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An Inconvenient Truth Critique Essay

Ten years ago, An Inconvenient Truth opened in cinemas in the United States.

Starring former US vice president Al Gore, the documentary about the threat of climate change has undoubtedly made a mark. It won two Academy Awards, and Gore won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to communicate human-induced climate change.

An Inconvenient Truth (AIT for short) is the 11th-highest-grossing documentary in the United States. According to Texan climatologist Steve Quiring:

AIT has had a much greater impact on public opinion and public awareness of global climate change than any scientific paper or report.

But has the film achieved what it set out to do – raise public awareness and change people’s behaviour in order to reduce greenhouse gas emissions?

Measuring the film’s impact

A public survey by the Pew Research Center for People & the Press found that in the months following the documentary’s release, the percentage of Americans attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41% to 50%. But how do we know whether AIT contributed to this increase?

Several studies have experimentally tested the impact of viewing the film. A UK study found that showing selective clips from AIT resulted in participants feeling more empowered and more motivated to make lifestyle changes to fight climate change.

Similarly, surveys of moviegoers and students found that watching AIT increased knowledge about the causes of global warming and willingness to reduce greenhouse gases. However, this increased willingness didn’t necessarily translate into action. A follow-up survey conducted a month later found little change in behaviour.

One novel approach found a 50% increase in the purchase of voluntary carbon offsets in areas where AIT was shown. This is encouraging evidence that the film did lead to tangible behaviour change. But again, the effect wasn’t long-lasting. A year later, there was little difference in carbon offset purchases.

An analysis of drivers of public attitudes towards climate change found a significant relationship between media mentions of AIT and public perception of the urgency of climate change. In other words, the film produced a significant positive jump in the general public’s perceptions of the issue.

This study also found that polarisation decreased after the release of AIT, pouring cold water on the claim that Al Gore polarised the climate debate. Rather, the polarised positions on climate science among Democratic and Republican leaders (one party broadly accepting the science, the other significantly rejecting it) was found to be the key driver of public polarisation on climate change.

This led the study’s author, Robert Brulle, to state:

I think this should close down forever the idea that Al Gore caused the partisan polarisation over climate change.

This body of research underscores the difficulties confronting any public awareness campaign. AIT was successful in raising public awareness of climate change, increasing willingness to change behaviour and, in some cases, actually changing behaviour.

However, the effect didn’t last long. This indicates that persistent communication efforts are required to promote sustained behaviour change.

Scientists critique An Inconvenient Truth

While AIT was effective among the general public, there is no tougher crowd for a science documentary than scientists. A survey of members of the American Meteorological Society and the American Geophysical Union found that among the scientists who had seen and rated AIT, 72% said the film was either somewhat or very reliable.

To put this in perspective, only 12% of scientists who had read Michael Crichton’s contrarian novel State of Fear rated it as somewhat or very reliable.

Going into more detail, an edition of GeoJournal had four scientists critique the scientific accuracy of AIT. Unfortunately, the panel was made up of two mainstream scientists and two contrarian scientists – a false-balance form of coverage that actually causes confusion rather than increases literacy in the context of media coverage. (For an incisive look at false-balance coverage of climate change, watch John Oliver’s statistically representative climate change debate.)

The outcome is somewhat predictable, with mainstream scientists reporting a more positive assessment of the accuracy of AIT than the contrarian scientists. Nevertheless, a useful overview of the exercise is provided by Texan climatologist Gerald North, who concluded that while there were some inaccuracies in AIT, on the whole it represented mainstream scientific views on global warming.

Ultimately, the factual inaccuracies in AIT were deemed inconsequential and don’t undermine the main message of the film.

Inspiring others

While most of the research into the impact of AIT investigates the direct effect on viewers, a potentially more significant impact is the film’s role in inspiring others to follow Gore’s example in communicating the issue of climate change to others.

Personally, I can attest to this influence. Before 2006, I hadn’t given much thought to the climate change issue. Watching AIT raised a number of questions about the human role in global warming.

With the issue salient in my mind, I got into conversations with family members who happened to reject the scientific consensus on climate change. This precipitated the founding of Skeptical Science, which led to me becoming a researcher in climate communication at the University of Queensland.

I’ve spoken to or know of many other climate communicators whose awareness of the issue dawned with their viewing of AIT. While the direct effect of the original screening of the film may have dissipated, the impact of those inspired to communicate the realities of climate change persists.

For me, the film precipitated a series of events that ultimately redirected the course of my life. An Inconvenient Truth wasn’t just behaviour-changing, it was life-changing.

No lab experiment can quantify that level of impact.

Relax: The Al Gore movie has no sex scene. Gore is the only presidential candidate who has made out on national television, so this was a legitimate worry. Otherwise, An Inconvenient Truth could use some action. Maybe a chase scene through the winding streets of Davos. Maybe Gore parachuting off a skyscraper as he shoots at American Petroleum Institute commandos aboard a helicopter. Instead, we get a 100-minute PowerPoint presentation interrupted by outtakes from campaign ads, plus shots of Gore apparently rendered despondent by the weight of his environmental knowledge.

As someone who has come to the view that greenhouse-effect science is now persuasive, I'm glad Gore made a movie that will help average voters understand the subject. An Inconvenient Truth is worthy in content, admirable in intent, and motivated by the sense of civic responsibility Hollywood on the whole has abandoned. About two-thirds is a quasi-documentary of Gore presenting to an audience the greenhouse slide show he's been giving for nearly 20 years. (I attended an early effort, in the late 1980s.) Mostly we see Gore talking and pointing at charts, interspersed with detours into the former vice president's political career: the Florida recount, Gore's stump-speech telling of his son's auto accident and his sister's tragic death from lung cancer. The political sequences have all the heft of a video press release: Time and again we are shown crowds looking adoringly at Gore, or cheering him on. And Katherine Harris may be a natural disaster, but what's she doing in a movie about climate change? If director Davis Guggenheim wanted to film a biography of Gore, he should simply have done so.

When Gore isn't being applauded, Guggenheim presents him as alone and melancholy: walking alone, musing alone, standing alone in a darkened barn. The scenes are meant to convey our inability to imagine the burden the former vice president bears. But they make the political part feel contrived, since Gore scarcely suffers solitude; he has a wonderful, loving family and participates in many public causes.

As a motion picture, An Inconvenient Truth has a lot to say, but contains little imaginative cinematography that might have made global warming engaging at the suburban cineplex. The picture the movie paints is always worst-case scenario. Considering the multiple times Gore has given his greenhouse slide show (he says "thousands"), it's jarring that the movie was not scrubbed for factual precision. For instance, this 2005 joint statement by the science academies of the Western nations, including the National Academy of Sciences, warns of sea-level rise of four to 35 inches in the 21st century; this amount of possible sea-level rise is current consensus science.

Yet AnInconvenient Truth asserts that a sea-level rise of 20 feet is a realistic short-term prospect. Gore says the entire Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets could melt rapidly; the film then jumps to animation of Manhattan flooded. Well, all that ice might melt really fast, and a UFO might land in London, too. The most recent major study of ice in the geologic past found that about 130,000 years ago the seas were "severalmeters above modern levels" and that polar temperatures sufficient to cause a several-meter sea-level rise may eventually result from artificial global warming. The latest major study of austral land ice detected a thawing rate that would add two to three inches to sea level during this century. Such findings are among the arguments that something serious is going on with Earth's climate. But the science-consensus forecast about sea-level rise is plenty bad enough. Why does An Inconvenient Truth use disaster-movie speculation?

An Inconvenient Truth spends too little time on what audiences might do about global warming, too much time trying to impress us with the Ask Mr. Science side of Gore's personality. Fewer details might have made the movie more effective, especially given that some details are off. For instance, Gore spends a while saying Earth's atmosphere is relatively thin, then somberly declares, "The problem we now face is that this thin layer of atmosphere is being thickened by huge quantities of carbon dioxide." Thickness is not the issue. Carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas produced by fossil-fuel combustion and forest fires, has molecular bonds that vibrate on the same wavelengths at which infrared energy radiates upward from Earth's surface; the vibration warms the CO2, trapping heat. The main atmospheric gas, nitrogen, does not absorb energy on those wavelengths. It is the chemistry of carbon dioxide, not its density, that matters. (See this chemistry page maintained by the carbon dioxide study center at Oak Ridge National Laboratory.) Anyway, you don't really need to know how greenhouse gases function. Why does Gore insist on giving a wrong explanation?

The movie takes a wacky side-trip into a conspiracy theory about Philip Cooney, who was a lobbyist for the American Petroleum Institute and then became chief of staff of George W. Bush's Council on Environmental Quality—and then got a plush office at ExxonMobil. Gore asserts Cooney was "in charge of environmental policy in the White House," which is nonsense. The EPA administrators, Josh Bolten, Andrew Card, James Connaughton, Mitch Daniels, John Graham, Al Hubbard, and Karl Rove, have been Bush's go-to figures for environment policy; and Connaughton, to whom Cooney reported, is green as can be. Gore implies Cooney's secret mission was to sabotage such efforts as the federal Climate Change Science Program. If so, Cooney better keep his day job, since that program recently declared "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

An Inconvenient Truth comes to the right conclusions about the seriousness of global warming; plus we ought to be grateful these days for anything earnest at the cineplex. But the film flirts with double standards. Laurie David, doyenne of Rodeo Drive environs, is one of the producers. As Eric Alterman noted in the Atlantic, David "reviles owners of SUVs as terrorist enablers, yet gives herself a pass when it comes to chartering one of the most wasteful uses of fossil-based fuels imaginable, a private jet." For David to fly in a private jet from Los Angeles to Washington would burn about as much petroleum as driving a Hummer for a year; if she flew back in the private jet, that's two Hummer-years. Gore's movie takes shots at Republicans and the oil industry, but by the most amazing coincidence says nothing about the poor example set by conspicuous consumers among the Hollywood elite. Broadly, An Inconvenient Truth denounces consumerism, yet asks of its audience no specific sacrifice. "What I look for is signs we are really changing our way of life, and I don't see it," Gore intones with his signature sigh. As he says this, we see him at an airport checking in to board a jet, where he whips out his laptop. If "really changing our way of life" is imperative, what's Gore doing getting on a jetliner? Jets number among the most resource-intensive objects in the world.

This raises the troubling fault of An Inconvenient Truth: its carelessness about moral argument. Gore says accumulation of greenhouse gases "is a moral issue, it is deeply unethical." Wouldn't deprivation also be unethical? Some fossil fuel use is maddening waste; most has raised living standards. The era of fossil energy must now give way to an era of clean energy. But the last century's headlong consumption of oil, coal, and gas has raised living standards throughout the world; driven malnourishment to an all-time low, according to the latest U.N. estimates; doubled global life expectancy; pushed most rates of disease into decline; and made possible Gore's airline seat and MacBook, which he doesn't seem to find unethical. The former vice president clicks up a viewgraph showing the human population has grown more during his lifetime than in all previous history combined. He looks at the viewgraph with aversion, as if embarrassed by humanity's proliferation. Population growth is a fantastic achievement—though one that engenders problems we must fix, including inequality and greenhouse gases. Gore wants to have it that the greener-than-thou crowd is saintly, while the producers of cars, power, food, fiber, roads, and roofs are appalling. That is, he posits a simplified good versus a simplified evil. Just like a movie!