2040 film climate change
A still from Damon Gameau's new documentary 2040.

It’s easy to become despondent about the state of the climate and our country’s lack of response to it — especially after the federal election. But Australian director Damon Gameau hasn’t fallen into despair.

In his recently released documentary 2040, he instead focusses on the positives: how our leaders could evolve their language and rhetoric around the climate emergency (something that has, incidentally, been a topic of recent fierce debate), and how we could not only stop but reverse the climate crisis.

The film looks at how existing technologies and practices — from carbon-absorbing seaweed to micro solar grid — could reverse our fate in two decades’ time. It’s been praised as a balm for “ecoanxiety”, a huge change from the constant doom and gloom. Crikey sat down with Gameau to see if it’s all too good to be true.

CrikeyWhy did you choose to take a positive, solution-based approach in your film when discussing the climate emergency?

Gameau: We’re stacked full of the negative stories; all the latest neuroscience says if you keep giving people that negative information over and over again it actually can paralyse some people, so a great motivator is to give them an outcome, give people some hope, a vision of what could be.

I just thought that part of the narrative needed to be introduced. It’s like going to the doctors, you want to know what’s wrong with you but you also want to know what you can do about it to fix yourself.

When watching 2040, the scenarios you present seem overly optimistic and positive. It seems too good to be true. Have you had that reaction a lot, or do you think there are other factors at play to people’s general sense of hopelessness when addressing the climate emergency?

Gameau: People are cynical, and that’s understandable given the world we’re in now and the lack of leadership we’re getting. People are really dubious and , with the amount of information that’s out there, you don’t know who to believe anymore. But I spent three years diving into this; we did eight months of research talking to 100 different scientists, academics and economists before we even started filming and I categorically say everything we show is completely factual, it’s true, I’ve seen it in action.

I’m deeply concerned about teaching my daughter to be discerning, to be skeptical about things, to make sure she questions everything. So I applied that same approach to this. I certainly didn’t want it to be some fanciful, utopia projection for her.

What I wanted to do with the film was introduce some of these concepts that people didn’t know about. And that’s the overwhelming response I’m getting from the film: ‘how did we not know?’

One of the main points of documentary is that we need strong political leadership to address this climate emergency. With that in mind, what was your response to Australia’s election results?

Gameau: It’s just a failure of storytelling. It was a battle of two stories, and one side had $60 million spent on it plus a whole fear campaign based on no policies. The fact that the majority of our newspapers are controlled by one organisation that has, at its heart, coal as a vested interest… it’s even harder to get our story through.

I think the other side failed to tell their story properly and adequately in selling this vision as a way to build more jobs to create those better communities, to provide security for people.

[However] to imply that some of these people don’t care about the environment or don’t care about their kids’ future I think is nonsense. I don’t think the vision of a better future was sold to them enough to make them feel comfortable.

One of the biggest films that brought the climate crisis into the public and political discussion was An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. Do you think the discussion of climate has shifted since then, and where does 2040 sit in relation to this?

Gameau: More than ever we need to understand that there is a common enemy: this vested interest. And we have to find ways to overcome it.

Whenever it looks like there’s going to be change — which Al Gore’s film did — there’s a spike of interest. Then all this information came out saying it was a hoax and we went backwards. [Vested interests] did a bloody good job and they continue to do so.

What role does film and art play in our understanding of the climate crisis and our response to it?

Gameau: They play a massive role in it, you look at all the Hollywood films and their portrayal of the future and it’s this dystopic narrative of robots and slums. That imagery can be very powerful on how we think the future might be.

I think now more than ever we need storytellers in this climate crisis to throw up their own visions of the future and get people to think a little bit laterally. We’ve totally communicated this problem in scientific language — anthropogenic, negative emissions etc — and there’s nothing there that stirs the soul or makes us want to connect with those things.

I think artists have a role in decoding that information and putting it in a way that’s more accessible to everyone; you look historically and that’s always happened.

You hark back to historical examples, but right now we’re living in an age where we’re more distracted by technology than ever. Does that give you some pause for thought on how you go about telling this story?

Gameau: Yes, we’re up against more content and more distractions but as we’ve seen, things can spread so quickly. Look at how kids are joining up around the world with climate strikes, they’re meeting up with kids on the other side of the world and strategising. They could never have done that 200 years ago. There are pros and cons, but I think this is an advantage. They’re being heard really loudly.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 2040 is in cinemas now.