An Emotional Truth

Al Gore brought his now famous slideshow to a sold-out crowd at the University of Toronto last night. Outside, a very Canadian phenomenon — the “friendly picket” — was taking place with signs that read “Welcome Al” and “Heed The Goracle.” Inside, former Ontario premiere David Peterson introduced Gore as a “moralist, philosopher, thinker, teacher, doer, and rock star.”

“I love you Al,” someone yelled from the upper seats of Convocation Hall once the first burst of applause had died down.

Before diving into his formal presentation, Gore stayed off script to single out Mayor David Miller and Toronto, saying the city stands out as a “beacon of hope,” and has a “determination to try and get it right.” He also couldn’t help but add, “I just wish Canadians could vote in American elections…retroactively.”

The presentation itself was largely the same as in the movie, An Inconvenient Truth. In short, not only is there no scientific disagreement regarding the reality of global warming or our role as a major cause (“the so-called skeptics are disappearing faster than icebergs”), the stakes could not be higher, and there’s no time to lose. It is no exaggeration to say that the climate crisis represents the greatest threat ever to face our entire species. The debate is over. Now, as Winston Churchill said while the storm clouds of fascism gathered before the second World War, “we are entering a period of consequences.”

There were, however, two interesting differences between Gore’s live presentation and his filmed one. First, there was even more scientific detail last night, and a greater recognition of the complexity of the climate change issue. That’s significant, because said complexity is often used by paid deniers (some of whom, by the way, are actually the same people who used to take money from the tobacco industry to tell us smoking didn’t cause cancer) to try and create confusion.

Gore also updated his slideshow to include the latest science and more current examples (some as recent as last week). For example, in the movie a big deal is made of the possibility that melting ice in Greenland could stop the flow of the Gulf Stream. That now seems less likely to scientists, and Gore told us so. (On the other hand, a lot of the science has gotten more dire.)

The second main difference is how much more emotional the facts are when delivered in person. Three quarters of the way through the presentation, Gore piles on the bad news: carbon concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it’s been in a million years; positive feedback loops (like the melting of the permafrost, which releases even more greenhouse gas) have already started to kick in; 100% of world fisheries have already peaked and declined in production; coral reefs are already starting to dissolve in more acidic oceans; floods and droughts (seemingly contradictory phenomenon caused by overall climate destabilization) are already costing people their water, food, and lives; both antarctic and arctic ice (the two “canaries in the mineshaft”) have already started to break up much faster than was predicted.

Whispers of “oh shit” rippled through the crowed as different people reached their own realizations.

However, at no point did Gore become more emotional than when talking about the solutions that are possible, and his belief in humanity’s ability to accomplish them. Straying from his typically American examples, Gore had some specific messages for Canada on this point. For one, he pointed out (as his slideshow omits) that per capita we are as bad as Americans when it comes to contributing to the climate crisis. On the other hand, he spoke of how respected Canada has been internationally for so many years, and then, under his breath and with deliberate coyness, said, “now, you wouldn’t walk away from Kyoto, would you?” If we don’t clean up our act, Gore explained, that makes it easier for the US not to act as well. “That’ll be the homework,” he said.

(These comments come a week after Harper’s environment minster, John Baird, was still trying to pretend that Gore supported his government’s plan, even after Gore’s office put out a statement to the contrary. Gore also said that Harper’s plan of intensity targets is an invention of the George W. Bush White House, and completely ineffective.)

At the end of the presentation, Gore told the story (if you’ve seen the film you’ve heard it) of when his six-year-old son slipped from his grasp, ran out into traffic, and was struck by a car. His son was in intensive care for months before pulling through. It’s the story of a father almost losing his son, and feeling like he could have done something to prevent it. It’s an impossible moment to replicate, but trust that everyone in the room was leaning forward, holding their breath. “If I could go back in time,” Gore explained, slowly, quietly, “I would go back to that moment right before his hand slipped from mine, and hold on tight.”

Then, turning to the image of the Earth on the screens behind him, Gore delivered his final message in the most urgent of whispers. “It’s beginning to slip from our grasp. I want you to hold on to it.”

This post also appears on Torontoist.

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