Category 5 Storm Warning
Where was this man in 2000? Matters of global climate change aside, that was the primary impression I was left with at the end of An Inconvenient Truth, the one question I wanted to scream with rage and frustration. The Al Gore here is thoughtful, intelligent, engaged with the world, passionate, relaxed, inspiring, even funny. That he was smart was never in question — that he was any kind of leader, a man with the power to make you share his passion, was.
No more. The answer to my question, I suspect, is that this Al Gore did not exist in 2000, not quite — I suspect that he was forged by the fire of being treated like a buffoon by the press before the election (and letting the press get away with it) and by the fiasco of the post-election legal nightmare in which he put being gracious above playing to win. You can forget everything you knew about the “stiff,” “wonky” Al Gore of 2000: the Gore of 2006 has clearly learned a hard lesson about fighting like you mean it and not letting the other side’s propaganda frame the issue.
But, amazingly, An Inconvenient Truth isn’t a political film, not really, even if the debate about global climate change has come down to “sides” in the same idiotic way that the debate about evolution has, in the same way that the debate about heliocentricity once was. Because you don’t need to like Gore, or trust him, or even believe him to get a swift kick in the pants, one that’ll scare the hell out of you, and Truth isn’t really about Gore at all, except accidentally.
Since 2000, see, the ex-vice president has been traveling the globe giving a slideshow presentation about climate issues to anyone who’ll listen, and documentarian Davis Guggenheim pretty much plopped some cameras in front of one of those presentations to create Truth. If you’ve been following climate science — not climate propaganda — little that Gore says will be news to you, but he puts it all together in such a devastating way that the impact is enormous nevertheless even to the initiated. To anyone who’s only paid attention the mainstream press, which continues to insist that there is no scientific consensus that we’re totally fucked unless we do something soon, Truth will be like an atomic bomb going off in your brain.
Photos of ancient glaciers that have retreated entirely over the last hundred years, and video of today’s glaciers literally disintegrating before our eyes. Animations about what happened the last time the jetstream that warms Europe shut down, and how close we are to that happening again — it has to do with a whole lotta fresh water getting dumped into the North Atlantic, and the signs that Greenland, a huge honking ice cube of fresh water, is on the verge of catastrophic meltdown. Disappearing rivers, disappearing species, disappearing rainforests. Disappearing cities, gone under the 20 feet of water that the meltdown of Greenland and only part of Antarctica will bring. Hard scientific facts from peer-reviewed scientific journals that debunk the humbuggery of oil-company-supported PR “think tanks” about “natural cycles” — the charts Gore presents about the variations in actual natural cycles of warming and cooling and CO2 concentrations over hundreds of thousands of years, and how far off the chart the variations we’re seeing today are, may well be the scariest thing I’ve seen on film in years.
Yeah, I said “charts.” It sounds stiff and wonky, and yet it isn’t. Gore is witty and rousing. Not just in self-deprecating ways, as when he introduces himself: “I am Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States.” But also when, say, he’s deploying the example of the boiling frog, which lots of folks have used to illustrate the human propensity to ignore problems that sneak up on you: Put a frog in boiling water, and he’ll hop out, the analogy goes, but put that same frog in cold water and slowly bring the water to a boil, and the frog will sit there and happily let himself be cooked to death. Gore, though, he gives it a spin: the frog will sit in the heating water… until he’s rescued. That’s funny, but it’s also hopeful and almost exciting: Gore wants us to be scared enough to start doing something about the huge problem we’re facing, but not too scared that we get paralyzed, because it’s not, he insists, too late to do something about it. And, as he ably demonstrates with facts and figures from around the globe, the solutions — some of which are already in play around the world — do not have to be the economic disaster climate-change naysayers keep insisting it will be. (Wait till you hear what kind of gas mileage European- and even Chinese-made cars are getting! No wonder American automakers are going bankrupt: they can’t compete on the global stage. And building more efficient cars would be bad for our economy?)
In fact, for all the cant about Gore being “hysterical”, it’s the climate-change deniers who, by comparison, come off looking like the crazy ones. Gore is calm, he’s rational, he’s logical, and while he’s clearly deeply concerned, he’s not ranting and raving. And though the film takes a few asides to explain how tragedy in Gore’s life — the death of his sister to lung cancer, almost losing his young son — changed him, made him sit up and reevaluate what was important to him, his life and his experience really are secondary to what he’s talking about. You don’t need to like Gore or trust him or take his word on anything he says here: he’s just the messenger, and we are required to take nothing he says on faith. The information, the facts — including the basic truth that there is no debate on these issues any more than there is any debate on whether the Earth is round or more than 6,000 years old — are readily available to anyone who wishes to factcheck Gore.
But to see this new Gore is in itself an extraordinarily positive and encouraging thing. “Political will,” he tells us, “is a renewable resource,” and An Inconvenient Truth is like striking oil unexpectedly. We may well be at a tipping point of a climate crisis, barreling toward catastrophe. Or, if Gore can translate his stunning new political-is-personal power into an environmental philosophy that motivates the public, perhaps we’ll tip over into a new paradigm for treading, as a global civilization, more softly upon the Earth.