Though he professes to be a “recovering politician,” the sight of former Vice President Al Gore’s face or mention of his name may nonetheless stir up immediate politicization among people of fervent, long-held convictions. Some U.S. voters who did not cast a ballot for Gore back in the 2000 presidential election are probably still going to reject what he says out-of-hand, simply because they have fixed notions about who he is and what he stands for.
Incidentally, the 2000 election is the one where I first became eligible to vote … yet to my everlasting shame, I did not cast a ballot. I was away from my home state of Florida at the time, going to college up in New York, and I did not take the time to file an absentee ballot. As it turned out, it was my very home county, Palm Beach County, that would cause such problems during the election process, initiating a historic vote recount that went all the way to the Supreme Court—who ultimately stopped the recount and thereby helped decide the election in favor of George W. Bush. I always felt that if ever there were a time when my one vote might have truly mattered, that was it.
In New York, I encountered other politicians on the street. At that time, Hillary Clinton was campaigning for the New York State Senate, and one day, as I was walking up Fifth Avenue, the flow of pedestrian traffic suddenly stopped, and I looked up to see the former First Lady crossing the street, attended by her retinue. In Grand Central Terminal, on the night of the first game of the Subway Series between the New York Yankees and the New York Mets, I saw a flock of people gathering around Mayor Rudolph Giuliani as he was passing through the station. When I later transferred back home to finish college at Florida State University in Tallahassee, I also saw Governor Jeb Bush one day, browsing a book table at Borders on the Apalachee Parkway, right down the street from the State Capitol building.
Years later, Clinton, Giuliani, and Bush would all, to varying degrees, be instrumental figures in the 2016 presidential race. We all know how that turned out.
Though I no longer physically reside in the states and would most certainly qualify as an expat after seven years abroad, I am still an American citizen who is registered to vote as an independent and who therefore can be said to hold no affiliation with the Democrats, Republicans, or any other political party. Regardless of people’s petty political allegiances, I have found in my own experience that seeing a political figure in person (or maybe just seeing a political figure as a person) can have a disarming effect. It is not so much being starstruck—mooning over the surrealness of a celebrity sighting or what-have-you—as it is just realizing that the face on television is now a walking, talking human being whose body language you can observe.
You suddenly find yourself staring at this living caricature whose intentions you must parse. Are they just a traveling salesperson, feeding you a line about something? Or are they a true believer? Do they have their heart in the right place?
Now, all of a sudden, you are more inclined to listen and reserve judgment. I’m sure there are probably plenty of people who have reversed their opinion of some public figure after meeting that person: maybe shaking their hand, sharing some real human contact, feeling the warmth (or feigned warmth) resonate from their personality. Pretty soon those people might start backpedaling on previous comments, saying the newly evaluated public figure—someone they professed to not liking before—wasn’t so bad, after all.
It’s human nature. That might make it sound an awful lot like getting duped, going weak in the knees because of someone’s star power. But for what it’s worth, Al Gore the recovering politician does seem like a true believer to me. He does seem like he has his heart in the right place and is someone who genuinely cares about the environment. I had never seen his Academy-Award-winning environmental documentary An Inconvenient Truth, but after hearing Gore speak at the closing ceremony for the 2017 Tokyo International Film Festival, I decided to do a double feature with that film and its sequel, which is now in its opening weekend here in Japan.
Appropriately titled An Inconvenient Sequel (or, more fully, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power), this is the film Gore was there to promote at the festival. As it happened, he was in Tokyo the same day as Ivanka Trump, who was meeting across town with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (another politician I had a chance to see last year). Gore, meanwhile, shared the stage with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
Two days later, President Trump himself would arrive in Tokyo. Now again, we are invoking a lot of political names here, but in this case, Trump’s seems inescapable in light of the role he plays in An Inconvenient Sequel.
But first, let’s talk about An Inconvenient Truth. There is one big moment that stood out to me in An Inconvenient Truth. It's when Gore says:
Isn’t there a disagreement among scientists about whether the problem is real or not? Actually, not really. There was a massive study of every scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal written on global warming for the last 10 years. And they took a big sample of 10%, 928 articles. And you know the number of those that disagreed with the scientific consensus that we’re causing global warming and that it’s a serious problem? Out of the 928, zero. The misconception that there’s disagreement about the science has been deliberately created by a relatively small group of people. One of their internal memos leaked. And here’s what it said, according to the press. Their objective is to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact. This has happened before. After the Surgeon General’s report. One of their memos leaked 40 years ago. Here’s what they said. “Doubt is our product, since it is the best means of creating a controversy in the public’s mind.” But have they succeeded? You’ll remember that there were 928 peer-reviewed articles. Zero percent disagreed with the consensus. There was another study of all the articles in the popular press. Over the last 14 years, they looked at a sample of 636. More than half of them said, “Well, we’re not sure. It could be a problem, may not be a problem.” So no wonder people are confused.
Now I know some people’s brains are probably already spinning with “lies, damned lies, and statistics” quotes, but that part of the movie made a real impression on me. It reminded me of how, even in the 21st century, there is still that line going around about evolution being “just a theory.” Usually, this line is uttered in such a way so as to discredit the notion as less than fact-based, as if it were not rooted in a thoroughly vetted body of scientific study, and you could somehow apply the same principles of verification to it as you would to more nebulous concepts like religious faith (which I happened to hold, by the way).
As someone who read all of Micheal Crichton’s fiction growing up, Gore's observations about attempts to delegitimize global warming in the public eye also reminded me of the novel State of Fear, whose techno-thriller plot famously cast environmental extremists as the bad guys. That book espoused a rather contrarian view on climate change, and so far as I knew, Crichton had the research pedigree to speak as an authority on the matter.
The truth is, other than recalling that aerosol spray cans were once pretty bad for the ozone layer (a rare bit from science class that my memory actually retained), I have never been too educated on the matter of global warming. And so my feeble brain could not help being influenced by conflicting media reports and books like Crichton’s: just as that same feeble brain is now, no doubt, being unduly influenced by Al Gore and his crusading film documentaries.
For what it’s worth, Gore did win the Nobel Peace Prize. That ought to count for something.
The scientific community is obviously made up of very smart people, and I tend to want to believe those people, if for no other reason than because the alternative, in this case, would seem to be that they are all part of some vast, insidious conspiracy to push misleading notions about the environment. To what end they would otherwise want to fulfill the dastardly aim of saving the earth (or at least keeping it habitable for humankind) remains unclear.
With extreme weather seemingly on the rise every year, affecting both people in my area (here in East Asia) and people I know halfway across the world (in places like Florida and Texas), there are times in these two film documentaries when Al Gore, this stout man in a business suit, comes off as a Cassandra-like figure, standing at the gates of Troy, warning its citizens that the city is about to fall.
Though skeptics might scoff heartily at seeing him propped up this way, another way to frame it would be to say that Gore in these documentaries resembles a modern-day Noah at times, just in the sense that he fears a flood is coming, when not everyone seems inclined to believe him (or Leonardo DiCaprio, who appeared in his own National Geographic documentary last year called Before the Flood.)
One day very soon, will the snows of Kilimanjaro be gone? Are the glaciers melting? They certainly would appear to be breaking up at an alarming rate.
Is humankind blindly marching off to the slaughterhouse by destroying the livability of its own home, that beautiful “blue marble” seen in space footage from NASA? At every turn in An Inconvenient Sequel, Gore appears to be met with resistance from stubborn minds who do not want to listen, perhaps because it does not suit their own vested interests or they have, like me, been easy marks for a very real, very organized denial campaign on the part of corporate lobbyists. Business is business, and the oil, gas, and coal industry stands to lose a lot in any potential sweeping changeover to clean energy.
The saddest part is when you see how all these world leaders came together in Paris back in November of 2015, only to be interrupted by terrorist attacks. This is when the mass shooting at the Eagles of Death Metal concert in Bataclan theatre happened. With faces like the aforementioned Prime Minister Abe, U.S. President Barack Obama, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Chinese President Xi Jinping, and even Russian President Vladimir Putin in attendance, the Paris Agreement eventually gets back on track, and we see Al Gore’s lifelong mission to raise awareness about what is happening to the environment incite actual change in the world. No sooner does this happened than Donald Trump is elected President.
And the rest is history, to be judged by future generations. Say what you will about Al Gore, but he still shows signs of optimism, even as the intervening years between documentaries seemed to have stoked more righteous anger in his save-the-earth quest. Hopefully, future generations will have reason to maintain such optimism.