An inconvenient truth about 'An Inconvenient Truth'

An inconvenient truth about An Inconvenient Truth
Still from An Inconvenient Truth

Al Gore has a follow-up to his blockbuster documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. However, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power was greeted with far less fanfare than the original.

This is not surprising given how the first movie dominated the international box office and became one of the most successful documentaries of all time. The film ultimately helped Al Gore win the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts in promoting action against climate change.

In addition to the many accolades it received, the movie undeniably raised the public awareness of climate change. According to a prominent climate scientist, the movie "had a much greater impact on public opinion and public awareness of than any scientific paper or report."

However, 11 years after its release, there is also evidence that it might have had an unintended consequence: serving as a catalyst in the polarization of American on climate change.

We have studied in detail how the media covered the issue of climate change since the 1980s and how it may have played a role in polarizing the American public. The commonly observed pattern is that public opinion tends to follow, rather than lead, debate among political elites. This is of particular importance for our work.

Opinions dictated by political parties

Voters, particularly in America, tend to harbour strong positive and negative attachments to political parties. These form critical components of their social identities. When uncertain about novel political issues, like climate change, they look for signals from for guidance. These signals are, more often than not, carried to them by the mass media.

In our research, we examined the political signals that were present in the coverage of climate change in major, high circulation daily newspapers, like the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today, as well network television channels ABC, CBS and NBC, and cable news channel Fox News.

What we found is a nuanced story that sheds considerable light on why the public polarized on climate change. First, politicians became increasingly common in coverage, politicizing the issue as it grew in importance. As a result, the public has been exposed to a growing number of messages about climate change from party elites.

Second, Democratic messages have been more common in news coverage, and, unsurprisingly, consistent in a pro-climate direction. Meanwhile, Republican messages have been fewer in number, and, until the Obama presidency, ambiguous in direction. Contrary to conventional wisdom, only a small fraction of Republican messages on climate change explicitly denied the scientific consensus on climate change.

When one side's messages are clear and the other side's are muddled, as was the case here, it's plausible that Republican voters took their cues from Democrats. This should not be surprising. In an age of affective polarization where Republicans and Democrats each increasingly dislike the other, it makes sense that Republicans may have taken an oppositional stance on climate change, at least partly, in response to signals from Democratic elites.

An Inconvenient Truth

So, what about the role of Al Gore and An Inconvenient Truth in this process? Al Gore was featured prominently in the news media coverage of climate change. This was particularly true when climate change was salient and Americans were significantly polarizing on the issue.

For example, Al Gore was featured in 48 per cent of climate change stories on Fox News in 2006 and in 57 per cent in 2007. There were explicit references to the movie in 28 per cent of the stories in 2006 and 17 per cent of the stories in 2007. On the other hand, a leading Republican climate change denier, Sen. Jim Inhofe, was not featured in a single story on Fox News in 2006 and in only one per cent of the stories in 2007.

The traditional media also focused heavily on Al Gore. In 2006 and 2007, the former U.S. vice-president was featured in 13 per cent and 17 per cent of news stories in the highest circulation newspapers in the United States, and in 16 per cent and 23 per cent of the network broadcasts.

In other words, if you tuned in to about climate change in that time period, you were exposed to Al Gore and his message. And even though that message was unabashedly pro-climate and for strong action, it likely played a role in turning Republicans against that message, since to them, Gore was simply a Democratic politician they disliked.

It's highly unlikely that the release of Al Gore's sequel to An Inconvenient Truth will have an impact similar to the original. The movie is generating significantly less traction in the box office and in the media. Furthermore, has already become one of the most polarized issues of the day.

Sadly, there is likely no way to turn back the clock. But it should serve as a warning for the future. It is not only important to pick a salient and informative message, but also an effective messenger to deliver it.


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Aug 17, 2017
Article is based on supposition: "... if you tuned in to news about climate change in that time period, you were exposed to Al Gore and his message. And even though that message was unabashedly pro-climate and for strong climate action, it likely played a role in turning Republicans against that message, since to them, Gore was simply a Democratic politician they disliked."
No facts to back this up. What more likely played a role was shares of oil & gas companies in the republicans' stock portfolios.

Aug 17, 2017
the movie "had a much greater impact on public opinion and public awareness of global climate change than any scientific paper or report."

I dunno. Was it screened outside the US? Never heard of it. Has anyone here seen it? It certainly was never mentioned in Europe as part of any debate on climate change (not that there is any such debate over her, mind. Climate change is fact and there's really nothing to debate)

Aug 17, 2017
AP, I don'y know about screening locations, but I saw this and subsequently bought a copy. It was a powerful presentation, for any viewer capable of independent thought.
At the time, the political assassination of anything connected to either Clinton was well underway. Many not capable of independent thought, or shopping for a delusion to invest in, were brainwashed by the Republicans and still to this day live in a delusional place. The USA and the world is still paying the price for that incredibly stupid failure of the low intelligence part of the US voting public.

Aug 17, 2017
I find the causation implied here confusing and unconvincing. From my limited view, I would say that the developments show that the Koch supported organizations, Fox News, and the Rush Limbaugh crew were very effective in turning the issue and the man into political poisons, for Republican candidates as well as voters. Essentially a very large scale and nasty advertising campaign. It also helped to create the polarization, as well as using it.

Aug 17, 2017
I never saw it; by the time it came out I had already reviewed the evidence and was convinced. I had been arguing the matter with deniers, and had seen their claims get denied by evidence time and again, and watched them start flailing and flaming and shouting when it did, for years. That's what polarized me: the scientific evidence, and the extremes of behavior by #climatedeniers.

So I can't speak to this article's correctness, though it certainly is plausible.

Aug 17, 2017
Among other things, what can be called another unintended consequence. The issue of just how independently minded followers of the Democratic Party are.
The implication is that followers of the Democratic Party do not simply parrot what they are told to say and believe by the party bosses. But they recite, practically word for word, what the party doggerel is on matters. And they never question even a fraction of the party line or go beyond it. It is unlikely the Democratic Party has all the answers, so there likely are flaws in their agenda, it obviously is incomplete. They do not realize this.
Followers of the Democratic Party don't, and likely can't, see that it is not a philosophical society devoted to the good of mankind! The party bosses are all corporate multi millionaires seeking only to get richer and their agenda is based on selling favors to groups for votes.

Aug 17, 2017
And right on cue, up comes another #climatedenier to flail, flame, and shout.

Sorry, @julian, climate change isn't the fault of your political enemies. Get over it.

Aug 17, 2017
Da Schneib does not seem able to see that I did not, anywhere in my comment, say that climate change is not occurring! I criticized the tendency of followers of the Democratic Party to parrot what they are told to say and apparently think what they are told to think. At Trump's Inauguration, the "press" erected a complex of buildings and tents, the "reporters' pavilion" larger than the Capitol Building, in the middle of the National Mall. This and the security with it prevented huge numbers of people from attending there. It was intended to reduce crowds there to convince Democratic Party followers that Trump wasn't as approved of as he was! But Democratic Party followers actually compare the photo showing the complex with photos of Obama's Inauguration where there was no complex! They literally display an inability to see the "pavilion"! With respect to climate change, I have said it is occurring, but I said chemtrails, not "fossil fuels" are causing it.

Aug 17, 2017
To the American public the facts are irrelevant. Since the American public are woefully lacking in scientific understanding they are forced to treat climate as a political issue, which is exactly what has happened. Fortunately there is some common sense in the White House today!

Aug 17, 2017
@julian, your use of "Democrat" repeatedly makes your agenda clear no matter how much you deny it.

Climate change isn't the Democrats' fault. Get over it.

"Chemtrails" is a long-discredited conspiracy "theory." Get over that too.

Aug 18, 2017
I think, at the time, 'An Inconvenient Truth' was the best non-fiction narrative of the demise of humankind that I've ever watch. It is really emotional. I think this kind of story need to have its own genre, it is not just a documentary.

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