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An Inconvenient Sequel: Filmmakers discuss the balance of hope, horror, and truth

Oct 30 2017
Claire Thompson

In 2006, Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth “awakened the world to the perils of climate change,” Stanford Professor Rob Reich stated in his opening words before the campus screening of An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. That was over a decade ago, and here we are, fishing for threads of hope as we bear witness to the ever-increasing devastations of climate change. As Professor Reich pointed out, this sequel arrives on screen in the wake of President Trump’s withdrawal from the Paris climate accord.

As the Paris Agreement represents a major climax of the film, this reminder was more than enough to dampen some of the optimism in the room. With every passing day, we can say that the climate crisis has never been worse. An Inconvenient Sequel did not spare its audience the disturbing realities of climate change -- footage of streets literally melting in India; the extreme and deadly Typhoon Haiyan which claimed at least 6,300 lives in the Philippines; anticipatory mass graves being dug in Thailand to prepare for an onslaught of heat waves. Early in the film, Al Gore stated: “If I said there weren’t times when this felt like a personal failure, I’d be lying.” Although most of us don’t have Al Gore’s influence, this is a fairly relatable sentiment, at least for citizens of industrialized countries. A major theme of the evening was this question of coping with the fear, guilt, and depression brought on by climate crisis. How do we avoid paralysis? How do we remain hopeful?

The audience had an opportunity to grapple with these and other questions in the post-film discussion with Jon Shenk (co-director and cinematographer), Bonni Cohen (co-director), and Richard Berge (producer). The panel moderator, Katharine Mach, a senior research scientist and director of Stanford’s Environment Assessment Facility, steered the conversation aptly, taking audience questions and giving the filmmakers a chance to speak more broadly about their work.  

On the subject of hope, Richard Berge told the audience that he was “very encouraged to see how many people are addressing the climate issue from different disciplines.” Jon Shenk added the following: “We can easily get distracted by the orange guy in the white house. But really, in the real world, people do care.” And it’s not just democrats who care -- a case study in the film showed how people of all different backgrounds and beliefs can get behind this issue. Georgetown, “the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas”, this year became the largest city in the United States to be powered by 100% renewable energy. This was partly an economic decision, as solar and wind are becoming competitive with fossil fuels, but Georgetown mayor Dale Ross charmingly told Al Gore that it was also a common sense issue in his mind. Ross plainly stated that “the less stuff you put in the air, the better it is” -- to which Al Gore responded, “Can I use that line?” Many people are taking steps in their communities and beyond to address the climate crisis, and Jon Shenk said that he finds “a lot of strength in that.”

The economic side of things is also not to be ignored. One of the great things about the renewable energy sector is that it stands to become more and more efficient -- and affordable -- as we advance our technology. Unlike fossil fuels, the wind and the sun are not going anywhere. The only barrier to utilizing them is our own ability to harness, store, and transport energy. Bonni Cohen told the audience, “they’re producing so much wind power in Texas they don’t know what to do with it. They’re offering it free at night. It’s hard to fight the economic realities of the growth.”

One of the final messages of the film was: “If President Trump refuses to lead, the American people will.” It can be discouraging to look at where we are now with the climate crisis. As Bonni Cohen put it, “we’ve cut off our pinky.” We have faced a staggering amount of loss already, and we have to reckon with that -- but “we also can’t give up on the other nine fingers.”  

Claire Thompson

Claire Thompson is a Master's student in the Environmental Communication program. She graduated with a B.S. in 2016 from Stanford's Earth Systems department, with a focus on Food & Agriculture.