Time to Choose: The Challenges and Opportunities of Climate Change

Time to Choose, a new movie about the threats of climate change and the stories of people working on the frontlines to address this global challenge, begins showing in theaters across the United States on June 3rd. Directed by Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker Charles Ferguson (Inside Job, No End in Sight), Time to Choose features insights from world-renowned entrepreneurs, innovators, and thought leaders, including RMI co-founder Amory Lovins. RMI Outlet is pleased to share this interview by RMI CEO Jules Kortenhorst about the movie with Tom Dinwoodie, executive producer of Time to Choose and head of RMI’s Board of Trustees. Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jules: What was it about this project and about filmmaker Charles Ferguson that led you to be the executive producer of this movie? What drove you to make this documentary happen?

Tom: My own interest in this project comes from feeling the need to move climate discussions beyond the story of doom-and-gloom and into the realm of solutions. But massive barriers stand in the way, in particular within the mindset of the media. Having come from both the wind and solar industries, I’ve experienced firsthand how those industries, along with energy efficiency, can scale to meet this challenge. They are the only scalable solutions we have to this problem, on the energy side. I’ve always thought that if the truth be told with regard to energy and climate, it would make for a very interesting and even surprising and perhaps somewhat hopeful story.

Then I saw Charles Ferguson’s Inside Job, the documentary he did on the 2008 financial crisis, for which he won an Oscar. It was a very credible, entertaining and even academic approach to filmmaking where he unravels a very complex topic, cuts through the disinformation, and repackages the truth of that story in a very compelling way. So I called Charles, and it turns out he was quite interested in the topic of climate and was quickly keen on the idea, especially if there was a solutions story to be told.

As we discussed working together, Charles—being an Oscar-winning documentary filmmaker—required final-cut privileges for Time to Choose. This meant he had total creative and content control, and the film could have been about anything. This was especially important because I was from the renewables industry. But I trusted his ability during the research phase to uncover the truth of this story, and so we agreed to do the film together.

Jules: Knowing you as a trustee of Rocky Mountain Institute and watching you make this movie happen, I see that you bring an enormous amount of passion to this issue. What gets you so excited and engaged in the energy transition?

Tom: The quick answer to why I’m passionate about climate change is for the sake of my children. But standing back, it is possibly nothing more than simple nostalgia. Nostalgia for the planet as I know it, for pristine places, for ice and snow, for the great coastal cities of Europe, and for ensuring the possibility of what lies ahead for the human race. What a waste it would be to lose all that for something as banal as human greed, and simple lack of awareness and coordinated effort in embracing the better ways already existing for how we get our energy and our food, the primary causes of climate change. I grew up camping and hiking and fishing, with trips to the wilderness. The beauty and diversity of plant and animal life is extraordinary. Who are we to eliminate the orangutan from the face of the earth? How sad it is to see this planet become inhospitable to human and animal life as we know it, and to witness the tremendous suffering of those already impacted by climate change and to imagine the scores of those yet to be. That there are clear and much better alternatives to this craziness is what really gets me up in the morning.

Jules: By examining not only the challenges of climate change but also looking at solutions, Time to Choose is different than many other movies on this topic. What insights do you have from having made the movie, and what message do you hope people who see it will take with them?

Tom: Time to Choose shows that whether people choose to join the deniers of climate change or buy into the notion that humans are responsible for this problem, there are ample reasons to let go of the 20th-century paradigm for how we get our energy and food. Whether for reasons of energy security, reliability, food quality, breathable air, drinkable water, energy access, avoidance of war—all things that Amory has been speaking and writing about for decades. So beyond the climate challenge, this is such an incredible opportunity to make for a better society and planet.

Jules: Most definitely. And there are many stories that increasingly demonstrate that this is as much an opportunity as it is a challenge. You have seen that in your own career. Can you talk about how your experience in industry gives you hope for the future and what it tells you about what we need to do in the energy transition?

Tom: I come from both the wind and solar industries, most recently the solar industry. The company I founded in the early 90s, PowerLight, grew for about 12 years at 85 percent year-over-year before we merged with SunPower. SolarCity today is almost doubling year over year. I know firsthand the growth potential of this industry and how it can scale. As Amory points out in Time to Choose, “In the last few years, China increased its electric generation more from renewables than from all fossil and nuclear plants put together.” Its really happening faster than most people are aware. [See the film clip below]

It’s easy to think that solar won’t amount to much when you see a few solar panels on a residential rooftop, but the fact of the matter is that distributed solar scales extraordinarily fast, once the delivery infrastructure is in place. For example, in December of 2013, Germany installed 3 GW of solar in one month, and it was all distributed on rooftops because they were beyond the ground-mounted phase. Both solar and wind technologies can install gigawatts in months as opposed to the decades that it takes to license, permit, and build thermal plants and in particular nuclear plants. The last time we built a nuclear plant in this country it took 22 years and 7 months. That was Watts Bar One in Tennessee.

It is counterintuitive that distributed solar and wind technologies can scale and address our energy needs in the timeframe that’s necessary to address climate change, and that’s why I thought the story needed to be told.

Jules: That is an interesting and exciting perspective, and it is quite different form some of the people who emphasize the need for us to go back to labs and invent new things to make the energy transition happen. Do you essentially argue that we have the solutions in place to halt climate change?

Tom: There’s no question that we have the solutions. The question is, “Will we scale them in time?” As you know and as Amory has written about for years, there’s a massive amount of efficiency that can be built into the system we have. And solar and wind can scale to address the source side of our energy needs. We haven’t talked food, but that is an important aspect of this—how we eat, what we eat, industrial agriculture, and what pressure that puts on the destruction of our rainforests.

Jules: What is the role of business and what can individuals do?

Tom: That’s a great question. If you really look at this problem, you come to realize that this is a ground game that involves everyone. Our government and politicians made their decision in Paris to address this problem, but what can they do? They can set policies and regulations and create incentives.

But the heavy lifting will be done by the head of every household and the head of every business in choosing to change how to get their energy and their food. If you look at how you get your electricity, heat, and mobility, they all require energy, and most of the technologies that provide those needs depend on fossil fuel. But today the economics are such that in most zip codes in this county you can get those things without fossil fuel, cash positive day one, and with significant, retirement-level savings over the next 20, 30 years. Businesses and individuals need to ask, “Is it time to change how I get these vital things, and is there a better way—a way that’s beneficial to my community and for my pocketbook?”

There’s a big role for industry. For example, we all fly—it has become a critical aspect of our society and standard of living. We all hop on airplanes even with knowledge of the significant carbon footprint of flying. Do we need to stop flying? No. The airline industry needs to offer carbon neutral travel. We can only address what we are empowered to address, so if one airline is the first to offer carbon-neutral travel, we should all support that by choosing that airline. We don’t have to stop flying.

Jules: Absolutely. Time to Choose has already garnered some positive reviews at Telluride, especially for the cinematography. Is there one scene that we should watch out for that is most memorable to you?

Tom: Wow. There are a lot of good scenes in the movie. I would say the floating city in Nigeria is very memorable to me, as are all the depictions of the resource curse. How the extraction industries have gained enormous wealth at the brutal expense of ecosystems and income equality.

Jules: I remember that image. For me, a really striking scene is the incredible beauty of the forests along the Appalachian Trail and then the horrible scene of mountain top removal mining. That’s one that grips me in the gut as something so beautiful that then is suddenly transformed by humans into something so ugly and so painful.

Time to Choose is coming to a theater near you. View the trailer here. View the full screening schedule here. If you are in Colorado, join Rocky Mountain Institute June 11 at the Dairy Arts Center in Boulder and participate in a Q&A with Tom and Jules after the 7 pm show. Tickets are available here. Or, visit our new Innovation Center for a screening in Basalt on June 24.

Image and video courtesy of Time to Choose.