When former US vice president Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth came out in 2006, it landed with a bang. The documentary on the dangers of global warming appeared to actually gain some improbable traction with centrists and maybe conservatives, too. But fast-forward a decade, and it seems that progress on the public perception of climate change has gone in reverse. In 2016, American voters elected a president who has sworn to withdraw from the Paris Climate Agreement and called climate change a "hoax."
This fallen world is the new setting for Gore's follow-up film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. A white-haired, slightly more spacious Gore travels from the melting Greenland ice sheets to a flooded Miami Beach to demonstrate the impacts of climate change. He still gives a damned fine PowerPoint presentation, and he's as single-mindedly passionate about the issue as ever. But in many ways, Gore makes the same pitch as he did in 2006. And that's where the message/film fails—because it doesn't address the root of the problem.
This conflict couldn't have been displayed any more succinctly than in a series of scenes at the Paris Climate Change Conference. Leading up to Paris, Gore speaks with Indian officials about the possibility of signing on to a global pact to limit greenhouse gas emissions. You don't fucking get it, the Indian officials effectively tell Gore (I'm obviously paraphrasing). In order to meet the needs of our growing and industrializing population, we need conventional energy. You can't just use coal for 150 years to industrialize your economies and then turn to us and say we can't.
Gore then asks some friends, including Costa Rican UN official Christiana Figueres, what to do about this "Indian problem." It appears that Gore believes that if people cared about the totality of global health—like, if they could see the Earth from a satellite view—the problem of climate change could be resolved. But, as Figueres explains, Indians aren't experiencing a failure of global compassion. They're trying to have a different conversation with Gore—one about the responsibilities of the most developed countries in the world, given their histories of colonization and disproportionate greenhouse gas production—and it is Gore who is missing the point.
In the film, this problem of Western capitalism's runaway exploitation of natural resources and human labor gets resolved with a phone call. Gore has a eureka moment and rings up the Indian minister of energy with a plan. What if, Gore says, we cut a deal? What if in exchange for your cooperation with this climate agreement, the United States gives you some intellectual property on the most advanced solar panels we've got?
At this point in the film, the friend I brought as a plus-one to the screening started digging his fingers into my thigh. We watched as Gore made his big pitch, haltingly reading the description of SolarCity's solar panel technology to the Indian minister of energy from a computer screen. "Seriously?" I heard my friend moan quietly.
I'm not really giving spoilers by saying that, in the end, India did sign on to the agreement. In the film, an Indian official back-pats Gore and tells him his deal contributed big time. Thus, Gore makes an argument in an Inconvenient Sequel that capitalism can conveniently help solve the global climate crisis as long as we all see the bigger picture.
But Gore's bigger picture is flawed. It's really just one perspective privileged enough to envision global goodwill because money helps and hopefully we all care about the planet. And if that's the message we're left with—Compassionate Capitalism™ to the rescue—we're absolutely fucked. Good luck selling that to the American politicians who will continue to deny climate change as long as oil companies line their pockets. Try selling it to the low-income communities who will be the first to be displaced in the floods.