THE BLOG
04/29/2014 06:54 pm ET Updated Jun 29, 2014

Hollywood Fails on Climate Change With 'Rio 2'

I took my son to see Rio 2 this weekend. In the movie, a huge flock of bright blue macaws prevents loggers from knocking down the Amazonian rainforest. The ingenious birds swarm the loggers Hitchcock-style, jam stones into the engines of their noisy trucks, and untie dynamite from trees in the nick of time. The good guys and the forest win.

The film's Brazilian director, Carlos Saldanha, has said that he hopes Rio 2 will spark a conversation about climate change and inspire children to save our environment, and such efforts to initiate any dialogue about climate change should be applauded.

But Saldanha's depiction of the Brazilian Amazon misses the mark and does the cause a disservice. The only humans in Rio 2's rainforest are the nefarious loggers and a bumbling married couple who are devoted to finding endangered birds. There is no mention of the indigenous people who have lived in and taken care of the rainforest for millennia.

Amid the film's colorful cast of cute birds and growling villains, there is no room for real people like Almir Surui, chief of the Paiter-Surui indigenous people, whose territory straddles the Mato Grosso-Rondônia border of Brazil. Almir connected his people to Google Earth in 2007 to better enable them to police their territories against loggers.

And with the support of several groups including the Katoomba Incubator, a project of Forest Trends that is designed to support new initiatives that can then be replicated around the world, the Surui also implemented a forest-carbon financing project. Through the program (called REDD, for Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation), the community earns money for protecting 240,000 hectares of Amazon rainforest in hopes of earning 8 million carbon offsets.
The Surui have set up a fund to administer the income and coordinate future development, supporting other elements of the Surui's 50-year plan, or "Plan de Vida."

Another great project is IKEA Foundation's work with indigenous youth and women in Brazil, specifically with the Surui and the Yawanawa communities. "Leveraging Opportunities for Amazonian Indigenous Youth and Women in Brazil" focuses on renewable energy investments and the empowerment of the local community. It's exciting work - creating lasting, powerful opportunities for the indigenous population - that has the potential to have far-reaching influence.

And Hollywood need look no further than its own state for inspiration: In March, at the "Navigating the American Carbon World" conference, the California Air Resources Board announced that the agency will continue considering allowing REDD offsets into its cap-and-trade program.

Obviously, the mission of entertainment is to entertain, and Rio 2 is not a documentary on the people working to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions. Yet there is no denying the cynical greed at play here in dragging in the issue of climate change as the skeleton on which to hang catchy tunes, jokey dialogue, and some famous voices.

How can we conceive of a solution - how can we expect our children to conceive of a solution - to a complicated problem like climate change when we can't properly imagine the place that we're dealing with because we are instead presented with factually incorrect and facile representations of the elements of the issue?

Entertainment is one of America's main exports; Rio 2 will be seen all over the world. What is the role, then, of American entertainment as a messenger and agent for change - especially in the context of children as the audience?

Hollywood chooses to ignore, sugar-coat, and not properly address the issue of climate change - except in the most unproductive way possible, with films like Rio 2 and a seemingly endless series of films about dystopian futures in which Earth has been destroyed by some unnamed climate disaster.

The negation of real climate change problems and solutions contrasts with Hollywood's otherwise meaningful impact on many other critical issues: racism, gay rights, and workers' rights, to name a few.

Why not create a Rio 2 with elements based more solidly in the reality of the issue of climate change and the people seeking answers, and have kids loop into what's really happening - and how they can actually make a difference (and not just save a few pretty birds)? Is the problem of climate change really so intractable that any portrayal can only depict it being solved by a flock of 3-D, color-saturated CGI creations?

There are real solutions to climate change and real people helping to enact them. Let our kids hear about them, and tell the kind of magical, transformative story that can create change. And if you're going to exploit climate change to sell movie tickets to kids, make sure you give back a little - inspire young people into action.

This report was filed by Ann Espuelas.