Today, as I peek in horror through my fingers at the images of Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States of America, I vividly remember how disappointed I felt in 2000 when a handful of questionable chads lost Al Gore the election…but that’s because I’ve always hated the MS-Windows operating system! If Gore had won, the Microsoft anti-trust case would have progressed and the PC community might have been saved from the tragedy of Vista…
Of course, on a more serious note, history will show that there were other tragedies that might have been prevented, and opportunities that could have been seized, had Gore won. We’ll never know what an Al Gore Presidency would have achieved, but we can be pretty sure that the US would have started to tackle climate change much earlier.
Grist does a great job telling the behind the scenes story of how the near-loss of his son in an accident led Al Gore to re-examine what he stood for as a politician. Starting in 1989, Gore began developing and working on his presentation. By 2006 he had delivered it over a thousand times, obsessing over every detail of the content, presentation and delivery (apparently he continues to make changes every day). An Inconvenient Truth, “a movie about a slideshow that saved the world” was launched at the Sundance festival in 2006 and went on to win an Oscar, and Al himself shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in 2007.
But did the movie really change the world? How successful was it in communicating arguably the most important issue facing humanity?
The research suggests it did. A study by the Nielsen Company and Oxford University stated that 66% of people changed their mind about global warming after seeing the film and 89% said it made them more aware of the problem. Anecdotally, this feels right. I remember a board discussion at the time with a (fairly conservative) venture capitalist, not someone naturally attracted to green messages, who said: “I saw the film. There’s no doubt that something has to be done.”
But did it actually generate meaningful action? Here, I’m not so sure. The same study suggested that three-quarters of viewers changed some of their habits after seeing the film – but were these changes sustained? I suspect that much of the public awareness generated was lost in the aftermath of the Global Financial Crisis (another man-made disaster). As recession and austerity struck, worrying about an inconvenient problem down the track became a luxury that government, business and society felt they could not afford.
The intensity of the discussion may have waned, but in the background the work continued with initiatives such as the Climate Reality Project and Inconvenient Youth training a small army of activists to deliver Gore’s presentation all around the world.
The scientific debate also continued, with some of the film’s bolder projections de-bunked and others found to have been not pessimistic enough. Gore’s status and motivations as a politician were questioned and high court actions were launched to prevent the film being presented to schools in the absence of “balanced alternative views”. But in the end, I believe that the scientific battle has been won over this last decade. Fewer politicians are now outright deniers and so the tactics have become more insidious. Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt (FUD) is the new weapon of choice from those to whom climate change policy responses are most inconvenient: “not all of the scientific questions have been settled”, “we don’t understand everything about the climate”, “there are changes, but we don’t know how much is man-made” and the most dangerous – “it’s not the top priority”.
Meanwhile (at least before what may have been a historic setback today), Al Gore’s movement is starting to generate real action. The agreement in Paris was remarkable and, while lacking teeth, may not be easily dismantled. There is a sense that the effects of the crisis are already upon us, but also that the solutions are on-hand and need only a little help to become “economic truths” that are widely held to be self-evident.
An Inconvenient Truth may yet be seen as one of the most influential communication programs in human history. But the world badly needs a sequel to generate new interest in the franchise. Fear not. Last year, Leonardo de Caprio stepped up as a new disciple (albeit with mixed reviews) with his film Before the Flood. And only yesterday, with exquisite timing, Al Gore launched an updated movie “An Inconvenient Sequel” at Sundance. My son turned 18 today, I can’t wait to see it with him.
We may have lost a decade in action, but An Inconvenient Truth played a pivotal role in winning the battle for the truth about climate change. Now we need to pick up the pace, because as Al Gore himself said: “how fast we win matters a lot.”