Al Gore appears angrier than he did 11 years ago. He grimaces and yells more. He is less personal. He seems to strain to convey a hopeful message.
That was my first — and most striking — reaction to his latest documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power,” the fast-moving follow-up to his 2006 Academy Award-winning “An Inconvenient Truth.” It deals with — what else? — climate change.
“An Inconvenient Sequel,” it appeared to me, was hardly noticed by the public in recent weeks. The acclaim (or attention, at least) that it should have received was muted by the daily torrent of insanity flowing from the White House.
Yes, the Trump presidency has consumed us all, swallowing up issues, ideas and people. As a nation, we must turn our floundering ship away from this maelstrom, or else. The dangers we face are too great to ignore.
But I digress.
“An Inconvenient Sequel” picks up where “An Inconvenient Truth” left off. Essentially, the world is going to hell in a handbasket because of global warming. Gore explains less in Part Two. He appears to assume people know what global warming is by now. Many still do not, though.
It’s not that people are incapable of understanding, and it’s not that they don’t care. They’re confused. The ultra-conservatives, á la Trump & Co., have so sowed the seeds of doubt and misunderstanding about climate change that many people have no idea what to really think. And so they tune out. Gore speaks about the phenomenon at length in “An Inconvenient Sequel.”
So here’s a climate-change primer, based on 121 years of real science. (The first scientist to identify global warming as a phenomenon was the Swede Svante Arrhenius, a Nobel Prize-winning chemist, in 1896.)
We burn fossil fuels — coal, oil, natural gas. In doing so, we release carbon dioxide and, to a lesser extent, methane into the atmosphere. These “heat-trapping” gases allow ultraviolet light from the sun to pass through the atmosphere, but when that light is re-radiated back into space as infrared heat, the gases trap it, warming the earth.
That should be a good thing. Without heat-trapping gases, our planet would be a frozen wasteland. As is so often the case, however, there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.
As carbon dioxide and methane build up in the atmosphere, they trap increasingly greater amounts of heat. When Gore produced “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006, the earth’s average temperature was about 57.5 degrees Fahrenheit. In 2016 (the hottest year on record), it was 58.69, according to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
You might ask, so what? What’s a one-degree difference in temperature over a decade?
The trouble is this: The difference in mean temperature tells us what’s happening across the entirety of the planet, but not what is taking place in specific locales. The greatest warming, NASA scientists tell us, has occurred at the north and south poles, so the mountains of ice there — as well as in Greenland — have been melting and breaking apart at an increasingly alarming rate.
Arctic ice surrounding the North Pole is sea-based, so it doesn’t raise the level of the oceans when it melts. But Greenland and Antarctic ice is land-based. So, as it melts and streams into the oceans, it raises sea level.
Therein lies the problem for Long Island. Tens of thousands of homes along our coastline could be vulnerable to flooding sometime between 2050 and 2100 —perhaps sooner, at the rate we’re going.
I watched “An Inconvenient Sequel” on Aug. 4 at the Huntington Cinema Arts Centre because there was a panel discussion afterward, featuring Dr. William Spencer, a Suffolk County legislator, and Marisol Maddox, a climate security research fellow at Wright Thomas International, a Washington think tank.
The film brings us to that fateful moment on June 1 when Trump announced his intention to withdraw the U.S. from the Paris Agreement, a nonbinding accord signed by 195 nations in April 2016 to limit greenhouse gas emissions worldwide and stave off the worst long-term effects of climate change. The only outliers were Nicaragua and Syria — until, that is, the U.S. pulled out.
Here’s what I learned at the Cinema Arts talk: The U.S. cannot actually pull out of the Paris Agreement until Nov. 4, 2020 — the day after our next presidential election.
If Trump were to win a second term, forget about it: We would be out of the accord for good. According to The New York Times, however, “If a new president enters the White House on Jan. 20, 2021, he or she could easily submit a written notice to the United Nations that the U.S. would like to rejoin the Paris accord.”
I might be getting ahead of myself here, but our next presidential election could very well be among the most consequential in our nation’s history.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.