An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Bonni Cohen & John Shenk. Participant Media/Actual Films: 2017.

Nobody (and given my experiences with climate deniers, I speak with some authority here) has been more vilified for their efforts to communicate the climate threat than Al Gore.

Al Gore meets Filipino typhoon survivor Demi Raya and Alfred Romualdez, former mayor of Tacloban City, in An Inconvenient Sequel. Credit: Paramount Pictures 2017

As US vice-president under Bill Clinton, Gore became the figurehead of the movement to combat human-driven global warming. He also became the preferred punchbag for climate-change cynics in search of a straw man. Gore is such a towering, seemingly unassailable figure in this arena that critics have gone after him with all guns blazing. As Tom Toles and I noted in our book The Madhouse Effect (Columbia Univ. Press, 2016; see D. Reay Nature 538, 34–35; 2016): “They have criticized his weight, his energy bills, and incidents in his personal life — indeed, pretty much anything else they can scrape up.”

There's one problem with taking on Gore. He punches back, and above his weight. After all, he's up against arguably the most entrenched, wealthy and powerful industry the world has ever known: fossil fuels. And this pugilist is still very much in the fight. Witness his new film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power — the follow-up to his 2006 An Inconvenient Truth.

For those fearing a preachy PowerPoint lecture on climate science, be assured: An Inconvenient Sequel isn't that. Rather, it largely takes the scientific evidence as a given, not least because Gore has already done a whole film on that. This instalment is an attempt to show us how striking climate impacts have become in the decade since his first movie.

Early in An Inconvenient Sequel, there's a scene on the Greenland ice sheet, where glaciologists Eric Rignot and Konrad Steffen point to the dramatic retreat of ice in recent years. We witness rivers of surface melt water gushing away from the ice sheet to the open water of the North Atlantic Ocean. Gore poses the question: “Where is all of that water going?” He then answers it. We're transported to Miami Beach, Florida, where we witness the flooding of streets that now comes simply with seasonal high tides. If melting Greenland ice seems distant and abstract, the perennial flooding of Miami and other coastal cities, and low-lying, highly populated countries from Bangladesh to Belgium is anything but.

The drought that has afflicted Syria for more than a decade is the most pronounced and prolonged for at least 900 years (as far back as we have reliable palaeodata). Climate change has undoubtedly had a role. Gore shows us how the impact of the drought on rural farmers led to increased conflict, a civil war, mass exodus, global conflict over immigration and, as a consequence, the emergence of Islamist terrorist group ISIS. If drought in Syria seems distant or even mundane, the threat of terrorism and global political instability is immediate and visceral. Gore has a genius for joining the dots in the global mapping of climate impacts.

In An Inconvenient Truth, Gore showed a version of the famous 'hockey-stick' curve that my co-authors and I published in the late 1990s (M. E. Mann et al. Geophys. Res. Lett. 26, 759–762; 1999), revealing a dramatic spike in temperature over the past century. There is a 'hockey stick' in the new film, but it charts instead the remarkable global growth in renewable energy over the past decade. Climate change is accelerating; so too is our ability to tackle it. There are reasons for cautious optimism.

Meanwhile, we meet an Al Gore whom his friends have described but few others have seen. This Al Gore is not wooden. He sheds tears in the wake of the 2015 Paris terror attacks. He displays righteous indignation towards those who are knowingly leading the public astray on climate change. This Al Gore is peeved — and we applaud him.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reduced to a fanboy.

He is also comfortable in his own skin. Greyer now, he has grown gracefully into the elder statesman. He is the master diplomat who convinces innovator Elon Musk to provide the Indian government with free access to his solar technology, in an effort to get the country on board with the Paris climate agreement. He's the hero in whose presence popular Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is reduced to a fanboy.

Those expecting Gore to rip into US President Donald Trump will be disappointed. Ever even-handed, he does his best to engage with Trump constructively. But it is clear where he stands. He runs a clip of Trump explaining that we should be worrying about ISIS rather than climate change. Anyone drawn to this film will already know that that's a fallacious dichotomy.

This sequel is deliciously inconvenient, and for several reasons. It is inconvenient to the vested interests who had hoped that Gore would just give up. Their campaign of vilification was intended both to deter his ongoing outreach efforts and to strike fear into the hearts of others who might consider stepping up to the plate. (I call this “the Serengeti Strategy” in The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars; Columbia Univ. Press, 2013). But, as his subtitle promises, Gore is still speaking truth to power.

For that reason, the film is also inconvenient to Gore. Rather than spending his remaining years celebrating the fruits of a distinguished career in public service with his family and friends, he's still battling the forces of denial and delay.

Finally, the film casts an inconvenient light on humanity. It is astonishing that we're still mired in a political debate about whether climate change even exists when, with each passing year of insufficient action, the challenge of averting a catastrophe becomes ever greater. Knowing that Al Gore is still optimistic is a shot in the arm at a time of uncertainty.