Back in August 2015, Al Gore was one of many high profile ‘diplomats’ preparing for the COP21 Paris Climate Change Conference. Six years on from the disappointment of Copenhagen, Gore and his team knew the importance of the imminent global gathering, of taking the opportunity for the world to finally commit to a proper agreement on combating climate change, especially following the climate chaos – hurricanes, floods, wildfires, droughts – which the world has seen since Gore’s Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth in 2006. ‘Every week now this stuff just keeps getting worse, and more of it,’ he sighs.
One criticism of Al Gore, particularly in making this film, has been that he is now too divisive a figure to be leading the campaign towards climate action. For many, especially Americans, Gore is the face of climate change, and with that, the negative connotations associated with an astonishing array of myths, half-truths and outright fibs that have dangerously muddied the waters in the debate. But with this film, Gore appears keen to challenge many of these misunderstandings head-on.
While this film may be more of a traditional documentary than the 2006 predecessor, adopting a ‘fly-on-the-wall’ style, he hasn’t entirely abandoned the Powerpoint presentation format which previously proved so successful. Indeed, it turns out that he has continued to spend much of the decade delivering something similar to that original presentation, albeit one which is being constantly updated as new science appears and natural disasters unfold.
His audience has evolved too, into a global network of advocates for the cause, learning from Gore on how to educate people to the myriad of benefits from taking meaningful climate action. This film is loosely structured by following Gore from climate leadership training seminar to climate leadership training seminar, from Texas and Florida, to Manila and Shenzhen. His appearance in Miami moments after peeling wet socks off his feet after a particularly soggy walk down a highway flooded with overflowing seawater is poignant. ‘It’s kinda hard to pump the ocean,’ he quips, after observing the city official’s efforts to raise the road and turn pumps to maximum power, to try and remove the foreboding waters.As might be expected from his persona and brand, Gore travels the world to see the impacts of climate change. In Greenland, he observes the dramatic melting of the Kangerlussuaq glacier, and learns how scientists at the central Greenland Swiss Camp returned from a season away to see their research station lifted high on stilts, the surrounding ice having simply melted away. As well as the threats of melting ice and rising sea levels, Gore covers droughts, wildfires, the spread of diseases such as the Zika virus, and hurricanes from Sandy in New York to Haiyan in the Philippines. The human impacts of these unpredictable climate extremes extends to the destruction of farmland and mass uplifting of much of the Syrian population prior to the start of civil war, and indirectly the terror-driven Paris shootings in November 2015.
Ultimately, much like Leonardo DiCaprio’s Before the Flood, Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel revolves heavily around Paris, to the discussions and issues rising to the surface in the run up to COP21. Except, instead of jumping straight into the cheering which saw the eventual signing of the Agreement, this film gives us a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes, to the hold-ups and disagreements which at one stage threatened to derail the negotiations. In particular, Gore appears to have had his hands full with the Indian contingent, reluctant to commit to significant reductions in fossil fuel burning, and with plans to build hundreds of new coal-powered power plants. This, as Gore and Secretary of State John Kerry agree, would be a disaster that could wipe out the benefits from the rest of the Agreement.
The Indian position is understandable; it wishes to have the freedom to give its citizens access to cheap energy like much of North America and Western Europe once did, that propelled those regions to a position of wealth and power. Regardless of how central Gore really was to braking this deadlock, and eventually getting the Indians to commit to the Agreement, the arguments he makes in the film are powerful take-home messages. That the chaos unleashed by uncontrolled fossil fuel burning – such as the dramatic floods in Chennai during COP21 itself – is more than enough of a counterweight to the idea that fossil fuels will somehow bring prosperity to those currently in poverty. That enabling large-scale roll-outs of renewable energy such as wind and solar in developing countries such as India and Chile can itself drive economic growth as well as a vast reduction in emissions. Eventually, with assurances from the Americans that financial credit and technology will be made available to ramp up solar energy generation in India, politician Prakash Javadekar concedes the point, and the Paris Agreement is signed. There are cheers and tears.
Sadly, of course, nearly two years have passed, and that was not the end of the story. Despite the impression which the film’s trailer and title may give, Donald Trump is a peripheral figure in this film, gradually introduced chronologically as his presidential campaign became an increasingly serious tilt towards the White House. Upon taking the reins of the Oval Office, he infamously declared that the US would be withdrawing from the Paris Agreement. Gore is downbeat, but nevertheless continues to visit examples of places where serious climate action is unfolding for purely economic reason, such as the redder-than-red city of Georgetown, Texas, which is set to go 100 per cent renewable because of the low utility prices it means for local residents.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is perhaps more a biopic of Gore himself than might be expected, such as delving into his own failed Presidential bid in 2000, an angle which is unlikely to win over many long-standing critics to support his cause, Yet, one key lesson he appears to have learned from the early days of his campaigning on this subject is not to focus too much on individual actions, an area which is conspicuously absent from this film. Instead, it is all about institutional actions and government policies, pushing cities, business and world leaders to implement the pledges made as part of the Paris Agreement. Gore isn’t asking us to drive less or stop flying or change our light bulbs; he wants us to keep pressure on those with the power to make sweeping changes that will, as he puts it, push the movement over the tipping point, to a place where a renewable revolution is unstoppable (if it isn’t already). ‘There’s never been a better time to speak truth to power,’ he insists, encouraging viewers of the film to #BeInconvenient. With Trump in the White House, he may well be right.