An inconvenient truth: We could be fighting about climate change for a while yet

Significant progress has been made in the decade since Al Gore's first film, but the future of the planet is not nearly assured. For that matter, even the future of Canadian climate policy feels something less than settled.

How Al Gore could help the battle even if his latest film flops

A woman refreshes herself at a fountain in Milan on Aug. 9. A heat wave that gripped parts of Europe sent temperatures soaring to record highs for several days. (Antonio Calanni/Associated Press)

At a glance, last weekend's box office charts might not suggest there is much hope for humanity.

Al Gore's An Inconvenient Sequelthe follow to An Inconvenient Truthwas shown on 180 screens in America, making less than $1 million in ticket sales. The Emoji Movie, on more than 4,000 screens, took in $12 million.

Despite some sniping at Gore's draw, Variety described it as an entirely respectable result for a documentary.

But, in a perfectly rational world, the numbers might be flipped. And if, several centuries from now, aliens are digging through the remains of a scorched and devastated Earth, they might find great meaning in those figures: on the brink of disaster, humanity was more interested in laughing at the poop emoji, voiced by Sir Patrick Stewart.

It might also be noted that much has made been of a climate report authored by scientists with the American government, not so much because of what the report said, but because of fears that Donald Trump's administration might try to bury it.

In truth, significant progress has been made in the decade since Gore's first film: on public policy, clean energy and international co-operation. In Canada, there is finally something like a plan for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

"I'm convinced we're going to win this, and I'm filled with hope about it," Gore told CBC News recently.
Al Gore is hopeful, but the debate about what to do to combat climate change is far from settled. (CBC)

But while momentum is said to be unstoppable, the future of the planet is not nearly assured.

For that matter, even the future of Canadian climate policy feels something less than settled.

In fairness to the former U.S. vice-president, movie ticket sales might not be the best measure of his impact.

Research published in 2012 suggested An Inconvenient Truth, released in 2006, significantly, if momentarily, boosted public concern in the United States about climate change. not because everyone saw it, but because of the media coverage the film generated.

There is evidence Canadian concern about climate also rose in the wake of An Inconvenient Truth, but then similarly receded.

An Ekos survey in 2008 found 70 per cent of respondents identified the environment as a high priority, the highest percentage recorded by Ekos over years of asking. 

When Ekos asked again in 2015, only 58 per cent considered the environment a high priority. The recession that hit in 2008 might have made climate change a secondary concern.

If media coverage is a driving force, that number might rise again. A search of major Canadian media outlets suggests references to climate change dropped after 2007, but have risen since 2012.

And Trump's dissent on climate change might have an upside: limiting global efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, but motivating renewed media coverage.
A rift across the Antarctic Larsen C Ice Shelf has grown longer and deeper, airborne surveys have shown. A NASA DC-8 research aircraft takes readings in November 2016. (Reuters)

But even if Canadians are concerned about climate change, they might be reluctant to do much about it.

According to the Angus Reid Institute, support for a national carbon tax slipped to 44 per cent in June from 56 per cent in April 2015.

Meanwhile, the Pew Research Center recently released survey results that suggest concern about climate change is highly polarized in Canada: 86 per cent of self-identifying liberals believe climate change is a major threat to Canada compared to 50 per cent of conservatives.

Among the surveyed countries, that 36-point gap was surpassed only by the 55-point spread in the United States. Just 31 per cent of American conservatives see climate change as a major threat to the their country.

In Canada, support for taxing carbon — a policy that economists generally recommend as the most efficient method of reducing emissions — is also divided along regional lines, with rural and Western Canadians opposing.

Managing change

Financial markets and international policies might ultimately have significant impact on Canadian policies and practices — and if you squint you might see a time when acting to mitigate climate change is basically accepted, or at least is not a source of much consternation.

But environmentalists would note that action will likely have to increase over time. Regardless, there are the makings of at least a few more years of fighting.

A few days before he announced he was leaving politics, Saskatchewan Premier Brad Wall, who has loudly opposed federal plans to price carbon, was invoking Pierre Trudeau's infamous National Energy Program to describe Justin Trudeau's environmental policies.

On Monday, Jason Kenney, now running to be leader of Alberta's United Conservative Party, attacked the fact that Al Gore had a swimming pool in response to a report that Gore had accused Alberta's oil industry of treating the atmosphere like an "open sewer."

Repealing carbon pricing?

Kenney, of course, has vowed to repeal the carbon pricing implemented by Alberta's NDP government.

While the next federal NDP leader and climate activists might push Trudeau to cut emissions deeper and faster, his strategy of slowly increasing the price of carbon might at least limit outrage at the imposition. Research suggests that support for British Columbia's carbon tax increased after it was implemented, perhaps after it failed to result in economic ruin.

Against an abstract threat, Trudeau must manage tangible changes. And governments do not always manage change smoothly.

If Alberta's United Conservative Party, Wall's successor in Saskatchewan and the federal Conservatives somehow land on a credible approach to reducing greenhouse gases, the debate might be less pitched.

But it's also possible to foresee a day after the 2019 federal election when Prime Minister Trudeau imposes a carbon tax on Premier Kenney.

That might not go pleasantly.

Though it could be decent fodder for a film, if Gore is looking to make a trilogy.

Al Gore re-enters climate change conversation with new film

The National

4 years ago
Al Gore talks about his award-winning 2006 film and his new documentary, which looks at the climate change fight and what he thinks needs to happen next 14:14


Aaron Wherry

Parliament Hill Bureau

Aaron Wherry has covered Parliament Hill since 2007 and has written for Maclean's, the National Post and the Globe and Mail. He is the author of Promise & Peril, a book about Justin Trudeau's years in power.