MTV and Al Gore both gained traction in the eighties, achieved cultural saturation in the nineties, and have been fighting for relevance since. They made a coquettish couple at MTV’s “Inconvenient Special” with Al Gore, two ailing brands negotiating the foibles of the digital era, courting each other like divorcees on a Tinder date.
The event had been billed as a town hall, an opportunity I wanted to use to grill the Vice President on how to combat the corporate executives pouring billions of dollars into our eroding democracy. In fact, the MTV special would turn out to be nothing more than a promotional stunt for Gore’s new film An Inconvenient Sequel, revealing the invariable cynicism of a media conglomerate feasting upon itself: MTV and Paramount Pictures, which released Gore’s film, are both owned by Viacom—and it was in Viacom’s shadow that I stood in line, choking on the scuzz of mid-July Manhattan as slogans barked down from Times Square’s every recess.
My destination that afternoon, MTV Studios, is a fluorescent organ sequestered inside the gut of Viacom’s corporate headquarters. The cluster of millennials queuing up outside appraised one another until a brawny security guard ushered us in. We seemed a humble portrait of a generation—multiracial, multi-pierced, multi-branded, relinquishing our cell phones and backpacks as we filed along. That we had been curated by MTV’s casting department became clear as technicians divvied us strategically along bleachers.
It wasn’t drama these scenes of collective resistance lacked; it’s just that Al Gore, so seemingly squeamish about confrontation, wasn’t there.
A dutiful member of the studio audience, I clapped when asked to clap and laughed when asked to laugh, but I admit I was sceptical. Before the town hall, we had been treated to a pre-screening of Gore’s sequel, which I found to be turgid and tone deaf. It begins, more or less, with Gore in 1998 heroically unveiling the Deep Space Climate Observatory, nicknamed GoreSat—a NASA satellite equipped with state-of-the-art instruments designed to measure the effects of climate change. The capricious Bush administration, however, had other priorities. The fact that Gore chose a satellite stripped of its climatic functions for an emotional peak in his narrative is indicative of the soullessness to come in the rest of the film.
Apart from montages of footage from climate disaster zones, which inspire genuine horror, the only thing about the sequel to suggest that it is no longer 2006, when the first instalment in the “Inconvenient” franchise came out, is that Gore now uses hashtags. “#BeInconvenient,” the final frames of the film implore. “#BeInconvenient,” our MTV moderator chirped. “#BeInconvenient,” the sage Gore counseled.
But who were we supposed to be inconveniencing? Not the Koch brothers, whose tentacular grip over the Republican Party goes unmentioned in the film, despite the success the billionaires have enjoyed in transforming the GOP’s consensus from reluctant market regulation to unhinged and unparalleled climate denial. Likewise, Gore gives the executives of Exxon a pass, even though those corporate frauds buried the findings of their own climate research in the 1980s and have ever since waged a war of deception against the public. One of the movie’s final scenes even sees Gore, ever hopeful, trudging up the stairs of Trump Tower to appeal to the better angels of our clementine climate-truther-in-chief’s nature. In An Inconvenient Sequel, the universes of technocratic politics and comic books converge—Gore plays a superhero without a villain.
To citizens fighting for their lives and livelihoods, evil does have a face—the fracking exec poisoning a school’s water supply, the coal baron shivving his employees for profit, the pipeline company soiling sacred ground at Standing Rock. The modicum of action this country has taken to avert climate disaster is thanks to grassroots organizers who have waged war against the villains of entrenched fossil fuel interests. These fights appear incidental to Gore, who relegates his mention of “Keystone XL,” the single biggest catalyst of anything resembling a national climate movement today, to a CNN chyron. It wasn’t drama these scenes of collective resistance lacked; it’s just that Al Gore, so seemingly squeamish about confrontation, wasn’t there.
Instead the bulk of the film’s action occurs in Paris during the 21st Conference of the Parties. This is Gore’s arena, where he can shine as envoy and entrepreneur, dealmaker and democrat, without too much, well, inconvenience.
“Elon suggested I call,” Gore mumbles to, for some reason, Larry Summers.
“I’ve got an Indian problem,” Al Gore quips into the phone, fending off rapturous Asian teens who somehow keep cropping up for a picture with “the president.” Never mind that Gore just compared the modernization struggles of the globe’s largest democracy to the genocidal mania of manifest destiny—he’s on a mission. India threatens to scuttle the whole international climate deal because it demands wanton fossil fuel use, much like that the United States enjoyed during its own industrial period. But not on Gore’s watch. Not while he has the full force of Silicon Valley on speed dial.
Less Sorkin-esque than Monty Python-like, Gore seemingly leaves voicemails for every misbegotten billionaire he has ever bumped into. Finally—“Elon suggested I call,” he mumbles to, for some reason, Larry Summers, and we know that the day must be saved. Gore has hatched an irresistible scheme to entice Musk’s SolarCity to come to his aid. Gift India the intellectual property of your latest solar-panel-techno-mumbo-jumbo, Gore advises SolarCity’s CEO, and in exchange revel in the ovations of heads of state, who will deem you the “corporate hero of Paris.” And with this union of SolarCity, a benign billionaire benefactor, and Al Gore—the man who saved the Paris Agreement—the film climaxes. Here’s the thing though: India’s Energy Minister suggests his government’s deal with the clean-tech firm is a fiction.
Trump has, of course, since pulled America out of the Paris Accord, a detail the film grafts onto its epilogue with the same bravado Jonathan Chait uses when brushing aside the 2016 election in his ill-timed book on Obama’s legacy. The new president’s mesmerizing antics in the White House make certain that urgently-needed discussion of “Decade Zero” will be kept off the front pages. The effect of Trump on Gore’s film, which centers the fragility of Gore’s achievements in order to ratchet up drama, is one of bathos. The endless compromises Gore deliberately negotiated are ultimately meaningless in a world helmed by President Trump. I hoped Gore the man, not the documentary subject, would announce a course correction at the MTV special. Instead, Steve Aoki, the token celebrity apparently free that day, presented him with questions about how to reduce individual carbon footprints.
The key to understanding why Gore would rather box with shadows than brawl with CEOs lies in a shaky cell phone video shot in February. Slumped against his chair is sclerotic billionaire Charlie Munger, the ninety-three-year-old vice president of Berkshire Hathaway. With rheumatic fingers clasped together like an even-less-animated Mr. Burns, Warren Buffett’s right hand man croaks out a unified theory of Al Gore. In Munger’s muddled telling, Gore is a drinker, a pot-addled “idiot” with “one obsessive idea”: climate change is bad. His distaste for CO2 led Gore to invest in companies without a direct carbon footprint—mostly Silicon Valley startups like Microsoft (and Apple, on whose board of directors Gore serves). Munger’s appraisal is insightful, because it takes one heinously wealthy man to know another.
Munger attributes Gore’s success in investing to his partner, David Blood, an erstwhile executive at Goldman Sachs. Blood and Gore are cofounders of Generation Investment Management, a London hedge fund that bets on the long-term profitability of sustainable capitalism.
Gore is constitutionally incapable of telling a story that is resonant with Americans who have had futures set to flame.
According to SEC filings, GIM bet big on SolarCity in 2013. In Paris, Gore wasn’t approaching SolarCity merely as a concerned statesman lugging around the burden of the planet’s future. As a major investor in the company, Gore was poised to make a killing off the good publicity. Given how prominently SolarCity features in the film as well as in subsequent reviews, it’s no great leap to conceive of An Inconvenient Sequel as a conveniently aggrandizing PR move.
Gore’s financial ties to corporate America do more than hollow out the claim he makes during the film’s finale that he’s leading a moral movement on the scale of women’s suffrage or the abolition of slavery. The pathology runs deeper: Gore is constitutionally incapable of telling a story that is resonant with Americans who have had houses foreclosed on, wages slashed, wealth eradicated, and futures set to flame by Wall Street traders and fossil fuel executives. To do so would require him to point fingers. But Gore cannot indict the filthy rich—who emit more carbon dioxide than anyone else, who buy off politicians to stall climate action, who are the sole villains of the climate crisis—because he cannot indict himself.
The result is the dizzying incoherence of his film and his town hall special with MTV. The solutions Gore peddles, including the absurdity that switching to fluorescent lightbulbs is an effective way to #BeInconvenient, are insultingly insignificant compared to the magnitude of what’s at stake if we continue to let fossil fuel executives off the hook.
Belched from the innards of Viacom with a squishy penguin keychain to commemorate the experience, I asked in panic what the woman behind me thought of the event. “It was whack,” she responded in a thick New York accent, “What was the deal with that fucking satellite?” Maybe if Gore weren’t so rich, he would have realized that the rest of us have more to lose than a millionaire’s plaything.