The Inconvenience of Climate Advocacy

The Inconvenience of Climate Advocacy
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I still remember the look on his face that night we met, many moons ago. After watching him deliver a live version of the slideshow immortalized in his 2006 Academy Award-winning documentary, I purchased his bestseller and queued up with the other fans. When I finally reached the signing table, I handed him my copy of his book and a business card. And then I went for it.

“I’d like to help you spread your message,” I blurted out as he scrawled his signature in my book. He glanced up briefly, handed my unread card to his aide, and wryly replied, “Oh really, you want to help me?”

I’ll be honest. I was hoping for more enthusiasm.

It’s not that I had expected Al Gore to fall over in his chair just because I cared. I had mainly declared the intention for myself, as a promise that I was going to champion his cause because it was mine also. But standing there in front of him, I didn’t know how to say any of this. Before I could mumble a response, his handlers shuffled me along to keep the line moving. It was an ignoble ending to what I had hoped would be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Nine years later, I finally did get a chance to make good on that offer. Last December, I was invited to cover “24 Hours of Reality,” a global telecast hosted by Gore, whose goal was to raise awareness for climate change across more than 100 countries. After my article ran, I got word from Gore’s team that he “loved the piece.” This morsel of unsolicited praise was not the reason why I had dedicated a decade to advocating for environmental justice, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t excited by it.

The inconvenient truth, for me, is that I care about the climate crisis. So don’t expect a dispassionate review of Gore’s latest film. I’m not writing to critique his explanation of climate science or dwell on ticket sales. Nor do I care whether his off-stage manner is approachable, or even whether his books and films succeed or bomb. What I do care about is his dogged commitment to the work of shaking the world awake. Getting citizens to act on an issue as unpopular as it is threatening is not for the faint of heart, and it’s Gore’s heart that inspires me.

Much like its predecessor An Inconvenient Truth, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, as one review put it, “is a far more accomplished piece of advocacy than filmmaking.” True, you may need to be hardcore about social change to love this film. But any viewer should come away informed and affected, if not by footage of sea water streaming over Miami’s streets on a sunny day, then by the conviction of a human force of nature acting on behalf of nature itself.

The one-man climate show that first reached the American public 11 years ago has blossomed into an army of global advocates. The initiative, which has since become The Climate Reality Project, has trained more than 12,000 Climate Leaders representing 137 countries. Armed with Gore’s presentation and their own unique stories, these professionals and advocates are capable of exponentially raising awareness for climate action around the world.

Unfortunately, Gore’s team did not take me on for that first round of training when I applied in 2006. So I had to begin my slog through the climate advocacy wilderness alone. There I stood in front of the photocopier in my sister’s apartment, copying images from Gore’s book that would later appear, somewhat crookedly, on my first Powerpoint deck. As the cool San Diego breeze wafted through the windows, I wondered what compelled me to voluntarily dedicate precious vacation time to preparing a presentation about doomsday. Why wasn’t I outside surfing or roller-skating, or doing whatever Southern Californians did with all of that gorgeous coastline? (You know you’re a diehard when such thoughts only strengthen your resolve.)

Back in Dallas, I began presenting my own material to any audience that would have me. Eventually, those first low-tech climate change images gave way to corporate sustainability content, which I ultimately deemed more appropriate for my business-minded audience. After all, people didn’t want to hear about gloom and doom; they wanted optimism and pragmatic solutions. Sadly, solving the climate change problem, when viewed through the lens of “SMART” goals, seems anything but specific, measurable, attainable, realistic and time-bound.

I now realize that it was a blessing in disguise that Gore’s team didn’t choose me back then. On my own, I had to figure out another way, and in so doing, I pioneered a practice in the field of sustainability communication. In the course of serving clients from Dallas to Dubai, I’ve developed ways to address issues from air quality to ocean conservation while furthering employee engagement, brand value and operational efficiency. I’ve delivered supplier audits for small manufacturers, greenhouse gas assessments for mid-sized companies, and energy conservation campaigns and sustainability reports for Fortune 500s.

However, after a decade of selling sustainability, I sometimes miss the crusader in me. What happened to that girl who once hung a “Save the Humans” poster over her college dorm room bed or the new mom who went door-to-door asking her neighbors to recycle? Seeing the depth and breadth of Gore’s climate advocacy efforts challenged me all over again to take up the issue, despite its politically polarizing effects.

The sequel showcases Gore pounding the pavement in places like Georgetown, Texas – now the largest town in the US to go “100 percent renewable” (meaning its municipally-owned utilities will supply its customers with 100 percent solar and wind energy). The film follows Gore to Paris, where he convened with world leaders in support of the global climate treaty known as the Paris Agreement. And I have it on good authority that Gore also escaped the snug bubble of climate elites long enough to visit with fellow advocates in the green zone. Seeing him reach out to regular people reminded me how far Gore has come in terms of bonding with the common man, which is vital for mainstreaming the climate change issue.

Spreading the conservation message can be a lonely undertaking, so engaging in it calls for an internal locus of control. However, to be effective, surrounding oneself with a community is essential. Soon after starting my own trek, I participated in some well-coordinated campaigns run by the Dallas Sierra Club, and I still see many of the same members at events today. In fact, longtime member Molly Rooke challenged us to see this film and write about it, and her call to action is the reason I took the time to share this story. That’s the kind of motivation a group can offer.

For those who enjoy blazing a new trail, there’s the option of launching your own thing. That’s what I did with EarthPeople Media. While much of my work can be monetized through consulting, I often use the platform to share stories from writers, executives and students who offer different perspectives on climate-smart solutions.

Addressing both root causes and symptoms of social and economic problems is critical for anyone interested in climate advocacy. This also means you’re never done, and the possibility of burnout always looms. The key to sustaining the movement of sustaining the planet is to join forces with others who will carry the baton when you have to step out of it, save you a seat when you want back in, and hand you a sign when you’re ready to march again.

As An Inconvenient Sequel shows, the list of reasons to act grows longer each day. People who refuse to recognize the threats of climate change, as well as those who are least responsible for creating it, are suffering from its effects, whether they know it or not. Already, climate change has displaced approximately 25-40 million people, with 64 million people of concern, according to the United Nations. Beyond climate refugees, city-dwellers around the world are experiencing the urban heat island effect, which can make the cost of climate change’s economic impacts as much as 2.6 times higher while also increasing heat-related mortality.

In social movements, there are those who ignite, and there are those who are in it for the long haul. Al Gore is the rare leader who performs as well on the world stage as he does managing the daily grind of tasks that contribute to policy change. Not every advocate is set up as well as Gore for this work, but each of us can plug in and participate along the continuum as activated citizens and consumers. Wherever climate change poses a threat to the public health or the commons, there’s a need for voices to speak on behalf of those who cannot speak for themselves.

I don’t know if I’ll see Gore again in person, but I often recall that evening we met. Back then, he was a remote figure in a suit with the sheen of a former politician. Observing Al now, I can see how time and life have both softened and strengthened him. The glow of stage lights has been replaced by the glow of a mission that enlivens him and many others who stand in his midst. Sure, he’s older and less polished - but in a good way - and confident in his mission to mobilize us to stand up for our planet, whether it’s convenient or not.

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