By Douglas Fischer, The Daily Climate
He has shared the Nobel Prize, won an Emmy, was the subject of an Oscar-winning documentary, served as vice president and took the popular vote for the presidency. Few can point to so many achievements as Al Gore, yet few have fallen so flatly with the public they strive to inspire.
Five years after An Inconvenient Truth hit the big screen, Gore is back trying to whip up public awareness on climate change with a revised version of his now-famous slide show.
Gore will launch his new effort Wednesday with a worldwide “24 Hours of Reality” production – 24 one-hour shows, in multiple languages, starting in Mexico City and spanning all 24 time zones around the globe.
The shows will feature a corps of trained presenters running through 30 minutes of slides showing the most recent climate science, connections to extreme weather and other impacts and a look at potential solutions, Gore said. Another 30 minutes of discussion tailored for the local audience will follow.
“The whole focus of this 24 Hours of Reality presentation will be the reality of the climate crisis and the reality of the solutions available,” said Gore, who will deliver the final presentation at 7 p.m. Thursday in New York City. “It will defend the science and defend the scientists and point to solutions all over the world.”
But can another slide show rally the public and inspire a sense of urgency that Gore’s movie helped spark in 2006? And is Gore the man to do it?
An Inconvenient Truth – one of the highest-grossing documentaries in the United States – has seen considerable success. Mainstream America has seen it, heard about it, talked about it. The movie has been incorporated into school curricula in England and temporarily banned from schools in Washington state. Gore has been sued over the movie’s errors, and the British High Court concluded it contained nine mistakes. But the court also verified the movie’s central premise, concluding it made a “powerful” case for global warming.
There’s little question Gore has seen extraordinary personal success, too. The film based on his slide show won the best-picture documentary in the 2007 Oscars, the same year he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
“Very few people can point to a resume like this guy,” said Robert Thompson, director of the Bleier Center for Television and Popular Culture at Syracuse University in New York.
The movie and Gore’s subsequent advocacy work get credit for spurring a surge in climate awareness in 2007 and 2008, when upwards of 63 percent of Americans said they saw climate change as a threat to their families, according to Gallup polling data.
But economic woes and other global issues eclipsed the issue starting in 2009, and today just 53 percent of Americans see climate change as a threat, according to Gallup.
Nobody blames Gore alone for that decline. But the problem, some media observers say, is that Al Gore has become the brand: No one else with anything approaching his stature has taken up the climate cause, yet his personality is wooden and his style didactic. Having spent almost a quarter century as the face of climate change, the messenger has become inseparable from the message, they say.
And as Gore tries to rally a skeptical and distracted public, that could prove to be a heavy lift.
“It’s like Central Casting sent him down to play the liberal,” Thompson said. “He’s got that earnestness and that look and all these causes. And a lot of people don’t want anything to do with anything he has to do.”
Of course, the movement’s problems extend far beyond Gore. Climate change is an intractable problem where impacts play out over decades, solutions require a paradigm shift in industrialized human activity and politics call for a spirit of global cooperation unprecedented in human history.
But those doing the messaging remain tone deaf to public perception, said Randy Olson, a marine-scientist-turned-filmmaker who works on science communication and is the author of Don’t be Such a Scientist.
Gore’s slides are Example No. 1.
“They’re just going to do it all again? Oh god,” Olson said upon hearing of Gore’s new venture. “We don’t want to hear the updated facts.”
When Gore hit the silver screen five years ago, the nation was still reeling from hurricane Katrina and monstrous back-to-back hurricane seasons in 2004 and 2005. The Sept. 11 attacks were still fresh. A sense of urgency tinged the air, Olson said. Gore’s slide show spoke directly to that.
“Urgent circumstances give you the luxury of literal communication,” Olson said. “The worst communicator on Earth will be as effective as the most effective in yelling ‘Fire!'”
But persuasion is a much tougher ball game, Olson said. Gore and company never made the switch as the public’s sense of urgency on climate change faded. There’s no storyline to inspire action and sustain the effort.
“Nobody wants to watch the Al Gore movie five years later,” he noted. “And that’s the fundamental flaw of the whole thing.”
A signature issue
It’s not the only flaw, either: No other climate frontmen of Gore’s caliber have stepped forward.
Author Bill McKibben, a scholar at Vermont’s Middlebury College and founder of 350.org, who spearheaded the recent White House protests against a proposed oilsands pipeline, lacks Gore’s stature. Jim Hansen, the NASA climatologist who has long championed aggressive action, doesn’t have broad appeal. Hollywood hasn’t gotten involved.
“Why on earth is Al Gore the only major American figure who’s made this his signature issue?” asked David Roberts, a staff writer at Grist.org.
The former vice president is by nature “Spockesque,” Roberts acknowledged. He loves facts, loves learning, is simply not suited to emotional storytelling and would look ridiculous if he tried, he added.
But Gore has “worked his ass off to establish authority” on the issue, he said. “Nobody has had more impact than him.”
Olson gives Gore kudos for sticking his neck out. But simply trying isn’t enough for Olson; the environmental community, he said, has shown no sign – on climate at least – of learning from past mistakes and adapting to current demands.
Going to Hollywood
About 10 years ago public health experts at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes for Health, despairing at their inability to get their message on HIV and AIDS to a mass audience, sought proposals on ways to improve their communication.
Directors at the Norman Lear Center in the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism saw a way to deliver the health message to Hollywood.
Working with scientists, they developed a one-page fact-sheet that went out monthly to writers of the major TV shows and a few movie studios. The sheets offered timely public health information and vignettes of real-life cases. And they quickly became a hit: Writers saw them as a gold mine for story ideas and began to clamor for the monthly sheets.
Today the effort has expanded far beyond AIDS and into chronic diseases such as cancer and diabetes, infectious diseases like tuberculosis and HIV, as well as environmental health hazards, worker safety and adolescent health. The health information has become gist for storylines large and small.
“With television you can beam into the living rooms of people all over the world who will never ask about public health,” said Sandra de Castro Buffington, director of the Hollywood Health & Society project. “It is so much more effective to address serious topics in a storyline.”
“In the process, you have much greater impact.”
The project is just beginning to add a climate component to its communication, de Castro Buffington said. But Olson is dismayed that the larger climate movement has shown little skill in cloaking their message in a fable’s soft dressing.
“To fix their problems, they’re going to do what – bring in more Ph.D’s?” he asked. “This is not an intellectual nation. You just can’t do it. They’ve done it, they’ve tried, and it didn’t work.”
Cusp of change
In a sense, it’s foolish to blame Gore – or any messenger – for the lack of traction, cautioned Dan Fagin, director of the science, health and environmental reporting program at New York University and a former environmental reporter at Newsday.
The politics of climate change are fractious and thorny. Would they be fundamentally transformed if advocates of action had a better messenger?
“I don’t think so,” Fagin said. “Many of the reasons people tune out Al Gore have nothing to do with him personally. For many deep-seated reasons, it’s a message people do not want to hear.”
There’s plenty of blame to share, Fagin said, adding that a relatively small slice should go to Gore for his personal messaging problems. “We would be at a political stalemate even if the messaging were better.”
For his part, Gore is unfazed. He’s convinced a groundswell of grassroots and local business efforts is on the verge of shifting public understanding and perception on the issue.
It might just surprise us all, he said.
“Sometimes the potential for change can build up unseen, unmanifested, for quite some time, then suddenly manifest itself,” he said.
“Whenever we have these dramatic shifts in public attitude, where things that have been accepted for a long time are suddenly not accepted anymore, we’re always surprised that change happened suddenly.”
Correction (Sept. 12, 2011): Producer and director Davis Guggenheim won an Academy Award in 2007 for An Inconvenient Truth. An earlier version of this story stating that Al Gore won an Oscar for that film was incorrect.
Article originated at DailyClimate.org.
DailyClimate.org is a foundation-funded news service that covers climate change. To reach editor Douglas Fischer, e-mail dfischer [ at ] dailyclimate.org
Photos of Al Gore courtesy of Office of the Hon. Al Gore.