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Waiting to Exhale? 

Flick Chick

Published June 14, 2006 at 4:00 p.m.

The lyrics of a sardonic song from Hair, a 1967 musical that opened Off-Broadway three years before the first Earth Day, are poignantly prescient: "Welcome, sulphur dioxide. Hello, carbon monoxide. The air, the air is everywhere."

Four decades later carbon dioxide, a.k.a. CO2, sure seems to be everywhere. The greenhouse gas has been contributing to cataclysmic climate change, which is the subject of two new documentaries. Both are premiering in Chittenden County this Friday, with educational outreach from various socially responsible organizations and businesses.

An Inconvenient Truth, with Al Gore, opens at Burlington's Roxy. (Due to a miscommunication with the theater, a previous column incorrectly indicated a June 9 debut.) Several advance screenings have been arranged for employees of eco-friendly companies, such as Gardener's Supply, Green Mountain Coffee and City Market.

Narrated by actor Keanu Reeves and singer Alanis Morissette, The Great Warming unspools at the Palace 9 in South Burlington. A panel discussion after Friday's 6:30 p.m. show will include local attorney Ronald Shems, who represents Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth in a lawsuit against U.S. government agencies that funded oil-industry projects without evaluating their impact on global warming. To sweeten the deal, Ben & Jerry's plans to hand out free Fossil Fuel ice cream at the event.

Warming is the brainchild of co-writer/director Michael Taylor and producer Karen Coshof, a married couple from Montreal with a getaway home in Morrisville, Vermont. With a $3 million budget, the 120-minute film started out as a three-hour broadcast on Canada's Discovery Channel in 2004, followed by a much shorter PBS special last November.

"It was reaching the intelligentsia that already knows about this issue," says Coshof, 58. "Our objective was to use this medium to change things. We felt a theatrical release could speak to regular people."

The filmmakers also decided to add content that may appeal to just plain folks living across the Quebec border. "What matters in America are money, power and celebrity," Coshof contends. "That's a fact."

So it won't hurt that the Matrix guy and "Jagged Little Pill" gal -- both Canadians -- provide informative voiceovers to accompany the doc's spectacular visuals. From Cajun fishing guides on the pre-Katrina Gulf Coast to an Inner Mongolia family of nomadic goat herders watching solar-powered TV in their yurt, this is a nonfiction narrative with the sweeping imagery of an epic feature. Cinematographer Michael Ellis, shooting in eight countries on four continents, found a way to gorgeously illustrate what might otherwise be soporific facts and figures.

But statistics are not really sleep inducing when they portend widespread catastrophe. The 21st century's atmosphere contains at least 30 percent more carbon dioxide than had been anticipated, ushering in higher temperatures, crop failures, wildlife abnormalities, weather disasters, flooded lowlands and vulnerability to disease.

Most of the impressive talking heads on camera are climatologists, physicists and biologists. But Taylor and Coshof manage to corral a few Christian leaders who believe in the stewardship concept of Creation Care.

"To harm this world by environmental degradation is an offense against God," warns Reverend Richard Cizik, a National Association of Evangelicals official. New Hamp-shire pastor Matthew Sleeth, a former St. Johnsbury physician, asks rhetorically: "What do I owe the future?"

The future is Bourbon Street tarot-card reader John Williamson's trade. In a 2002 interview, he turns out to be as knowledgeable about wetlands as he is certain of what a big hurricane could do to the Big Easy. His prediction: "Au revoir, New Orleans."

Enough of the scary stuff. The Great Warming offers optimism by examining how human ingenuity might save us from ourselves. "It doesn't have to be just doom-and-gloom," Coshof suggests. "We need a message of hope."

Hope appears in the person of Klaus Lackner, among other innovators. The Columbia University geophysics professor is constructing the prototype of an immense collector for devouring CO2 much the way plants do during photosynthesis. The invention, which he calls a "synthetic tree," theoretically can filter out 90,000 tons of carbon dioxide each year, roughly equivalent to the emissions from 15,000 cars.

To gobble up all 22 billion tons of CO2 now plaguing us would require 250,000 such devices. A bit of an eyesore, perhaps? Yes, but Lackner says a single remote, unpopulated location will suffice, because these mechanisms are designed to essentially catch and cure the ill wind as it moves across the planet's sky. The air, the air is everywhere.

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Susan Green


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