Reconstituting Public Opinion around the Exigence of Global Warming
Despite the cold east wind, the dark orange maple leaves cling tenaciously to the trees on the streetscape. The yellow mulberry leaves, however, dropped last week and have now been blown out my yard, across the street. Things don’t seem that different; this feels like November in Albuquerque. Fall is almost over and its last remaining days have finally killed the plants in my garden. Winter moves in as I chop firewood, change air filters on furnaces, dig out gloves and warmer clothes. This is November, not all that different from every November. Yes, we have seasons and sometimes it feels as if life will continue apace as it always has. Yet, just last week the World Meteorological Society stated that “… 2013 is currently on course to be among the top ten warmest years since modern records began in 1850” (WMO).
That is a not an illusion; things aren’t the same. As noted in the report the coldest years in the period between 2001 and 2010 were warmer than the hottest years before 1998 (WMO). Yet, we still pile in our cars, get wrapped up in national and regional politics, and argue over a misplaced comma, a definitive prediction proved wrong or just slightly off. All create a sense that the facts of Global Warming are still up for interpretation. Yet they aren’t: “Atmospheric concentrations… [have reached] unprecedented levels yet again in 2013. This means we are committed to a warmer future” (WMO).
We have reached the point where the exigence of Global Warming has never been more pressing, more demanding, more insistent on significant action. But yet we make small changes and the only weekly Presidential remarks that remotely resemble being about the environment are relegated to two sentences: “We decided to reverse our addiction to foreign oil. And today, we generate more renewable energy than ever, more natural gas than anybody, and for the first time in nearly 20 years, America now produces more oil than we buy from other countries” (White House). Yet, I don’t think the President or his administration would argue that Global Warming is not a concern. As outlined by the general focus of his administration, the economy, however, is the controlling exigence that is guiding his actions.
Likewise, The New York Times announced last January that it was “dismantling its special team—or “pod”—of seven reporters and two editors” reporting on Climate Change (Sullivan). Though not necessarily a lessening of concern with the issue, “Symbolically, this is bad news. And symbolism matters – it shows a commitment and an intensity of interest in a crucially important topic” (Sullivan). And a little less than a year later, Margaret Sullivan, the Public Editor at the Times after interviewing Maxwell T. Boykoff, a professor who tracks media coverage on the environment, summarized his findings this way, “Overall U.S. news coverage of climate change has plummeted, he said, after peaks in 2007 and 2009.” So the question is how can we shift the discussion such that Anthropogenic Climate Change is the controlling exigence for guiding policy in the United States especially if entities that would help drive the discussion don’t see it as a priority? As the controlling exigence, it would give “definition and …[demarcate] the range of viable responses” (Hauser, 48).
It wasn’t always this way. Just a few short years ago, Al Gore, delivered a scathing speech in accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary, and presided over a national “discussion” about Global Warming because his movie An Inconvenient Truth generated a palpable buzz. Yet, those changes that he argued for didn’t frame the debate or act as the controlling exigence for policy change. So the questions are: what happened and why not?
To answer that question, we need to first look at what the movie did do and how it functioned. The movie uses a mixture of film and presentation to establish Gore’s ethos around Global Warming and spell out its effects. The film uses a mixture of Al Gore’s presentation, known simply, as “the Slide Show” and voice over filmed sequences to create a sort of narrative arc for delivering roughly the same information that an audience member would get at the live presentation. For the film they had Gore deliver the presentation to a live audience in a small theater in Los Angeles (Golson). The producer, with Al Gore’s input, chose this method because:
…one of the huge differences between a live stage performance and a movie is that when you’re in the same room with a live person who’s on stage speaking — even if it’s me  — there’s an element of dramatic tension and human connection that keeps your attention. And in a movie, that element is just not present (Roberts).
Thus, under the guise of analyzing a movie (actually the only fully realized document), I’m going to look at sections of it rhetorically: as Gerard Hauser states, “Rhetoric, then, is concerned with the use of symbols to induce social action” (3). The movie because of its format reached a wider audience than the Slide Show even though he’s delivered the presentation, by his own estimation “over a 1,000 times” (An Inconvenient Truth). But before it became an award winning film, it was an engaging presentation.
In essence the presentation as shown is a staged presentation. Many of the graphical elements were created or enhanced for the film but it was Gore’s rhetorical delivery that engaged the film maker, “and when you see him do it…it makes you want to take action” (Golson). So, though I am experiencing the film, the producer has chosen to include a filming of the live presentation. This presentation is no different in content than what he has done before. The rhetorical situation is Al Gore, using a variety of multi-media, delivering a talk about the dangers of Global Warming. Overwhelmingly people spoke of the presentation as having a certain rhetorical power. As Hauser states, “Rhetorical communication can be used to foster or to inhibit participatory processes” (17). The effectiveness of the slide show is demonstrated in the producers’ statement, “Everyone comes out saying, “What can I do?” (Golson).
From what can be observed in the film, the presentation is delivered on a thrust stage with a small screen that he can look at and larger screen (70 ft. wide) that mirrors the small screen. There’s a laptop on a small table at the center of the stage. Gore generally stands center stage with a remote control in his hands to advance the slides on the screen. He is wearing a dark suit coat and tie and looks professional but not overly dressed up. The presentation is a mixture of still slides, animated shorts, and video shorts. Next to the screen is a construction dolly that he uses in one particular segment to drive up to the top of the screen.
Embedded in the presentation is a narrative about how Gore came to his interest in this topic. This narrative establishes Gore’s ethos and how this singular topic has motivated his choice of career and why he’s positioned to speak about it. As he states, “I’ve been trying to tell this story for a long time and I feel as if I’ve failed to get the message across” (An Inconvenient Truth).
Part of what also works to act as a sort of counterpoint to Gore’s facts and development of argument is his use of short animation sequences and jokes. For example, beginning with just the simple, “I’m Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States. [Pause] I don’t find that particularly funny.” Right from the beginning he’s establishing his ethos as a public speaker. So we have two reasons to listen to him: 1) this topic is one he’s studied for much of his adult life, and 2) he’s a politician with a sizable constituency. While his being a former vice president and potential president doesn’t necessarily mean he is an expert on climate science, it does mean he has access to many of the leading researchers that will help inform his talk. Indeed, in one section the audience sees Al Gore standing outside of a nuclear submarine after it has just surfaced in the Artic. He admits that his position has allowed him to travel on a sub and admits that he convinced them to release data about the relative thickness of the ice since they can only surface if the ice is relatively thin. Admittedly, he has resources that many speakers wouldn’t have access to. Being able to access a sub and being able to use short animation sequence from the creators of The Simpsons is not something that a lot of public speakers would be able to do. While his political experience means he has the resources to mount a grand production, he also spells out that his understanding of the topic is shaped by his own interests.
His ethos means he can command attention on almost any topic. Gore states, “I was in politics for a long time. I’m proud of my service” (An Inconvenient Truth). Yet, the speech doesn’t only rely on his presence. He uses a bit of personal narrative: the near death of a child to establish the urgency of why he is doing this now and the connection he’s had with the natural environment through 3 generations of farming. He uses the iconic images of the Earth to sort of evoke a sense of emotional awe. Quite often he uses visual imagery (historic pictures of the size of glaciers in the past compared to their size now) to break up the logos of the recitation of facts. The pictures are pretty staggering and while they make a reasonable point, they also have a sort of “awe” appeal that is visceral and emotional.
In several of the reviews and responses to his presentation, many point to his experience as a candidate for President. Prior to this he was not known as a particularly effective rhetor. He was described as stiff, wooden, and robotic (Kimmel), yet many reviewers seem almost surprised by his commanding and endearing presence during this presentation.
What is different about this rhetorical situation than the many rhetorical situations he found himself in as a candidate? For one, he’s obviously well versed in the subject area. Two, he’s not campaigning for public office so he can clearly articulate and stake out a position while campaigning for votes may mean he has to phrase the urgency in non-partisan terms. And three the exigence of the situation we find ourselves at this historical moment suggests that action needs to be taken on a grand scale. In one particular example, he points out that President Bush’s science advisor was once a lobbyist for the petroleum industry. As the science advisor he edited an official document (revealed through slides) to show that there wasn’t a consensus on anthropogenic climate change. The advisor was subsequently released and Gore compares the counter claims as similar (to laughter) from the claims of the tobacco lobby after the Surgeon General’s report in 1964. The Al Gore of An Inconvenient Truth does not worry about the fossil fuel industry taking out political attack ads against him. By campaigning as himself, and in campaigning on an issue he’s passionate about he’s a much better speaker. The Al Gore of An Inconvenient Truth is freed from the constraints of the campaign trail at an exigence that he portrays as rather urgent.
When I chose to analyze this particular presentation, I was not only interested in looking at Al Gore’s transition from mainstream politician to environmental spokesperson but wanted to look at how he used different strategies to create his talk. In particular, I saw him employing a type of vernacular rhetoric that hopes to shape change outside of society. This rhetoric, the use of technology to supplement your message has found many avenues in academia and without. Most notably is the public lecture of a TED talk, which has been the main venue for two different follow-up talks since 2006. In his talk, and like many TED talks, he used a variety of resources to prompt a change that I find particularly compelling. While he, perhaps, could’ve given the very same talk without utilizing animated slides or film clips, I found the use of multi-media reinforced the urgency of taking action now. Yet, systemically or legally very little action has taken place.
In fact, one of the main hopes for doing something about Global Warming, the Kyoto Treaty, was never signed by the United States nor did the U.S. Senate pass Cap and Trade legislation in the summer of 2010. True, the issue never received bi-partisan support; even Conservatives were rejecting a market-based solution. Global Warming was not a priority in the same way that the economy, the deficit, and the healthcare system were a priority. Certainly more people are buying hybrids, electric cars, carpooling, biking, and trying to find clean sources of energy, yet we aren’t making the changes he argued for as quickly or as radically as he said was necessary. As Al Gore states in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, “We must abandon the conceit that individual, isolated, private actions are the answer. They can and do help. But they will not take us far enough without collective action. At the same time, we must ensure that in mobilizing globally, we do not invite the establishment of ideological conformity and a new lock-step "ism."” So how do we re-kindle a desire for collective action around global warming such that action can happen? And, if the ethos of a near President isn’t enough to spur change what will be?
Part of the problem around the issue is that it became too associated with Al Gore and by extension too partisan. It is seen as a liberal/progressive issue. While the issue got a much needed boost from his celebrity, it also means he’s open to attack as well. We live in an age where the actions of “heroes” get “dissolved into a blur of environmental influences and internal maladjustments” (Boorstin, 52). Thus, the movie was not about Global Warming, but about Al Gore. Some comments on threads in regards to the film suggested that the whole film was a sort of paean or encomium to Al Gore. Yet, that seems to be the choice of the filmmakers. There is very little biographical information in the presentation as filmed. But because the filmmakers chose to personalize Al Gore as well as show clips from the Slide Show, the audience can’t separate the presentation from Al Gore. Yet, by including biographical information they were also, in a way, introducing Gore, to an audience that may only know him as a candidate for President. This new audience doesn’t know why he would be so concerned about environmental issues or why he’s an “expert,” so they had to establish his ethos and they chose to do it in a couple of ways: the long narrative about his studies with Roger Revelle (establishing himself as someone who studied with the expert) and the story about the near death of his child. In the film, the story of his child is told through images of Gore sitting next to a hospital bed with a voiceover that says, “It just turned my whole world around. How should I spend my time on this Earth?...The possibility of losing something that was precious to me” (An Inconvenient Truth).
But I agree with him. Yet, for someone who didn’t vote for Gore, who perceives him as yet “another politician” the film can look like it is nothing more than ego. He is seen as being an opportunist and thus is open to the charge of being hypocritical or political. Thus what helped established his ethos with one group may actually hurt his ethos with another. So if appeals to pathos (his children) don’t work than appeals to logos must. But, climate science is notoriously complicated and his conclusions were open to criticism. In fact, while many schools show the film, many people argue that the film is nothing more than political propaganda. For example, “The court [High Court of London] ruled that 1.) in order to show this movie to the children [sic] teachers must make clear that the film is a political work and promotes only one side of the argument” (Climate Sanity).
Yet, the science is overwhelmingly on Gore’s side. In his rebuttal of their arguments, Gore characterized it from an interview in October, “…we’re all prone to kind of avoid thinking about something that seems painful to think about…especially if the solution looks like it’s going to require some significant changes in prevailing patterns” (Kimmel). Simply put the solution may not be as simple as buying an hybrid, driving less, etc. So the question now, some seven years after the film of a presentation he’s given over a 1,000 times, is what is the place of this presentation in the historical rhetoric regarding environmental issues? Is Al Gore going to be relegated as some sort of biblical prophet whose arcane warnings we either didn’t understand or just plain ignored? Is his film, and thus by extension his presentation, seen as something that helped the cause or hindered it because the story quickly became about him?
In fact, quite a few of the attacks attack him personally: how he manages his ranch in Tennessee, the type of car he drives, how many miles on jets he’s used to attack (as they see it) a political opponent who’s merely just trying to make a profit. Some other criticisms are that he drew conclusions that hadn’t been entirely vetted. There were still many scientists (at the time) that felt the conclusions were too extreme, too dire. Yet, as each year progresses with drought, wildfires, one thousand year floods, record temperatures, violent and destructive weather many scientists now see the doomsday scenario as increasingly probable. Indeed, while Gore’s presentation was characterized as sort of alarmist, it almost seems entirely prescient today, and right. According to Cosmos Magazine, we have around 30 years to save the planet, “Global warming is real, its effects can already be seen and felt, and we are the cause” (Crow).
If anything, the criticism I have of Gore’s presentation is that the filmmakers slicked it up a bit much. I found the use of animation, while cute, to be sort of belittling…taking serious science and framing it in terms that seem patently simple. The overall conclusions while maybe alarmist aren’t too far afield and perhaps, rhetorically, we needed to be alarmed to shake us out of our complacency? But we need to do more. If anything, we need to learn from Gore and try and reconstitute a discussion and a plan of action around climate change. We need to reinvent the rhetoric that will allow us to frame it as something other than this partisan issue championed by a partisan player. Rhetoric can and should play an active part. For example, we need “…the people in the audience [to]…be capable of mediating change. When people think they cannot influence the outcome, they are less likely to respond to messages” (Hauser, 49).
One possible way may be to look at how public opinion is constituted and shaped. For that, we need to examine some case histories. In Gerard Hauser’s Vernacular Voices: The Rhetoric of Publics and Public Spheres, he looks as specific cases where a public sphere was created and how it was maintained. In Poland this meant that its “embrace of civil society made it possible for new culturally relevant narratives to emerge and for rhetoric to play a central role in its ongoing self-production” (Hauser, 159). They were able to do this because they were able to “build upon the resonance of its founding moments in public imagination” (Hauser, 159). Thus, to activate Americans we need to call upon Americans who did great things and use their example to spur change.
Quite often this is done by remembering the mobilization of earlier generations and the history of war. In fact, Gore does this in his Nobel Prize speech when he says, “We must quickly mobilize our civilization with the urgency and resolve that has previously been seen only when nations mobilized for war.” This is problematic because in war industrialization is often a force for good, a force that allows a mobilized populace to build better and faster, but in Anthropogenic Climate Change, industrialization is what got us here in the first place. So I suggest we choose a different history: a history of living at peace with the land. For that we need to draw on our history of pioneers, indigenous cultures, and subsistence farmers and recognize that America’s diversity is our greatest strength. We need to see the variety of cultures we come from as an asset that defines us as Americans: Native Americans, African-Americans, Hispanic Americans, Asian Americans, and White Americans. We need to remember we have a collective, diverse history that lays open the possibilities perhaps wider than any other place on Earth. We need to look beyond a time when we were consumers to a time where we lived within our means. And we need to get together and learn how it was done. We need, as Al Gore proposes in the film, “communicate this really clearly” (An Inconvenient Truth).
How did people live in the Rio Grande Valley before we mined the ground water? How did people live in the mountains in times of drought? And how can we do that now? Because we have already committed ourselves to a warmer future and unless we radically change, we may run out of time. Yes, this sounds alarmist; yes, “maybe it is just too big to do anything about” it. But as he states, “There are a lot of people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually doing something about the problem” (An Inconvenient Truth). Global warming and our actions to deal with it is partly a rhetorical problem, and it seems as if it may require all of us to engage in the fight rhetorically.
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