Memorial Day weekend 2011 marked the fifth anniversary of the release of the Al Gore film An Inconvenient Truth, which by any measure represented a milestone in climate change communications. A retrospective analysis examines how the film and the former vice president have weathered the climate policy storms in the years since. This post originally appeared on the Yale Forum on Climate Change & the Media and is graciously republished with permission.
Five years after its May 28, 2006 theatrical release, An Inconvenient Truth (hereafter AIT) and its “star” still play leading roles in American and even international discussions of climate change.
Gore haunts Cool It, Ondi Timoner’s late 2010 documentary about Bjorn Lomborg, the cost-benefit skeptic of UN FCCC efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Gore delivered the major keynote address on the opening night of the most recent Power Shift, the gathering of college-age climate activists in Washington, D.C., in April. And in the very next week, in his Climate Shift report, American University communication professor Matthew Nisbet identified Gore as one of the causes of the political polarization now obstructing action on climate change.
Outside of the U.S., Der Spiegel in a January 2011 article speculated that Gore might be the “messiah” who could revive momentum on climate change. (That regrettable choice of words will be addressed shortly.) And, asked who might play the role of Churchill in the belated WW II-scale effort on climate change he predicts in his book The Great Disruption, Paul Gilding, the former head of Greenpeace International, named only Gore.
As for the AIT film itself, the title has become part of the global cultural lexicon. A Google search for “an inconvenient” and “op-ed” yielded almost 400,000 results, including “An Inconvenient Leak,” “An Inconvenient Peace Prize,” “An Inconvenient DVD,” and, of course, thousands of different and even opposing “Truths.”
But the inconvenient truth of this fifth-year anniversary is that we are back where we started -- and possibly even behind where we were -- in 2006. Levels of CO2 are higher, but, according to the most recent polls, levels of public concern may actually be lower. And American opinion is now also more polarized than before: more than two-thirds of Democrats believe “the effects of global warming have already begun to happen,” versus just one-third of Republicans.
If, as many suggest, Gore and An Inconvenient Truth were among the drivers behind the rise in concern registered from 2005 to 2008, do they also share some responsibility for the recent decline in that concern? And more importantly, what lessons can be drawn for the next concerted effort to communicate climate change?
To address these questions, we first consider forces already in play in media coverage of Gore in the 2000 presidential campaign, years before the release of AIT. We then examine how the director of AIT, Davis Guggenheim, shaped Gore’s image within the film. Finally, we survey popular responses to AIT, especially by conservatives, from 2005 to the present. (This includes two pieces published within the last month; “skeptics” are using the fifth-anniversary to re-bash Gore and the film.)
Gore’s Image in the 2000 Presidential Campaign
Popular and critical responses to AIT began forming long before Gore met Guggenheim. Two pre-AIT academic studies of Gore -- one on his rhetoric and the other on media coverage of his rhetoric -- identified three recurrent taglines in media coverage of the 2000 presidential campaign.
The first tag was “the serial exaggerator.” According to media historian and theorist Douglas Kellner, this line fed on itself; some reporters were primed for opportunities to confirm it. So much so, a Committee of Concerned Journalists report concluded afterwards, that in the closing weeks of the campaign, “George Bush was twice as likely as Gore to get coverage that was positive in tone.”
In a chapter in her 2002 book Partly Cloudy Patriot, “social observer” Sarah Vowell describes how a reflexive default to this line led a reporter from The New York Times and another reporter from The Washington Post to mishear and then misquote a remark by Gore during a November 1999 appearance at a Concord, N.H. high school. When students and teachers later objected, both papers issued corrections. But the damage had already been done; the tagline had been repeated -- again. (An interesting aside: in the audio version of that 2002 book, Stephen Colbert, now host of The Colbert Report on Comedy Central, reads the words of Gore.)
The second tag was “hypocrite.” As recounted by philosopher Douglas Walton, after Gore’s keynote speech to the 1996 Democratic convention, Time commentators questioned his telling of his family’s response to his sister’s death from lung cancer. Gore, they noted, had solicited contributions from tobacco companies for several years after his sister’s death. When Gore explained that his judgment had been impaired by the loss, Time was not spun by the spin.
And the third was “Beta Al,” the tag applied to Gore after the press learned that his campaign had retained cultural critic Naomi Wolf as an image consultant. Her job was to help Gore look, sound, and act more like an “alpha male.” Although new to the 2000 presidential campaign, this tag was just another variation on a longstanding line on Gore: stiff, nerdy, officious, someone uncomfortable in his body and thus awkward in public.
After his eventual defeat in the 2000 election, Gore largely retreated from public view. On the few occasions he returned to the national stage to address issues arising from the war in Iraq, national newspapers covered his remarks. Local and campus newspapers reported his again taking to the road to deliver his “slide show.” The three taglines were not incorporated in these stories, but in the spring of 2006 they remained part of the back story on Gore.
Guggenheim’s Portrayal of Gore in Truth
One measure of director Davis Guggenheim’s success in AIT is that his portrayal of Gore appears to have neutralized these taglines for many Americans. In the scenes of Gore lecturing, the former vice president comes across as informed but engaging. In the biographical segments -- on Gore’s childhood, on his son’s accident, and on his sister’s death -- he appears vulnerable, connected, and caring. These two counterpoints place the dogged and determined overachiever we see in the on-the-road scenes in a more appealing light. AIT presents a whole human being.
Readers interested in rehashing the arguments over the “scientific accuracy” of AIT can revisit Salon’s overview of dueling reviews initially posted in Tech Central Station, Real Climate, and other interested venues, but even the libertarian Reason admitted that “on balance, Gore gets it more right than wrong on the science.”
Of more interest are the somewhat surprising ways Guggenheim seems to have inadvertently undermined the message of AIT by overselling its messenger. These are the result of Guggenheim’s own vision of Gore as a heroic figure, which he describes in the director’s commentary he recorded for the DVD: “Joseph Campbell, the famous author [on whose work] George Lucas based his Star Wars movies, talks about what a hero is[:] … a person who overcomes great obstacles and who achieves great things. If you think about Al Gore out there in the world, confronting great obstacles, trying to tell this story, … [t]o me that’s the path and the journey of a hero.”
But if the goal is to mobilize a population, to prompt concerted action on a pervasive social problem, does one really want a hero, particularly one of the lone and quixotic sort depicted in Campbell's work?
Throughout his lecture, but especially when he points out possible courses of action, Gore uses “we.” “We” all have roles to play in meeting the challenge of climate change. But when Guggenheim frames or follows these moments, he sometimes separates Gore from his viewers. Midway through the film, for example, Gore recalls Winston Churchill’s prophetic warning to the British people: “The era of procrastination … is coming to a close. We are entering a period of consequences.” Guggenheim promptly cuts to scenes of the 2000 election. “We” are no longer with Gore remembering Churchill’s warning. Gore has become Churchill, and “we” have failed to heed his warning. “We” have become climate appeasers.
In the process of constructing his heroic portrait of Gore, Guggenheim also severs a vital connection between Gore and many of AIT’s viewers: their shared religious faith. When he discusses the evolution of his own thinking, Gore often recounts the story of his son Albert’s near-fatal accident. In Earth in the Balance and in the book version of An Inconvenient Truth, this story includes prominent professions of faith: Gore and his wife Tipper “pray” -- as so many parents no doubt would -- that their son will recover from the car accident.
But in the film, “prayer” is never mentioned. The black-and-white scenes of Gore, son Albert, and wife Tipper in the hospital are succeeded by photos of Gore in congressional meeting rooms and then by color video footage of Gore on a helicopter, flying over a succession of iconic natural landscapes: the Arctic, Antarctica, and the Amazon. In the film, it is this connection with nature, rather than with his family and faith, that grounds Gore’s being. Later in the film, Guggenheim seems even to anoint Gore as nature’s messenger; Gore is haloed, in somber black and white, by the swirling clouds of Hurricane Katrina. The hero is transfigured.
Perhaps directors need heroes just as reporters need taglines. Thus one way to think about Guggenheim’s cinematic transformation of Gore’s message is as akin to the process media researchers Max and Jules Boykoff describe in their 2007 article on journalistic norms. In the case of Guggenheim’s direction in AIT, the norms were cinematic. Any message entering the medium of film will be refracted by the established norms for successful movies.
Gore in the Wake of Truth
An Inconvenient Truth was previewed at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2006. As part of the publicity campaign for the theatrical release of the film, on Memorial Day weekend in May of 2006, Gore was the cover story for the April 2006 issue of The American Prospect and for the May 2006 issues of Rolling Stone and Wired. Gore was also part of the celebrity ensemble on the cover of the first green issue of a fourth magazine, Vanity Fair.
Then came reviews, news stories, and op-ed pieces: more than 75 by the end of July, one-third of them in conservative venues such as the American Enterprise Institute’s website and in Human Events, National Review, Townhall, and The Wall Street Journal. Left and center responses often included lighthearted references to one or more of the three taglines about Gore (usually “the serial exaggerator”), but in conservative responses the tags were applied with full force.
As was true during the 2000 campaign, invocations of “the serial exaggerator” were often based on misquotations or misrepresentations. Nowhere in the film, for instance, does Gore say sea levels will rise 20 feet by 2100. Rather he claims that a failure to act within the next few decades could lock in a period of warming that could melt the ice sheets of Greenland or West Antarctica. Skeptics have dismissed this warning, first by misrepresenting it, and then by citing, without clarification, the incomplete or heavily qualified predictions made in the most recent IPCC report.
“The Hypocrite” tagline re-emerged in the second wave of responses to An Inconvenient Truth, the period from February to September 2007, during which time the film won an Academy Award for Best Documentary and Gore organized and hosted the Live Earth Concerts. These events prompted more than 75 conservative columns and op-ed pieces, including several that focused on the use of carbon offsets. Figures purported to be from Gore’s August 2006 electric bill were distributed through conservative networks on the Web. These figures were then cited in conservative op-ed pieces. Another round of e-mails and op-eds targeted Gore’s air travel and the energy and natural resources expended for the concerts he organized.
By the spring of 2007, “the hypocrite” and “the serial exaggerator” had merged into a new tagline: “global warming as religion.” In conservative columnist Charles Krauthammer’s March 16, 2007 column in Time magazine, the religion used to draw the analogy was the Roman Catholic Church of the Reformation. Krauthammer compared the carbon offsets Gore and his Hollywood compatriots both promote and purchase to the “indulgences” the papacy sold to finance the rebuilding of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Although at least two references to “environmentalism as religion” and “global warming as religion” predate An Inconvenient Truth, the comparison has been drawn much more frequently in its wake, with Gore named as its apostle, prophet, priest, high priest, pope -- or messiah. Perhaps not surprisingly, then, in an unattributed image still circulating on the web, Guggenheim’s haloed hero has been redrawn as “Saint Gore.” (And the tag persists. In a very odd piece in the May 23rd edition of The Wall Street Journal, James Taranto paired Al Gore with Harold Camping in an effort to explain “the eternal appeal of doomsday cults.”)
“Beta Al” can be glimpsed in the caricatures that emerged in the third and fourth waves of responses to Gore and AIT, the periods of the Nobel Gore (April 2007 to November 2009) and The Fallen Gore (November 2009 to December 2010). After being named the co-winner, with IPCC, of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, and after publishing Assault on Reason and Our Choice, the companion volume, on solutions, for AIT, Gore became an even bigger target for conservative wrath and ridicule. As did, in the run-up to the climate policy conference in Copenhagen in December 2009, global warming generally. Controversies over hacked e-mails, the failures of the Copenhagen conference, the so-called snowmageddon, and a scandalizing accusation against Gore provided climate “skeptics” irresistible opportunities. Unflattering and often feminizing depictions of Gore’s body were easy ways for them to hit both targets. (An editorial cartoon online at Slate does this while poking fun at Gore on offsets.)
Working With Gore in the Anthropocene
In her profile of Gore in the May 2006 issue of Wired, Karen Breslau articulated “two inextricable” beliefs held by the former vice president: “[F]irst, that ‘the world is facing a planetary emergency, a climate crisis that is without precedent in all of human history.’ Second, that ‘the conversation of democracy is broken.’ Fix the latter, Gore argues, and the chances of remedying the former improve dramatically.”
One might argue that by failing at the second task, Gore and AIT ultimately failed to motivate the American public to address the first. But did Gore and AIT, as some have alleged, make the second problem worse? Is “the conversation of democracy” more broken as a result of AIT ?
In an October 9, 2010 column in the National Journal, long-time journalist Ron Brownstein, by no means a climate activist himself, noted that “it is difficult to identify another major political party in any democracy that is as thoroughly dismissive of climate science as the GOP is here.”
Did the GOP become this global anomaly because of Gore’s partisan zeal? That seems unlikely. Nevertheless, it’s probably not a good idea to taunt a cornered adversary unless one has a clear, and dispassionate, objective. And cornered the GOP and its climate skeptics are, as even their own language of “exceptionalism” implies.
But the breadth and depth of the interconnections inherent in “the Anthropocene” are difficult even for non-conservatives to grasp. When academic critics reduce AIT to “environmental nostalgia” or “tempered apocalypticism,” interpretations promoted by Guggenheim’s heroic (and quasi-religious) vision, a central part of Gore’s message is obscured: we are not punished by natural calamities for our moral choices; rather our choices about energy and other natural resources are increasingly important variables in the nonlinear natural systems that produce such calamities.
But even Gore appears not to see the full implications of his message and therefore goes easy on himself when he indulges, for instance, in carbon offsets. If a superstorm destroys the trees you paid to have planted or protected -- along with many, many more -- then your transcontinental flight has not been offset.
Like a sonic pulse, the energy and emotions triggered by An Inconvenient Truth have revealed the terrain on which the politics of climate change will be played out in the U.S. For this result alone, the film should be considered a success. A useful way to start the next campaign might be to develop good taglines for the Anthropocene.
A regular contributor to the Yale Forum on Climate Change and the Media, Michael Svoboda is an Assistant Professor of Writing at The George Washington University. Previously the owner of an academic bookstore, he now tracks and analyzes efforts to communicate climate change, including the stream of research and policy published by NGOs. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.