Near the beginning of Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Sequel, he kicks off a training session on climate communication by sharing an anecdote. While he was sitting in a restaurant, a woman slowly walked past him, stared, and then walked back again, staring just as intently. “If you dyed your hair black, you’d look just like Al Gore,” she told the gray-haired Gore. “Why thank you,” he replied.” “Sound just like him too,” the woman added.
I assume that Gore wanted to offer his listeners a bit of humor before overwhelming them with images of melting glaciers and flooded cities. But his little tale signals something else. If you knew nothing about the climate movement, you might come away from this movie believing that Al Gore is at the center of every significant effort to confront the existential human crisis of climate change. And you might think that the only way to be part of this movement is to become part of a constellation of characters who revolve entirely around Gore. You certainly wouldn’t get the idea that there’s a vast and varied climate movement organizing against the fossil fuel behemoth that’s hell-bent on making earth uninhabitable for humans.
The film doesn’t name any villains, and it has only one hero. We never see the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets for climate sanity. While Gore observes from the sky the retreat of glaciers, millions of other people on the ground are taking action. They’re fighting against fracking and the toxic chemicals that poison their water supply. Farmers are organizing against pipelines and indigenous people are resisting the destruction of their forests for tar-sands extraction. People around the world are clamoring to divest fossil fuels from their endowments and pension funds. They’re demanding taxes on greenhouse gases and an end to fossil-fuel subsidies.
As far as the film is concerned, these people don’t matter. What matters is Gore and his supporting cast of staffers, scientists, and survivors of climate disasters. Gore offers fatherly comfort to a terrified young Filipino man who describes the typhoon that ravaged his home in Tacloban. But the young man is a bit player, a victim. We don’t see him as part of community actively confronting climate change. He’s an individual seeking solace in the great man, not an active participant in his own right.
According to the film, Gore is the hero of the 2015 Paris climate talks. There can be no agreement without China and India. China, choking on its breakneck Industrial Revolution, is ready to sign. But India’s delegates balk at giving up the right to expand its burning of fossil fuels, arguing that the West has no right to interfere with India’s attempts to catch up. Negotiations are going nowhere—until Gore rides in with financing from backers who he convinces to fund solar development in India. Smiles and tears as 196 countries sign the historic agreement. Meanwhile, there were years of planning that preceded the Paris meeting, and many players involved in reaching an overall agreement. The idea that Gore on his own could orchestrate the maneuver that salvaged the conference seems too simple at best.
I don’t mean to diminish his efforts. As we say in the climate movement, “To change everything, we need everyone,” including Al Gore. It’s hard to think of anyone as politically prominent as he is who has done anything as important to sound the alarm about the climate hell that awaits us if we don’t take extreme action.
Gore speaks glowingly about the hundreds of people who have gone through his Climate Reality Project’s communication training. Participants I know recommend it enthusiastically. But you could walk away from this film thinking that the Climate Reality Project is the only group out there working on the issue. Even so, there’s no indication of what the training entails other than sitting in a darkened auditorium taking in Gore’s spiel. What do these people do with what results?
There’s no mention of the Water Protectors, those Native Americans and their allies—including an army of veterans—who put their bodies on the line to prevent construction of the Dakota Access Pipeline. There’s no mention of the thousands of people whose protests and arrests led the Obama administration to cancel the Keystone Pipeline, and who may yet thwart Trump’s attempts to restart the project.
We don’t hear about how the movement has stopped and stalled projects like these, which are both tied up in court battles. In New York, a dogged movement of anti-fracking activists pushed Governor Cuomo to ban fracking in the state. A coalition of environmentalists, surfers and local businesses beat back a planned liquefied natural gas terminal off the shores of Long Beach, NY, a victory that means the area will now be developed for offshore wind energy.
So if a self-described recovering politician makes a film extolling himself as the essential figure in the worldwide climate movement, why does it matter?
It matters because Gore’s films, An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel, get a lot more funding, distribution, and attention than less well-known films about climate, such as This Changes Everything, based on Naomi Klein’s book by the same name. It matters because many filmgoers came away from Gore’s earlier film, An Inconvenient Truth, with the message that they just needed to switch to higher-efficiency light bulbs. And they may leave An Inconvenient Sequel thinking that Uncle Al has it all under control. No mass movement needed.
Is Gore afraid of the sprawling, messy climate movement? Is he troubled by its implicit challenge to the rapaciousness of global capitalism? Or is he so self-involved that he sees it only as a backdrop for his performances? Only when the final credits roll do we see some still photos of climate activists in action.
The climate movement is an inconvenient movement for people who are wedded to our current systems. That’s why it’s so essential. And that’s why its absence from this film is such a missed opportunity.