The news, the former Vice-President says, has become “like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” But is fear enough to spur us to action?
In one of the most memorable moments of Al Gore’s new climate-change documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” Gore refers to a sequence from the film’s 2006 predecessor, the Oscar-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” The most criticized scene in that movie, he tells an audience of climate-change activists, was an animation showing how a combination of sea-level rise and storm surges could flood the National September 11 Memorial & Museum, then under construction in lower Manhattan. “People said, ‘That’s ridiculous. What a terrible exaggeration,’ ” Gore recalls. A moment later, on the screen behind him, the animated flood is replaced by news footage of Hurricane Sandy, which in late 2012 flooded the main floor of the unfinished museum with seven feet of black, debris-filled water. Several days after the storm, in a briefing on recovery efforts, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said, “There is a wakeup call here, and that is climate change and our vulnerability to it. It was true ten years ago, it was true five years ago. It is undeniable today.”
Eleven years ago, when “An Inconvenient Truth” was released, the effects of climate change were still, for most of us, the stuff of animations and projections. The connection between global warming and extreme weather, though well established in computer models, was difficult to demonstrate in the real world; as scientists routinely reminded the public, no single event—not even one as devastating as Hurricane Katrina—could be confidently attributed to humanity’s impact on the planet. Scientists’ characteristic caution, combined with the George W. Bush Administration’s deep hostility toward climate science and emissions reductions, ensured that in the United States, at least, the ramifications of climate change were almost always presented to the public as theoretical and highly uncertain. The souped-up PowerPoint presentation that was “An Inconvenient Truth” effectively separated facts from muddle, and Gore’s earnest, insistent monotone, for so long a political handicap, found its most successful application.
Today, both the causes and the effects of climate change are clearer, and while some people have been harder hit than others, few of us are totally untouched; the news, as Gore puts it in a practiced bit of dark humor, has become “like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.” The former Vice-President is still giving, and constantly updating, his presentation, and it is now filled with footage from climate-related disasters, ranging from the 2012 inundation of the 9/11 memorial to the painful, ongoing recovery from Typhoon Haiyan, the intense 2013 storm that killed more than six thousand people in the Philippines and affected some eleven million others throughout Southeast Asia. After a 2015 heat wave killed more than twelve hundred Pakistanis, Gore reports, cemeteries in the city of Karachi prepared for the following summer by digging anticipatory mass graves.
“An Inconvenient Sequel,” which opened in select cities on Friday and will open nationwide next week, arrives on the heels of a widely shared New York magazine article by David Wallace-Wells. The piece describes, in dramatic terms, the worst-case repercussions of climate change. “Absent a significant adjustment to how billions of humans conduct their lives, parts of the Earth will likely become uninhabitable, and other parts horrifically inhospitable, as soon as the end of this century,” Wallace-Wells writes. Some climatologists objected to the article’s characterizations of their work, but the real controversy centered on its approach. Michael Mann, the director of the Earth System Science Center, at Pennsylvania State University, declared that he was “not a fan of this sort of doomiest framing,” and the sociologist Daniel Aldana Cohen described it as “climate disaster porn.” Wallace-Wells, for his part, acknowledged that his piece was “alarmist,” and proudly so. “We should be alarmed,” he wrote after its publication. (Earlier this month, the biologist Paul Ehrlich used a similar defense after co-authoring a study that warned of a coming “annihilation” of vertebrates. “I am an alarmist,” Ehrlich told the Washington Post. “My colleagues are alarmists. We’re alarmed, and we’re frightened. And there’s no other way to put it.”)
Psychologists have studied the dynamics of what advertisers call “fear appeals,” and they have found that while fear is very good at getting our attention, it’s not very good at keeping it. For that, the scary stuff must be followed by solutions that are small enough to be practical but large enough to be meaningful. Wallace-Wells’s article, “The Uninhabitable Earth,” successfully got attention, quickly becoming the most-viewed article in New York’s history. But it offers little in the way of fixes, nodding briefly to the allure—if not the wisdom—of geoengineering and suggesting that civilization will eventually cobble together a substantive response to climate change, if only because the alternative is so appalling. “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which is a work of advocacy rather than journalism, pivots efficiently away from its disaster reel and toward solutions, cheering the rise of cheaper renewables and the promise of the Paris climate accord, even in the wake of the U.S.’s withdrawal. But its tight focus on Gore means that grassroots climate activists—many of whom were galvanized by Gore’s first film, and by the hundreds of training he has held in the years since—get short shrift. For the most part, they are shown sitting in auditoriums, listening raptly to Gore’s presentation. A long segment of the film is devoted to Gore’s behind-the-scenes negotiations with the Indian delegation at the Paris conference—which, while procedurally interesting, is hardly the sort of thing that most viewers can try at home.
Intentionally or unintentionally, “The Uninhabitable Earth” leaves room for something “An Inconvenient Sequel” does not: grief. The present and possible future ravages of climate change, on our own species and others, are enormous, often overwhelmingly sad, and most of us would rather not contemplate them. Wallace-Wells, as a journalist, isn’t professionally obligated to pivot away from the worst-case scenarios, and he makes the unusual decision to leave us staring at them. The vintage isn’t pleasant, but its provision feels, oddly, like a gesture of respect: for once, we’re given a chance to absorb and reflect, and, in time, find our own way to a response.
I saw “An Inconvenient Sequel” on a hot July night in Portland, Oregon, at a screening hosted by the environmental group Renew Oregon and attended by Governor Kate Brown. Brown has committed her state to meeting the emissions-reduction goals set by the Paris accord, but most paths to those goals require a price on carbon, and Oregon legislators have so far failed to approve a bill that would do so. At the screening, she announced, to enthusiastic applause, that she would work to pass a state “cap and invest” bill in 2018. “I think the rest of the world needs to see Americans, and Oregonians, standing up,” she told me later. “We must participate, and we must be part of the solution.”
After the credits rolled, Shilpa Joshi, a Renew Oregon staffer, stood to speak to the audience and acknowledged the weight of the suffering we had just witnessed. “My family is from India, and it resonates with me on a deep level,” she said. She then described how audience members could help build support for a clean-energy economy in Oregon, detailing the kind of right-sized solutions that the movie had only touched upon. “Change at the local level is the best way to create real change in our state, and in our country, and in our world,” she reminded her listeners. No matter how climate change is framed—no matter how sunny or doleful the vision—it’s what happens off the screen, and off the page, that will decide whether the planet remains habitable.