Even in Polarized U.S., Sequel to Gore Climate Doc Has Potential to Engage Millions

The long-awaited sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth” — which will be screened at Yale on July 28 — arrives at a time when the U.S. is even more polarized on climate change than it was a decade ago. Nonetheless, a Yale researcher who studies public opinion on climate change says the film, if done well, has the potential to engage millions of Americans.
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“An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” the sequel to “An Inconvenient Truth,” will be screened at 6 p.m. July 28 at the Yale School of Management, 165 Whitney Ave., New Haven. More about the event

With his 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore helped raise climate change as an issue of concern — at least for some Americans.

For all its success and acclaim, researchers at Yale found that only about 10 percent of country saw the film. And to date most Americans don’t consider climate change a top national priority despite mounting scientific evidence of its far-reaching impacts.

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Anthony Leiserowitz

Yet as the film’s long-awaited sequel, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” opens across the country this week — including the Connecticut premiere at Yale on July 28 — there is an opportunity to engage millions of Americans, says Anthony Leiserowitz, Director of the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication.

In an interview, Leiserowitz, whose “Global Warming’s Six Americas” research has examined how different audiences within the public respond to this issue, says that about 9 percent of Americans will likely remain “dismissive” of climate change regardless of what the film presents. But if the story is told well, the film could engage many other Americans.

“Most people just don’t know much about the issue and some are skeptical about it because of political reasons,” Leiserowitz said. “But they’re not opposed to having a constructive conversation. That’s part of the complicated political and cultural landscape in which this new film lands.”

On July 28, New Haven will be one of several U.S. cities to premiere the new film. The screening will begin at 6 p.m. at the Yale School of Management, 165 Whitney Ave. After the screening, Leiserowitz and Kalee Kreider, UN Foundation senior climate advisor and former communications director for Gore, will give brief remarks and answer questions.

Tickets are available through EventBrite. (The film premieres at BowTie Cinemas on August 3.) The event is hosted by YPCCC, the Yale Center for Business and the Environment, and the Citizens' Climate Lobby of Greater New Haven.

Here is the interview.

Q: Many Americans are familiar with the story of Al Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” and its impact on American audiences. What story is he telling with his new film, “An Inconvenient Sequel”?


ANTHONY LEISEROWITZ: I haven’t seen it yet so I don’t fully know. However, my understanding is that it provides an update on how the climate has changed in the decade since the first film was released. I believe it also includes a much greater emphasis on solutions. 

In the first film there were basically two stories. One was about climate science and climate change — the famous Al Gore slideshow. The other was Al Gore’s personal story: the story of a leading politician who came from a tobacco-growing family in Tennessee, interwoven with what the tobacco industry had done to create doubts about the impacts of smoking and how those same principles were adopted by the fossil fuel industry to confuse the public about climate change. It was more a biopic than a science documentary. Yet “An Inconvenient Truth” did not talk much about solutions, and it received a lot of criticism for that. It focused on the gravity of the problem and some of the worrying aspects of the problem without providing a complementary sense of what we can do about it. In this film, I hope Gore will highlight what people around the world are doing, what policymakers have done, what companies are doing.  

This is important because our research has shown that there’s a “hope gap”; even among those Americans who are most alarmed about climate change – they often don’t know what to do about it. I hope that this film will help fill in that knowledge gap.  

Q: So often we hear that simply sharing horror stories — or for that matter, focusing simply on scientists and other talking heads — just isn’t an effective way to convince people of the urgency of the problem.


LEISEROWITZ: It’s important to think in terms of audience. First off, I would actually disagree that scientists talking about climate change or communicating the science of climate change simply doesn’t work. That’s not true — it can’t be true. You and I are talking about the issue right now; most people in the US have heard of and know at least a little about the issue; some climate policies have been enacted, and the world just signed an international agreement to limit global warming. Yet most communication about climate change to this point has been dominated by the discourse of science and policy and economics. So you can’t say that it doesn’t work at all. 
But I think it is appropriate to say that communicating the science and risks of climate change has only worked well for a limited set of audiences. Those audiences have tended to be knowledgeable about the issue and more interested about the issue in the first place because of their underlying values. Many, many environmentalists have engaged this issue and decided it is critical because of what the scientists are telling us. So it’s not that just talking about the science doesn’t work. It just works with a certain set of people. And unfortunately, that hasn’t been enough. 

In broad-brush terms the primary voices that we’ve heard talking about climate change have been scientists, environmentalists, and some liberal politicians — Al Gore being Exhibit A. And they deserve enormous credit for getting this issue as far as they have. However, it’s also clear that it hasn’t been enough from a political standpoint. That just because it has appeared in newspapers and just because most people have heard about climate change doesn’t mean they understand how urgent it is to take action now. And that the decisions we’re making now are going to have very significant, long-term consequences. That effort to communicate thus far has not gone far enough, it hasn’t reached enough people, and it hasn’t engaged enough people.  

So as you start to think about other audiences, those old approaches of just talking about the science, or just talking about the impacts on non-human nature — like, to be simplistic, the impact on polar bears — has worked with a small segment of global society, but only a small segment. The real challenge is how do you connect this issue with all those other audiences who are more motivated by other values or other concerns. Whether this new film can help expand that conversation remains to be seen. 

Q: You’ve done a lot of research on which climate communication strategies have proved effective in reaching people and why. In fact, you studied the impact of “An Inconvenient Truth.” What did you learn?


LEISEROWITZ: We basically found that about 9 or 10 percent of the American public saw the original film, which made it one of the most successful documentaries of all time. Most documentaries are seen by a couple-thousand people and then disappear. By comparison, “An Inconvenient Truth” was enormously successful. However it also means that 90 percent of the country did not see it.  

When we then analyzed who saw it, we found that they tended to be women, well-educated, liberal Democrats, et cetera. What many people say when they hear that is, “Aha, he was preaching to the choir!” I always find this religious metaphor problematic. But if we’re going to go with that metaphor, it’s not very accurate. The choir is composed of people who show up several times a week to study, practice and memorize the hymns so they can perform during services. To translate to climate change, that would be the people who live and breathe climate change 24-7. These are the people who are constantly thinking about and working on it because it’s their lives. That’s not who Gore predominantly reached with this film.
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Al Gore in “An Inconvenient Truth”
If you’re going to stick with the religious metaphor, I think he reached “the congregation.” Most of the viewers were mainstream liberal Democrats. They were people who had heard of climate change before and maybe had a sense that it was an important issue, but they had never really learned much about it. Their primary concerns were more mainstream Democratic issues, like civil rights, women and labor rights, health care, etc. They went to that film because of its protagonist. They liked Al Gore, they had voted for Al Gore, they trusted Al Gore. In fact they were willing to plunk down $12 or so to basically watch him give a slide show. And they were treated to a powerful experience and came out engaged and motivated. Gore and that first film deserve a lot of credit for activating the liberal Democratic base. 

The film was also seen by many political elites. I think most elected officials in Congress and across the country saw that film and so they, too, learned something about climate change that they didn’t already know. And of course it had a tremendous influence internationally. Again, because Gore was the former vice president of the United States, who came within a whisker of becoming president, the film got seen by an elite set of decision-makers that most films don’t. The Academy Award and the Nobel Peace Prize just amplified the effect. 

Q: Of course it also politicized the issue of climate change as it had never been before.


LEISEROWITZ: Yes, in many ways. It helped polarize the issue. In terms of public opinion, Democrats and Republicans were not very far apart from each other on climate change up until 1997. That year was a critical moment; that’s when VP Gore went to Kyoto, Japan and signed the Kyoto Protocol, which for the first time aimed to put legally binding emissions reduction obligations on the United States and other major polluters. President Clinton never submitted it to the Senate for ratification, however, because it was clear that the Senate was not going to pass it. But that moment and the political furor it sparked was the moment at which the two parties began to diverge and the partisan gap has since just gotten wider and wider ever since. “An Inconvenient Truth” was a part of that polarization because many Americans increasingly saw this issue through partisan, political lenses rather than a scientific or environmental lens. 

It’s the double-edged sword effect of “An Inconvenient Truth.” For all those people who went to that film because they liked and trusted Al Gore, there were just as many people who did not see the film, and in fact dismissed the film, because it was about Al Gore. And that’s where you can’t separate the messenger from the message. You can’t divorce Gore from his political career. He was vice president to Bill Clinton, who was an incredibly polarizing figure in American politics at the time. Gore himself became the subject of heated criticism from the Republican right. And then he became a protagonist in the most hotly contested presidential race in modern history. The film also came out around the time Gore started speaking out publicly in opposition to the George W. Bush administration, for instance the decision to invade Iraq. And most people just aren’t very good at compartmentalizing. It was very difficult for some people to say, “You know, I detest Al Gore for his political views, but when he starts talking about climate change he’s pretty smart.”  

Who knows how the country will respond to the new film, but much of this hasn’t changed. If anything climate change politics is even more politicized than it was 10 years ago. 

Q: For these reasons it seems highly unlikely that the film will convince those who are so entrenched in their opposition to climate action. But based on your research, how many people fall into that category? And what share of the American public is willing to listen to this story, even if Al Gore is again the messenger?


LEISEROWITZ: For one thing, it just has to be a good film. If it’s not a good story then forget about it, nobody will watch and nobody will be inspired by it. And we won’t know that until we actually see it. But assuming that it’s a good film, the challenge is how they’ve constructed it. Again, if it’s all Al Gore-all-the-time, it’s going to limit the audience to those people who like him, trust him, and are willing to even watch the film. It’s possible that the film is so good that even conservatives will find lots to love in it, but many of them won’t even go over the threshold of watching the film because they still dislike Gore. 

But he has the potential to reach many millions of Americans who are beyond the 18 percent that [the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication] has labeled as “the Alarmed” in our Global Warming's Six Americas framework [According to their analysis, the Alarmed are fully convinced climate change is happening and are committed to taking action]. The next major group in that research is “the Concerned.” This group, which is 34 percent of the country, also thinks climate change is happening, human-caused and a serious problem, but they tend to think of it as distant in time and space. Gore could potentially help convince those folks that, no, it’s here and now. If he does nothing more than reach that audience with this film, then it would be a tremendous accomplishment. 

The next group of people we identify — which is 23 percent of the country — is “the Cautious.” They’re still trying to figure out if global warming is real or not, human or natural, a serious problem or not. If it’s a well-crafted film he could potentially reach many of those people. At least those who trust him enough to listen to him. He can get them more engaged as well.  

Q: What media have most effectively told this story in a way that has engaged the greater public? Any particular projects?


LEISEROWITZ: Well, in terms of the overall trajectory of communicating this issue, the most important messenger has been news reporters. The reason most Americans have heard of climate change and at least know a little something about it is because of news reporting. It’s not because of “An Inconvenient Truth.” It’s because of this long, multi-decades body of work done by the nation’s reporters. They deserve credit, too, for building that basic level of understanding and awareness. It’s not nearly enough, but let’s at least recognize that they’ve created a foundation of public understanding, though it’s not evenly distributed — there are many millions who are really engaged, and many others who don’t know much at all. But the point is that the fact most of American society knows something about the issue is predominantly because of the news media. 

Q: You also evaluated the impact of “The Day After Tomorrow,” a feature film about the global impacts of climate change. How effective was that in reaching people?


LEISEROWITZ: It’s arguable that in some ways it had a bigger impact on public opinion — not “elite” opinion, but public opinion — than “An Inconvenient Truth.” And that’s simply because at the time it was one of the 50 highest grossing films of all time. It had a far larger audience than “An Inconvenient Truth” ever did and made way more money, too. And it told a story of climate change through fiction — not as a biopic or scientific story, but a story with characters and relationships and all against this backdrop of climate-related disasters happening across the world. Clearly the film took a lot of artistic license with the science, but climate change was the key driving dynamic of the film. And it introduced Americans to a different conceptual model of climate change. In our study we found that Americans who saw the film became more likely to say that climate change is real, that it’s human-caused, that they were worried about it, they became more supportive of policy action, and were more willing to take action themselves.  

Even more interestingly, until that time the dominant way that climate change had been described in the media was as a slow, gradual, incremental, and linear warming trend that eventually, some day in the distant future, would become a serious problem. “The Day After Tomorrow” drew on relatively new climate science at the time that demonstrated that that is not how the climate system works. If you look back over the past million years, the climate system doesn’t change slowly, incrementally. There are all sorts of thresholds and abrupt events. The more recent science tells us that the climate system is capable of abrupt, catastrophic change from a human perspective. 

And “The Day After Tomorrow” introduced this new concept of climate change to a mass audience. It did so in a very Hollywood blockbuster-y kind of way — including compressing things that would probably unfold over hundreds of years into the course of a few weeks or having the Northern Hemisphere suddenly enter a deep freeze. But nonetheless, the movie did shift watchers’ understanding of how the climate system works.  

Q: It comes back to what you said earlier: the power of storytelling.  There’s obviously an incredibly important story to tell with this issue. If you do it powerfully, if you do it clearly, you can move people, regardless of whom they voted for.


LEISEROWITZ: Yes, at least to some extent. People still bring their pre-loaded beliefs and values to the movie theater. And those beliefs and values can prevent them from walking into the theater in the first place. If you’re a hard-core climate denier, you’re probably not going to go see “The Day After Tomorrow” or “An Inconvenient Truth.” And even if you do see it, you’re probably not going to be convinced because you’re already so committed to your worldview. But that’s not most people. 

And that’s important to remember. In the Six Americas framework, only 9 percent of Americans are “Dismissive,” meaning that they think scientists are just making this up, that it’s all a hoax. That’s not most people. Most people just don’t know much about the issue and some are skeptical about it because of political reasons. But they’re not opposed to having a constructive conversation. I think that’s the complicated landscape in which this new film lands. So we'll see how it does. We're incredibly lucky to have the opportunity to premiere the movie for the New Haven community on opening day. It should be fun!
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PUBLISHED: July 20, 2017
 

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