a film. There has to be some civility, there has to be some rational common sense in how does it relate to each other, no matter what our political beliefs might be. I think that there are these deep problems that have always been there, some of them have been exposed during this election. I don’t know, I still think what I said in the previous answer is true, that we have to keep making these films and keep doing this. Yeah, there’s these deeper questions and I don’t know, I’m at a loss.

I think what’s going to be more important is really good journalism and people supporting journalism and people supporting organisations that support civil liberties and protect rights.

Now with Trump, it’s not the spinning of truth but the blatant disregard for truth, what truth is. If you saw last year that post-truth became the word of the year, much to Stephen Colbert’s dismay because he came up with post-truth quite a few years prior. I don’t know how to combat that. Then you get into Facebook, it’s realised it’s now a media, it’s now a way to consume media, it’s now a media aggregator and it has to own up to that, it has certain responsibilities now. You can’t have Macedonian teens sending out all this fake news and have that be okay. The internet is a strange place, the more we’re exposed to the less we seem to know and that’s without people deliberately trying to misinform you. From when I was studying media literacy in school years ago, it’s completely changed. I bet you everybody right now is rushing off to make those new movies, and they should. I think if we had the funding maybe we would as well.

I think in the age of Trump you’re going to see a lot of films. I think what’s going to be more important is really good journalism and people supporting journalism and people supporting organisations that support civil liberties and protect rights. I really think it’s going to be, I think we’re going to need a lot of help on that front. It’s a strange thing, bad for the country, you could say good for the newspaper. The subscription rates have shot up, what did I do right on day one, I renewed all my subscriptions everywhere, I need this journalism, I appreciate you. I don’t know, how do we deal with that, with all these interesting profit motives as well, embedded within what it is we’re experiencing. I don’t know, I’m letting you know that I’m a it lost in the wilderness right now. I don’t know how that will inform what it is that we do next over here. What we might need to do, like a lot of people have to do, is a little bit of rest before we tackle the next big one.

Clare Ozich: Last time we spoke we were talking about your film Requiem for the American Dream, featuring Noam Chomsky, and focused on inequality, as you mentioned earlier. I’m interested to know how things went with that film? We talked a bit about what you were hoping would happen with it. Be keen to know how you thought it went, good response, etc?

Jared Scott: Yeah. I think that clearly I don’t think that this new administration was what we wanted the outcome to be. The thing is we talk about it in the film. That part of the result of the principles of concentration of wealth and power, led to this marginalisation of the population, principle 10. As I mentioned before this is unfocused anger and I understand the anger. I can empathise with that. It doesn’t mean that I can support bigotry or misogyny, or injustices, or the attack on climate change. A number of these issues that come with that anger, but I understand the anger. I think that people want us to be angry and scattered and marginalised and disconnected. What I noticed in that film too is, I think talking to people, you recognise you usually can find more common ground than just looking at these deep gulfs between us, that divide us. I’m saddened that we’re a divided country here. I’m saddened by the rise of the right playing on fear to political benefit, not just here in this country but around the world. Europe’s going to face a strong right coming up as well. I think Requiem, it’s been a good tool for discourse. It’s done better than we thought it would, for sure, we’ve got more attention than we ever thought we would for the small indy team that we are over here. We really are a small shop. It has been exciting to watch the film grow.

Women’s March on Washington Flickr CC BY-SA 2.0

To look back at the women’s march on Washington and around the country and around the globe, upwards to four million people I think in this country and many more elsewhere. That was a strong show of solidarity and I think that Chomsky speaks to that pretty clearly in the film, although towards the end. Otherwise it’s really grim. The first 95% is really grim and the last 5% tries to take you on some sobering, hopeful note. Someone actually wrote in the Huffington Post, “Hey, the reason I’m marching is because of this movie.” They quoted the film, quoting Howard’s Zinn saying that, “It’s the small deeds by countless unknown individuals that ultimately bend the course of history.” I believe that, I do believe that. When you see a mass protest like last week, you think yeah, it gives you some hope, you’ve got to keep that intensity up.

It’s also exciting that we’re going to release the film in its book form this spring. In late March it will be released as a book. The book is written by Noam Chomsky and it’s edited by Peter Kelly and myself. It’s really extending upon the interviews that we’ve talked about in the film and expanding upon the structure. Also allowing the reader to look at different primary source documents that he references. I think it’s important to note Professor Chomsky is not just giving you his opinion, often times you don’t realise he’s quoting verbatim like Adam Smith, the debates at the constitutional convention and a number of other things. We wanted to bring those to the fore as well. I noticed it’s got some traction on Amazon, which is exciting. The book’s coming out soon.

Clare Ozich: I look forward to that. It will be great.

Jared Scott: If you would have told me 15 years ago that I would have my name on a book with Noam Chomsky I would’ve … It’s a really humbling experience. I’m honoured to be in that position but it’s surreal sometimes.

Clare Ozich: I can imagine. Thanks so much Jared, for that conversation again. I wish you all the best with this movie, Age of Consequences, at this kind of a scary time. It’s a bit of a scary movie, but there is also a little bit of hope at the end of it. There is a way forward anyway, there’s a path through.

Jared Scott: To speak to that real quick. Going back back to people in this country. If you don’t understand there’s a problem, well then you’re not going to be inclined to find a solution. It’s stupid simple, but it’s clear as day. I think that’s the reason, it wasn’t to leave you battered and bruised and throw up your hands. It was to really hammer it down that no, this is really a problem, really bad, we really have to do something about this. About the film people say “I’ve never thought about it this way”. The comment I get most, when people walk out of the film, is “I never thought about it this way and now I can’t stop thinking about it this way.” Before I made this I never thought about it like this, not with this kind of clarity. I know that it’s been getting a lot of traction in Australia too. Dan [Simons from the Transitions Film Festival] has been tremendously helpful spreading the word. I know that it’s already shown in front of Defence people in Canberra. That it’s shown to a number of policy makers in Australia and it’s been making its rounds. I don’t know why, for some reason it’s resonating outside the US in Australia, Germany, The Netherlands, Sweden and I guess all the places you’d think that are really leading on this. It’s been exciting.

Clare Ozich: That’s really interesting because, in terms of Australia because we’ve gone through these processes over the last few years with the Defence Department  putting together White Papers which is a bit like the framework for defending Australia’s national interests, over periods of time. The last couple of these White Papers have barely mentioned climate change at all. It’s been something that people have noticed and talked about. It’s quite different from the record of reports that you show in the film coming out of the US Department of Defence, which has been talking about climate change as a serious threat to US national security for well over a decade.

All right, well, thanks again.

Jared Scott: Thanks so much, appreciate it, taking the time and hopefully it’s a success at Transitions and in Melbourne and thanks again for taking the time to watch it and to write about it and to keep fighting.