An Inconvenient Truth – then and now

Below, my article as it appeared in the Irish Times on August 19th last. I had been, along with my family and some friends, to the preview screening of ‘An Inconvenient Sequel – Truth To Power’ in the Lighthouse Cinema on August 1st last, and confess to having found it disappointing (a view not shared, incidentally, by the kids who attended).

Maybe it was a little too much to expect the sequel to pack anything like the raw emotional punch of the 2006 original There was also that nagging feeling that it really was time for Al Gore, having done so much to inspire, mobilise and broaden the so-called ‘environmental movement’, to step aside and let other, newer, voices lead the next phase.

None of this takes from the debt of gratitude I and many others owe to Gore for his outstanding leadership and morally grounded activism at another time of great despair and science denial within US politics. Hard to believe that anyone would ever look back ever-so-slightly wistfully at the GW Bush era, but such is the state of play with the current incumbent that anything other than profound pessimism on our remaining chances of avoid climate meltdown seems borderline delusional.

Meanwhile, I asked six well-known figures from environmental science and campaigning for their reflections on the impact of the original movie:


THE RELEASE in 2006 of the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth was a surprise box office and critical hit, as well as a landmark moment in raising awareness about dangerous climate change.

Grossing more than $50 million, it became one of the most successful documentary films ever made, and was widely regarded as having reinvigorated the global ecological movement. It also earned its creator Al Gore a share of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Gore’s follow-up film, An Inconvenient Sequel – Truth To Power, opens nationwide on August 18th.

For me, the film was an environmental epiphany – an electrifying moment when everything I’d been studying and trying to process emotionally for several years came crashing into focus.

By the time the final credits were rolling, I sensed my days of cynical indifference on this issue were over. Being a parent of what were then very young children sharpened its impact. After all, the timelines for catastrophe ran right through their future adult lives. Who, knowing this, could choose not to act? In Gore’s own words, doing nothing in the face of what we now know about climate change “is deeply unethical”.

I have asked some well-known figures from environmental science and campaigning for their impressions, then and now, of An Inconvenient Truth. Did the Earth move for them?

Anja Murray: Ecologist, environmental policy analyst and ‘Eco Eye’ presenter

When it came out I remember feeling excited that someone had actually made a feature film about global warming. At that time it wasn’t a big deal in the collective consciousness; most people hadn’t really grasped the consequences of rising emissions.

I think the film had a huge impact on how we, as a society, understood climate change. It made the science of climate change accessible to a huge audience, and as an environmental scientist, I felt it helped give our work a boost and endorse our efforts for change.

Tragically, the resulting shift in awareness didn’t translate in to policy changes. Even now, a decade later, we all still have our heads in the sand. We know the basic facts, we know the scale of destruction and injustice that climate change brings about, yet any real positive action is still dismissed as “extreme”. I hope the film’s sequel will help resolve this cognitive dissonance.

Prof John Sweeney: Climatologist, NUI Maynooth

The International Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) fourth assessment report came out later that year, and the real importance of the film is that it articulated the science to the public in a way that hadn’t been done before.

Up till then, IPCC reports were seen as dusty old documents that were kept in a drawer. Al Gore showed their relevance by explaining the impact of climate change on us as individuals. Gore also provided leadership to the environmental movement at that time, someone they could coalesce around to express their particular concerns.

Some of the way he conveyed the science was populist, and you could pick holes in some of his arguments, as his critics tried so often to do, but the overall thrust of what he said in the film is true, and has been proven true ever since.

Dr Cara Augustenborg: Environmental scientist and lecturer

Gore’s first movie had a profound effect on me. I’m embarrassed to admit it, but I cried when the credits came up because it was the moment I realised that, if we didn’t solve climate change, everything was at risk. Yet the problem was so big I couldn’t fathom how to fix it.

The original film did a great job raising awareness of climate change but it stopped short of providing much in the way of solutions. I think that’s part of the reason it failed to make a huge impact with the public – not everyone wanted to go to the cinema to get depressed.

However, Gore’s Climate Reality project, which came after the film, has had real impact. I am one of over 8,000 “climate leaders” in 126 countries who have been trained to give a version of his famous PowerPoint presentation. That may be its enduring legacy.

Prof Michael Mann: Distinguished professor of atmospheric science, Penn State University

Has any public figure been more pilloried for their efforts to communicate the climate threat than Al Gore? Going back to his time as US vice-president, where he worked hard to put global warming on the political agenda, he has been under relentless attack from the well-funded forces of denial.

The release of An Inconvenient Truth in 2006 led to an intensification of the hate campaign against Gore that continues to this day.

In his original film one of Gore’s slides featured a graphic of the famous “hockey-stick” curve that my co-authors and I published in the late 1990s. This showed a dramatic spike in temperature over the past century.

Every bit as dramatic has been the quite extraordinary global growth in clean energy in the past 10 years. The deniers said it couldn’t be done. They were wrong, yet again. Despite everything, there are still reasons for cautious optimism, and Al Gore can take a lot of credit for that.

Oisín Coghlan: Director, Friends of the Earth, Ireland

The movie led to a breakthrough moment in public debate and media coverage of climate change. Suddenly it was a zeitgeist issue. Journalists were looking for the climate angle on almost everything. I remember reading an Irish Times profile of eight young women writers where six of them named climate change as a concern, and thinking “we’ve made it”.

Then came the economic crash, which knocked climate right off the political and media agenda. Irish vested interest groups have also worked hard to put protection of short-term private profit above longer-term public interest.

Personally, I liked the movie and the way Gore wove the story of his family’s tobacco farming with his own discovery of the science of climate risk. And his naïve hopes that evidence alone would sway his fellow Congress members.

There are two memorable quotes from the movie. One is the worry that people might swing from denial to despair without pausing in the middle for action. The other is that only thing preventing action is a lack of political will, and political will is a renewable resource.

Eamon Ryan: Green Party leader and former minister for communications

Back in 2006, there was in fact a lot of political support for action on climate. The European Council that year agreed the 2020 (emissions reduction) targets. This happened around the time the film came out, and there is no doubt that it helped. I’ve seen the tide go in and out on climate action over the years; An Inconvenient Truth was definitely a high-water mark.

Gore’s real achievement was in turning dry scientific information into easily understood, digestible material. For me, the “wow” moment in the film was that one graph (tracking projected carbon dioxide levels by mid-century) that went literally through the roof.

Having lived for a while in the US, I also liked the closing sequence featuring a shot of the river near his home, connecting him to the beauty of the place he grew up in Tennessee and the awareness that this really could all be lost.

ThinkOrSwim is a blog by journalist John Gibbons focusing on the inter-related crises involving climate change, sustainability, resource depletion, energy and biodiversity loss
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2 Responses to An Inconvenient Truth – then and now

  1. hugh says:

    I appreciate the views expressed here. Living in the U.S., although not being from the U.S., it surprised me to see the continual vilification of Gore and the film “An Inconvenient Truth”. It was my first inkling of the deep seated irrational anger that spews falsehoods that emerge from the far right. There is a consistent barrage from this sector of the population in which global warming denial is just one (although the most important) of many topics they dwell upon and Trump has become their champion who is the eternal seeker of victims to blame. Gore is easy for them to pillory since his actions do not always reflect his principles.

  2. John Gibbons says:

    Thanks for your comment Hugh, always good to get the US perspective first hand as well. Gore certainly inspired a lot of angry folks on the right of the political spectrum to get even angrier, and I’ve heard it say that his film helped politicise and polarise the climate change ‘debate’ in the US, and if that’s true, that really is unfortunate, given that this is an equal opportunity crisis that, ironically, is hitting Red States (Texas, Louisiana etc) hardest. Being in denial about climate change is actively impeding the ability of states to carry out the kind of climate adaptation projects that are going to be ever-more essential, never mind actually acting to try and mitigate by reducing emissions.

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