Narrative matters. Stories instill the imagination with rich imagery upon which we can build new visions of our fate. In the face of climate change, tales of a positive future are necessary to offer us hope and direction. People find accounts of local successes empowering, while messages of a dark future can be incapacitating.
Because stories are so powerful, we need to dissect high-profile narratives of our future; we need to understand the work they do for change. Does Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power provide us a tale that galvanizes us to build positive futures? It helps to start by looking back at what its precursor, An Inconvenient Truth, accomplished.
In 2007, returning to the U.S. after more than three years abroad, I found that Al Gore’s 2006 film, An Inconvenient Truth, seemed to be succeeding at instilling a new narrative where piles of scientific evidence had not. Before I left, climate change conversations were confined to environmental groups and academia. By mid-2007, major media outlets like NPR and NBC were regularly discussing climate change. Clearly, the film increased knowledge and awareness of climate change. But did it translate into action? Only temporarily.
Fast forward to 2017. What is Gore’s goal with An Inconvenient Sequel?
The new film focuses on Gore’s story since 2006: he speaks to his Climate Reality Project trainees; travels to the melting glaciers of Greenland; visits Tacloban, the Philippines, a city devastated by Typhoon Haiyan; and works behind the scenes at the Paris Conference of Parties (COP) in 2015. In all, Gore’s passion for change is clear. Apparent, too, is Gore’s extensive network of connections to business people and politicians.
Both his passion and his connections inform a central narrative of the film: the former Vice President’s role in critical negotiations with India before and during the Paris Conference. India stands out in the Global South as one of the largest producers of greenhouse gases—although the Global North’s historical emissions dwarf those of India.
In the pre-conference negotiations, Indian representatives resent Gore’s insistence that India must embrace renewable energy. They point out the continued refusal of the U.S. to embrace climate change action on a national level. Gore counters with facts on the high proportion of new electric capacity coming from renewables (75%), and points to the Indian smog entirely obscuring the sun.
In the run-up to the Paris Conference, Indian leaders like Prime Minister Modi and Minister of Environment Javadekar are not averse to environmental action. But, as Indian negotiators point out repeatedly, the country’s development must come first. Modi insists, “anything else would be morally wrong.”
It is here that we begin to understand why Gore’s narrative has gone only so far in creating change: he cannot seem to hear what the Global South is saying. This deafness is suggestive of a broader refusal to acknowledge the fears and accompanying needs of vulnerable people—those of us in the U.S. who are worried about month-to-month bills and those in India who are uncertain of tomorrow’s food supply.
The underlying structural issues that create these uncertainties are barely addressed by Gore for much of the film, just as they have often been ignored in many conversations about climate adaptation. He points to technical possibilities, but seems unable to see economic constraints.
It is not until Christiana Figueres impels Gore that he starts to acknowledge these struggles. Figueres, then the redoubtable Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), asks Gore explicitly to attempt to understand the Indian perspective. It is only after this prodding that he asks the Indian representatives the key question: what would it take to bring them on board with the accord?
“Access to credit,” say the Indian negotiators.
The answer is simple, but it reveals the gulf between Gore’s approach and the realities of much of the world.
Gore is passionate and often insightful. But he reminds us, through his omissions, that we must listen first and then work to understand each other’s barriers, needs, and fears.
Anyone who has worked in the Global South knows how difficult starting a business can be compared to similar processes in the Global North. Among the most important barriers are access to credit and the bureaucratic tangle required to start a business. One wonders why no one in Gore’s team suggested these as possible barriers. One reason might be that at the root Gore is merely calling for the creation of a new set of businesses—calling for more of the same, but powered by solar panels.
Of course, the details of the blockage are interesting. India does not lack all access to credit, but World Bank interest rates are painfully high. Gore attempts to work out a deal with World Bank officials, but they insist the bureaucracy will be far too slow to reach a deal during the Paris negotiations.
In response, Gore’s back-door connections yield a commitment to private investment in solar power, and, voilà, the deal is sealed.
Of course, because Gore has been a favorite whipping boy for the right, the directors’ version of the narrative has been called into question. For instance, the principal Indian negotiator, Mathur, said that he recalled no such deal. Directors Shenk and Cohen counter that the discussion at the time included only Environment Minister Javadekar and Energy Minister Goyal, so Mathur may have been unaware of elements of the deal.
Whatever the reality of the Indian negotiations before and during COP 21, the film ends up highlighting, if inadvertently, why Gore’s PowerPoint and An Inconvenient Truth had little lasting behavioral impact. Gore’s presentation and earlier documentary did their job of effectively pointing to the problem. They got the media talking (and scaremongering), but they did not speak to people where they are.
In discussing climate change transformation, Katherine Hayhoe talks about “sharing from the heart.” She means that we must engage with people as fellow humans first, that people cannot hear the facts until they themselves feel heard.
Gore is passionate and often insightful. But he reminds us, through his omissions, that we must listen first and then work to understand each other’s barriers, needs, and fears. We must point out our common ground, and then we may have opportunities to gently change minds. Most of us are not very good at this, especially in this Facebook age.
The scholarship on climate change increasingly indicates that this is our key work. We must, as Karen O’Brien and Elin Selboe argue, “skillfully engag[e] with a diversity of beliefs, values, knowledge systems, and worldviews rather than against them.” The world that we have created is based on certain values, certain worldviews. Some of those worldviews embrace the power of natural science. Some do not. Yet all matter, because they all shape the world.
While Gore’s films may not accomplish the mission of change as well as he would like, he is ultimately doing the job of keeping the issue up-front at a time when many other national and global concerns are grabbing our attention. As such, his is one important piece of our climate change narrative.
Featured Image: UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon addresses civil society and the press with Al Gore in Paris during the Climate Change Conference (COP 21). UN Photo by Mark Garten, 2015.
Cathy Day is a Ph.D. candidate and lecturer in the Geography Department at the University of Wisconsin—Madison. She researches how farmers make decisions in the face of environmental and policy changes. She has conducted fieldwork in both Niger in West Africa and New Mexico in the U.S. She considers human transformations and transitions to be some of the key challenges of the 21st century. Website. Twitter. Contact.