Beyond the Marvel universe, the galaxies traversed by the Star Trek and Star Wars franchises, or the magical world of J.K. Rowling, sequels rarely equal – and even less often surpass – the success of the works that preceded them.
Three weeks after its nationwide release, it appears clear that An Inconvenient Sequel (hereafter Sequel) has succumbed to this rule. Its opening weekend box office take was less than half that of An Inconvenient Truth (hereafter Truth), and that’s before adjustments are made for 2017’s higher ticket prices.
Perhaps Sequel simply lacks the off-beat originality and geeky comprehensiveness of Truth. Or the broad public’s initial immersion into the subject of climate change is inherently more compelling than an update. Or, as Climate Nexus suggested in one of its daily e-mails, it could just be because this has been a listless summer for the cineplex.
Whatever the cause, only the climate choir seems to be listening to Gore this time. Nevertheless, from its dramatic images of the impacts of climate change, from its enthusiastic review of recent developments in clean energy, and from its compelling story of international cooperation, members of the choir might learn some lessons that will help them reach that sweet spot known as the broader public – if they correct for Sequel’s odd analysis of American politics.
A synopsis of Sequel
In some respects, Sequel is a more engaging film than Truth. A real-world drama unfolds over its 90 minutes, one that includes terrorist attacks, tough international negotiations, a natural disaster, and a triumphant conclusion that evokes both compassion and conviction.
Yes, this drama is intercut with scenes of Gore delivering his richly illustrated lecture on climate change – complete with another “off-the-chart” money slide. And, yes, there are many scenes from Gore’s past. This time, however, these elements combine to build momentum for a real-world drama: The 21st Conference of the Parties (COP) to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change that took place in Paris in December 2015.
India plays a critical role in this drama. Its reluctance to accept any limits, even self-imposed limits, on its use of fossil fuels becomes a major stumbling block for COP21. Sequel shows Gore engaging with India’s negotiators in the months leading up to the meeting and at critical moments during those two weeks in Paris.
In fact, the negotiations in Paris tie together the three major themes explored in Sequel: the climate change impacts that will most directly affect humans (sea-level rise, extreme weather events, and drought); the socio-political violence that these impacts make more probable (e.g. Syria); but also the reasons for optimism (the incredible advances in renewable energy).
Sequel shows the moment when the 24-hour Climate Reality Project broadcast, produced by Gore’s team to build momentum for COP21, was interrupted and then suspended by the terrorist attacks in Paris, attacks driven in part, the film suggests, by social stresses of the historic drought in Syria.
Then Sequel shows Gore, after the start of the COP conference two weeks later, trying to dissolve India’s resistance to the emerging Paris agreement by facilitating a technology-sharing arrangement between an American solar energy company and India’s Ministry of the Environment.
But equally important in winning India’s agreement, Sequel implies, was the storm that dumped more than 14 inches of rain on Chennai on the second day of the negotiations. With India already experiencing the consequences of climate change, could it wait any longer to act on the causes?
In these scenes in Paris, Gore is depicted as an engaged and skilled negotiator, able through his long-standing relationships with key figures to finesse obstacles to agreement. Christiana Figueres, (shown with Gore in adjacent image) the Costa Rican diplomat chosen to chair COP 21, the film points out, had been part of the first cohort of volunteers to be trained by Gore for the Climate Reality Project.
What’s missing from Sequel – and why it matters
This tight focus on human impacts and on a single moment in climate diplomacy marks a change from Truth.
That first film covered the possible impacts of climate change on the non-human world – biodiversity (changing/shifting habitats and invasive species), coral reefs (bleaching), the ocean food chain (acidification) – and also the impacts on climate change of activities unrelated to the burning of fossil fuels (e.g. the clearing of rain forests for cattle-raising or soybean production).
None of these matters is addressed in Sequel. The first appearance in the U.S. of the Zika virus is briefly noted, but the urgency with which Gore presents that graphic now seems exaggerated. In Sequel, Gore does not articulate the underlying dynamic – the redistribution of species in response to the changing climate – as clearly or as forcefully as he had in Truth.
Also missing from Sequel are historical events that clearly played a role in setting the stage for the Paris meeting: the 2008 financial crisis, the failure of the cap-and-trade bill in the U.S. Senate, the trumped-up “Climategate” controversy, the rocky negotiations and disappointing conclusion of the Copenhagen meeting, and Obama’s pre-Paris negotiations with China.
Obama’s leadership, first in Copenhagen and then with China, cleared much of the path for the negotiations in Paris. The problem Sequel shows Gore solving – India’s resistance to the agreement that all countries commit to reducing greenhouse gas emissions – came into focus only because Obama had solved the larger problem of China. By focusing so narrowly on Gore, Sequel misses much of the interplay between economics, politics, and the environment that has occurred since Truth.
A once-in-100-year political storm every eight years
More striking is the absence of Hillary Clinton, the 2016 Democratic nominee for President of the United States. As such, Hillary Clinton is the only person alive on the planet who has experienced the same strange political fate as Al Gore: losing a presidential election while winning the popular vote.
Granted, after the election Trump became the main political actor on the American stage, and his decision to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Climate Accord makes him the ideal antagonist, even villain, for Sequel’s heroic portrayal of Gore. Through video-clips and voice-overs, Trump appears several times over the film’s 90 minutes.
But by omitting Hillary Clinton from the story, Sequel fails to note a political development as ominous as the increasing frequency and intensity of extreme precipitation events. Many times in Sequel Gore intones that once-in-a-hundred-year, or once-in-five-hundred-year, storms are now occurring every 10 or 20 years. Never, however, does he note how rarely in American history the popular and electoral results have diverged.
From George Washington to Bill Clinton, only two candidates had become president without winning the popular vote.* But since 2000, two candidates who won the popular vote, one decisively, did not become president: Al Gore and Hillary Clinton. What could be described as a once-in-a-century event has now occurred twice in 16 years.
Something has changed in American politics, and Gore readily acknowledges as much in Sequel, but Sequel doesn’t address deeper structural problems with the U.S. system. The upbeat sequence in which Gore chats with the conservative mayor of a Texas city that has voted to go 100 percent renewable, for example, glosses over the nationwide rural-urban divide that pits problem-solving city mayors and councils – like those of Georgetown, Texas – against the more ideological state legislatures that hold sway over them. Like Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, American cities face electoral challenges that are built into the system.
Even more wide of the mark is Gore’s expressed hope that social media will solve the political problems he does discern. Here Gore and his producers overlook the fact that the villain of their film, Donald Trump, is the foremost political practitioner of social media. And during the 2016 election he appears to have been aided by Russian operatives using fake tweets and facebook posts to disseminate negative stories about Hillary Clinton. Now Trump is using social media to discredit the very institutions and practices necessary to meet the challenge of climate change: reputable news organizations; government agencies, expertise, and regulations; and the sciences. In short, social media have already been mobilized and weaponized against democracy.
Keeping Earth offstage
This connects with a telling subplot of Sequel: the design, construction, cancellation, and restoration of the DSCOVR satellite.
Near the end of the Clinton presidency, then-Vice President Gore promoted the development of a satellite that would, among many other things, regularly capture images of the whole Earth from space. After George W. Bush won the 2000 election, the project was put on hold. When businesses interested in other data the satellite was designed to collect lobbied the Bush administration on its behalf, a plan to strip out the optical instruments and replace them with inert weights to maintain the balance of the craft was briefly considered. In other words, according to Gore, the decisive objections to DSCOVR were not budgetary.
The first images of Earth from space, Gore explains in both Truth and Sequel, had been one of the spurs for the emerging environmental movement. For precisely that reason, Gore implies, conservatives did not want to make it easier to produce such images.
After Obama was elected, fortunately, the project was revived. The satellite was launched by SpaceX on a Falcon 9 rocket in February of 2015.
Separating the messenger from the message
Sequel rightly depicts Gore as a pivotal figure in humanity’s ongoing effort to address climate change. But is he the right person to lead the effort now?
In response to the release of Sequel, that question has been posed repeatedly. (See, for example, the columns by Emily Atkin at New Republic, by Adam Corner at New Scientist, and by Eric Holthaus at Grist.) Gore, these critics argue, is a politically divisive figure who makes it difficult to extend the climate message beyond those already engaged. He is also too traditional in his thinking, too limited in the range of issues and solutions he’s prepared or able to consider.
In Truth to Power, the book published as a companion for An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore seems to acknowledge some of these criticisms. Or perhaps it embodies Gore’s recognition that he won’t forever personify the movement, that he, like the rest of his peers and others of his/our generation, will not be here long enough to see it all the way through.
Thus while the movie is all about Gore, the book is pitched as “your action handbook to learn the science, find your voice, and help solve the climate crisis” (emphasis added). Only the introduction and conclusion are in Gore’s voice.
For the aspiring climate activist, the Truth to Power companion book first offers a visually engaging overview of the science, impacts, and technical solutions for climate change. There follows a “blueprint for what you can do personally to hasten the solution to the climate crisis,” by which is meant not merely ways to reduce your personal carbon footprint but tips for speaking, writing, organizing, mobilizing, and broadcasting climate truths to local, state, and federal powers. In this companion to Sequel, every concerned American can find tools to use to play a role in meeting the historic challenge of climate change.
As for the film, An Inconvenient Sequel likely will not match the box office and audience numbers of An Inconvenient Truth. And it’s unlikely to win an Oscar for its directors or another Nobel Peace Prize for Al Gore. But it may provide the inspiration, optimism, and tools for the next audience – and/or for prize-winning climate activists – if they recognize that America’s political climate is undergoing a change as profound as Earth’s atmosphere.
*The two previous elections in which the winner of the popular vote did not win the office were in 1876 and 1888. (In a third election, that of 1824, there was similar discrepancy, but the voting process was different.) In these two elections, Republicans won more electoral votes than their more popular Democratic opponents. The author acknowledges that these two elections occurred even more closely together than the 2000 and 2016 elections. But these post-Civil War years in which southern states were being re-admitted and western states added may be anomalous in their own ways. In other words, under normal or “healthy” political conditions the popular and electoral votes do not diverge.