An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power

Friday August 4, 2017

'An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power'
'An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power'  

Eleven years after his clarion call to action on climate change, the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore returns with a follow-up: "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power."

Where Guggenheim's movie was mostly about Gore's presentation on the realities of climate change, this new chapter, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, focuses on Gore's crusade from another angle. This time we see far less of the "professorial" Gore that so many Americans seemed to have been turned off by in the 2000 elections. instead, Al Gore in this reading is impassioned, sometimes enraged, and as palpable committed from the heart as by means of his not inconsiderable intellect.

Whether the difference is down to Gore or a change in directorial focus, Gore as we see him here is beyond persuasive. He's near tears in Paris on a night marred by terrorism; he's moved to a brief moment of near-shouting when he wonders how harshly future generations will condemn us for our stupidity, our cupidity, and our willful blindness, all at the cost of those future generations; he's nostalgic as he pores over a list of pros and cons his young daughter drew up when he was deciding whether to run for the presidency in the 2000 elections.

The one moment one might feel is a flashback to the media caricature of Gore comes early on, in archival footage of Gore arguing with Oklahoma Sen. Jim Inhofe, a notorious climate change denier who, during Gore's testimony to a Senate panel, attempts to cut Gore off before the former vice president can answer a leading question Inhofe has posed to him. After another senator -- Barbara Boxer, a Democrat -- chides Inhofe and invites Gore to finish his remarks, Gore sighs. For a moment you dread a return to the cartoon of a stiff, impatient Gore, the media creation who (or so a false narrative promoted by the GOP had it) claimed to have "invented" the Internet.

But then you hear what Gore has to say next: He's trying, he tells Inhofe, to find the words to explain the dangers of climate change, and why we really should care about them.

What hasn't changed is the message, or the science behind it. Climate change is not, as big oil and other vested interests would have us believe, a contested theory, and the evidence gathered for the last decade has only fortified data and conclusions that were already incontrovertible in 2006, when the first film was released. Nor is it anything other than disingenuous -- if not an outright lie -- to suggest that human activity is not driving the alarming changes we see in weather patterns and other aspects of the world's climate.

Eleven years ago, those who could not answer to the science of "An Inconvenient Truth" resorted to simply denying its assertions and warnings. There's a brief spell or two in "Sequel" in which Gore points out how dire predictions that deniers shrugged off back then have since since come to pass, Hurricane Sandy being one of them. At the same time, the melting of the ice caps has only accelerated; the day of the critics' screening for this film, headline erupted about a gigantic iceberg -- the size of Delaware -- breaking off from the Larsen C Ice Shelf in the Antarctic.

Everything Gore said in the first film has happened or is happening now: Records for heat keep getting getting broken. Storms get more powerful and more frequent. Coastal cities are even now under threat. Croplands are drying out and becoming unusable for farming. Drought, economic disruption, civil unrest, and the twin boogie men of the day, refugees and terrorism -- it's all connected. "Sequel" doesn't belabor those entwinements and entanglements. It takes it message as a given and homes in on the messenger.

The film follows Gore as he tours a Florida city in need of some serious infrastructure improvements to stay above water, brokers a deal to prevent India from going down a disastrous avenue by opening hundreds of new coal-fired power plants, and trains speakers on the facts around climate change and the human activities that are driving it. As the movie continues it looks over its shoulder at 2006 less frequently; successes seem within reach; the 2105 Paris climate summit results in a historic international agreement.

Then Donald Trump wins the presidency thanks to a scenario that's all too similar to the 2000 election, only worse. (At least in 2000 we didn't see a prevalence of fake news, a media-conjured horse race, and manipulations of our democratic process by a hostile power.)

Politics, strategies for stewardship of resources, and all forms of security are very much intertwined. The outlook for progress on environmental issues of all sorts? In a word, bleak. the film offers some boosterish bits at the end, but they feel a little hollow. Sure, we can write letters and take action with our votes... except, given the trends so far, we don't vote according to science or a concern for anyone's future but our own.

That's not to say hope does not exist. It does -- but it's not America that's leading the way. Just look at the people the current president has installed to head various agencies -- men and women hostile to the very agencies they now lead. In our complex, deeply interconnected world, things like education and energy policy have very real and very direct impact on global issues that now feed (and in wiser hands could have helped resolve) the climate crisis. Gore likens Trump's election to a "punch in the face." He's probably understating the case. American leadership could have accelerated and improved humanity's response to the catastrophe. Instead, American denial is bound to act like an anvil on the process. Worse, in the future -- when the winner and losers of an inevitable energy revolution emerge -- America will locked itself out of the winners' circle.

Facts are facts, truths remain truths -- even if they are inconvenient -- and consequences eventually prevail. Whether we have the will to pay attention and take belated action is very much still a question, and as time passes the answer looks less and less palatable. No wonder the Gore of this latter film sees fit to holler: With lawmakers in places like Arizona actually trying to roadblock widespread use of solar power, and a new disinformation campaign aimed at generating skepticism about renewable energy well underway, making some noise seems to be just about the only recourse for those who have looked up from the financial bottom line, glimpsed a greener (and still profitable) future in the offing, and spotted upheavals of Biblical proportions on the horizon.

Which way to the future? As Gore puts it, quoting from scripture, there are two paths before us. Only one of them offers any realistic possibility for the continuation of life as we know it. Regrettably... but not surprisingly, given the history of planetary conservation so far... it's not the path our current president has put us on. Last month Donald Trump announced he is pulling America out of the Paris agreement.

If this set of documentaries is to become a trilogy, one wonders what the third chapter will be. A decade from now, what was once merely inconvenience might have become irreversible.