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Risk and Response: Lessons from First Reformed and Force Majeure


This article was commissioned as part of the series Science on Screen: Extinction and Otherwise, to accompany the screenings of FORCE MAJEURE and FIRST REFORMED on April 17, 2022 at Museum of the Moving Image.

Responding to rapid environmental change

Have you read the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report? The full version is 2,913 pages. It’s the latest in a long line of exhaustive, peer-reviewed publications synthesizing the state of global knowledge on anthropogenic climate change. The first IPCC report was published in 1990— the year I was born— and the IPCC’s findings have grown increasingly dire over time. According to this most recent report, average global surface temperature has already increased by 1.1°C since the preindustrial era, and global greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) are at an all-time high. Coral reefs are dying en masse, sea level rise is accelerating, adaptation planning is not keeping pace with the rate of environmental change, and global oil demand has not yet peaked. The evidence can be overwhelming. Are we past the point of no return?

This is one of many provocative and existential questions explored in Paul Schrader’s searing FIRST REFORMED, a film steeped in themes of uncertainty, despair, and the struggle for hope amid rapid environmental change. At a time when religious affiliation in the United States is in decline and concerns about climate change impacts are growing, Reverend Ernst Toller’s plight is a compelling vehicle through which to navigate some of these issues. Toller’s small, historic, eponymously-named church— referred to by some as “the gift shop”— is grappling with dwindling attendance and has mostly been subsumed by a new megachurch, “Abundant Life.” This development mirrors a real trend across the United States: rising costs have made operation increasingly difficult for small churches, leading to an increasing concentration of attendees in megachurches. Toller struggles to maintain First Reformed’s financial and spiritual independence from Abundant Life, choosing to fix leaky pipes himself rather than accept further assistance from the megachurch. First Reformed’s proud legacy as a stop on the Underground Railroad has not been forgotten, though this history does not generate significant financial revenues. Toller is reluctant to accept help from Abundant Life in part because the fictional Balq Industries—one of the world’s biggest polluters—is a significant donor.


Ethan Hawke in FIRST REFORMED

Pollution is a fixture of our modern world. While pollution and economic growth often go hand-in-hand— with an uneven distribution of benefits and damages—our current economic trajectory does not appear compatible with global climate goals. The final line of the IPCC Working Group II’s most recent report does not mince words:

"The cumulative scientific evidence is unequivocal: Climate change is a threat to human well-being and planetary health. Any further delay in concerted anticipatory global action on adaptation and mitigation will miss a brief and rapidly closing window of opportunity to secure a liveable and sustainable future for all."

The scale, pace, and complexity of what is required to meet the 2016 Paris Agreement goals of 1.5°C and robust adaptation is difficult for one person to comprehend. At times it can feel paralyzing, even for scientists working in the field. Do you buy that airplane ticket, even though it’s the only way to see family? Should you cut down on eating beef, even though it’s part of your culture and you like a burger every once in while? How do you give up your car, when a Tesla is too expensive and public transportation options are limited? Are you wasting your time by focusing on personal behaviors instead of systemic change and accountability for companies like Balq? So much of our current economy and culture depends on fossil fuels that many of us are not unlike Reverend Toller—caught in a web of larger forces and doing our best to make good environmental choices to the extent we can. While institutional change is in motion—with a growing number of faith organizations, universities, and public pension funds divesting their portfolios from fossil fuel investments in recent years—fossil energy is still deeply embedded in our economy, financial systems, and language, making “fighting the system” a daily decision point for many. For the time being, divesting from fossil fuels in our personal lives can be costly. In the midst of Putin’s barbaric war on Ukraine, some Europeans are now dealing with the uncomfortable reality that their homes are being heated and food refrigerated using imported fossil fuels that support the Russian regime and also warm the climate. Giving up on fossil fuels is not so easy, even when we are aware of their destructive effects.

A central character in FIRST REFORMED is Michael, a 30 year-old environmental activist with the group “Green Planet.” Michael is deeply troubled by the ongoing global mass extinction event caused by human activity and the potential for social breakdown under climate change. His wife, Mary, is pregnant, and Michael fears the child might someday resent them for being brought into the world. Michael is not alone in this regard— a small but significant share of adults in the United States say they are unlikely to ever have children due to environmental reasons and the “state of the world.” These statistics resonate with my personal experience: I have friends who are choosing not to have children, in part due to concerns about the environment, and others who are at least seriously contemplating the morality of this decision.


Still from FIRST REFORMED

A pivotal scene in the film is a conversation between Michael and Reverend Toller. Michael refused to speak with counselors from Abundant Life, on the grounds they were “more like a company than a church.” The conversation was orchestrated by Mary and took place against the backdrop of Michael’s office, chock full of data visualization printouts, scientific reports, and artifacts honoring activists killed while protecting the environment. An avid consumer of scientific products, Michael appears up to date on the scientific consensus on climate change and mass extinction. His difficulties stem not from lack of comprehension, but from an inability to cope with the deeply troubling evidence he’s confronted by. Science does an excellent job producing knowledge and evaluating policy alternatives, but questions of ethics, values, and purpose are not easily answered by the scientific method. Toller counsels Michael to the best of his ability, at one point remarking that in dark times, “We choose hope or despair. We cannot avoid choosing. We must choose despite uncertainty.” Sadly, despite Toller’s best efforts and earnest pleas, Michael is unable to find hope and ultimately succumbs to the idea of an “unliveable” future. The tragic end of Michael’s life calls attention to the emerging mental health challenges caused by the state of the environment, and also makes us reconsider the extent to which hope is even a choice for some.

Some reasons for optimism

Despite many grim realities portrayed in FIRST REFORMED, there are also reasons to be hopeful about improving the state of our climate and ecosystems. As the IPCC noted above, the window of opportunity has not yet closed. An uncertain future also means positive change is possible. While encouraging developments have emerged on many fronts in recent years, below are three bright spots that should inspire some optimism.

First, the global energy system is in the midst of a historic transformation, with the price of renewable energy plummeting and deployment of solar, wind, and batteries growing exponentially in recent years. Internal combustion engines and gas ranges appear poised to join the ranks of the horse and buggy and fire stove as antiquated technologies in the high-income world. In addition to climate benefits, the transition to clean energy sources and a more-electrified economy will save many lives by improving indoor and outdoor air quality. While it will not be a perfectly smooth transition, we are starting to turn the page on the fossil fuel era, and market forces are steadily moving us toward a clean energy future.

Second, there is evidence we have begun to “bend the curve” on global GHG emissions, though the global community is still far off track from meeting the Paris Agreement goals of 1.5°C or even 2°C. Raising policy ambition and further investing in solutions that reduce net GHG emissions can bend the curve even further. Recent surveys suggest Americans widely support these types of policies, including further investment in renewables, a CO2 emissions tax for fossil fuel companies, and stricter regulations on GHGs. While the scale of further change required is immense, it is important to acknowledge progress where it has been made and leverage momentum where it exists.

Third, persistent and growing focus on inequality, environmental justice, and climate accountability suggests the transition to a clean energy economy may avoid repeating past injustices or letting those who engaged in disinformation campaigns about climate change proceed unchecked. While mechanisms for local and global climate justice are still nascent, programs like the Biden Administration’s Justice40 Initiative and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC)’s Least Developed Countries Fund are indicative of growing institutional prioritization of justice and equity in the reorientation toward climate resilient development.

Despite dark tones and a near-catastrophic ending, FIRST REFORMED ultimately avoids the worst potential outcome and ends on a note of cautious hope. While in 2022 humanity is no doubt in an unprecedented situation, global climate action to date has already begun to steer us on a course away from the most disastrous scenarios. Earlier this month, IPCC Chair Hoesung Lee provided this remark on the state of climate action: “We are at a crossroads. The decisions we make now can secure a liveable future. We have the tools and know-how required to limit warming.”

We have the tools and know-how. We have the power to shape a better future. There is also evidence we can stabilize the climate in our lifetimes.

Will we? I hope so. It will take a lot of hopeful individuals to make that happen.

What can we learn from natural hazard risks?

Natural hazard-induced disasters not only cause destruction and loss of life; they also hold a mirror up to us as individuals and a society. Examples of this abound. For instance, the COVID-19 pandemic redefined “essential work.” Recent evidence also shows the federal government tends to provide more assistance to white households than Black households after disasters, even if similar damages are experienced. California—arguably the most liberal state in the union—saves approximately $100 million annually by paying incarcerated people a few dollars per day to fight fires. In moments of crisis, it is difficult to mask our true character and priorities. FORCE MAJEUREtells the story of a family whose idyllic vacation in the French Alps is disrupted by a “controlled” avalanche. This brief encounter with an environmental hazard has life-altering effects for the family, and reveals underlying problems that appear to have been simmering beneath the surface for some time.


Still from FORCE MAJEURE

What makes an avalanche a disaster? Is it the awe-inspiring movement of a huge mass of snow? Or does it only become a disaster when the snow negatively impacts people and property? There is a growing contingent of subject matter experts elevating the idea that “disasters are not natural.” The idea is that while avalanches, hurricanes, and earthquakes are naturally-occurring phenomena that predate humanity, their destructive impacts are largely socially-constructed and not inevitable. For example, hurricanes would cause less damage if fewer people lived in vulnerable structures along the Gulf of Mexico and southeast Atlantic. Fires would destroy less property if less (or more resilient) building occurred in the wildland-urban interface. In FORCE MAJEURE, the avalanche does not physically harm any structures or people— it does, however, exacerbate preexisting family fissures and produce some interpersonal damage.

The film’s premise centers around people who spend thousands of dollars to enjoy skiing— an inherently risky activity—in a breathtaking setting. This setting happens to be in the potential path of vast amounts of snow. Given inextricable linkages between risk and reward, oftentimes the most enjoyable activities and places in life are hazard-prone. One of the more fascinating dynamics in my own research on urban flood risk and climate change impacts is the fact that for some people, the benefits of coastal living far outweigh the potential costs of rising sea levels or intensifying storms. The phrase “no risk, no reward” is applicable across contexts, from finance to skiing to climate change impacts.

As the past two years have made clear, we do not live in a zero-risk world. We’ve also learned our individual risks are often collectively determined. Climate change is shaking the very foundations of our social and economic structures, and is forcing us to reassess how we manage risk as both individuals and a society. The impacts of a warming world will manifest in myriad ways, through both slow-onset changes (e.g., sea level rise) and greater extremes (e.g., record-breaking bursts of rainfall and droughts). When confronting these risks, the hope is that we’ll rise to the challenge with the utmost integrity and sagacity. However, it is possible our responses may at times be flawed, underwhelming, and/or self-serving, not unlike Tomas’s abandonment of his children and wife, Ebba, in the decisive avalanche scene of FORCE MAJEURE. Perhaps more damaging than Tomas’s less-than-heroic response is his stubborn and prolonged denial of any fault in the aftermath. When Ebba confronts him about his behavior, it results in a profound identity crisis for Tomas—seemingly driven by some fragile masculinity— that temporarily destabilizes the family.


Still from FORCE MAJEURE

In our individual and collective responses to climate change, it will be essential to honestly assess our actions and policy—even if they reveal us to be selfish or unjust—so that we at least share a common epistemic basis. Clear-eyed assessments will help allocate accountability, improve policy design, and avoid repeating mistakes. Some of our responses may be like Tomas’s, others like Ebba’s. Perennial tensions between self-preservation instincts and potential benefits of collective action are unlikely to abate with climate change. However, while some level of risk is an inevitable part of the human experience, risk mismanagement is not.


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