by George Wolf
“Science can only advance when you do things that other people say can’t be done.”
So says climate scientist Lonnie Thompson, PhD, and he should know. He’s been walking the walk for decades, and Canary finds him finally ready to start talking the talk.
And yes, the title does refer to the “canary in a coal mine” metaphor, but directors Danny O’Malley and Alex Rivest wisely spend half of the film’s running time on an extended introduction to a man who’s been described as “the closest living thing to Indiana Jones.”
Growing up poor in West Virginia mining county, Lonnie took his scientific mind to Ohio State University to explore coal geology. But a research job studying glaciers changed the course of his life, and ultimately, the very nature of climate research.
Since 1989, Lonnie and his wife Ellen Mosely-Thompson, PhD, have run OSU’s Byrd Polar and Climate Research Center, spearheading groundbreaking work that earned Lonnie a National Medal of Science.
Lonnie’s background and achievements are extraordinary, as O’Malley and Rivest show us a man that none but the most rabid ideologue could ever accuse of grandstanding. His only agenda is scientific fact. But after decades of climbing mountains, drilling into previously unexplored ice caps and collecting indispensable data on the effects of climate change, Lonnie had to face some colder, harder facts.
“What do you not see? Why the disbelief?”
Though he long believed his work would speak for itself, and that the different sides of the political spectrum could “debate solutions, but accept the facts,” Lonnie saw things begin to change in the early 2000s. Canary connects some dots of the misinformation campaign that turned the tide, with evidence of some high-profile politicians quickly shifting their stances.
Lonnie came to accept how hard people will fight back against a forced change in lifestyle, and we see that play out with irony in his own home. Lonnie himself ignored the science of his doctor’s advice and kept climbing until it nearly killed him.
And now, as he sees global CO2 levels still rising, Lonnie realizes his time may best be spent not by collecting another ice core, but by spreading the word of what a lifetime of “doing his research” has revealed.
The film is an awe-inspiring and important step on that journey. Lonnie still believes that if humans can cause a problem, then humans can also solve that problem. And Canary‘s biggest success comes from giving you no reason to doubt the man, even if you want to.