Truth To Power. Time to Fix Democracy.

On 23rd December 2006 – just before the Christmas break – I was told that Al Gore would be coming to Sheffield to present to an audience of key stakeholders, leaders and decision makers and to share his influential views on climate change. The science and the slides in his documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, were to be presented live by the man himself.

documentary-film-an-inconvenient-truthAn Inconvenient Truth has been credited for raising international public awareness of climate change and re-energising the environmental movement. The documentary has been included in science curricula in schools around the world. It was also instrumental in Al Gore sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

As Head of Environmental Strategy at the City Council I was excited to know that one of the 21st Century’s most respected politicians and leaders on the issue of climate change was coming to my city to address the people I’d been working with and helping to understand the very real threat of climate change. Over the first 18 months or so in post I had made understanding the challenge of climate change and its impact on the City a priority and this was a great opportunity to reinforce those messages. The man’s pulling power was awesome and the invitations to watch were snapped up fast.

I’d already presented to a Full Council Scrutiny session on the issue of climate change in 2005 and, whilst the City’s councillors were interested it was fair to say they had other priorities. They asked probing questions on that sunny afternoon in September 2005 but whilst they remained engaged in the agenda through Scrutiny Boards and Cabinet Reports, particularly around the ways in which the Council could reduce carbon emissions, reduce costs and become more self-sufficient in terms of energy generation across the City, they saw the challenge as too big and needing leadership from a higher plane. But, there was often a win-win-win and an obvious benefit to citizens and, I mean, who wouldn’t want to invest and save waste – it’s an easy case to make in most cases.

There is a wonderful sequence in the movie where he meets Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown in Texas. The mayor describes Georgetown as the reddest city in the reddest county in Texas – and he’s a conservative Republican. But he sees moving toward renewable energy, as just making sense.

Now that we knew Former Vice-President Gore was coming we could only expect greater commitment to tackling the causes and the effects of climate change couldn’t we? Overnight, we created the ‘Sheffield is my Planet’ campaign with our excellent creative minds at Diva Creative who had expertise in social marketing and behaviour change activity and a wonderful exhibition was curated where the City’s most innovative companies grouped to showcase their products and services on the day Gore was in town. We achieved more in those 5-6 weeks than we could possibly have imagined. The fear of not being seen to be committed was motivation enough.

Quite simply, we’d accelerated our commitment to a city-wide approach to climate change because of this one man agreeing to speak to us. Nobody wanted to appear uncommitted and there was a certain amount of jockeying for prominence. I remember Tom Riordan, then CEO of Yorkshire Forward the now defunct regional development agency, launching Carbon Action Yorkshire there and then in a room full of MPs, businesses leaders, academics, influencers, movers and shakers.

10 years on and it’s fair to say the City of Sheffield’s commitment to this agenda has both waxed and waned. It’s currently in an inter-waxing period. Whilst the climate continues to warm, the commitment to action appears to have cooled. The City Council has been heavily criticised for not following through on its climate promises and continues to create headlines for its tree felling / replacement programme. However, there are rays of light in amongst this that should encourage us. Since Gore’s visit to the City we’re no longer debating the existence of a changing climate. There are always dissenting voices but, on the whole, the science is accepted and the focus is on what is needed.

Of course, the City had a big wakeup call later in 2007 when one of those intense rainfall storms hit the city in June 2007 and flooded much of the City, with fatalities. That, plus Gore, had brought about a focus on climate resilience and adaptation that hadn’t captured the imagination of councillors til then.

On Friday I watched the live feed Q&A session broadcast to 340 cinema theatres across the UK where Gore addressed questions from the excellent, informed host and the UK-wide audience. He remained compelling, engaging and effective in portraying expert knowledge and insight, countless examples of why we must tackle both the causes and the effects of climate change and he warmed the audience up for the latest film, ‘An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power’ which followed immediate after.

DHIRkxMXgAE-s80The sequel is different to the first film – it is much more biographical and focuses on how Gore became the great climate change communicator and what he has been doing with his charities to build awareness and train future climate change leaders around the world.

Many of the predictions in Gore’s first film have come true. Those who described his predictions as ‘a terrible exaggeration’ are faced with the facts that the effects of climate change are happening. The intensity of storms, the melting of glaciers and ice caps and the rising global temperatures have come to bear. Despite that, the film tries to focus on the positive solutions already being implemented and the political commitments made in Paris. The discourse on climate change has, largely, shifted again from ‘is it real?’ to ‘what can we do?’ to ‘Can we do this?’.

But in the final few months before release President Trump has withdrawn from the Paris deal. Whatever positivity was embedded in the film is tarnished, undermined and obliterated by the approach Donald Trump has taken. The United States of America’s President is the cause of much head shaking by Gore.

There’s a great interview with Al Gore in The Conversation by Prof Mark Maslin of UCL. He says I was struck in the middle of your film by a profound statement: “To fix the climate crisis we need to fix democracy”. And then the film moved on to another topic. How do you think we can fix our democracies now in the 21st century?”

Gore replied “Well, big money has hacked our democracy even before Putin did. And it accompanied the transition from the printing press to television, when all of a sudden candidates – especially in the US – were made to feel they have to spend all their time begging rich people and special interests for money so they can buy more TV ads and their opponents.

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And that’s really given an enormous unhealthy and toxic degree of influence to lobbyists and special interests. Now just as television replaced the printing press, internet-based media are beginning to displace television and once again open up the doorways to the public forum for individuals who can use knowledge and the best available evidence.

If you believe in democracy as I do and if you believe in harvesting the wisdom of crowds, then the interaction of free people exchanging the best available evidence of what’s more likely to be true than not will once again push us toward a government of by and for the people. One quick example. Last year the Bernie Sanders campaign – regardless of what you might think about his agenda – proved that it is now possible on the internet to run a very credible nationwide campaign without taking any money from lobbyists and special interests or billionaires. Instead, you can raise money in small amounts from individuals on the internet and then be accountable to them and not have to worry about being accountable to the big donors.

Gore has made it his mission to build a following of trained climate change communicators to share his commitment and to learn how apartheid, slavery and civil rights movements can be repeated – but this time to build consensus in saving humankind from itself. Their task was tough in 2006 but they made progress. If democracy needs to be fixed first then maybe the uprising needs to focus elsewhere because just when it looked a little more positive, it was Trumped.

The film is released UK wide on Friday 18th August 2017. I would urge you to see it. I would urge you to #BeInconvenient

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Author: Andy Nolan

An experienced director-level professional with expertise in sustainable development, cities, universities, governance, policy and strategy. 15 years of experience working in the field of sustainability in both the private and public sector. Has worked within a local authority, in multi-authority partnerships locally and nationally. Experience in higher education across four universities in the UK plus representative bodies. Particular areas of interest and expertise include; energy; transport; climate change; waste management; air quality; decentralised energy; education for sustainability; smart cities; knowledge transfer; research.

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