An Inconvenient Truth (A Movie Review)

by Al Gore
Distributor: Paramount Classics, 2006

“You look at that river gently flowing by. You notice the leaves rustling with the wind. You hear the birds; you hear the tree frogs. In the distance you hear a cow. You feel the grass. The mud gives a little bit on the river bank. It’s quiet; it’s peaceful. And all of a sudden, it’s a gear shift inside you. And it’s like taking a deep breath and going, ‘Oh yeah, I forgot about this’.” — Al Gore in the opening monologue of An Inconvenient Truth 

Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” aims to be the defining statement of environmentalism for the current generation, in the same way that Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was for those who lived through the 1960s. It succeeds in this aim. While the title promises a timeless statement of principles, Gore’s choice of media – the movie/DVD – and the style in which the movie is put together, integrating animation, computer graphics, film clips, music and individual oratory, is well-chosen for maximum impact in the 21st century.

How is this movie relevant to business and marketing? Environmentalism is now unquestionably the major theme of corporate social responsibility programs and a key factor in brand building – as even a cursory glance at brand advertising demonstrates. As the growing scientific consensus echoes in the corridors of national and multi-lateral policy-making, environmental issues are poised to present the most important compliance and regulatory challenge to businesses in the 21st century. Bio-fuels, solar and wind power and e-waste recycling are among the world’s fastest growing industries. And research indicates that business decision-makers are even more concerned about environmental issues than the average citizen. 

In “An Inconvenient Truth”, former US presidential candidate and Nobel laureate Al Gore eloquently describes how human beings have unleashed profoundly destructive forces on the earth’s environment, straining its capacity to sustain life – as seen in the erosion of shorelines, the shrinking of lakes and glaciers, and above all global warming. 

Based on a speech which Gore has been developing for six years, the film is littered with statistics that illustrate how the earth’s climate has started rebelling against humanity. Gore’s argument centers on the theme of global warming – the unprecedented levels of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that have been released into the atmosphere by human activity, resulting in history’s first man-made rise in global temperatures. The 10 warmest years in recorded history is revealed to have occurred in the last 14 years. 

In particular, Gore warns of the possible collapse of major ice sheets in Greenland and West Antarctica. The meltdown of either could raise global sea levels by approximately 20 feet (6m), submerging coastal areas and displacing 100 million people. Because of its lower salinity, melt water from Greenland could halt the Gulf Stream and trigger dramatic cooling in Northern Europe. 

As more of the sun’s energy gets trapped by the sea, countries like Japan, the US, Taiwan, Bangladesh and the Philippines will witness stronger and more frequent typhoons and hurricanes – witness the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans in the United States. 

However, Gore argues forcefully that the effects of global warming can be reversed by curbing carbon dioxide emissions and planting more vegetation to act as “carbon sinks.” He points to the world’s success in curbing emissions of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) that were eroding the ozone layer as proof that humanity can muster the collective political will to meet global threats. 

The film seeks to address criticisms that global warming is a myth. These are swiftly rebutted by facts presented as charts and diagrams in a slideshow. The movie concludes that there is “no controversy” surrounding global warming – a phenomenon that is the subject of a firm and growing consensus among the global scientific community. 

The film weaves in personal events that influenced Gore’s world-view, including his college education with early climate expert Roger Revelle at Harvard University, his sister’s death from lung cancer, and his young son’s near-fatal car accident. Instead of being mere embellishments, these digressions reinforce the moral conviction that is the kernel of the film’s argument. 

The competent editing adds a real sense of drama to Mr. Gore’s case. The movie has won awards such as “Best Documentary” and “Best Achievement in Music Written for Motion Pictures” at the 2007 Academy Awards, a Grammy award for “Best Song Written for Motion Picture, Television or Other Visual Media” and “Best Documentary feature” in the Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards. The Nobel Peace prize was the ultimate recognition of Gore’s work.

The book, published concurrently with the cinematic release of the documentary, condenses all the information carried on film, using vivid photographs, maps, charts and statistics. As unsettling as it can be, it whets the appetite for further study. 

Albeit coming off like a political campaign at times, An Inconvenient Truth does throw up serious questions about our individual responsibility towards meeting the challenge of climate change. Its main message is that global warming presents a “moral imperative” to each and every person. 

The movie does not present answers to the more mundane questions raised by global warming:

Can humanity respond to the global warming crisis within the framework of the capitalist economic system and international relations as they stand? What adaptations and sacrifices will be needed – are carbon taxes, renewable energy targets and mandatory product take-back the way to go? Or are more far-reaching changes necessary?
How should the burdens of the fight against climate change be shared between developed and developing nations?

While the movie focuses on global warming, environmentalism is also concerned with other big themes – the protection of human beings from air, water and food contaminants and the management of deforestation and biodiversity, to name a few. Biodiversity presents a particular challenge, as its protection does not confer easily quantifiable, short-term benefits, while the countries with the most biodiversity to protect tend to be developing nations with the strongest incentives to clear land for urbanization and industrialization, like Indonesia and Brazil. How should these issues be addressed? 

This lack of specificity is, however, not a weakness but a strength in the context of Gore’s stirring clarion call to action. The absence of specific policy proposals in “An Inconvenient Truth” heightens its universal appeal as a call to arms, rather than a narrowly political manifesto or program. It is an absence that underlines a profound truth: the most important debates of any age are not about competing answers to the same question but about what the central questions should be. “An Inconvenient Truth” establishes global warming as perhaps the key question that will define social life in our time. The answers to this question are up to us to work out.

The one shortcoming of the movie is its over-emphasis on global warming at the expense of other pressing environmental dangers – in particular the preservation of biodiversity, as we live in an age where species extinction is taking place at levels equivalent to the earth’s great catastrophic extinction events. “An Inconvenient Truth” is not everything one needs to know about the environment – but it is a great place to start.