Campus & Community

Students watch ‘An Inconvenient Truth’

4 min read

‘What’s missing,’ says Gore, ‘is a sense of urgency.’

It’s “an inconvenient truth,” but only about 25 people showed up for a Harvard screening Sunday (Oct. 19) of a film by the same name, which earned former Vice President Al Gore ’69 both an Oscar and a Nobel Peace Prize.

Apathy about Gore’s subject — the freight train of global warming — did not account for the slim crowd at Boylston Hall’s 140-seat Fong Auditorium. The Red Sox, after all, were in game six of a playoff series that night.

Clad in a ball cap, jeans, and open sandals, Timothy Treuer ‘10, a volunteer with the Harvard College Environmental Action Committee (HCEAC), introduced the 2006 Gore film. Reminded afterward of the Sox game, he agreed that “people were probably in front of a big screen, watching something else.”

But Gore’s message was heard at Harvard in many ways this week, including from the man himself, who spoke Wednesday (Oct. 22) to a Commencement-size crowd in the Tercentenary Theatre. His talk was the highlight of multiday celebrations this month of the University’s commitment to sustainability.

Around campus, “An Inconvenient Truth” got an update too. On Tuesday night (Oct. 22), HCEAC sponsored three simultaneous screenings of Gore’s 25-minute follow-up film, based on a February talk he gave at a TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) conference in Monterey, Calif. The coffee house-style events — at the Barker Center, and at Lowell and Currier houses — were moderated by faculty experts and drew small crowds of student discussants.

Treuer was at Barker, where about 10 students watched the film. As an organic and evolutionary biology concentrator, he was familiar with the facts of global warming, but left impressed by Gore’s tone — “doggedly determined [and] forcefully optimistic,” said Treuer.

At Currier House, about 20 watchers relaxed on sofas as Gore’s renewed message of horror and hope flickered on a television screen. Most had just enjoyed a House “sustainable dinner” — a meal of New England mussels, greens, squash, turnips, and cheese that was designed to illustrate the ecological advantages of eating regionally.

Biologist James McCarthy, moderator of the post-film discussion, was thrilled to see mussels on the menu. “One of the most sustainable harvests,” he explained — low-cost filter feeders raised on floating coastal rafts. “Every time I see it, I’m delighted.”

McCarthy is Harvard’s Alexander Agassiz Professor of Biological Oceanography and was one of the lead authors of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment, a 2005 document that outlined the likely consequences of sustained warming in the Arctic.

On screen, Gore got right to the point. “In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis — and we have one,” he said. To arrest global warming, individual environmental action is needed, but changing the law is needed more.

Gore also called for “a global transition to a low-carbon economy,” emphasizing conservation and renewable energy. Part of that is “a single, very simple solution” to the climate crisis, he said: “Put a price on carbon.”

The element, trapped on Earth in vast reserves of coal, oil, and natural gas, is released as pollution when burned, filling the thin shell of the atmosphere with gases that trap heat.

Gore added rapid updates of his prize-winning film — satellite images of shrinking forest cover, melting ice cover at the North Pole, and California-size snow melts in the Antarctic.

But there is good news, said Gore: The technology for producing low-carbon energy already exists.

And there is bad news: Developing countries are burning fossil fuel at a rate that matches the Western world in 1965; by 2025, energy-hungry emerging nations will reach 1985 levels.

As one antidote, Gore likes a recent proposal floated in Europe: Set up a vast system of linked solar energy plants in developing countries, creating a product that would benefit both worlds.

In the United States, 68 percent of citizens believe that human activity influences global warming, but they are tangled in “a culture of distraction,” said Gore, and put climate change way down on a list of priorities. “What’s missing,” he said, “is a sense of urgency.”

To take on global climate change, Gore called for “another hero generation” like that of the Founding Fathers, or those inspired by Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves, the triumph of women’s suffrage, or the sacrifices of World War II.

Afterwards, McCarthy said Gore had found in global warming “the one issue around which civilization could rally.”

Karen McKinnon ’10, an HCEAC volunteer who organized the Currier event, liked the updated film. It modified the impression in “An Inconvenient Truth” that climate change could be turned back by private action alone. Instead, Gore started to emphasize changing the behavior of world leaders.

Political leaders are changing fast, and even both presidential candidates see the urgency of climate change, said McCarthy — “a truly remarkable transformation of political understanding.”