The people in Carbon Nation couldn’t be further from Gore.
We meet Bernie Karl, an Alaskan who voted twice for Bush and has become a pioneer of geothermal energy because he “likes clean air and clean water”; Cliff Etheredge, the chipper one-armed Texan farmer bringing wind turbines and jobs to the flailing southern town of Roscoe, and Dan Nolan, a former army colonel leading the charge for energy security at the Pentagon. They are the nation’s “greenocons” – neo-conservatives who promote clean energy – and ordinary Americans.
“Someone once said that the storyteller runs society,” says Byck. “So far the folks who don’t want to believe that climate change is real have done a better job. I wanted to change that.”
The battle to win over the American right to the cause of halting climate change is certainly far from won. Opinions are drawn sharply along political lines, with polls showing a growing rift between liberals, who are increasingly convinced of the problem, and conservatives, who are becoming more doubtful. Liberal blogger Joe Romm at Climate Progress writes that this is “No surprise, really” since those who deny climate change use pundits that are more credible to conservatives, and “disinformation is repeated to death on conservative media outlets”.
Solitaire Townsend, co-founder of sustainable communications agency Futerra, says the split is also down to the fact that there are aren’t many people promoting climate action who conservatives can identify with:
“There are reams of evidence [showing] that we respond to messengers who are like us. If an advertising company wants to reach young women in cities, they’ll put their message in the mouth of a young urban woman. If they want to reach rural farmers in the mid-west, that’s who they’ll use. It’s not even questioned in advertising. But up until now there have been very few mid-western or southern messengers on climate action.
“The problem is that climate change is getting drawn into the culture wars. It is being wrapped up with a set of liberal values and that’s a barrier to entry for conservatives. If you’re not allowed to be pro-action on climate change unless you sign up to a set of other liberal values like being anti-guns and pro-abortion that’s a huge barrier.”
But a growing number of conservative messengers have taken up the cause of climate change. Take the work of the “green hawks” at the Pentagon who promote energy efficiency and renewable energy at army bases. In Iraq, soldiers on fuel convoys are easy targets for improvised explosive devices, so insulating air-conditioned tents better and developing solar and wind power units could save American lives. Operation Free, a war veterans’ organisation aiming to “secure America with clean energy”, is concerned that the destabilising effects of climate change could make terrorism worse, threaten food security and increase Russia’s power.
Then there’s the Christian Coalition of America, which, according to Townsend, has published an advert linking their anti-abortion stance to the need for action on climate change – under the banner “we also believe in life after birth”.
Perhaps the most controversial part of this reinvention of climate change action is the suggestion that we don’t need to dwell on climate change at all. Carbon Nation is billed as “a climate change solutions movie that does not even care if you believe in climate change”, and some of the interviewees say they aren’t sure whether global warming is man-made or not.
Even the White House seems to have decided to go quiet on climate. Sticking to the less controversial ideas of innovation and clean energy, Obama made no mention of climate change in his State of the Union speech last week.
Byck thinks that once the clean energy economy gets off the ground, there will be no stopping it, no matter what reasons lay behind it. Others, such as the co-founders of liberal think tank the Breakthrough Institute, are in agreement.
But many do not. Townsend argues that not mentioning climate change is a false solution, and fails to make up for the problem of too few conservative commentators who support action on climate change. “It’s very difficult to create political space for congress to pass a climate bill without mentioning climate change,” she says. “Even if the government calls it a clean energy bill, the American right is not stupid; all they have to do is rebrand it as the climate bill.”
Byck says his film has already won round one unlikely fan – his uncle Phil’s sceptical college roommate Charles, who sent Byck a slew of articles denying climate change during the making of the film, but now wants everyone to watch it.