Al Gore Is a Climate Optimist

The former vice president and co-directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk discuss An Inconvenient Sequel.

For former Vice President Al Gore, climate change is not a political issue.

Throughout An Inconvenient Sequel, the follow-up to the Oscar-winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Gore constantly centers the focus as a battle not between conservatives and liberals, but rather one between mankind and the death of our planet. For directors Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, weighing the moments of hope and despair that appear in the film is, in essence, a reflection of Gore’s own stance on the issue.

“We took that very seriously in making the film,” Cohen says. “Trying to balance the new science and how far we’ve gone with the climate crisis with what we can do as a civilization to turn it around. Al refers to that as his ‘hope bucket.’ We want to make sure that people have enough to hang to that they feel like they can get out on the streets and make the calls to their energy companies and put alternative energy in place in their communities and have a voice on the streets, if things aren’t going the way they should for the climate crisis.”

A married couple from San Francisco, Cohen and Shenk signed on to helm An Inconvenient Sequel after the original documentary’s director, Davis Guggenheim, felt the new project would benefit from a new team. They ultimately spent two years following Gore as he traveled the globe, training climate activists and visiting places where the effects of climate change are already painfully visible.

“It was emotionally intense,” Shenk says of filming melting ice sheets in Greenland and the devastation wrought on Tacloban in the Philippines following superstorm Typhoon Haiyan in 2013. “Ultimately, we kind of had this obligation to photograph these places, and do it with as much beauty and sensitivity as possible, so that we could bring those images to the audience.”

Speaking with SF Weekly ahead of a screening of the documentary at the San Francisco Jewish Film Festival, Gore echoed the spiritual toll his work can sometimes take.

“Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk traveled with me for two years, and, as you see in the movie, some of the experiences were so emotional,” Gore said. “I actually forgot that they were there filming. People who haven’t been through that experience may not believe that, but you don’t have any awareness left over to say, ‘Oh they’re shooting this with a camera.’ When I saw the first rough cut, I was really surprised by how much they had gotten on film.”

While the settings of An Inconvenient Sequel reach around the world, the climax occurs in Paris during the 2016 climate accord meetings. To film this real-life political thriller, Cohen and Shenk follow Gore as he races to find a way to entice India — initially a hold-out at the talks and a pivotal player to their success — to join. Beyond making for a compelling viewing experience, Cohen says filming those scenes required a hefty helping of logistical planning as well.

“We had negotiated access with Al Gore, but of course we hadn’t negotiated access with all the people he was going to be meeting with,” she says. “We have the great fortune of the most incredible producer working today in documentary, Richard Berge, who works with us at Actual Films. He goes through the ‘producer Olympics’ every time we go into one of these access situations and helps to speak to the other side. We really were after the nitty-gritty details of those kinds of conversations, because that’s what was going to make the great drama.”

Of course, no drama looms larger than that of climate change itself. In a time where superhero films are released ad nauseam, it’s inspiring to see a film where the hero actually exists, doesn’t need a cape, and tries to save the world.

“We visited places with Al where things were happening due to climate change that looked like something that a computer-graphics team at ILM might have made,” Cohen agrees. “You see the Greenland glaciers just completely exploding due to high temperatures. You see these superstorms wiping out entire cities. You see ocean water with fish in it rising up on the streets of Miami, Florida. Then there’s this guy, and he can’t do it on his own, but he is bringing the message. He’s trying to do the work. He’s trying to accumulate facts. The whole man-versus-nature drama of it and these incredible images of devastation — that are, unfortunately, not computer-generated — is the stuff of superhero movies.”

For Gore, one of the heroes of the film is located in our own Silicon Valley. During his mad dash to find a feasible alternative to India’s need for fossil fuels, he turns to the owner of SolarCity, who agrees to offer a discount rate on panels for the developing nation. Gore says the choices and actions of businesses are “absolutely” a pivotal piece of how the world can make changes large enough to effect a solution to climate change.

“SolarCity, and now Tesla, are really going above and beyond and are trying really hard to make the world a better place,” he adds.

While An Inconvenient Sequel was originally intended to end on the high note of the successful conclusion of the Paris Climate Accord, President Donald Trump’s announcement that the U.S. would withdraw from the pact forced Cohen and Shenk to make some last-minute additions.

“We really felt like we had to deliver the news, one way or another,” Shenk says. “We were devastated and shocked when Trump made that announcement. On the other hand, we were incredibly heartened by the response to Trump. The rest of the world is doing the opposite of what we feared — they’re doubling down on the commitment and they’re moving forward despite Trump. So there’s a sense at the end of the film, I think, that regardless of what Donald Trump feels about the Paris climate accords, the American people and the people of the world are really ready and emotionally charged to lead on this issue.”

Gore heartily agrees. In fact, he views the slow but mounting global awakening to the realities of the climate crisis as an indication that ideally there may not be a need for a third installment of the documentary.

“I hope, 10 years from now, we’ll be able to look back on this decade as the time when we really did turn the corner and start solving this for real.”

An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is in theaters now.

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