Warm Weather Threat
Al Gore Explores Global Warming in An Inconvenient Truth
Intense, extremely smart, a techie with an oddball sense of humor, politically astute, measured in his responses, and yet clearly relaxed with himself—Al Gore today is pretty much Vice President Al Gore, if not in his campaign fighting trim. He’s also someone whose deep commitment to an issue was galvanized by confronting personal tragedy that had nothing to do with an election.
Such is how Gore tells it in his new documentary movie on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth. The authenticity of this connection clearly comes across during a 40-minute interview in offices just two blocks from the White House. Baltimore, as it turns out, was the site where then-Sen. Gore underwent his transformative experience. It was April 3, 1989, while attending the Orioles’ season opener, that Gore’s 6-year-old son Albert Jr. chased a friend across the street and was struck by a car.
His son survived, but Gore was a changed man. “After the searing experience in Baltimore with my son’s accident, that’s when I reassessed my life and went back to the global-warming issue with a new level of commitment and determination,” Gore says. “I knew that I experienced the issue differently. I didn’t know precisely why. The essence of the connection, as spelled out in the movie, is that when I came face to face with the possibility of losing something so precious that I could never imagine the possibility of losing it—that left a raw nerve ending that was activated when I went back to the global-warming issue and looked again at what the scientists were telling us. I was able to feel, for the first time, the possibility of losing, for our children, what we have and take for granted.”
Irreversible loss and its consequences form the emotional core of Truth, which Gore communicates by laying out the implications of the scientific consensus on global warming. He also offers the example of his sister Nancy’s death from lung cancer as another way of bringing the message home. Despite decades of science linking smoking and lung cancer, tobacco industry-funded denial confused the issue for years. Sadly, the Gore family itself had grown tobacco as a cash crop for decades. “It’s just human nature to take time to connect the dots,” Gore admits in the movie. “I know that. But I also know that there can be a day of reckoning when you wish you had connected the dots more quickly.”
Incorporating his personal story into the documentary was director Davis Guggenheim’s choice. “I didn’t initially like that idea and resisted it,” Gore says. “But he convinced me that a movie is very different from a live stage presentation. If you’re in an audience with a live presenter onstage—even if it’s me—there’s a connection with the live person that provides a dramatic continuity. That has to be provided on film, because it doesn’t come from just the presence of flickering lights on the screen.”
The reality and potential consequences of global warming are so overwhelming and convincingly shown in the movie, and so directly implicated in our personal and social lifestyles—“We’ve evolved a pattern of lots of driving,” Gore says, “so we take 3,000 pounds of metal with us everywhere we go”—that the movie’s impact overcomes any discomfort with Gore or his politics. Pre-release focus-group research conducted by the movie’s distributor, Paramount, confirms this. “One of the things Paramount found out right away was that audiences don’t see this as a political movie,” Gore says. “Regardless of their own political identification, they don’t react to it that way. They completely differentiate it from a movie like Fahrenheit 9/11.”
But it’s impossible to watch Gore on screen or sit across from him and not wonder about his future political prospects. “I’m not a candidate for anything,” he says. “I don’t intend to be a candidate again. I have found there are other ways to serve.” The response certainly doesn’t slam the door on another run, but it does convey some of the liberation he’s experienced while operating from outside the brutal electoral racetrack.
The most controversial choice the documentary makes, and what fuels suspicion about Gore’s political ambition, is what’s not there: There is no concluding segment on “the solution.” Gore argues that “we already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem”—mentioning energy efficiency, renewable energy technology, and carbon sequestration. But even if that claim is true—and there are credible reasons for doubt, since many non-fossil fuel technologies are only in prototype—actually making the necessary changes will require a massive transition in which there will be major economic winners and losers. A technology-driven, conflict-free, no-pain adjustment may be just another form of denial.
For his part, Gore defends his programmatic reticence by arguing that the movie’s goal is to break through the confusion and ignorance on the issue and convincingly communicate the problem. He ends Truth by concentrating on the possibilities of hope and political action, warning against the urge to “go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem,” citing the 1997 Montreal protocol prohibiting the chemicals destroying the ozone layer as a model for hope. But Gore himself acknowledges that the unprecedented dilemmas posed by global warming require action not feasible within the existing political boundaries. “The limits of what’s considered possible now are way too confining,” he says. “Solutions to this crisis require us to expand the limits of the imaginable in our political system.”
In providing reasons to push those limits, Gore hopes that Truth can be “the ultimate action movie.” However much impact it has in moving people to act, though, his belief that people will act rests on something beyond politics. “The power of the message conveyed by the movie is that there’s a reality out there that’s changing speedily and demanding our attention,” he says. “The reality is continuing to get louder in our consciousness.”