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Climate Change and the Environmental Documentary Film

An Analysis of "An Inconvenient Truth" and "The 11th Hour"

Bachelor Thesis 2014 49 Pages

Film Science

Excerpt

Contents

1. Introduction

2. The environmental documentary as a genre

3. Ethical considerations in speaking about the environment

4. The challenges of depicting and communicating climate change and resulting implications for communicators

5. Climate change as a topic of environmental documentaries - Two different approaches
5.1 An Inconvenient Truth
5.2 11th Hour

6. Comparison and Conclusion

7. Bibliography

1. Introduction

"Men argue, nature acts." - Voltaire

Voltaire, one of the most influential authors of the Age of Enlightenment, already captured with this statement what seems to be at the heart of today's environmental problems. Of all those - water pollution, deforestation, loss of ecosystems, decline in species numbers - climate change is probably one of the most important and also one of the most discussed topics of our time and a phenomenon which requires to be communicated with a certain sensitivity.

When talking about climate change, it should be clearly distinguished between natural climate change, i.e. a naturally caused increase in the concentration of greenhouse gases and global temperatures, and anthropogenic climate change. This distinction is very important as in the minds of the majority of people, climate change is still an extremely abstract concept. It is difficult to completely understand its complexity in detail, and many people find it hard to differentiate and realize that global warming is a natural process which has however been dramatically sped up by the influences of humans. Therefore, the aim of climate change communication should be to convince people to act accordingly and try to decrease their own carbon footprint as there is no denying that while scientists, lobbyists and politicians are still arguing nature is indeed acting.

One effective way of communicating climate change, enabling communicators to reach a bigger audience, is through the medium of film and especially through the environmental documentary. This paper is aimed at explaining the basics of the filmic genre of documentary and identifying certain features which make it an ideal genre for the communication of environmental problems like climate change. Furthermore, potential problems existing in a successful communication of climate change, and the resulting challenges to such a communication and the depiction of climate change shall be described. Finally, two environmental documentaries, Al Gore's Academy Award winning An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's probably a bit less well-known 11th Hour, shall be analyzed according to their structure, their scientific accuracy (if possible), their approach to the subject and the way in which they deal with the afore mentioned problems in a successful communication of climate change. Afterwards it shall be tried to assess whether it can be said that one of the two documentaries is more successful at 'getting the message across' and if such should be the case, reasons for this will be discussed.

2. The environmental documentary as a genre

Over the last couple of years awareness of environmental problems like climate change has greatly increased. This is mostly due to the growing attention of the media and to the emergence of the genre of ecocinema. Although there is no exact definition of which films can be regarded as belonging to this genre and although there is some dispute among eco-film critics, Rust and Monani state that a few essential points have been agreed on.

The first is that "all cinema is unequivocally culturally and materially embedded" (Rust and Monani 3), i.e. that the views of our culture will always influence the way we make films and therefore also the way in which we depict for example different relationships between people or of course also environmental problems. The second point is that "cinema provides a window into how we imagine [a certain] state of affairs, and how we act with or against it" (Rust and Monani 3). Thirdly, Rust and Monani mention that though some films might be regarded as being less ecocritical than others, all films can be seen as ecocritical in certain ways and have the potential of showing us new perspectives of the connection between cinema and the physical world around us.

According to Willoquet-Maricondi, films are "by virtue of being re-presentations of the 'real' world [...] a type of virtual environment that at the same time model[s] for us ways of perceiving and engaging with material and organic environments" (44). In her opinion therefore "ecocinema can offer us alternative models for how to represent and engage with the natural world; these models have the potential to foster a healthier and more sustainable relationship to this world" (44).

By this Willoquet-Maricondi addresses the problem of estrangement of humankind from nature. With growing globalization, industrialization, always newer technologies and the development of entirely synthetic urban environments, we as humans have been acting in ways which neglect the fact that we are "a species of animal whose welfare depends upon successful integration with the plants, animals, and land that make up [our] environment" (Meeker 163).

The necessary step therefore, in order to fix this misconception and further a reunion of humans and nature - and a step supported by ecocinema - is, according to Willoquet- Maricondi, a shift in paradigms, namely a shift from anthropocentrism to ecocentrism (45). This means that the general focus needs to be extended from being purely on the human sphere to instead being on the ecosphere.

Ecocinema can work towards this goal in different ways. Films belonging to the genre of ecocinema can either "foster an appreciation for ecosystems and all of nature's constituents" or they can "deploy an overt activist approach to inspire our care, inform, educate, and motivate us to act on the knowledge they provide" (Willoquet-Maricondi 45). The latter certainly applies to various environmental documentaries, as for example also to Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's The 11th Hour, the two documentaries which shall be analyzed and discussed in this paper.

As opposed to environmentalist movies (especially Hollywood movies) which "often use their concerns with non-human nature [...] as a basis for speculation on human relationships" (Ingram 10), the documentary as a genre appears to be especially suited for the use of depicting environmental problems like climate change in a more appropriate way, and also for promoting a general change in people's behavior and their relationship with nature. So are documentaries for example, by their nature of being non-fiction, committed to depict reality, while environmental Hollywood movies like The Day after Tomorrow or Erin Brockovich, as Ingram criticizes, only use environmental issues as a back-drop for human drama (10).

Being committed in such a way, it must be noted however, that documentaries are "not [...] [just simple] reproduction^] of reality [...] but [...] representation[s] of the world we already occupy" (Nichols 20). Our expectations towards a representation are generally higher than those we have towards a reproduction (Nichols 21) and therefore we will also always regard it in a more critical way. According to Nichols, "the documentary tradition relies heavily on being able to convey to us the impression of authenticity" (xiii) and we are more likely to develop an emotional connection with what we believe to be authentic.

In their function as authentic representations of reality, "documentaries [also] lend us the ability to see timely issues in need of attention" (Nichols 2). What we are shown there are "(cinematic) views of the world [...] [which] put before us social issues and current events, recurring problems and possible solutions" (Nichols 2). Furthermore, in cases in which a topic can be regarded from different points of view, "if an issue has not yet been definitely decided, or if agreement cannot be definitely achieved, documentary film is one important means for disposing us to see that issue from a specific perspective" (Nichols 69).

This specific perspective will invariably always be influenced by the personal and subjective perspective of the filmmaker and therefore, "we will see the world we share as filtered through a particular perception of it" (Nichols xiv) in which different facts or features may be highlighted than the ones we ourselves would find important. This stressing of certain aspects of a topic while ignoring other aspects and deeming them less important, added to the fact that documentaries are aimed to engage and convince, makes high ethical demands on the genre of documentary. This is of course not only the case for the documentary in general but also in particular with regard to environmental documentaries.

3. Ethical considerations in speaking about the environment

All the specific characteristics mentioned before make documentary the ideal genre for the depiction of environmental problems and therefore also for the depiction of the problem of anthropogenic climate change. This makes it of course also necessary to speak about nature. Presenting nature however - be it in documentaries, popular movies, literature, etc. - is always, as already mentioned, connected with various ethical considerations and the main problem is therefore, as Willoquet-Maricondi phrases it: "How do humans speak on behalf of the ecosphere without being anthropocentric or anthropomorphic in this very act of speaking?" (47)

Nature in itself is silent (at least in terms of human language) and therefore in order for it to express itself "others - politicians, business leaders, environmentalists, the media - claim the right so speak for nature or for their own interests in the use of natural resources" (Cox 4). It is easy to see that there will inevitably be a conflict of interests.

But how can we speak about nature and for the rights of nature without being biased? And "who should define the interests of society in relation to the natural world" (Cox 4)? It is probably impossible to be completely unbiased but humanity has an ethical obligation to try to reflect on its own actions, something which has always been a concern of philosophy.

Reflection however, is only possible where different views can be expressed and compared. This makes communication necessary and "only in a society that allows debate can the public mediate among differing voices and ways of understanding the environment­society relationship" (Cox 4). The way in which this communication process progresses is also very important, as the way in which we describe or name something, influences whether we consider it to be a threat or not (Cox 61). We can for example either speak of biosolids, a word which suggests it to be something natural, nonhazardous, or we can speak of toxic sludge and thereby use a word which immediately creates an entirely different picture in our minds, namely that of poisonous substances leaking into the ground, contaminating soil and ground water (example taken from Cox).

According to Cox, "it is impossible to separate our knowledge about environmental issues from the ways we communicate about these issues" (2). Our knowledge is therefore created by communication which is in turn again influenced by our knowledge. "Media representations of environmental issues [...] [also] play a role in shaping and influencing public understanding/opinion and political decision making in society" (Hansen 13), so Ethics becomes the guideline for filmmakers in depicting nature and environmental problems, as the way in which they do it has "consequences for subjects and viewers alike" (Nichols 9).

4. The challenges of depicting and communicating climate change and resulting implications for communicators

As already mentioned in the introduction, for many people climate change is still a concept which is too abstract to cognitively comprehend in detail. One reason for this is that various aspects of climate change - aspects which also set it apart from most other environmental problems - make it difficult to depict and communicate the problem of anthropogenic climate change in ways that enable an actual cognitive understanding of the consequences and help persuading people that immediate action on their side is in fact necessary.

In her article "Communicating climate change: history, challenges, process and future directions", Susanne C. Moser presents and discusses these various aspects as well as the challenges that come with it.1 According to her it is for example necessary for communicators of climate change to know how human behavior works and she states that "much progress could [already] have been made [...] if climate change communicators had familiarized themselves with, and adopted, what is already known from communication and behavioral research" (329). At the beginning of the discourse about climate change however, the group of communicators existed mainly of scientists, i.e. experts in their fields of the natural sciences, who were in no way familiar with the approaches commonly adopted by the social sciences.

The various distinctive characteristics which make climate change such a difficult and abstract concept to understand are first that it is in many ways less visible than other environmental problems. Water pollution, deforestation, the catastrophic consequences of oil spills caused by incidents like the Deepwater Horizon disaster in March 2000 are all directly visible and therefore more palpable. The causes of climate change (specifically anthropogenic climate change) like extreme increases in the emission of greenhouse gases however, are fairly invisible and therefore in the perception of people, consequences are also less immediate as they are subtle like the increase of childhood asthma for example.

Other factors which complicate the communication and cognitive processing of climate change further are the distant impacts. These also add to the feeling of a lack of immediacy, as there is often a "temporal and [...] geographic distance between cause and effect" (329). This means, as already mentioned, that obvious visible effects lag behind and that people currently most affected by the consequences of global warming are in fact not the ones living in the geographic areas with the highest emission rates of greenhouse gases, but people living in developing countries (Cox 263). Additionally - looking at things from a more biocentric point of view - "many of the early signs of a changing climate have been detected in regions where most people do not live" (Cox 263). These regions include for example the Arctic or coral reefs and are as such regions which are not regularly visited by the majority of people. This creates the commonly known problem of 'out-of-sight out-of- minď. What is not visible to us is too easily believed to be non-existent and only if the effects of a phenomenon like global warming are experienced personally, a distinct change in behavior can be observed.

This last point is also connected to the already mentioned problem that humanity has become separate from nature. Living in air-conditioned buildings, "moving in protective vehicles through vastly human-altered landscapes" (330) and very rarely leaving our 'bubble', we are practically 'out of touch' with nature and therefore find it easy to ignore what we do not see.

Even if we do try to change our behavior, without being directly affected by global warming we are all too likely to fall back into old patterns. This is due to what Moser calls "delayed or absent gratification for taking action" (330). The immense time lag between what we do today and an improvement in terms of a decrease in carbon dioxide levels or the return of Earth's climate to what it used to be before the begin of the industrialization, appears to excel the cognitive abilities of the majority of people. No one living today will live to witness this recovery.

The fifth point Moser addresses is another cognitive problem, namely the common habit of people to focus on the here and now and forgetting about the fact that decisions made today can always have potentially disastrous consequences for the future. This lack of foresight is often combined with an inability to imagine that humans are actually capable of altering the global climate, a problem communicators of climate change are frequently faced with in the form of disbelief. Seen in the light of evolution, this kind of behavior is comprehensible, as only those who could survive under the circumstances of the moment even got the chance to adapt later on. It was more important to gather enough food to survive the coming winter and more important to run faster in order to escape being killed by an animal, than to think much about what would be the situation in ten years' time. Generally, life was a lot more immediate. The development of new technologies and an ever more increasing pace of life however, have led to a disparity between what humans are capable of and what they believe themselves to be capable of, or put differently they "have to catch up in their normal, regularly exercised cognitive capacities with their vastly increased technological powers" (331).

Complicating the communication of climate change even more is the distinct complexity of this phenomenon and the uncertainty about future developments. Scientists are still unable to predict the exact consequences of global warming and all models currently existing can at best be regarded as extremely good estimates. This often leads to situations in which different scientists' theories and results dissent, thereby adding to the already existing confusion of the lay majority.

This uncertainty, Moser claims, has further been stirred and is being upheld by parties with no interest in changing the current "fossil-fuel intensive status quo" (331), like lobbyists of the coal and oil industry. Communicators of climate change therefore, have to choose their words wisely in order to not confuse their audience further on the one hand, but on the other hand also to raise awareness for the complexity of climate change, the existence of and reasons for possible confusion and to stimulate reflection.

In terms of government policies addressing global warming and the need for change, Moser states that with Nature's signals not being clear enough, "socially constructed 'signals' could stand in to provide the relevant information and 'early warning' system" (333). Temporary changes in fuel prices or carbon taxes for example would not be sufficient in this however, as a "strong leadership, uniform and steady messages, public prioritization of climate policy, widespread and visible consistency between words and deeds [and] unambiguous social norms" would be necessary to "indicate to a population the need for behavior and policy change" (333).

As a reason for the lack of such policies Moser mentions first of all self-interest. This self-interest, according to her, ranges from the already mentioned insistence "of many powerful forces in society [...] on the status quo" to the "unintentional, unconscious intent of the vast majority of people in western and westernized societies to defend the comforts of their modern lifestyles" (333f.). This poses a great challenge in the communication of climate change as it is the goal to persuade people to get out of their personal comfort zone, see the bigger picture and find "their place in the context of humanity's and the Earth's common fate" (334).

All these various problems have to be taken into account when trying to communicate climate change in a way that is aimed at changing people's attitudes permanently. This implicates that "communicators [have to] find clearer, simpler metaphors, imagery and mental models as well as compelling framing to lay the foundation for more appropriate cognitive processing" (334). In doing so they must however, also take into account that they will most probably always be faced with a lay audience made up of "variably interested [...] and unevenly motivated" (335) people. This unevenness requires greater effort and a certain kind of adaptation if communicators wish to reach everyone in their audience.

Apart from what is being said, it is of course also extremely important who says it. We are generally more likely to believe someone we trust than someone we mistrust. Trust, however, is only one small element in the relationship between speaker and listeners. The Speech Act Theory introduced into modern linguistics by Austin and Searle in the 1950s and 60s supports this as it states that various speech events are in fact acts in themselves and thereby have the potential of actively changing reality.

The fact that people, through the power of rhetoric, have the ability to influence the opinions of others has been known for millennia. This power - as all forms of power - can however, either be used to manipulate people with vested interest or alternatively it can be used to convince people to change for a good cause, something which everyone profits from. To illustrate this Moser alludes to the story of Plato and his student Aristotle, both of whom had very different opinions on the role of public speakers. While Plato "favoured one- on-one dialogue to shed light on important issues" and had a "strong distaste for the public speakers of his day who shamelessly manipulated the public" (326), Aristotle, recognizing its potential, believed public communication could also be done ethically. For this the speaker had, in his opinion, to have an ethical character, they had to be earnest and capable of generating emotional responses amongst the audience. At the same time the communication also had to be logical as well as truthful.

Overall, the most crucial factors influencing the success of the communication, which are therefore also important factors for the speaker to be aware of and adapt to, are the following:

Firstly, it must be considered what the purpose of the communication is supposed to be. There seems to be an obvious answer to this in the case of climate change communication. The purpose is however always also "in part determined by the intent of the communicators, in part colored by what is culturally accepted" (336). According to Moser, three basic forms of communication purpose can be identified:

"The first is essentially to inform and educate individuals about climate change" (including possible solutions and options), and thereby, maybe additionally, "increasing a population's understanding of the level of the scientific consensus about the fundamentals of climate change, or fostering an appreciation of the magnitude of the problem" (337).

The second possible purpose is "to achieve some type and level of social engagement and action" (337). The difference to the first purpose here is that the intention is different. It is not just to "touch and engage the mind, but [to] facilitate active behavioral engagement", for example in terms of an active change in behavior patterns or in the form of political support (337). For this "climate change and the actions proposed to affect it are made personal, local and urgent" and members of the audience have to be put into a position in which they can "translate their values and motivations into action" (337). This can be achieved by pointing out simple solutions and the personal benefits which can be gained by acting accordingly, but also by "linking engagement with deeply held values such as patriotism, national security, being a good neighbor or team player, self-sufficiency, etc." (337).

Finally, the third purpose of communication is to "bring about changes in social norms and cultural values" (337). This kind of change is on the one hand the most difficult to achieve, on the other hand however, it is necessary for consistent long-term improvement.

As a second crucial factor for the success of the communication it must be paid attention to who the audience is. It has already been mentioned that the audience will in most cases be heterogeneous and people will come from different backgrounds and have various levels of interest in the matter. Adaptation to the audience's needs is therefore required on the side of the speaker as "different audiences require distinct frames, goals, messages, and [also] messengers" (338).

The framing of the topic presented is very closely linked to this last point. The ways in which something is framed give it its inner structure, define its influence on the audience and the degree to which we get emotionally involved. Put differently, "frames construct a problem, provide a perspective from which to interpret it, [...] and deeply influence how persuasive we find the information being communicated" (338). They are created with and supported by the help of metaphors, symbols, gestures, tone of voice or body language of the speaker or an emotional soundtrack and are always audience-dependent, i.e. not every frame works with every audience. Therefore, adaptation in this point is also necessary.

The message, or rather the complexity and degree of detail to which the message is presented, is again subject to the composition of the audience. A message, in order to be believable, should always be "internally consistent in all aspects" (340), i.e. the different arguments which are being presented should not contradict each other. This seems to be a difficult task to fulfil seeing that there are in fact scientific climate change models that express opposite views. According to Moser however, this "does not mean that scientific uncertainty cannot be acknowledged", only that "the main message and emphasis of a communication [...] must be in harmony with its intent" (340). Additionally, messages must "resonate with the target audience through the language used, the values to which the message appeals, and the social aspirations of the audience" (340). If a message fails to do so, cognitive problems can arise which make the message in itself less believable and also have a negative effect on its power of persuasion.

In order to be fully effective, the message also has to create a 'mental model' in the audiences' mind. These mental models are "simplified cognitive constructs", which help people to understand a phenomenon like climate change. The main task of the message is therefore to make what is difficult to understand clearer; "the distant problem[s of climate change] must be brought home"; the invisible must be made visible; "solutions must be illustrated [and the] perceived and real barriers to action must be shown as something [which is possible to be overcome]" (341).

Messages will never stand on their own but will always be accompanied by the use of imagery, tone of voice and the creation of emotions with the help of "pictures, symbols, color schemes, and music" (341), all of which can have a stronger impact on the audience than the spoken words alone. As a last point, messages must also ensure that the audience stays attentive. For this, various possible stylistic devices may be used, e.g. suspense, humor, compelling imagery, indirect references to historic events or "tapping into people's curiosity through intriguing facts" (341).

As already mentioned, the effectiveness of the communication is of course not only dependent on the purpose, the message, the framing and the audience, but it is also very much dependent on the messenger. Credibility, trustworthiness and the character and moral beliefs of the speaker are the main points here, which can influence how successful the communication is in the end. The speaker stands personally responsible for the accuracy and credibility of the message. However, not each person will have the same effect on an audience. A scientist for example will be more believable to an audience when speaking on a scientific topic than someone who is no expert in this area speaking on the same topic to the same audience. It has been discovered that "trust in the messenger is a strong mediating influence on how people interpret the knowledge conveyed to them", as well as the fact that "people accept and trust messages more readily when conveyed by people with similar views" (342). Additionally, trust in the speaker or messenger is also dependent on the degree to which the messenger and the way in which the message is framed work together. As an example of this, Moser states that for this reason for example "religious leaders may be trusted as climate change communicators if the issue is framed as a moral one, but not necessarily if the issue is framed as a security, scientific or energy issue" (342).

As a last point, the choice of mode (written, verbal or non-verbal), the channel (face- to-face or mediated in a newspaper or on the internet) and the setting used for the communication also have considerable influence on its success. The setting can either be more intimate, as in a communication between only two people, or more public, as in a small-group setting or in mass communication. These three factors determine what can be expressed, to what extent and in which way it can be expressed. Additionally, the provision of an "opportunity for dialogue, reflection, and social learning [...] [also] affect[s] the ultimate impact of the communication" (343). With regard to the setting, psychological studies have shown that "face-to-face communication tends to be more persuasive and impactful on personal behavior than mass-media(ted) communication" (343).

5. Climate change as a topic of environmental documentaries - Two different approaches

It can clearly be seen that there are various obstacles which climate change communicators have to overcome. As already mentioned before, various features of the environmental documentary make it the ideal genre for the depiction of environmental problems and for this reason also for addressing exactly these obstacles.

In the following chapters two environmental documentaries dealing with the problem of anthropogenic climate change - Al Gore's Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth and Leonardo DiCaprio's 11th Hour - shall be analyzed with regard to the way in which they approach the topic and how they try to overcome the afore mentioned obstacles. This will be done by looking at the structure of the documentary, at the frame used for this topic and at the general attitude which is being expressed and imparted towards nature in general and to the problem of anthropogenic climate change in particular. Furthermore, it will be looked at what kind of imagery or metaphors, and which soundtrack have been used, what kind of mood has been created by this and how it supports the framing of the message. It will be looked at how the audience is being addressed and how well the message is being brought across in the end. Additionally, it will also be tried to assess the scientific accuracy of the two documentaries as well as the ethical behavior of the speakers and the efficiency of the communication, i.e. whether it has the (bigger or smaller) potential of effectively persuading people of the necessity to change their behavior.

5.1 An Inconvenient Truth

"Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth [...] [is often mentioned] as a touchstone moment in the history of environmental cinema" (Rust 192) and there are a couple of reasons for this. Released in 2006, it was received with standing ovations at the Sundance Festival as well as at the Film Festival in Cannes. It was nominated for and won two Academy Awards for Best

Documentary-Feature and Best Original Song and grossed just under $25 million worldwide (Box Office Mojo), making it the fifth highest grossing documentary of all times (Videouniversity).

These facts however are just numbers after all. They give an impression of how well the film was received and therefore also show in some way how many people (in proportion) could be reached. From this it can then be deduced in a theoretical way how successful it has been in terms of reaching its goal, i.e. not of grossing as much money as possible, but of convincing people that a change in behavior on their side is necessary in order for the existence of a real chance of restoring Earth's climate to what it would be without the influence of humanity.

Al Gore, in collaboration with Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, has created an enthralling and touching call for change and he has done so by interweaving his own personal life story with sound scientific facts which are presented in an easily comprehensible way. In his documentary the problem of anthropogenic climate change is presented as a deeply moral issue in which all of us have the ethical obligation to accept the responsibility which comes with being technologically advanced and which basically comes with being at the top of the food chain.

In the following, An Inconvenient Truth will be analyzed with regard to the problems connected with the successful communication of climate change which have been presented in Chapter 4. Gore himself states in the documentary that "[he has] tried to identify all those things in people's minds that serve as obstacles to them understanding this (i.e. climate change)" and that "whenever [he] feel[s] like [he has] identified an obstacle, [he tries] to take it apart, roll it away, remove it, blow it up" and "communicate this real clearly" (Ch.29).

Scientific accuracy

An Inconvenient Truth, and subsequently also Al Gore, have been criticized for slight errors in the presentation of the scientific facts. Eric Steig for example states that while the documentary was "largely correct" in the "portrayal of the science of climate change" (Steig 5), some facts were oversimplified and certain weather phenomena were expressed to have been caused by climate change without there being enough scientific evidence to back up such a relation. Examples of this are for one the glacier pictures presented in chapter 7 of the film. Steig criticizes that though the glaciers on

[...]


1 This chapter is almost entirely based on the article by Susanne Moser. Therefore, where direct citation was used, only the page number is given. If information was taken from a different source it has been marked accordingly.

Details

Pages
49
Year
2014
ISBN (eBook)
9783668301009
ISBN (Book)
9783668301016
File size
869 KB
Language
English
Catalog Number
v340640
Institution / College
University of Bayreuth
Grade
1,0
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Title: Climate Change and the Environmental Documentary Film