First published by New Scientist
In probably the only Oscar-winning film to revolve around a slide show, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth set out the science of climate change in 2006, at a time when public interest in the subject was sparking. It made a big splash, yet coincided with a fiery and divisive fork in the road for US climate politics.
It would be going too far to say that the association of the former Democratic presidential candidate with climate change caused the political polarisation around the issue. But he has certainly acted as a lightning rod for the bitter divide that has scarred the US public and political discourse on it ever since.
Now he is back with the follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel, at a very different moment in time. Although the partisan split on climate endures – exposed most recently in president Donald Trump’s withdrawal from the UN Paris accord – public attitudes to the political establishment have changed markedly, with a populist backlash far and wide.
In this context, is a film fronted by a highly polarising political figure the right choice for a big-budget climate campaign in 2017?
Unless Gore and the film’s producers envisage campaigners dragging their climate-sceptic uncles to the cinema with them, the documentary can only hope to further galvanise the already-concerned.
Call to the converted
In many ways, preaching to the converted is still a reasonable aim: psychological research shows that even among those who express concern about climate change, meaningful lifestyle modifications are inconsistent, or absent altogether, and the issue is rarely anyone’s top priority. Mobilising the core climate vote to – as the strapline of the movie puts it – speak “truth to power” would still be a positive result.
The sequel also takes a different tack to that of its predecessor. Rather than Gore pointing sternly at graphics, it is an attempt to present climate change impacts in action, showcasing the stories of those affected and pointing to the technological progress on decarbonisation.
In this, it follows in the footsteps of actor Leonardo DiCaprio’s 2016 documentary Before the Flood and the US TV series Years of Living Dangerously (which combined celebrity narrators with the voices of ordinary US citizens and others across the world who are impacted by climate change).
An inconvenient focus?
Yet the film still revolves around Gore, and arguably this isn’t helpful. An Inconvenient Sequel features – predictably – potshots at Trump’s populist climate denial, and the pantomime in the White House is certainly an obvious and justifiable target. However, wouldn’t a smarter choice, in terms of reaching beyond the usual suspects, have been for Gore to remove himself from the picture, dial down the Republican-baiting, and instead provide a platform for new, less politically divisive voices?
With rumours of a 2020 nomination not yet being denied by his team, Gore’s re-emergence as the public face of climate change could even run the risk of being seen as strategic positioning for the next race for a Democratic presidential candidate.
Speaking truth to power is crucial. But speaking truth to each other on climate change – beyond the green bubble – is also vital. This is something Gore knows well, from the work done by his Climate Reality Project.
So despite his obvious passion, An Inconvenient Sequel would have more chance of sparking conversations among the disengaged if it gave more prominence to perspectives other than Gore’s.