Are We Ready for Al Gore’s Climate Reality?

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Dr. Billy Ingram / WireImage

Al Gore is back. The former vice-president and Nobel laureaute—who had stepped back somewhat from the day-to-day battle over climate change in recent years—returns on September 14 with a 24-hour global PowerPointathon updating his famed global warming slide show. 24 one-hour presentations, in multiple languages delivered by multiple experts, will begin at 8 PM ET from Mexico, and culminate a day later with an address by Gore himself in New York City. You can watch the presentations at the Climate Reality Project website.

Gore told Brad Plumer at the Washington Post that the presentations will include significant new science, and will focus on the connection between rising greenhouse gas emissions and recent extreme weather:

It’s very different—a few of the images are the same, but 95 percent of the slides are completely new. The science linking the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather to the climate crisis has matured tremendously in the last couple of years. Think about the last year, we’ve had floods in Pakistan displacing 20 million people and further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country. We’ve had drought and wildfires in Russia. In Australia you’ve got floods the size of France and Germany combined. Then there’s drought in Texas—out of 254 counties in Texas, 252 are on fire. I’m talking to you from Nashville, where the city lost the equivalent of an entire year’s budget from recent floods—the area has never been flooded like this before, so no one had flood insurance.

That’s the reality we’ve got to focus on. This presentation is a defense of the science and the scientists, against the timeworn claims by deniers.

Right, the deniers. As Gore and others in the environmental movement know too well, the deniers have been winning the battle on climate change in the U.S.—on public opinion, if not the science itself. In 2007 and 2008—in the wake of Gore’s Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Trutha solid majority of Americans saw climate change as a direct threat to their families. But that support has eroded—a recent Gallup poll found that just 53% of Americans saw climate change as a threat, and Washington has remained gridlocked on the issue. There are countless reasons why that’s the case—a cratering economy, overrepresentation of fossil-fuel interests in Congress, simple fatigue—but there’s no denying the fact that Gore and his allies have so far failed to convince enough Americans to share their urgency over global warming.

Will more science do the trick? I’m skeptical, and I’m not alone. Randy Olson, a scientist-turned-filmmaker, recently compared Gore and the climate community’s straight-laced, fact-focused approach to some of the work done by the Hollywood, Health and Society project, which uses film and TV to promote public health messages:

Television shows like Gray’s Anatomy, Private Practice, and even Sesame Street end up being very likeable tellers of stories that, thanks in part to the Hollywood, Health and Society project end up including accurate public health information from the Centers for Disease Control. The result of this is a form of communication that is non-literal (i.e. NOT bonking people over the head with the facts) and less cerebral, resulting in more effective broad communication. Now if only the massively cerebral climate community can figure out such things.

Well, Al Gore is nothing if not massively cerebral, and you can expect the Climate Reality Project to feature the same blizzard of facts on global warming—albeit updated—that Gore has always used. He’s not going to change, and at this point, I don’t think anyone should expect him to. The bigger problem might be the fact that Gore really is the only voice out there—as Douglas Fischer points out on Climate Central, the environmental movement has no other figure of comparable stature and celebrity, even if half the country can’t stand him. It’s fine to shoot holes in Gore’s approach, but someone else with heft has to step forward—and I haven’t seen that figure yet.

Still, the reality is that any attempt to get climate reality across to Americans is going to be an uphill one for one simple reason: we seem to have lost the ability to think long-term. Sure, climate skeptics ignore the opinion of the vast majority of qualified scientists when they say that global warming is a hoax, but that’s hardly the only subject where many of us choose to disregard inconvenient facts. A little more than 19% of Americans still smoke—despite scientific evidence of tobacco’s lethality that is far more certain that models of future climate change. Fewer than half of Americans have calculated what they need to save for retirement, even though we all know we need to do it.

From infrastructure spending to education to Social Security, Americans are faced with long-term problems that demand attention now, and our response has mostly been to ignore them. Climate change is no different—it is nothing if not a long-term challenge, even if some of its effects are beginning to be felt now. If many of us can’t even make a few sacrifices now to prepare for our personal futures, or even those of our children, it’s hardly surprising that we choose to ignore climate change—it’s generations yet unborn that are most in danger from warning. The rest of us, the living, are focused on the here and now—and the here and now is looking bad enough. I doubt another science lesson will change that.