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Lessons and Questions from An Inconvenient Truth
Hassan Masum, 10 Jul 06

Relentless, clear, and fun. Starting from iconic shots of Earth from space and moving step by step through both the science and what's being seen on the ground, Al Gore inexorably lays out what we know about climate change in one of the most engaging ecological talks I've seen.

As with the best teachers, he weaves together interconnected factual threads, stories, illustrations, and occasional dry humor into a gripping story - one made all the more compelling by the dramatic consequences it's already having on our planet, and the specter of what more is coming. As an occasional teacher, I found the combination of sincere simplicity and illustrative images, videos, and graphs to be nothing short of masterful. Think of the difference between picking up astronomy from a textbook, versus watching Carl Sagan's "Cosmos" ... and now imagine Cosmos even more focused. Beautiful!

This clarity is no accident, as Gore talks about his goal of wanting to make his presentation as straightforward as he possibly could. In fact, he specifically mentions systematically searching for "understanding blocks" on the part of the audience, and iteratively improving the presentation to unravel those blocks. What we're seeing, then, is the end product of hundreds of iterations. There's a lesson here in what it takes to educate and motivate audiences about complex problems.

We've covered the movie before:

  • Al Gore's talk on which the movie was based. ("Gore's ability to lay out the terrifying reality of global warming, and then convince the audience that we can save the world is stunning.")
  • a brief piece on the movie itself ("[W]hy should Worldchangers, who have a variety of concerns, invest themselves in the success of a movie about carbon measurements, melting ice caps and worsening hurricanes? Al Gore himself answered that question at last night's screening: because the same frozen moral perspective that prevents us from addressing climate change makes us see all sorts of other planetary challenges -- from poverty to HIV/AIDS to genocide to corruption -- as insolvable problems, rather than as artifacts of a broken political system, problems we lack only the will, not the means, to solve.")
  • and an interview with the director ("Now, I’m not an environmentalist, but I had this profound experience where for the first time someone had laid out the whole thing, and explained it to me, connected the dots, and I left after an hour and a half thinking that global warming is the most important issue, and if I do one thing in my life it’s to help more people see Al Gore do this. I had no idea how you’d make a film out of it, but I wanted to try.")

...but it's worth reiterating that An Inconvenient Truth is an excellent example of bridging the gap between knowing facts and seeing the big picture - and between seeing the big picture and feeling its urgency. There is some magic that goes on when a teacher explains the context and importance of a topic, and brings it to life. We need that same magic 10, 100, even 1000 times for a host of big issues, and this movie is a lesson in that particular brand of magic-making.

After the movie, many questions were sparking in my mind. I'd be curious to hear what our readers think on some of them:

  • What specific actions, if any, have you taken or will you take as a result of the movie? What will the net behavioral impact be on all the people who watch An Inconvenient Truth? What broader effort could the movie be part of to increase this impact?
  • Suppose that a movie like An Inconvenient Truth has a certain impact, X, as measured by the additional positive actions its watchers take in the world. What kind of effort (product, initiative, cultural production, etc) would create an impact of 10X or 100X? Of those efforts, what are the low-cost ones (the low-hanging fruit)?
  • How could keen doers collaborate on creating "open presentations" - e.g. slide shows or lectures released under Creative Commons licenses, that could be reused and improved to bootstrap effective communications? How much more play would An Inconvenient Truth and similar documentaries get if, once they made back their costs plus a profit margin, they went from being copyrighted to Creative Commons licensed, so one could pick up the DVD for $5 or less? (Note that according to our review of Al Gore and James Hansen in NYC, "Gore mentioned his plans to train 1000 people to give his slideshow presentation, which he is planning to share under a Creative Commons license."
  • What other great presentations are being given in the world today? How can they be better brought into wider circulation? What's a cost-effective way to edit them up to the next level - to go from a good lecture on ResearchChannel or The Conversations Network to a compelling general-circulation documentary?
  • What could we put in a sequel?
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I spoke to an acquaintance about "An Inconvenient Truth" this weekend. She was previously uninformed about global warming but receptive, and compelled by the movie. But she expressed this disappointment: "I did not feel I left the theater really knowing what I can do, and what I should do FIRST."

It may have been too much for one film to tackle both problem AND solutions in comparable depth. Mixing the solutions with the final credits may have been an mistake. So a sequel needs to do the solutions piece -- what it will be like to live in a world in which we live differently. A worthy worldchanging challenge.

Posted by: Ted on 10 Jul 06

I saw the movie in LA with family I was visiting after going to YearlyKos in Las Vegas where I exhibited my Solar Survival Show, demonstrations of simple and practical solar techniques that I'd like to see others take to such local events as the more than 3700 farmers markets that happen around the USA every week. Gore will be training 1000 people to give his presentation starting in September. I wish he were training 1000 people to do Solar Survival Shows as well.

We need to start making real changes - yesterday!

PS: I have videos of an example of what I mean by a Solar Survival Show on my blog and some of my other small scale solar devices.

Posted by: gmoke on 10 Jul 06

The FIRST thing you should tell people is compact fluorescent bulbs because it is quick and easy and makes a real impact. The second thing is keeping up the basic maintenance on an automobile - proper tire inflation, new air and oil filters, that picky kind of stuff - and switching to a hybrid when possible.

Another easy thing is to plug in any appliances that generate a phantom load - TV sets, computers, any appliance with an instant on feature - into a power strip. After you turn off the appliance, turn off the power strip. Phantom loads are as much as 5% of all US electricial use. actually has a pretty good list of what you can do.

Posted by: gmoke on 10 Jul 06

We rarely discuss politics on this site, but please let me ask something.

In the movie, we saw not only a masterful presentation of facts, but we saw a mastery of high-tech means of presenting them.

Can we imagine the current occupant of the White House even being able to find the "On" switch?

Posted by: David Foley on 10 Jul 06

the AIT site ( is extremely frustrating; there seems to be no channel back to the filmmakers/site owners, I guess because there's nothing of value that the public can tell them? It's old fashioned and patronizing.

It would seem like the natural spot to be discussing/evaluating/providing solutions - which are of global interest, so should be on a global site - but there's no place on the site to do that.

The denialists that I talk to are refusing to see the film until it goes to video because (they say) they don't want to give Al Gore any money. How much does he make from the film, per ticket?

And why aren't his charts - which were hugely convincing - online?
(why do I feel that Gore _doesn't_ "get" the web?)

Posted by: Anna Haynes on 10 Jul 06

Anna, please let your denier friends know that Mr. Gore is donating all his proceeds from the film to non-profit groups working to solve climate disruption. I'm not sure, but I believe that the charts are in Mr. Gore's book, of the same title as the film. It costs US $13.17 at Amazon right now, where it is currently the 5th-highest-selling book. Proceeds from the book will also be donated.

Posted by: David Foley on 11 Jul 06

A fellow student and I at the University of Guelph saw this film when it came out, and decided that we would try to obtain a license to show it on campus several times throughout the year. Ideally, we'd like to have a panel discussion or debate on the film with our very own Dr. McKitrick (who disagrees that climate change is happening) and any one of our professors who have been studying and researching climate change (and are therefore very much in agreement that it is happening). I think having open discussions on this topic with open-minded youth and community members is key to spreading the word. You can convince every friend you have to go see it, but if you don't make them question it and think about what they saw, it will have no effect on them in the end.

Posted by: Jennie on 11 Jul 06

I wanted to respond to this comment:

She was previously uninformed about global warming but receptive, and compelled by the movie. But she expressed this disappointment: "I did not feel I left the theater really knowing what I can do, and what I should do FIRST."

Actually, that's part of the point.

Gore is waking us up to the fact that these things are happening, and he is trying to encourage us to explore for ourselves "what we can do."

If he told us "Do Step A, then Step B, etc," he would be no different from all the evangelists telling us how to find God, be free, save the world, whatever.

Our job is to take responsibility in our own lives, in our own context, with the means available to us (not to someone else). For some, that will mean cutting back on energy use. For others, it might mean joining a local effort to save some wetlands. For still others, it could mean changing careers.

The message for your friend is: Gore doesn't know what she should do. Only she can figure that out. And it doesn't mean she has to get it exactly right from Day 1.

Just try something! Form the intention to help, and then try to help. Evaluate how well it's going, and refine as necessary.

This is called the Art of Life. We don't need people to tell us Step A in order to get started.

Posted by: Kim on 11 Jul 06

I was impressed by a line Al Gore spoke in response to questions about where we are politically regarding climate change. He said something to the effect that, "the maximum of what is politically possible is not enough for what is minimally necessary."

There is a koan for worldchangers to sit with.

How we expand the limits of what we can imagine is possible is at the core of what you are offering at

The challenge for me as a reader is to pick a few promising ideas or technologies and find a way to introduce them to my communities...both where i live and my communities of association.


Posted by: max milton on 11 Jul 06

I bought a bike after seeing the film, have been riding it to work 3 days per week for the past month.

Jennie - I like your idea at Guelph. While having an open discussion is a good thing, I hope you guys will emphasize that the two presenters do not represent equally weighted opinions. One is very much in the minority (probably 1% of scientists) and the other is very much in the majority. Kind of doesn't even seem right to give the 1% guy more than a couple of minutes...

Posted by: Stephen A. Fuqua on 11 Jul 06

A reply to Kim -- I appreciate the sentiment, and agree that the "Art of Life" demands of each of us the courage and conviction to start where we are.

For climate change, this is simply not going to be enough. "An inconvenient Truth" DOES suggest many of the simple changes we all know (some of which could be hugely significant -- i.e., CFLs in every socket). Those changes are necessary, but need to be made in the context of political changes actually matched to the true magnitude of the problem. James Hansen says we have ten years to MAKE THE DECISIONS to put society/civilization on a path to avoid the worst impacts of global warming. We are barely facing the right direction yet.

AIT needs LOTS of sequels, to help bring clear the many levels of solution that must be activated together.

Posted by: Ted on 11 Jul 06

1001 guilt mongers won't end our addiction to fossil fuel. Offering people engaged in the "art of life" (whatever that means to the below average man in the car) real options in energy use is the first step. However there are big losers if this happens - Exxon, Peabody coal, utilities, Saudi Arabia etc
More liquid fuels, like ethanol, to dump inefficiently through our cars and trucks is not the answer even if they are "carbon neutral".
Ending our use of the internal combustion engine by switching to electric drive - - will return ten times the efficiency gain of switching our light bulbs to CF. Cheap solar - and more wind power are a start in the right direction. But we are currently investing much more money in fossil fuel infrastructure and technology than we are investing in renewable energy both here and in China and India where the biggest growth in energy use is occurring. There are solutions. Will the uneducated public ever see them much less embrace them in the market? Only time will tell and we don't have much of that left.

Posted by: Spike on 11 Jul 06

Hassan, you asked about ways to follow up Gore's movie.

This web site, The Canary Project looks like a good place to help marshall evidence.

Actions are harder. How much of this problem depends on policy and how much depends on design? Obviously both are needed, but beyond that we need to coordination of efforts between disciplines and scales.

We haven't learned how to create "fractal" sustainability - the same fundamental processes applied a million times over, at every scale from household to planet. But that's what we need.

Posted by: David Foley on 11 Jul 06

An Inconvenient Truth - The word "An" indicates that there are other inconvenient truths and here is one. If Honorable Al (or anyone else in North America) thinks he is doing something significant about CO2 emissions he is deluding himself. He would need to be speaking Chinese to do that. "Eighty per cent of China's electricity comes from coal, and there are plans for 544 new coal-fired power stations to meet an insatiable demand for energy."
How many lightbulbs will Americans need to change to slow global warming? 10 billion and they are all on the other side of the Pacific Ocean.

Posted by: Spike on 12 Jul 06

Spike, this is a place where people check the facts - it's a good idea to be on firm ground with your data. You can take a look at total Co2 emissions, and Co2 emissions per capita, at this web site.

Posted by: David Foley on 12 Jul 06

Spike, it's a cop-out to say opportunities for solutions "are all on the other side of the Pacific". I think we should be the change we wish to see in the world. While it is perhaps true that, through the eyes of people in developing nations, Americans are the model of a comfortable yet over-comsumptive lifestyle, I'd like to see us instead become a model of comfortable living based on radical resource efficiency.

(And for what it's worth, there is a scene (as I recall) in An Inconvenient Truth where Gore is meeting with some Chinese officials and listening (somewhat passively, perhaps) to their plans for expanding coal-fired power.)

Posted by: Scott D, on 14 Jul 06



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