In the summer of 2006, I saw An Inconvenient Truth. In November of that year, I was in Nashville being trained by Al Gore to deliver the presentation seen in that movie. It has been a life-changing experience in many ways, both during the training itself and also where that training led me.¹ I certainly came to see Al Gore in a new light; he was not the Gore I remembered from the presidential campaign in 2000.
By the time I saw An Inconvenient Truth, there was nothing new in there for me. I had already researched the science and the movie just added stunning images. I did double-check with RealClimate’s review of the movie, and they agreed he got the science essentially right, with a few minor errors. The big differences between researching the science and watching An Inconvenient Truth are in the presentation; both tell the same scientific story, but the movie is vastly more compelling. A picture truly is worth at least 1,000 words. In addition, of course, Al Gore’s personal story is wrapped into the film, giving a personable, human element.
By the time I saw the movie, I was searching for a way to “do something” about global warming. The science had been quite convincing, and the film just drove home the urgency. When my sister told me she had heard that Al Gore was looking for people to deliver his presentation and that she thought I should apply, I didn’t hesitate.
Well, actually, I was forced to, because there was no way to apply yet. It took a month or so before Gore’s The Climate Project (TCP) had a website up with a presenter application form. I filled out the form…and waited.
Actually, I emailed TCP fairly regularly. It took them another month or so to wade through the applications and select trainees. The first training of 50 people was held in Nashville, then a second, larger group was trained in Australia. Finally, an email arrived – and I was in!
I was accepted to the third session, to be held in Nashville. All trainees had to find their own way to Nashville and pay for their own accommodation. It was all on our own time and our own dime. A homestay option was offered, and as I wanted to experience a bit of authentic Nashville, this is what I did. The Nashville Hilton isn’t much different from the Vancouver Hilton. (I did something similar when I went to visit Colombia in December of that year. The danger is that you meet real people and you may like some of them. Or even end up married to one.)²
Various volunteers had offered up their homes to trainees, and I stayed at the beautiful character home of a couple whose kids had flown. The woman had been a reporter for many years, and had interviewed Al Gore years ago when he was a senator. She told me she got angry when people said this was just a fad for Gore, a way to get attention and money. He had been talking about climate 25 years ago when she interviewed him.
As it turned out, I had very little time to spend at the home, and I hardly saw my gracious and generous homestay couple. The training schedule started with breakfast and ended late in the evening after planned social events – hence the “Miller Time” photo of me with Al Gore. That was taken Friday night at B.B. King’s Blues Club, and appearances notwithstanding, I was alcohol-free. (I was a lifelong teetotaller until sometime in 2007.)
Training started Friday afternoon, when we all gathered at the hotel where a ballroom had been booked for the purpose. There were 100 of us, all Americans except for six of us from Canada and a few from farther afield. TCP provided the training and materials, of course, and also all food starting with breakfast and ending with supper.
We Canadians met up at the first opportunity, and included Jim Harris, former Green Party of Canada leader, and other luminaries. How we were chosen was a mystery. The 100 trainees included lawyers, at least one psychiatrist, teachers, self-employed professionals, students, engineers…you name it. All of us were well aware of the danger of climate change, although we had more or less knowledge of the underlying science. Almost nobody was an experienced presenter of anything. I did track down the main organizer, Jenny Clad, and she said everyone who had applied had pestered her to get in, just like me. They had been overwhelmed with applications; thousands of people from around the world had applied.
The Presentation a là Al Gore
We were all nervous about giving the presentation, and Al Gore didn’t help when he presented An Inconvenient Truth to us that Friday. I lived in the US from 1995 to 2003, and watched the debates when Gore ran for President. At the time I was not at all tuned in to politics, and I remember thinking him a wooden and uninspiring individual.
The live presentation erased that impression very quickly. It has been said before, but it is clear that this is truly his passion. If you ever have the chance to see Al Gore deliver An Inconvenient Truth live – Go! It is a totally different experience from the movie. He is a powerful speaker, uplifting and inspiring, and he had the Americans in the crowd on their feet applauding and yelling on several occasions. I have since seen Gore speak on other topics, and he is a damn good speaker. The number one question from the Americans after that presentation was: Are you going to run for President again?
Well, after experiencing the Gore delivery, most of us were humbled. How could any of us do that? There were mentors there, people who had taken the first Nashville training, and they reassured us that nobody could do that. At that time, Al Gore had given the Inconvenient Truth presentation 1,300 times. (The count is now over 2,000.) And, of course, it was his presentation.
That was another fascinating thing – for me – that came out of the training. I suppose I had never really thought about where the presentation came from, but it became obvious throughout the weekend that this was Gore’s baby. He created the presentation and he works on it constantly. On Saturday, he went through the presentation slide-by-slide and explained the science behind each slide, the reason for the image or graph selected, how it fit into the overall flow of the presentation, and so on.
And let me digress here for a moment to talk about the presentation itself. It is composed of more than 300 slides and is delivered in approximately one hour and fifteen minutes. That works out to about 15 seconds per slide, and each slide has a story. In addition, if you’ve seen the presentation or the movie, you will have noticed that this is no ordinary PowerPoint presentation, the kind that puts everyone to sleep in minutes at company meetings and that nobody remembers much of afterwards. In those types of presentations, each slide contains multiple bullet points and most presenters do little more than read the slides. If you forget a point, you can always look at the slide.³
Not with An Inconvenient Truth. If you blank on what a slide means, you turn to the screen and find yourself looking at a photo or graph that may not mean much without the accompanying story. It all seems obvious to me now, but at the time some of those slides didn’t mean much. Not only that, but most slides are part of a sequence, so what you say must fit in with the sequence or subsequent slides won’t make sense. Take this slide, for example:
At the time, it was very easy to forget that this slide (actually a short animation) describes how the Earth redistributes heat from the equatorial regions to the poles, and helps to explain why the poles warm more than the equator. Now multiply that by 300 and give yourself 15 seconds to explain it clearly….
Complexity, Hope, and Despair
When Gore was training us, he talked about three “budgets” that we must always keep in mind. The Heat Engine slide is an example of a complex concept that most people are unfamiliar with, and too much of that sort of thing will result in glazed eyes. There has to be enough that people understand the basic climate science, but not so much that they are overwhelmed.
There are also “budgets” for hope and despair. Too much of the former is unrealistic and the audience will come away with the impression that the climate ‘crisis’ is not serious and we can handle it. This is totally untrue; in fact, the opposite is more likely but too much despair and people are again overwhelmed.
Gore believes that many people are in denial about the danger posed by climate change, and too much stress on the enormity of the problem causes many people to remain in denial. If the situation seems overwhelming, many people will subconsciously opt to evade thinking about or dealing with it, and we cannot afford that.
On one memorable occasion I exceeded the despair budget for my audience; one person was led out in tears and another stood up at the end and literally asked, “Are we all going to die?” Did I mention this was an audience of children in grades 4-6? And that there were 250 of them, bussed in from five schools?
I hadn’t really thought about how kids would take the presentation beforehand; in fact, the request for the presentation came from a student who had seen me deliver it previously. About halfway through I realised this is really not a child-friendly presentation. I think it was the picture of penguins crowded together on a ice flow – combined with the reality that some species of penguins are going to go extinct due to climate change. It could also have been the polar bears.
The problem is not really the presentation, it is the world we have created that is no longer child-friendly. How do you present that reality to children?
The Importance of Socialising
In case I have exceeded my reader’s “despair budget,” let me talk for a moment about the social events in the evenings. These were considered part of the whole experience, the purpose being to help us get to know each other and our mentors so we would feel comfortable contacting others with questions or for support.
The first night was the previously mentioned event at B.B. King’s Blues Club, where dinner was provided. Saturday night was an intimate performance by some of Nashville’s lesser-known but influential musicians.
One of the reasons the training was such a powerful event for me was that I had been feeling powerless and alone, and the training reversed that. I couldn’t understand how we could have a problem this big and so few people were taking it seriously. People at all levels just didn’t seem to care, from politicians and CEOs to Joe and Jill Average.
Now I was in a room with over 100 people who knew as well as I how serious the climate crisis was, and yet the attitude was 100% upbeat and positive. It remains my hope that this American ‘can do’ spirit will infect enough Americans and cause a social tipping point, leading to a green revolution. If the Americans go, the rest of the world will likely follow. (Although that is now in question as China flexes its muscles.)
Practice, Practice, Practice
On Sunday we were broken into groups of about 20 and we each had an opportunity to practice giving a few slides from the presentation to the smaller group. It was not a confidence-inspiring experience. Even though we got to pick the slides we would present, and despite having notes on each slide from the previous day’s slide-by-slide explanation by Gore, very few of us delivered our handful of slides confidently and compellingly. (Including me.) The final word from the mentors, who led the breakout practice sessions, was “practice makes perfect.”
It seemed a daunting task. 300+ slides, each with its own story that must fit into sequences and the larger presentation, and on top of that the whole presentation was very much Al Gore’s. He could talk about his time in university where he took a class with Roger Revelle, climate change pioneer, and then taking Revelle to Congress thinking that would wake his fellow politicians up, but none of us could use that story. We would have to insert different slides and come up with our own stories.
We were mildly reassured by one mentor who told us she ‘presented’ An Inconvenient Truth to her dog at least 100 times before feeling confident enough to stand in front of people. Mildly.
I did practice, though lacking a pet it was to the computer screen. I would deliver the presentation exactly as I thought it should be done to an audience. That was key to my later success, and also a reason for my one big failure.
Presentation #1 and #2 – polar opposites
When I returned to Victoria – and figured I was ready to present – I sent out a press release and emailed everyone I could think of that I was an Al Gore-trained presenter of An Inconvenient Truth. It was big enough deal at the time that there was considerable interest, even in relatively small Victoria. (Greater Victoria is about 350,000.)
My first two presentations were arranged by the very dedicated Patricia Lane, to whom I owe a debt of gratitude for getting me started. I had never met her before, but she pulled in the right people and got things rolling. I’m sure I caused her much consternation after the first presentation though, which was the big failure.
Patricia had arranged two presentations for me. The first was in her house with about eight people, with all of us sitting around a big-screen TV while I presented. The second was a joint venture between two prominent Victoria churches and a synagogue, and drew about 550 people. As we found out, the hard way, the presentation is simply not designed for small, sit-down groups. In that arrangement, everyone wants to contribute, and Presentation #1 ended up taking three hours as everyone chipped in at various points.
After that event, I’m sure Patricia was having second thoughts about having set me up for Presentation #2, which would be very public and much larger.
As it turned out, except for some minor technical difficulties at the start, the second presentation went very well. (That’s the one where the young student came up afterwards and asked me to present to his school.) I knew what to say about each slide and how to say it.
Dealing with Deniers
The biggest fear and most frequent question from trainees had been, “How do you counter the deniers?” If you’re concerned about climate change and you’ve spent any time on the Internet, or if you read the Letters to the Editor section of the paper (the most popular section of any newspaper, by-the-way; thus the importance of writing in to counter these fools), you will know that the deniers are everywhere and many of them are good at what they do. The idea of being confronted by one mid-presentation was enough to give any presenter nightmares.
As it turned out, I have had only one denier speak up, and the audience was itching to tear him apart after he did. This particular denier claimed that global warming is God’s plan, will green Africa, and similar rubbish. I let one particularly eager audience member answer, and it was clear he spoke for everyone when he said, “Sir, with all due respect, at your age (the denier appeared to be in his seventies) you will be gone before the rest of us have to deal with the world you have created. You need to just…(here he paused, as he was obviously angry but trying not to be too blunt)…go away and let the rest of us deal with the problem.” The audience applauded him. The denier sat down and shut up, which is what all people who have no idea what they are talking about should do.
The audience member’s response was exactly the right one. Deniers should not be taken seriously or given respect. They are fools, and dangerous ones at that. Don’t argue with them, don’t debate them. Push them out of the way and let’s get on with saving the world. It doesn’t help that the denial industry is so well-funded and that people who know better insist on public debates with them.
I have since given the presentation 40 or so times to thousands of people; pretty good for a small region like Victoria. It never fails to move people. It is simply a great presentation. Even when I present poorly, and I really try to give a great presentation every time, the audience gets it. It’s almost impossible to see the evidence presented and not get it; you have to be delusional.
I have since modified the presentation extensively to localise it and update the science, as have most presenters. Most of us have also added a lot more in the way of solutions, as this was missing in the original. I really think Al Gore and the movie producers had no idea the impact An Inconvenient Truth would ultimately have. If they had known it would be that big, the solutions would have matched.
The reality is that we will not get out of this predicament by changing lightbulbs. As the science becomes ever clearer, so does the obviousness of the need for a green revolution. (Hence this site.) We need large-scale change enforced by governments on everyone; we simply cannot emit any more greenhouse gases. Every molecule of CO2 or methane emitted from this point forward reduces our chances of survival.
It is that stark and that simple, although it was not so clear in 2006. Do something.
Al Gore is not My Friend
Some final words on Al Gore are needed.
What’s Gore like? Pretty decent guy, it seemed to me. Gore did the Friday afternoon training and all day Saturday. I saw and spoke briefly with him at the social events. I have since seen him again at a subsequent Montreal training for 200 new Canadian presenters, at which I was a mentor.
Gore is a bit standoffish; reserved you might say. According to my homestay reporter, he has always been this way. He’s not a typical politician in that way; you don’t meet him and instantly feel he’s your best friend.
I do not have his contact information. I cannot arrange for you to speak with him. I cannot get your message to him.
I don’t know him personally well enough to vouch for his integrity on his global warming stance, but all the evidence points his way. He has investments in things that will do well, and is often attacked for that. What do people expect him to invest in? GM and the tarsands? If you thought solar and wind and all-things-green were the way of the future, wouldn’t you invest your money there? This is no bandwagon or get-rich-scheme for him. Al Gore has been trying to get action on climate change for decades.
He has little sympathy for people who do invest in things like the Canadian tar sands; in his view, if they lose their investment, too bad. They shouldn’t have been investing in something that is well-known to cause harm.
Al Gore is a devoted Macintosh users. (He is also on the Board of Directors of Apple.) He has used Windows and Mac and greatly prefers Macs. The original presentation was done in Keynote, the Mac presentation software. When he was teaching us the presentation, he would occasionally stop, go to his computer, and make changes, muttering to himself things like “That doesn’t flow very well….” The presentation had to be converted to PowerPoint, and I didn’t realise what a huge job this was until I tried to port it to OpenOffice. All the animations are lost, images and text boxes change position, fonts change….
And a Last Word on Climate Change
If anything, An Inconvenient Truth downplayed the danger from climate change. It really will wipe us off this planet if we don’t stop it. The science since 2006 has all pointed to climate change being much more advanced than first thought – it is not something that will happen, but is occurring now, with real consequences for real people. Many of us in the developed countries, especially Canada and the United States, think that we will be mildly affected and that we can adapt. Both are false. When top scientists are talking quite seriously about the collapse of civilisation and a dieback of billions of humans, we should pay attention.
I often start my presentations with the following – true – story:
I was a sceptic and a denier. I admit it. I was clueless about climate change in 2003 when I returned from the U.S. to Canada. What changed me from a denier and sceptic to simply a sceptic was the BBC. I subscribed to an online feed of headlines, and every day there were one, two, three, or more stories about glaciers receding, mass extinction, Arctic ice receding, Pine Beetles, drought…it went on-and-on like this for six months until I finally decided I had better look into this global warming thing.
So I became an honest sceptic and I started digging. When I read a newspaper article about global warming, I tracked back the sources quoted – and I started finding a lot of bullshit, even in major newspapers and other media outlets. To make a very long story short, I eventually came to trust only scientists on scientific issues. Seems rather obvious in retrospect, but many deniers are very convincing liars. That’s why the oil, coal, and auto industries pay them: they are good at what they do, even if what they do is evil.
I am still an honest sceptic but it would be stupid for me to believe that climate change is not happening, given what I know now. Imagine going to your doctor, who tells you that you have cancer. That’s bad, and you want a second opinion, so you go a top cancer specialist. He confirms the diagnosis and says you must immediately change your diet and lifestyle and begin medical treatment. You get another opinion, from another top specialist who runs different tests – but she comes to the same conclusion. You go to another doctor, and another, and another, and another, and they all say more-or-less the same thing: Start treatment now or you’re dead.
Finally, you talk to your brother-in-law, who tells you not to worry. He read that cancer is just scaremongering by doctors to make money.
That about describes our current situation. We’re paying attention to fools and paid liars, and ignoring the experts.
You can read about my personal journey, which includes plenty of references to books you may find useful. I didn’t read the books, by-the-way, until I was done checking out the science. The books I selected reflect the science decently. I also recommend Al Gore’s books; he has been at this a long time, has access to the top people in every field, and has a great high-level grasp of climate change.
¹ This post makes no attempt to convince deniers or sceptics (two very different things) of the reality of climate change. I covered my journey elsewhere; this post talks about my personal experience at the training, impressions of Al Gore, and some of my subsequent presentation experiences.
² If you’re wondering why a supposedly climate-aware person was jetting all over…my first choice would have been high-speed electric train. More comfortable, fewer security hassles, a dining car with real food, and so on. However, we have no high-speed trains in North America. None. Blame the CEOs of General Motors and the oil companies, who decided that what was good for themselves was best for America.
³ The final day of training included a session with Andy Goodman, author of Why Bad Presentations Happen to Good Causes (and how to ensure they won’t happen to yours). It is also available for free download and I highly recommend it if you want to create memorable and useful presentations.