Another Inconvenient Truth

Another Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore’s global-warming slideshow, An Inconvenient Truth, is now one of the top-grossing documentaries of all time; by the time you are reading this, it’s likely to have settled in at #3, behind Fahrenheit 9/11 and March of the Penguins. His accompanying book spent a very hot summer near the top of the best-seller lists.

Most viewers and reviewers have been enthusiastic. In part, this reflects the contrast between our collective memory of the programmed and stiff Democratic presidential candidate and Gore’s movie persona. Ironically, by being in the wonkiest context imaginable, he comes across as passionate, sincere, and likable. Gore also delivers his message well. He simplifies the science without oversimplifying. His clear graphs and often captivating images can propel viewers to the conclusion that climate change is a present and fast-paced reality, rather than a far-off and slowly evolving possibility. This is the “inconvenient truth” that he counterposes to denial by both leaders and the public.

As I sat in the theater, though, I kept glancing down at my watch. I wasn’t bored, but was wondering when the spotlight would shift from the problem to a meaningful discussion of solutions and strategies for change. As the movie neared its end, I was still waiting. Finally, interspersed with the closing credits, the movie offered suggestions for “what you personally can do.” That this was presented literally as an afterthought was disappointing enough, but much of the content also seemed tired, rehashing such familiar nostrums as buying compact fluorescent lightbulbs and bringing a reusable tote to the supermarket, as well as an earnest suggestion that got a big laugh in my theater: run for Congress.

To be sure, several million people have now walked away from theaters with a clearer sense of what Gore rightly describes as a planetary emergency. In this sense, he seems to have won the argument. More accurately, he has effectively popularized the argument already “won” in the scientific community: global climate change is real; is happening; and, if it remains unchecked, will have devastating impacts upon life on earth.

Yet Gore’s project is obviously designed to get people to act to avert the crisis that he describes. What impact will winning this particular argument—about the pressing nature of the problem—have upon action? The premise of the movie—a commonplace one in environmentalist circles—is that the impact will be great. Yet this premise is dubious and often limits the success of environmentalist efforts.

Environmentalists often diagnose public opinion as a key obstacle to effective action on concerns including climate change. The public is ignorant; we must inform and educate them. The public is apathetic; we must shout louder to shake them of their apathy. The public is egoistic and materialistic; we must appeal to morality and get them to sacrifice. T...