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"An Inconvenient Truth" Shows the Missed Opportunities to Act on Climate Change

When the documentary film An Inconvenient Truth opened in May 2006, former Vice President Al Gore, who is the central figure in the film, hoped the movie would increase public awareness of climate threats and arouse bipartisan political support for action. Two years after the movie’s release, prospects for cooperation looked promising. The nominees for President of the United States from both major political parties called for ambitious climate programs. Later, partisan division on climate issues turned severe. Political leaders failed to take meaningful action. In recent years the recurrence of floods, droughts, and heat waves convinced world leaders that a shift to green energy is imperative. But the hour for adjustment is late. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres summed up the dangers in a 2023 scientific report issued by the United Nations: “Humanity is on thin ice,” warned Guterres, “and that ice is melting fast.”

An examination of An Inconvenient Truth’s place in this history illuminates the record of lost opportunities in struggles to protect the planet.

The idea for creating the movie emerged when producer Laurie David saw a film excerpt of Gore’s lecture. She thought a feature-length production could inform the public about environmental threats. Davis Guggenheim soon joined the project as director. He faced a challenge trying to turn Gore’s lectures and slideshow into compelling entertainment. To excite the interest of moviegoers, Guggenheim made Gore the central character in the narrative.

The production drew attention to Al Gore’s longtime work as a climate activist. Gore became concerned about warming temperatures when he took a class at Harvard taught by Roger Rovelle, a scientist who recorded the buildup of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Later, as a new member of the House in 1976, Gore held the first congressional hearings on climate change. In 1992 he published a bestseller, Earth in the Balance. As Vice President in the 1990s, Gore promoted the 1997 Kyoto Protocol, a UN initiative to reduce greenhouse gases. After he lost the presidential election in 2000, Al Gore devoted considerable time to lecturing on climate change in the United States and around the world.

An Inconvenient Truth was a surprising hit for a documentary film. It received considerable praise, won a prestigious award, and influenced public opinion. David Edelstein, a reviewer for New York Magazine, called the film “One of the most realistic documentaries I’ve ever seen – and dry as it is, one of the most devastating in its implications.” The movie won an Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature. In 2007, Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received the Nobel Peace Prize. That year a 47-country survey on the impact of An Inconvenient Truth conducted by the Nielsen Company and Oxford University reported 66% of respondents who saw the movie indicated it changed their minds about global warming.

When an interviewer asked President George W. Bush if he would watch the film, Bush replied, “Doubt it.” Relations between Bush and Gore had been strained since the 2000 presidential campaign. The tension was due partly to Gore’s criticism of Bush for failing to address global warming.

Some Republicans in Washington blasted the film and Gore. Senator Jim Inhofe of Oklahoma, a prominent climate denier, compared An Inconvenient Truth to Adolf Hitler’s book, Mein Kampf. Inhofe said every claim in the movie “has been refuted scientifically.” Congressman Lamar Smith of Texas claimed the science was flawed because of “exaggerations, personal agendas and questionable predictions.” Republicans also complained that Al Gore’s prominence in the movie damaged the film’s potential for attracting bipartisan support. Gore, they noted, had been the Democratic candidate for president, and they said Gore’s abrasive personality hurt the environmental cause.

Intervention by powerful business interests magnified political divisions. In the years after An Inconvenient Truth’s release officials at coal, oil, and gas companies bankrolled communications that questioned the validity of climate science. These well-financed campaigns delivered political dividends. One of the most productive strategies involved requests in 2010 for “No Climate Tax” pledges from congressional candidates. Of 93 new members in Congress that won their races, 83 signed the pledge.

President Barack Obama tried to implement climate initiatives by giving the Environmental Protection Agency greater authority to regulate carbon emissions and by promoting electric cars and batteries, but the next president took a different approach. Donald Trump promised to “save coal” during the 2016 campaign. He denounced climate change as a hoax. Shortly after moving into the White House, Trump pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accord. His administration scrubbed references to “climate change” from government websites.

Climate denial was prominent in G.O.P. politics, but there were still several Republicans that were willing to advocate climate action in the first years after release of An Inconvenient Truth. In 2008 the Republican Party’s candidate for president made the case for renewable energy. John McCain called for mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions, supported a “cap-and-trade” program that gave companies incentives to invest in clean alternatives, and he pledged to work with the globe’s biggest polluters, including China and India, to protect the earth.  In a major speech on the topic, McCain urged action rather than “idly debating” whether climate change was man-made. He said, “We need to deal with the central facts of rising temperatures, rising water and all the endless troubles global warming will bring.”

In recent years some Republican officials have demanded responses to the kind of “endless troubles” McCain described. They recognized the threats to communities, evidenced by storms, floods, droughts, and melting ice. Several Republican leaders in southern Florida demanded climate action because of rising waters and flooded streets. Jim Cason, the mayor of Coral Gables (adjacent to Miami) said, “I’m a Republican, but this is a non-partisan job . . . You have to deal with facts, deal with risks and probabilities, you can’t keep putting your head in the sand.”

Unfortunately, a head-in-the-sand approach is still favored by many Republican officials and legislators. In 2021 twelve states with Republican attorneys general sued President Joe Biden because of his efforts to implement rules aimed at reducing greenhouse gases. That year 109 Republican representatives and 30 Republican senators in the 117th Congress refused to acknowledge the scientific evidence of human-induced global warming. In 2023 the House Republicans’ debt ceiling proposal aimed to repeal major policies designed to incentivize deployment of green energy.

Al Gore made a significant contribution to public awareness of climate issues through his central role in An Inconvenient Truth, but Gore could have done more for the environmental cause if he had won the 2000 presidential election. George W. Bush joked about his opponent in that campaign, saying Gore “likes electric cars. He just doesn’t like making electricity.” Al Gore, who realized 23 long ago that electric cars could play an important role in protecting the planet, lost that presidential election by just a few hundred ballots in Florida.

Progress toward reducing greenhouse gases might have come earlier if the count in Florida had gone the other way. It seems likely that efforts to raise public awareness of climate threats would have been more robust in a Gore presidency.