Carbon is not our enemy. We need to understand it to protect our future | CBC Documentaries


A couple of years ago, I realized there were few stories left to tell about the natural world that aren’t somehow shaped by our changing climate. 

Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography takes on one of the biggest science stories one could possibly tell: the chronicle of life through the eyes of carbon, the element found in all living things. Yet once again, the narrative leads us to the subject of a warming world. This is what it means to make science documentaries today, in the midst of a climate emergency.

Our children’s story will be one of change

We have known about this growing climate crisis since I was a child, and each decade since 1980 has been warmer than the previous one. The last seven years have been the hottest ever recorded. 

The good news is that most people surveyed believe climate change is a global emergency and the vast majority of scientists acknowledge that human activities are to blame. In 2015, the international community agreed to try to keep warming under 2 C by the middle of the 21st century — a difficult goal, but a blueprint for change. Finally. 

For me, the challenge is personal. By 2050, my two teenage daughters will be in the middle of their own professional careers and parenting storms. With any luck, I’ll be a white-haired grandfather, and my girls, alongside their own children, will be asking me what I was doing as the climate emergency took hold. Whether or not we succeed in making the transition to net zero, their lives will inevitably be shaped by this crisis. No matter what we do now, their seas will be rising, their summers will be hotter, and their weather will be weirder.

So I believe the story of my children, and of their entire generation, will be a story of change, of adaptation and of finding hope in new ways of life. Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography is likewise a story of transformation. Carbon is the great shape-shifter, the element that gives us life and renewal just as it threatens our survival.

Filmmaker Niobe Thompson believes we can work together to put carbon back in balance for our children’s future. (Niobe Thompson)

We aren’t at war with carbon

When two friends from Australia — co-director Daniella Ortega and co-producer Sonya Pemberton — invited me to join them in making Carbon, bringing a Canadian team of cinematographers, animators, musicians and editors to work with their crew, I jumped at the opportunity. I was entranced by the ambition and scope of their vision: to tell the story of our world, and our present moment, through the eyes of the element at the core of it all.  

I loved the idea of walking away from the thankless politics of the “climate wars” and toward an agnostic and open-eyed journey. We hear the cliché “everything is connected,” but with Carbon, here was the opportunity to actually explore the fascinating chemical reality of that idea.

We aren’t at war with carbon: we are carbon, and it’s in almost everything around us. Its gifts are endless, and we’ve taken those gifts for granted for too long.

But I believe that if we better understood carbon’s many faces, both creative and destructive, we could rise above the politics and into the realm of science. And there, we could work together to put the element back in balance for our children’s future.

In 2050, when my kids ask me what I was doing about the climate emergency, this film will be my answer.

Watch Carbon: The Unauthorized Biography on The Nature of Things.



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