Berlinale tackles climate change with both heaviness and hope

True to its nature as a socially conscious film festival, this month's Berlinale showcases a string of unflinching climate change documentaries raising the alarm about mankind's destructive behaviour while proposing some solutions.

Berlinale tackles climate change with both heaviness and hope
Photo: DPA

Among the Berlin festival's highlights is “Anthropocene: the Human Epoch” filmed over three years on six continents, with stunning panoramic shots to
show the devastating and at times terrifying ways humans have altered their

“We have reached an unprecedented moment in planetary history. Humans now affect the Earth and its processes more than all other natural forces combined,” said Jennifer Baichwal, the film's Canadian co-director.

From concrete seawalls built to preserve the Chinese coast to the pockmarked moonscapes created by Germany's coal mines, rising sea levels in Venice and deforestation in Nigeria, the film shines an unforgiving spotlight on mankind's footprint on the planet.

Official trailer for the film Anthropocene.

Insatiable appetite

Calls for increased awareness come as the United Nations confirmed last week that the past four years were the warmest on record, fuelled by a rise in emissions of man-made greenhouse gases.

Other startling statistics reveal human activities have pumped more than 390 billion tonnes of climate-altering carbon emissions into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution, while the amount of plastic produced has soared from 2 million tonnes annually in 1950 to around 300 million today.

Nevertheless, climate change scepticism persists with leaders like US President Donald Trump and Brazil's Jair Bolsonaro doubting mankind's responsibility for global warming.

But even countries that acknowledge the human impact, like Germany, are struggling to meet targets for reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

In “Earth”, Austrian filmmaker Nikolaus Geyrhalter focusses on our insatiable appetite for nature's resources by turning a critical lens on the tools used to alter the world's geology, like the gargantuan industrial machines deployed to hollow out the earth or move mountains in the interest of mining.

Official trailer for Earth.

“You have to wonder what people will think in 40 or 50 years from now about the things we're doing today,” Geyrhalter, who also directed the 2005 food industry documentary “Our Daily Bread”, said at the Berlin film festival.

“Technology progresses faster than people can really comprehend.”

In “Earth”, he singles out the environmental blunder that happened at a former salt mine in Wolfenbüttel, central Germany, which was turned into a site for storing nuclear waste in the 1970s.

A stock photo from 1967 shows workers transporting the first 60 barrels of radioactive nuclear waste to the former salt mine “Asse II” in Remlingen near Wolfenbüttel in Lower Saxony. Photo: DPA

After residents were reassured the move was totally safe, it emerged decades later that experts had underestimated the risks of groundwater contamination, prompting years of political and scientific wrangling on how best to decommission the site.

Letter to the future

Cutting through the bleakness, the Berlin festival also offered eco documentaries that give a more hopeful view of the future.

Australian director Damon Gameau's “2040”, conceived as a visual letter to his four-year-old daughter, explores what the world could look like in the near future if people adopted the best technologies and practices already available to save the planet — and asks children what changes they want to see.

2040 Official trailer from Madman Films.

The solutions proposed range from more solar energy and electric cars to
greenifying cities, farming at sea and reducing inequality.

To achieve this, “it is going to take a monumental effort from all facets of society,” Gameau told AFP at the festival.

“We know that 50 percent of emissions come from the wealthiest 7 percent of
the population and that 71 percent of emissions come from just 100 companies.

Perhaps this can narrow our focus?,” added Gameau, who made his name with 2014's “Sugarland” about the insidious effects of sugar on our bodies.

Also opting for a more optimistic take on tackling the planet's woes is “The Biggest Little Farm”, which chronicles US director John Chester and his
wife Molly's battle to turn a drought-hit, supposedly infertile piece of land near Los Angeles into a thriving, sustainable farm — with a little light relief from Emma the pig and Greasy the rooster.

Official trailer of 'The Biggest Little Farm'

The moving portrayal of a pair of idealists searching for balance with Mother Nature, and the trials they encounter along the way, makes the case for eco-friendly agriculture and livestock farming free from pesticides and drugs.

“Obviously I don't think that we alone or any one farm alone can change the climate crisis. But I think that if we each do our part for the ecosystem then that will be how we solve the problem,” said the farmer-filmmaker.

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UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote ‘of a century’

Tens of thousands of climate activists including Greta Thunberg descended on German cities Friday ahead of the weekend general election to crank up the pressure on the candidates to succeed Angela Merkel.

UPDATE: Greta Thunberg joins German climate strikes before vote 'of a century'
Greta Thunberg and other climate activists in Berlin on Friday. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Jörg Carstensen

Speaking at a rally in front of the Reichstag parliament building in the run-up to Sunday’s poll, Thunberg told cheering Fridays for Future youth supporters that they needed to hold Germany’s political leaders to account past election day.

“It is clearer than ever that no political party is doing close to enough… not even their proposed commitments are close to being in line with what would be needed to fulfil the Paris Agreement,” on curbing climate change, she said.

“Yes, we must vote, you must vote, but remember that voting only will not be enough. We must keep going into the streets.”

As Germany’s top parties hold final rallies ahead of Sunday’s vote, the Fridays for Future youth marches claim the political class has let down the younger generation.

“The political parties haven’t taken the climate catastrophe seriously enough,” Luisa Neubauer, who runs the group’s German chapter, said.

She said Germany, as one of the world’s top emitters of greenhouse gases, had an outsize responsibility to set an example, with time running out to reverse destructive trends.

“That is why we are calling this the election of a century,” she said.

The race has boiled down to a two-way contest between Social Democrat Olaf Scholz, the moderate finance minister, and Armin Laschet from Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats.

Polls give Scholz a small lead of about 26 percent over Laschet at around 22 percent, with the candidate from the ecologist Greens, Annalena Baerbock, trailing in the mid-teens.

Despite the urgency of the climate issue for a majority of Germans, particularly in the aftermath of deadly floods in the west of the country in July, this has failed to translate into strong support for the relatively inexperienced Baerbock.

She told Die Welt newspaper that she hoped Friday’s rally would give her party “tailwinds” heading into the vote. “The next government has to be a climate government – that will only work with a strong Green party.”   

More than 400 “climate strikes” are planned across Germany, with the Swedish Thunberg, who inspired the movement, expected to speak outside the Reichstag parliament building.

Thousands gathered on the lawn there from late morning bearing signs reading “Climate now, homework later”, “It’s our future” and simply “Vote”.

“Climate is an important issue and if this continues things are going to get worse and worse,” 14-year-old pupil Louise Herr told AFP.

Gathering under the banners “We are young and need the world!” and “Everything for the climate”, the activists are arguing that “climate crisis is this century’s biggest problem”.

READ ALSO: Climate change made German floods ‘more likely and more intense’

 ‘Unfair burden’

The activists will be part of a global climate strike in more than 1,000 communities around the world, Fridays for Future said.

Their central demand is to limit the warming of the Earth to maximum 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 Fahrenheit) as laid out in the 2015 Paris climate accord.

The Paris agreement set a goal of reducing global warming by two degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels with an aspiration to go further and cap the rise to 1.5 Celsius.

Despite Merkel’s vocal support of climate protection measures, Germany has repeatedly failed in recent years to meet its emission reduction targets under the pact.

In a landmark ruling in April, Germany’s constitutional court found the government’s plans to curb CO2 emissions “insufficient” to meet the targets of the Paris agreement and placed an “unfair burden” on future generations.

The Fridays for Future movement launched global school strikes more than two years ago arguing that time was running out to stop irreversible damage from the warming of the planet.

Demonstrators take to the streets in Berlin to call for urgent climate action. Photo: picture alliance/dpa/AP | Luca Bruno

In September 2019, it drew huge crowds in cities and towns around the world including 1.4 million protesters in Germany, according to organisers.

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic put the brakes on its weekly rallies but the election campaign in Europe’s top economy has revitalised the

“The climate crisis cannot be solved through party politics alone,” Thunberg told reporters ahead of her appearance in Berlin.

“We can’t just vote for change, we also have to be active democratic citizens and go out on the streets and demand action.”


Greens as junior partner?

Around 60.4 million Germans are called to the polls on Sunday and most voters cite climate protection among their top priorities.

All three leading parties have said they aim to implement a climate protection agenda if elected, with the Greens presenting the most ambitious package of measures.

However the Fridays for Future activists have said even the Greens’ official programme falls short of what is needed to stick to the 1.5 degree Celsius temperature rise.

The Greens want to end coal energy use by 2030 instead of the current 2038. They also want the production of combustion engine cars to end from the same year.

While the party is expected to fall far short of its ambition to win the election Sunday and place Baerbock in the chancellery, polls indicate it has a good chance of joining a ruling coalition as a junior partner under Scholz or Laschet.

By Deborah Cole