Environment Climate Solutions

Gore's new movie highlights alternative energy in deep-red Texas. Will it win over skeptics?

'An Inconvenient Sequel' takes viewers to Georgetown, Texas, which will soon draw all of its electricity from wind and solar. Could stories like this one point toward a possible shift in conservatives' energy policy?

Cattle graze beneath turbines at the Penascal Wind Power Project in Kenedy County, Texas.
Mike McPheeters/Business Wire
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In his 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth," former vice president Al Gore warned that humanity had 10 years to avoid reaching an environmental "point of no return."

In response, conservative talk show host Rush Limbaugh started a doomsday countdown clock. When it hit zero last January, National Review writer David French proclaimed it "time to laugh" at climate activists.

Regardless of whether or not we’ve hit a “point of no return,” scientists are more convinced than ever that humans are driving climate change and a wide range of negative effects. Meanwhile, however, some US conservatives have grown more skeptical. In 2001, the gap between Republicans and Democrats on whether they believe climate change is real, and caused by humans, was 17 percent. By 2016, that gap had grown to 41 points, as The Christian Science Monitor reported last October.

Mr. Gore may think he can change their minds. His follow-up documentary "An Inconvenient Sequel," which premiered Thursday at the Sundance Film Festival, spotlights the conservative town of Georgetown, Texas. In 2015, Georgetown announced plans to generate all of its electricity from wind and solar. In the film, Gore jokingly warned the mayor that observers might mistake him for a liberal, as The Washington Post notes.

Conservative doubts about climate change were on full display during this week’s Senate confirmation hearings, where several of President Trump’s nominees voiced doubts about the extent of human influence over the climate. By featuring a deep-red Texas town’s switch to alternative energy, could Gore’s new movie bridge the partisan divide on this issue?

“If Republicans were to see the film and internalize its messages, yes, I think the choice of Georgetown, Texas, might be effective in making them more agreeable to renewable clean energy,” wrote Jack Zhou, an instructor in environmental politics at Duke University who has studied the identity politics of climate change, in an email to The Christian Science Monitor.

In a 2014 study, Dr. Zhou asked 470 conservatives to read messages calling for action on the issue. He framed some of these messages in terms of economic growth or national security, often considered top Republican priorities.

But it did little to change respondents' minds. When asked to look at information that clashed with their political beliefs, the study's subjects were even more opposed to action on climate change. That response isn't unique to the issue, or the party, Zhou says: "It's just a natural reaction – people want to justify and defend their identities."

But in the story of Georgetown, Texas, Zhou sees a way out: Shift the focus from the problem to the solution. “Climate change is an extremely polarized issue on partisan and ideological lines, but renewable energy has mostly escaped that fate so far in public opinion,” he says, pointing to a recent Pew survey which found that conservative Republicans backed solar and wind expansion more than coal or fracking.

This seems to be the case in Georgetown. The city of 55,000 sits in Williamson County, where The New York Times reported that 51.9 percent of voters chose Mr. Trump, who has repeatedly dismissed climate change as a “hoax.”

The Austin suburb's decision to secure its power from wind and solar farms proved cheaper than non-renewable options. “We didn’t do this to save the world,” Jim Briggs, now the assistant city manager and general manager of utilities, told The Guardian in 2015. “We did this to get a competitive rate and reduce the risk for our consumers.”

Such a move may make business sense in sun-drenched, wind-swept Texas, which saw a wind energy boom under Gov. Rick Perry, Trump's nominee for Energy secretary. But the math may not work elsewhere. Many economists agree that a tax on carbon will be necessary to make wind and solar energy competitive with fossil fuels.

While Gore has called for such a tax, Zhou doubts whether "An Inconvenient Sequel" will resonate with right-wing viewers. "I'm not sure how many Republicans will watch the film to begin with," he tells the Monitor. "Al Gore is quite a polarizing figure for many Republicans, especially on environmental issues. It is possible that seeing a film where Al Gore publicly champions renewable energy might cause Republican audiences to sour on renewables."

But some conservatives hope to phrase the film’s message in terms acceptable to their party. RepublicEn.org, founded by former South Carolina Congressman Bob Inglis, aims to gain Republican support for a tax on carbon pollution, to be offset by tax cuts elsewhere.

Mr. Inglis declined to comment on Gore’s new film, but has previously written that Trump and the GOP-dominated Congress might be amenable to his solution. “They’re looking for a climate solution that fits with their values and that’s consistent with savvy business practices,” he wrote in a December Inhabit column for the Monitor. “Richard Nixon went to China. Bill Clinton signed welfare reform. Maybe Donald Trump can do climate change.”

Facing an administration that prides itself on its business acumen, environmental advocates will need to show that a carbon tax will still mark a dollars-and-cents gain over continued reliance on fossil fuels.

That could be the key to a deal on alternative energy. As Zhou puts it, “if an individual does not believe that climate change exists or is a problem worth addressing, he or she is not going to want to act on climate change." But wind and solar, he points out, could drive innovation, support local jobs, and bring a host of other economic gains. "If an individual cares about all these other things, the renewable energy [option] might seem like an attractive choice.”

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