Image from documentary

Australian filmmaker Damon Gameau did not create “2040” for viewing during the coronavirus pandemic. Although only now being released, online, in the U.S., the documentary premiered in Australia in the spring of 2019.

Nevertheless, the film fits well with this summer 2020 moment. For a nation wondering what post-pandemic life will look like, “2040” provides an optimistic vision of a new normal, one that addresses issues of social justice while meeting challenges posed by climate change.

As such, “2040” is the most upbeat documentary about climate change since climatologist Richard Alley’s PBS series “Earth: An Operator’s Manual.” And it’s often funny, entertaining, and, in a family sitcom sort-of-way, touching.

2040 poster

“2040” begins with the movie-poster scene of Gameau planting a tree with his 4-year-old daughter, Velvet. In a voiceover, Gameau explains that he worries about how climate change will affect his daughter’s future. He knows the science; he briefly explains it using the heating, plumbing, and refrigeration systems of his house as analogies for different parts of the carbon cycles. And he says he often has felt overwhelmed by the doom-and-gloom depictions of climate change in popular media.

He wants to change this: “As a father, I think there’s room for a different story, a story that focuses on solutions.”

To write this new story, Gameau poses a question: “What [would] the world look like in 2040, if we just embraced the best that already exists?” And for “already exists” Gameau adopts a cardinal rule: “Everything I show in this 2040 has to exist today in some form. I can’t make it up.” Having laid down these ground rules, Gameau begins the work of assembling “the best that already exists” into a plausible depiction of his daughter’s life as an adult in 2040.

Over the course of the 90-minute film, Gameau highlights five areas for action. Each case study, so to speak, includes the same elements:
– close-ups of children from around the world offering their ideas for the future
– a travelogue in which Gameau visits a part of the world where a best practice already exists
– expert testimony, sometimes delivered through in-person interviews and other times through green-screen cameos that place the experts on pieces of equipment or parts of the landscape
– a dramatized scene of daily life in 2040, with an actress playing the grown-up Velvet
– Gameau and his wife, Zoe, playing aged versions of themselves.

Improving quality of life while reducing emissions and inequality

Although the dramatized scenes, with their dad jokes, can get a bit hokey, the formula works. Gameau presents compelling cases for “the best that already exists” in 2019, and his 2040 extrapolations come across as both plausible and attractive.

The first two case studies highlight ways to reduce emissions and improve quality of life, especially in still-developing countries, while reducing inequality.

In a visit to Bangladesh, with decentralized energy access aficionado Neel Tamhane, Gameau shows how inexpensive solar panels, improved batteries, and new networking technologies enable rural villagers to electrify homes, power businesses, and connect with other homes and villages in self-managed microgrids. The same technologies could be adapted to replace the centrally managed, fossil-fuel-burning utility macrogrids in the U.S., thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions and lowering costs for consumers.

Gameau explores new options offered by autonomous electric vehicles through visits to New York City and Los Angeles, where, entrepreneur Tony Seba notes, roadways and parking lots take up two-thirds of the land, three times the footprint of San Francisco. In addition to lowering emissions, autonomous vehicles could free up a lot of space and time and capital.

Soils with higher carbon content, and cultivated seaweed farms

The next two case studies acknowledge a point often overlooked in climate change documentaries. As Eric Toensmeier, author of The Carbon Farming Solution, puts it, “If we cut human emissions to zero, we would still be toast.”

Why? Because models used to plot pathways to futures that limit warming to 1.5 or 2 degrees centigrade incorporate negative emissions – quantities of carbon dioxide removed from the atmosphere – in their calculations. Thus, we must not only limit what goes up into the atmosphere, we also need ways to “draw down” greenhouse gases.

Gameau highlights two options: rediscovered agricultural methods that restore soil by increasing its carbon content and marine permaculture that can accomplish the same goals – ecological restoration and carbon storage – by cultivating seaweed farms in the ocean.

Pairing environmental justice and ecological resilience

Several times over the course of his documentary, Gameau turns to “renegade economist” Kate Raworth for a look at the bigger picture into which these separate pieces fit. How can we pursue environmental justice – sharing the world’s resources more equitably – while ensuring Earth’s ecological resilience?

Raworth’s model of “donut economics” assumes that a good life requires adequate levels of basic resources and services: food, water, energy, health, and education. Linked together in her circular model, these minimum levels form the inner ring of a donut. But Earth cannot meet endlessly increasing demands for natural resources and physical space, nor can it absorb ever-increasing streams of emissions and wastes. These planetary limits form the outer edge of the donut.

In a just and equitable 2040, the world’s poor would be lifted out of the hole at the center, where their basic needs for food, clean water, medicine, education, and employment are not met. At the same time, the people in this 2040 world would reduce their adverse impacts on Earth’s soil, water, biodiversity, and climate.

In another refreshing moment in “2040,” Raworth acknowledges the unprecedented challenge posed by these paired goals: “No phase of humanity has encountered this before. We need new ideas to do this.”

Visualization of the 'donut economics' with land conversation
Damon Gameau’s visualization of Kate Raworth’s ‘donut economics,’ with ‘Land Conversion’ highlighted as one of the planetary limits humans are trespassing.

Education and empowerment of world’s girls and women

The final case study brings Gameau back to his original motivation for the documentary: his daughter. Another climate solution, one with big payoffs in other areas, is the education and empowerment of women. “Educating girls and [providing] family planning” – Project Drawdown founder Paul Hawken explains to Gameau while both appear to be sitting on top of a huge wind turbine – “you combine these two together and the No. 1 solution for reversing global warming is the empowerment of girls and women.”

But not every moment in “2040” is uplifting. Gameau acknowledges the success of organized groups, funded by the fossil fuel industry, in creating false debates about climate science and solutions.

Gameau also acknowledges his own difficulties in living an environmentally responsible life. Logging thousands of air miles to produce a film about solving climate change is, at one level, absurdly hypocritical. (A note in the film’s closing credits explains how the team more than fully (2X) offset the greenhouse gases emitted in production.) But by honestly admitting the problem, Gameau enhances the credibility of his vision.

That vision of 2040 ends with a party, a worldwide celebration when scientists confirm that the trend line for CO2 has reversed, with the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere newly falling.

Gameau concludes his vision of the future with a question for viewers: “What’s your 2040?” After months of limited, socially-distanced lives, American viewers in 2020 may find in Gameau’s “2040” the energy and chutzpah they need to answer that question … and do so hopefully.

Editor’s note: Until July 31, the film is available on a pay-per-view basis from several venues. Groups or organizations interested in hosting an online screening, which could include an online Q&A session with Damon Gameau, can submit an online request form to Together Films.

Michael Svoboda, Ph.D., is the Yale Climate Connections books editor. He is a professor in the University Writing Program at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C., where he has taught since...