It started with an image. On Dec. 24, 1968, the astronauts of the first manned mission to orbit the moon—William Anders, Frank Borman, and James Lovell—were busy snapping photos of the moon’s surface when Borman noticed a beautiful blue Earth off in the distance. Borman nudged Anders to take the picture, later titled “Earthrise.” Photographer Galen Rowell called it “the most influential environmental photograph ever taken.”
When Italian poet Giuseppe Ungaretti saw “Earthrise,” he penned this simple two-line poem:
What are you doing, Earth, in Heaven?
Tell me, what are you doing, Silent Earth?
What Borman, Anders, Rowell, and Ungaretti saw in “Earthrise” is similar to what former Vice President Al Gore saw in “The Blue Marble”—a photo of Earth taken during the 1972 Apollo 17 mission—a big, beautiful blue planet with no divisions and no national borders. They saw a home worth fighting for.
In 2006, Gore threw down the gauntlet and made his fight for the planet public with the documentary An Inconvenient Truth. For the doc, Gore brought together research, scientific data, and a whole lot of images to relay the seriousness of global warming, its direct connection to human activity, and the urgent need to make significant changes.
An Inconvenient Truth struck a chord with people on both sides of the debate. Writing in the Chicago Sun-Times, Roger Ebert represented the prevailing view of most critics reviewing the movie: “You owe it to yourself to see this film. If you do not, and you have grandchildren, you should explain to them why you decided not to.”
An Inconvenient Truth went on to win two Academy Awards—for Best Documentary and Best Song, “I Need to Wake Up” by Melissa Etheridge—but was also met with a sizeable amount of backlash. Climate change deniers and lobbyists on the side of oil and gas fought Gore’s doc, the science he relied on, and the very notion of global warming. The battle was far from over.
Now, 11 years after An Inconvenient Truth, a new documentary about Gore’s fight for the planet hits theaters just two months after President Donald Trump decided to pull the United States out of the Paris climate agreement. Aptly titled, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power follows Gore as he continues his lecture series, works with grassroots organizations to spread the message about global warming, and uses his political pull to get nations on board with renewable energy.
Directed by Davis Guggenheim, An Inconvenient Truth was Gore on a stage, presenting his slide show for an audience of millions. For An Inconvenient Sequel, directors Jon Shenk and Bonnie Cohen—the husband and wife team behind The Island President—sought a different approach, one that put Gore front and center.
“We set out to capture the work that this man, who’s been a climate activist for four decades, is continuing to do,” Shenk says. “See the world through his eyes.
“Go to Greenland and see the scientists that he’s talking to,” Shenk continues. “Go to Tacloban in the Philippines, [and] meet climate refugees from these incredible storms that are happening in more intense ways now due to the climate crisis.
“We felt like it was important for the audience to understand where Al Gore gets his information rather than just have him deliver that to you on stage,” Shenk explains. “Bonnie and I are big fans of observational films because you can really step into the character’s life and see the natural human drama that plays out day-to-day.”
“When we first met him and started to hear about the work he was doing, that’s when we first got the idea that behind the scenes with him would provide viewers an opportunity to see the relentless work ethic and drive this man has to try and solve this crisis,” Cohen says. “The resulting film is part character portrait, part update on the climate crisis.”
That intersection of character portrait and climate crisis comes across clearest when Gore has to wheel and deal to get India on board with the Paris agreement.
“When Al goes to Paris during the climate conference, he doesn’t know going in exactly what role he’s going to play,” Shenk says. “As the days tick away there, he’s called into action by one of his former trainees who happens to be the woman running the conference, Christiana Figueres.”
Figueres, a Costa Rican diplomat, was the executive secretary of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change from 2010 to 2016.
“[Figueres] asked [Gore] if he can help out with India, help explain to them how it can be in their best interest to move faster toward renewables and away from carbon pollution,” Shenk continues. “Bonnie and I just thought it was important to show that rather than tell.”
Just like “Earthrise” and “The Blue Marble,” An Inconvenient Sequel seeks to illustrate emotions and ideas where words struggle.
“We hope it’s contagious for people,” Shenk says. “It certainly was for us.”
That contagion is crucial to moving the fight for renewables forward despite Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris agreement [Note: This interview was conducted in summer of 2017.]
“The fact is: the American people, and countries around the world, are doubling down to meet the commitments of Paris anyway,” Cohen says. “At the local and state levels here in this country, we’ve been hearing almost weekly from mayors and governors who are stepping up and saying, ‘Hang on a minute. … We believe in the commitments of Paris. We want to take our city carbon neutral.’
“Probably the unintended consequence of Trump to pull out of Paris is that it may have had the reverse effect,” Cohen continues. “It has galvanized the movement.”
More hopeful than its predecessor, An Inconvenient Sequel doesn’t mince words. The fight is far from over, but some very valuable ground has been gained in the past 11 years. Now it’s up to the audience to take truth to power from the theater and into everyday life.
“You have to educate yourself about what is happening, what’s possible, and what are the realities,” Cohen says. “Rather than becoming paralyzed with fear, or rhetoric coming out of the news media.”
Because, as Gore says, “All the beauty of the world is at risk.”