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The directors of An Inconvenient Sequel on how anybody can help save the environment

The directors of An Inconvenient Sequel on how anybody can help save the environment

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The sequel to Al Gore’s landmark documentary about global warming follows up on his quest to educate the world

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The sequel to An Inconvenient Truth  — the 2006 Al Gore documentary that spread awareness about climate change — comes to theaters this weekend. Dubbed An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, the new movie is directed by filmmaking couple Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, and follows Gore on his globetrotting climate change crusade, updating viewers on the developments of the climate crisis. But it also renovates its predecessor’s call to action by showing how change is possible, not just through international collaborations, but on the individual and local levels.

The last 11 years have not been good for the planet

People are much more aware today about climate change than they were in 2006, but the last 11 years have not been good for the planet. Many of the predictions from Gore’s original documentary have come to pass. For the past three years, our planet has set new heat records. Oceans are heating up. The Antarctica and Greenland ice shelves are melting, threatening Earth with destructive sea level rise. The Arctic is warming up at unprecedented levels. We’re seeing the real, specific consequences of our warming planet. Communities around the world, including in the US, are having to relocate because of rising sea levels — foreshadowing a likely future in which millions of climate refugees will need to find a new home. The five-year-old drought in California led to water rationing in the state. And more powerful storms, fueled by warming oceans, are battering the coasts of countries like the Philippines.

In the time since the 2006 documentary has been released, we've proven out its theory that change is possible. Nearly 200 nations in the world signed a climate agreement for the first time, pledging to reduce their emissions of greenhouse gases to fight climate change. Renewable energy is at an all-time high, and communities around the world are taking the lead in reducing carbon emissions and caring for the environment, even when the federal government fails to: President Trump recently pulled the United States out of the Paris climate accords, but a growing number of American cities and states are committing to respecting the agreement anyway.

An Inconvenient Sequel builds on that momentum and rides the change-is-possible-and-already-happening wave to not simply create more awareness, but motivate viewers to act on climate change. It once again shows the depressing reality of global warming, but emphasizes the ways in which solutions are within reach.

The driving force is Gore’s tireless work

The driving force, Cohen and Shenk claim, is Gore’s tireless work to educate people around the world and inspire the next generation of climate activists. In some scenes of the film, Gore is a foot soldier, training up climate activists in intimate settings. In other moments, he’s a leader, participating in the Paris climate summit. Gore has spent his whole life dedicated to this singular cause, and the film is, in part, playing catch up.

The idea for the sequel came to Cohen and Shenk through producer Diane Weyermann at Participant Media. Weyermann and Jeff Skoll, Participant’s founder and chairman, spoke frequently with Gore about the state of the climate crisis and how things had developed since the release of the first movie. Once they decided on a sequel, Weyermann reached out to Cohen and Shenk, who had worked on a climate-change documentary called The Island President, and worked with Weyermann on one of their early films, Lost Boys of Sudan; Cohen also co-produced the film 3 1/2 Minutes, 10 Bullets with her.

“We’d been in touch over the years, and we’d talked about depicting the climate crisis in film,” Shenk says. “Once it became known to Participant that the original filmmakers were going to take a more of an executive role in this film… our names were among those that she thought about, and one thing led to another.”

Two days before the premiere, The Verge spoke with the duo about following Gore around for a year and a half, the climate crisis, and what it takes to create change in 2017.

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen
Jon Shenk and Bonni Cohen
Photo by Maarten de Boer / Getty Images

One of the major critiques of the original film was that it was visually simple. How did you approach the filmmaking this time around?

Bonni Cohen: There’s definitely a presentational aspect to the film. I mean, you do see Al give his presentation, the new version of it. He’s updating it constantly, literally every day there’s something new that goes into it. And you see that kind of making-the-sausage process. But this film is primarily a vérité film that follows Al Gore as he does his work.

You’re behind the scenes with him much more than you were in the first film. He’s having conversations at the Paris climate conference, negotiating with leaders in India, talking to scientists about how to best detect what’s happening in Greenland, meeting with survivors in the Philippines after the Tacloban tragedy. And you have, I think, a thoroughly intimate experience with Al Gore and the work that he’s doing as the scene is unfolding.

We’ve been with him for a year and a half, we shot a lot, spent a lot of time with him, and he really sort of forgot that the camera was there. So you have access to him, his humor, and his authenticity.

“Bonni and I refer to [Gore] as the Energizer bunny.”

What surprised you about the work Al Gore has been doing on climate?

Jon Shenk: It doesn’t take long hanging out with Al before you realize that this guy is just absolutely tireless. He’s in his late 60s, but operates like a man in his early 20s. He travels constantly. He gives his presentation several times a week, sometimes several times a day. He changes his presentation depending on whom he’s speaking to. One minute he can be in a room of government leaders from various countries, the next minute he might be in a corporate board meeting. He might be with students the following day at a university. He travels to different parts of the world, and his mission in life is really to learn, [for] himself, and educate people about the climate crisis.

Bonni and I refer to him as the Energizer bunny. He never seems to run out of energy. That’s infectious. The people around him are infected by that positive, optimistic attitude that he has. And that’s the other thing, actually: his hope. Despite the fact that he spent nearly all his adult life working on what seems to be just an absolutely depressing topic, he still comes out on the hopeful side of things. That we do have the technology to change; that there is an alternative now to fossil fuels: renewable energy. And that’s as much a part of the message as the climate crisis.

BC: I would say the most surprising thing for us, along the lines of what Jon was talking about, is the Al Gore optimism. The big change between 10 years ago and today is how much more of an ability we have to affect that change. The technology is in place, the costs are down, we’re ready to do this. It’s just a question in his mind of how quickly we can make the change. But that’s a huge difference from not knowing what the change is going to be.

In the movie, how do you address activism or this call to action?

JS: We really see this film as a dramatic piece of cinema. There is a major battle going on in the world right now, and that is between the governments and the companies around the world that have relied on and enriched themselves by drilling for oil and mining for coal and burning those resources to build the civilization that we have. On the other hand, you do have these other kind of innovative technology companies and people who know we have to make this change. It’s against that backdrop that the action of the film takes place.

I think Gore’s message, and part of the message of the film, is that this is possible now. It’s not like some renegade group of people have some technology that may or may not one day come to fruition. It is happening. The cost of solar and wind has come down. There are countries that are powering themselves with this type of energy. It’s more of a choice. And so then it becomes a battle of ideas and a battle of will. In various parts of cinema, you see pointers on both sides, you see the tension and it builds, and that’s kind of what the film is about.

Since the original 2006 movie, there have been a lot of documentaries about climate change. How is An Inconvenient Sequel different from what’s already out there?

JS: That’s a great question. We really feel like Al Gore is a unique character in the world today. If you talk about the most important environmental figures in history, I think we can already say that Al Gore will be among them. He certainly was onto the subject early in his career, even as a member of the House of Representatives, certainly in the Senate and as vice president. And after he lost the election in 2000, it kind of ramped up and became his mission in life.

“It’s also sort of a personal mission film as well.”

We had the opportunity to follow around a key environmental figure who is really trying to fight for the truth of what’s going on in the climate crisis and the reality of alternative energy. As Bonni said, we’re in this kind of crazy, unique year for environmental history where the world, for the first time, got on board together to sign an agreement that essentially said that by the end of the century, the world will [reach] net zero greenhouse gases. So I think it’s unique.

There are lot of great climate films that have been made in the last 10 years, and thank God, because the public now is just more aware than ever of what the issues are, and all the ins and outs and the complications and complexities of the issue. But this is really a film about a man on a mission. And the mission is education around climate change and solving the climate crisis. So it is a climate film, but it’s also a personal mission film.

In 2017, with a White House antagonistic to climate change science, how can individuals take action?

BC: What’s important about this film is that you learn that things are pretty desperate. Things have gotten worse than anticipated. But at the same time, as one of the scientists says in the film, we’ve cut our pinky. And while that’s terrible and hurts and is debilitating, we still have nine fingers left. That’s what we need to preserve, and there’s a way to do that now. It’s not just a question of drawing up our hands in the air, as many people do after they watch films about all kinds of problems in the world. You watch the film and you feel engaged and you want to do something.

Well, there are things to do. You can put pressure on your government officials to move to alternative energy. You can support businesses that use alternative energy. What you see in the film is that there’s incredible change happening on the local level. There are a number of mayors around the world are featured in the film. You can do things on the local level, on the state level. It’s a moment in time when we all feel desperate about the climate vis-à-vis the Trump election. I think this film offers some hope as to how we can tangibly turn some things around, that everything is not out of control.

“We’ve cut our pinky,” but “we still have nine fingers left.”

How has making this film changed your habits? Did it make you more environmentally conscious, or more cynical?

BC: We now have an electric car!

JS: We’ve been actually fairly aware and involved in doing our part to be good consumers for years now. We made a film called The Island President, which filmed in 2009 and was released in 2012, about the country of the Maldive. [It] is considered the world’s most vulnerable country because the islands are about a meter above sea level. They’ll be the first country to disappear if the [sea level continues to rise].

We have solar panels on our house. We drive a plug-in car. We do our part. But more importantly, I think, we have been involved in the message. We educate our children; we educate in schools. I think one of the key lines from Al is that one of the [best] things you can do is lead the conversation. You can be armed with truth, and the facts matter. I think we’re living in an age where truth itself gets questioned. But all this stuff we’re talking about comes down to basic Earth science, which we all learn in middle school in this country. If you can be armed with facts of the current state of Earth science, it’s not much of a leap to then [become part of the solution]. We aren’t perfect, nobody’s perfect. But we try to do our part as well.

A version of this interview originally appeared on January 20, 2017, in conjunction with the film’s opening at the Sundance Film Festival.