Last week, MCEA Staff Attorney Kevin Lee and MCEA Communications Director Aaron Klemz screened An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the follow up movie to An Inconvenient Truth. An Inconvenient Sequel follows former Vice President Al Gore as he presents research on climate change around the globe, attempts to help the passage of the Paris Climate Accords, and travels to see the impact of climate change. It’s a strong update of the 2006 movie and provides a needed dose of hope in the wake of the U.S. federal government withdrawal from the Paris Accords.
Kevin and Aaron had a chance to sit down with the directors of the movie, Bonni Cohen and Jon Schenk, to ask them about the movie, the state of climate activism, and the importance of working at the state and local level.
Just one day after the interview, the Minnesota Public Utilities Commission updated their "cost of carbon" used when making power plant decisions. This took four years of work here at MCEA. It ensures that from now on, Minnesota will accurately reflect the cost that climate change imposes on people when choosing between renewable energy sources and fossil fuel based energy. It's one example of how MCEA works at the state level to ensure a livable planet for our children and grandchildren.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power opens Friday, August 4th at the Uptown Theater in Minneapolis.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Aaron Klemz of MCEA: Eleven years after the first film, An Inconvenient Truth, it seemed like we would be past this "debate" about scientific evidence and whether we need to prove the reality of climate change any more. And of course there is a lot less emphasis in this sequel than there was in the 2006 film. How did you make decisions about how much emphasis to place on the reality of climate change and how it’s accelerating as you put the film together?
Bonnie Cohen: You know there’s a expression that Al Gore uses often, “the hope bucket.” When you’re talking to human beings about this kind of devastation, an existential crisis of this magnitude, you have to have a “hope bucket” in the conversation somewhere so that they don’t become paralyzed with fear and aren’t moved to act. That kind of thesis we talked about a lot in the making of the film – just how far do we go before we infuse a little bit of information about the sustainability revolution taking hold right now and the cost decrease of solar and wind and how effective that is in turning all of this around, it’s just a question of how quickly.
Obviously we thought it was very important, as did Al, to let the viewership know just how bad things have gotten in terms of hottest years, climate related weather events that have gotten so much more serious in the last 10 years, droughts, fires, Zika picking up further into the northern hemisphere. So that is all in there, but very often you’ll see Al Gore turn around and give an example of how we can also work to combat the climate crisis. So, we were always thinking about how much a viewer could take before they would just want to walk out of the theater and throw their hands up in the air and not want to act.
Kevin Lee of MCEA: Since we work in the policy field and we’re pretty steeped in this, we’re constantly bombarded with a lot of bad news on this front. To follow up on what you were talking about in the “hope bucket,” we’re there any experiences you had while shooting the film that gave you optimism that this is a solvable problem?
BC: You see Eric Rignot in the film, he’s an incredible French scientist, he teaches at UC-Irvine where he is a glaciologist. He’s in the film in Greenland on a boat with Al Gore, showing him where the ice was in the 1980’s. When we got to Greenland he had just released his new report on what was going on in Antarctica and Al was just completely devastated by it. He actually said to him “I read your reports, I’m an eternal optimist but even me, I’m having a hard time coming back from this.” And Eric said, “It’s true, of course, that we’ve done irrevocable damage. There are things that we cannot get back, but the best way to think about is it’s as if you’ve cut off most of your pinkie finger. Do you give up on the other nine fingers?” And for whatever reason, all of us thought that was the most positive thing we’d heard. We were all ready to saw off our fingers!
Jon Shenk: We were really uplifted many times throughout the production process by the exciting news of what’s going on with the innovative technologies of the sustainable revolution, as Al Gore calls it. In the original film, there’s a famous shot where Al Gore got on a scissor lift and has to lift himself practically out of the theater to show how bad global warming has gotten and how bad carbon dioxide has gotten in the atmosphere. There are graphs just as dramatic showing the cost downcurve of solar and wind.
Bonnie and I put solar on our house about 10 years ago and even then it was a cash-positive net gain for us, but now it’s very dramatic. In many states in the US you can call a solar supplier and the next day you can be paying less for electricity, it’s kind of a no-brainer. So then it comes down to policy, and politics.
In the film you see Al meet a mayor in oil country in Texas. That’s kind of a two-fold piece of optimism for us. One, because it really reveals that Al is in kind of a post-political world, he’s beyond politics, his career has moved beyond to this realm of activism where he doesn’t care if you’re a conservative or a liberal anymore, he just cares about solving the problem. He met with [Georgetown, Texas Mayor] Dale Ross, and of course they agree that solar and wind make sense financially. And oh, by the way, once you go there the air is cleaner and you can leave a better planet for your children. It really gave us an enormous amount of hope to see scenes like that.
AK: It’s interesting that you mention this idea of being “post-politics” because the specter of the election is cast throughout this movie. When you were shooting this movie you didn’t know that in November 2016 we were going to see an election that threatens to reverse a lot of the political progress on renewable energy and climate change. If you had more time to make changes or shoot new material, what would you have added to this film?
BC: The truth is that Trump, I hesitate to say this, is at the very early part of his tenure as President. It is a grim reality. Al was very funny, we were in France showing the film in May. His favorite line was “Well, I’m glad we’re at the halfway mark of Trump’s presidency.” Even though Trump has dismantled the EPA, he’s made these cabinet appointments of climate deniers, and now he’s pulled out of the Paris Climate Accords, which is insanity, it’s hard to know what the effects are actually going to be. So in terms of including him further as a character, we would actually have to stay with this for longer. Because the truth is that while he is undoing all of this, regular citizens of this country like yourselves, and mayors in small towns, and Governors like [California’s] Jerry Brown are continuing to move this all forward.
So, is he actually going to be able to undo as much as he thinks he is? It’s hard to know. It feels like progress is still very much underway. You can still get to the Paris commitments, as an example, even if Trump is trying to pull out of it. I think we have to constantly ask ourselves, in reality what do all these devastating things that he’s doing really mean? And in terms of the film, what would we have actually included besides knowing that we’re facing this now? We haven’t experienced it yet.
JS: Bonni and I really come from an observational school of film making where we lay a plan to try to capture the reality of the story were doing. In this case it was really Al Gore’s story and the work that he does to try to solve the climate crisis. The documentary filmmaker D.A. Pennebaker said that documentarians don’t have the luxury of screenwriting. We can’t invent stuff, we film what is actually happening and then we piece it together the best we can. And the audience themselves has to fill in the gaps, to a certain extent. We make films where we really respect the audience. We know that people bring an intelligence to this story, and global warming and the climate crisis has been in our culture for long enough, partly thanks to an Inconvenient Truth, that we have the language. We don’t need to condescend and berate people about the basic science anymore. I think most Americans know the basic science. And so the real story for us was how fast are we moving to solve the problem?
To us, that has real drama because the technology exists now for us to get there. So, we’re not really kicking ourselves because we didn’t have any more time. We’re really proud that we were able to get such great access to Al’s world and be there for the meetings he did to gain the information he then gives in his slideshow. And, of course, during Paris when he did whatever he could there to make a deal successful. We really hope that this is a document of a really driven person trying to the right thing during a difficult period in the planet’s history.
BC: Al Gore was very worried when Trump pulled out of the Paris Accords that other countries would follow suit. And the truth is the absolute reverse thing happened. Countries doubled down on their commitments in Paris. We often marvel at the fact that in those first days after he pulled out of the Paris Accords that all the major news networks were talking about the climate crisis. When was the last time that climate was major news in this country? So, maybe there was a reverse psychology happening there.
JS: There is this funny little thing that gets in the way of the denialist agenda, which is the truth.
BC: There still is truth.
KL: One thing we hear a lot of since the election is that a lot of attention has turned toward the states, and we see that a lot here with the work that we do. Has Al Gore shifted his activism in the same way? Does he see the states as the next front in moving these policies along?
BC: Definitely. I don’t know that he sees it as “the next front,” but he sees it as an important front. [California Governor] Jerry Brown was at our screening last night, and he was talking about very important legislation that he just passed on methane in the state of California. One of the reasons we have the scene with the Mayor of Georgetown [Texas] is that Al Gore really believes that local and state government can do a hell of a lot when the federal government is obstructionist.
JS: One of the best moments for me in the wake of Trump’s devastating announcement about the Paris Accords is that Trump said he was elected to represent the people of Pittsburgh, not the people of Paris. Within a day or two, the Mayor of Pittsburgh stood up and said, “Wait a minute. I’m the mayor of Pittsburgh and the people that I represent want to stay in in Paris because we want to save our environment.” And so cities are enormously important because so much of the electricity use in our country goes predominantly to urban areas. If you can take cituies like Pittsburgh and giant metropolises like New York and San Francisco carbon neutral, it’s very exciting and well worth activists’ energy.
JS: It’s organizations like yours that are pushing things forward.
BC: Now more than ever.
JS: We hope you agree, by getting people out to the film it really sends a message. One of the ways we vote these days is by what we pay attention to. When, hopefully, millions of people go to see this film, it sends another strong message that “wow, people care about this stuff.”