In An Inconvenient Truth, the 2006 documentary about Al Gore’s PowerPoint presentation on climate change, there is a computer-generated visualization of water spilling into the streets of Manhattan and covering the 9/11 Memorial. If a certain proportion of ice around Greenland and Antarctica melted, Gore says, citing “Tony Blair’s scientific advisor,” the world’s sea level would rise, covering large swaths of the Financial District, along with places like Florida and Bangladesh.
I remember watching the film on a plane to New York and having my tiny mind blown. It’s the first time I had really thought about what climate change meant. I wasn’t alone. The movie was critically acclaimed for its ability to shock viewers into recognition that global warming was a serious threat and coming soon. Most of the images in the film, including CGI of a polar bear drowning, look schlocky now. Since its release, we’ve been inundated with footage of real climate devastation, including in the areas Gore warned about.
Dissent ran a prescient and critical review of the documentary: the “climate change is real” story was fine, but would it help us do anything about it? The piece argued that Gore’s doomsaying was just as likely to “heighten cynicism and despair” as it was to motivate his audience. Despite my visceral response to the film, I continued to mostly avoid climate activism because much of it came across as scolding and fixated on personal lifestyle choices. Gore’s approach did nothing to change my mind about that. In the film, he attempts to transcend polarization by arguing that climate change is not a political issue but a moral one—but moralism ignores the massive economic forces at play and doesn’t inspire us to challenge them. The film ends by imploring viewers to think about what they can do as individuals (recycling, longer-lasting light bulbs) to change the terrifying course of history he just laid out.
It sometimes feels as if we never moved past Gore’s basic framing. In much discussion of climate change, there’s a preoccupation with binaries (denier vs. believer, hope vs. pessimism) that sidesteps more difficult questions about solutions. As we saw with last year’s freak-out over gas prices, self-sacrifice is usually a difficult sell. A majority now seems to agree that we should do something. But what?
We finally saw some political movement on climate in 2022 after years of activist pressure. Instead of the Green New Deal, we got the Inflation Reduction Act, which is a major piece of legislation that falls short as an answer to the question of what to do. As Alyssa Battistoni argues in her introduction to this issue’s special section, the IRA doesn’t seem to have an answer to the key political question of how to create a constituency of people who are motivated to push for state action to slow global warming. Instead, it “represents a return to the strategy of quiet technocracy. The only people who know what the IRA does are those who already care about climate change.”
In its early days, the Green New Deal was sometimes misunderstood as a maximalist politics, or a “laundry list” of policies, but what those critics missed was the program’s strategic vision. If we are going to make changes large enough to make a difference, we need to persuade as many people as possible to get behind the intangible project of decarbonization by convincing them there’s a way to do it that can also improve their lives. The writers in this issue’s special section haven’t given up on that project—and despite its flaws, the IRA does provide new areas to push it forward. The terrain has shifted, in many ways for the better, and the left will need to respond in turn. Fortunately, more people have moved beyond the idea that all we need is more awareness. After all, it’s going to take more than PowerPoint presentations to pry our fate out of the clammy palms of fossil fuel executives.
Natasha Lewis is co-editor of Dissent.