WHEN HOPE DOESN’T HELP

by Aaron Dorman

 

AL GORE starts his new book, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, with this sappy quote: “I have never been more hopeful.”

He has plenty of reason to feel that way. Although his book is currently ranked only #2,043 on the Amazon bestsellers list, it just debuted last Wednesday and is already #2 among their “ecology” and “environmental studies” listings. His film of the same title (now playing in select theaters) has a “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes. And he’s been appearing all over the place for interviews — NPR, the New York Times, the Young Turks, CNN.

Gore looks great, his demeanor is suitably impassioned, and despite the white hair, he can captivate an audience for 2.5 hours with only himself and a PowerPoint. I know this firsthand. There’s no shortage of participants for his education Climate Reality seminars; I’m ready to go again! So, to a certain extent, I think I understand his hope.

It’s just too bad about that Paris Agreement. . .

Al Gore gets an unfair rap. Conservatives’ criticisms of him have always been shrill, hyperbolic, and shouldn’t be taken any more or less seriously than any other act of climate denial theater.  But even “reasonable” Republicans like David Brooks have peddled the disingenuous argument that Gore is uniquely accountable for politicizing climate change and pushing away anyone right-of-center on climate change.

This amounts to ad hominem bullshit. The idea that post-partisan actors should never take up an issue is loathsome to me, since it precludes any politician from ever removing themselves from politics and honestly advocating on any issue, ever, for any reason. Did George W. Bush “politicize” oil painting? Alas, it’s difficult to know if Al Gore will ever be able to transcend the hyperbole aimed his way. Like the term “climate change” itself, hating Al Gore has become an important marker for party affiliation.

 

CRITICISM of Gore from the left is far less overt. In fact, it’s fairly difficult to find any disapproval or distrust for his brand of advocacy. This or that guy doesn’t like him.  Randy Olson thinks he’s boring. But most of the leading “climate alarmists” — Bill McKibben, James Hansen, et al — have either collaborated with Gore or support his advocacy efforts, which include the “Climate Reality Project,” his organization and weeklong seminar series (more on that below).

Still, I think his brand of advocacy has hit a big, beautiful wall. Why?

There’s plenty to learn from Al Gore’s “Climate Reality Project” weeklong workshops. I attended one myself at a gorgeous new hotel in downtown Houston last August. Attendees receive free meals, ample networking opportunities, a series of workshops and seminars, some speechifying by local businessmen (Houston is a great market for solar! Yay! Too bad climate change is a hoax), and most important, a live presentation given by Al Gore himself, updated for (then) 2016.

In the wake of the Paris Climate Accords, which had been signed earlier that year, the tone was fairly upbeat. Sure, its non-binding emissions targets are subject to being downgraded or ignored outright, but the Paris Agreement represented an international momentum towards the kind of slow, steady pragmatic progress on climate change that someone from the Clinton Administration might reasonably have touted — someone like Al Gore, who was a major player in bringing several countries on board. Or someone like Hillary Clinton, who, several months later, almost won the presidency. It’s too bad, then, that almost nobody anticipated Donald Trump, with the blessing of the oil and gas industry, pulling out unilaterally.

But almost nobody isn’t nobody. An article in Mother Jones, for example, highlights some of the tepid responses to Al Gore’s new material. There are some eco-warriors who’ve at least questioned Gore’s overall strategy of celebrity-driven environmental branding as a meaningful way to flatten the long end of the hockey stick graph (or to clean up the Pacific Garbage Patch, or ensure safe access to clean water, or…there’s no shortage of environmental crises moving in the wrong direction). The Mother Jones article notes that the environmental movement “has fractured significantly” since An Inconvenient Truth, in large part over the question of “how to fight it (climate change).”

And a month before Al Gore’s sequel debuted, Naomi Klein released her latest book, No Is Not Enough, an anti-Trump-flavored continuation of the ethos she crystallized in This Changes Everything (2014). As in that book, Klein maintains that environmental stewardship is no longer compatible with the economic status quo.

In her new book, Klein writes: “What mainstream liberals have been saying for decades … is that we simply need to tweak the existing system here and there and everything will be fine. You can have Goldman Sachs plus solar panels. But the challenge is more fundamental than that.”

“Goldman Sachs plus solar panels” sounds a lot like what Al Gore’s peddling as progress. The decreasing price of solar (and, to a lesser extent, wind) is a prominent focus of his latest message, and he compares the solar market of today to the proliferation of cell phones in the 1990s. From his March meeting with Ivanka Trump to his optimism for renewable markets, Al Gore has suggested that the resolving of his “Inconvenient Truth” can conveniently come from working within the existing power structure.

 

AL GORE and his message do not merely serve as a foil to more radical voices. Implicit in Klein’s critique of the environmental movement is that Al Gore’s approach is in part responsible for our current climate crisis. Although it only gets one pointed sentence in her book, Al Gore is credited as getting “Big Green” NGOs’ support for Clinton’s NAFTA deal in the early 1990s, an agreement that has had far-reaching environmental consequences. (Please note the irony that Al Gore is thus charged on all sides for “creating” the climate change movement.)

His attempt to encourage billionaires like Richard Branson to tackle climate change is also called out as ineffectual. Again, Klein finds not just fault, but blame, with the Clinton Administration’s coziness with celebrities. She titles a chapter subheading “No, Oprah and Zuckerberg Will Not Save Us,” with this opening sentence: “Trump’s path to the White House was partially paved by two men who are beloved by many US liberals — Bill Clinton and Bill Gates.” She goes on to explain that (rich) celebrity hero-worship works both ways and that the belief in trickle-down “philanthro-capitalism” boosts the mythos of a monster like Trump as much as it does someone like Leo DiCaprio who, fancy yachts aside, probably does care about our climate.

I don’t know if Al Gore’s flaw is a matter of neoliberal agenda. In fact, I’m fairly confident it’s not. We’ll get back to that. The main contention I have with him, and other prominent environmental authors, is a pathological fear of scaring their audience, or worse, depressing them. Many environmentalists feel they must couch even their most dire prognostications in qualifiers like “I have never been more hopeful.” And I think that’s a huge mistake.

Crafting the right message about climate change has become a needle-threading exercise, with the need to motivate the base and convert the non-believers. Advocates are quick to turn on each other when they feel the message is corrupted by misery. David Wallace-Wells became public enemy no. 1 with his piece last month in New York magazine about how quickly our species will burn this century. Maybe people weren’t wrong to question that approach, particularly if the science was suspect, but being fatalistic in tone, highlighting the gloomiest doomsday scenario, is not the same thing as identifying the failure of mainstream environmental organizations to date. 

When they can’t grapple with worst-case scenarios, it leaves us susceptible to failures of imagination. There’s nothing particularly sinister or problematic about the Clinton/Gore approach to environmental policy in the 1990s; or the piecemeal, glacially slow pace of UNFCCC climate negotiations; or, before the 2016 election, the Paris Agreement. Still, the intractable problem of environmentalism persists through it all: how to deal with and defeat the climate deniers who now have control of all branches of the U.S. government. You know, the ones who not only pretend climate change is a hoax but are now gleefully working to dismantle the EPA and our entire national government apparatus for regulation and protection of things as basic as clean water.

There were workshops dedicated to this at the Climate Reality Project, and Al Gore discusses it in his book. It’s a very studied subject, although the crowning hypothesis might still belong to Dan Kahan’s Cultural Cognition Project, which found that belief in climate change and the underlying science correlated strongly with political values, and the more science that conservatives “knew”, the more they rejected it. Simply throwing more information at conservative participants did not have the effect of moving them to action, and may have done the opposite.

Al Gore’s answer to this is obtuse and unsatisfactory. At the workshop, an expert in communication lectured less on what to say than on how to approach conservatives with the proper tone and lexicon. Later, an environmental writer emphasized the need to tell one’s own “personal story” as a way of making an emotional appeal. Such number of personal stories are peppered throughout Al Gore’s new book, tales of entrepreneurs in China or California transforming the construction sector, Filipino hurricane survivors, an infrastructure advocate based out of rural Alabama, and more. They’re all varying degrees of inspiring, but they don’t speak to how individual readers can take action in their own lives or how we can use our own “personal stories” to change minds and hearts.

 

MY OWN personal story is that I’m an upper-middle-class Jew from Albany whose concern about climate change is based on the well-read belief in the science, but also a healthy appreciation for anything that can feed my anxiety and paranoia about the world (without sliding into aliens-freemasons territory). I have many more interesting stories, such as getting mugged on my first day in Barcelona, but they may be tangential to starting a climate campaign.

The back end of An Inconvenient Sequel has some helpful material about showcasing Al Gore’s PowerPoint … and some less helpful stuff about contacting your Congressman or starting a petition. The book suggests you “Magnify Your Impact With Press Coverage” and “Establish Yourself As An Activist…Online,” which might be great advice for 1995, but less so in a world where the proliferation of fake news and information overload greatly limit the impact of simply sharing links to your friends on Facebook.

Right now, people don’t need more info-dumps on climate change. There’s an army out there of young people (and some old people, too) who’ve internalized the dangers of climate change and deregulation. What they need are tools to fight, in their own communities or on a larger stage, for the values that they believe in. They need models for persuasive language, tailored to the climate change/environmental argument, and more specific understanding of how to navigate “the system.” But effective treatment requires effective diagnosis.

It’s true that a doctor would be irresponsible to tell a cancer patient their worst-case scenario point blank. But it would also be irresponsible to tell a patient that, as their cancer is metastasizing, that they’ve “never been more hopeful” for a recovery. People are driven by more than just probability or positivity. The cause of climate change is righteous enough that it’s hard to imagine people would abandon the effort just because Al Gore, or someone else, declared game over for planet Earth if we didn’t, say, stop development of the Tar Sands. In the latter case, I’d rather think that was an effective strategy. It certainly didn’t stop people from protesting or blocking the Keystone Pipeline or the Dakota Access Pipeline.

If the results are discouraging, maybe people should be discouraged! It’s not the environment movement’s fault that Donald Trump is President (although George W. Bush may still have to thank the Green Party for his first victory); it’s not their fault that global carbon emissions have barely stopped accelerating, let alone diminished; it’s not their fault that the oil and gas industry has lots of money and lots of great denialist arguments that easily proliferate through the media.

 

IF THE REST of this article has made this unclear, I believe that Al Gore is a dedicated and honorable man — and aware enough of the “revolution” alternative, the environmental approach that would have everyone abandon their Walmarts and SUVs and cheeseburger combos, permanently eschew malls for arboretums, and track their carbon footprint with a wristband like so many stair steps. A real “Green Revolution” is not upon us — and requires the kind of magical thinking that more grounded advocates find absurd and equally counter-productive to entertain. We know that, on some level, environmental “progress” probably requires both green utopian thinking and more centrist, “wonky” coalition-building and policy planning. What environmentalists still don’t know, or agree on (and this should be concerning enough to sober the techno-optimists), is how to diminish denialism in American politics, to affect media coverage in a way that transcends preaching to the base, and to mobilize people to meaningful action, protests notwithstanding. (We’re still nationally at a recycling rate of around 35 percent, just to name one embarrassing statistic that should’ve been an “alternative fact” by now.)

It’s not the environment movement’s fault that nobody talked about climate or renewable energy in the debates. It’s not their fault that the melting Arctic is now open for business as a source of deep-water drilling. It’s not their fault that . . . the list goes on and on. But at some point, it would be nice to see some real victories. And considering what has come to pass, that might, just might, mean some creative ways to reinvigorate the environmental movement.

 

Aaron Dorman is a freelance writer/reporter currently based out of upstate New York. At the moment his focus is on environmental/science communication; he’s the Capital Region’s second-most notable expert on narwhals (the first one actually has a PHD and conducts research in the Arctic).