Climate Change and Humor? Revisiting Al Gore's Documentary "an Inconvenient Truth"

Sunday, 10 July 2016: 11:00
Location: Hörsaal 41 (Main Building)
Oral Presentation
Dominik SCHREIBER, University of Mannheim, Germany
Since its very beginnings, western discourse on anthropogenic climate change has had a strong preference for apocalyptical narratives. Nothing less than the destruction of our environment and the end of the world have been imagined over and over again. The rhetorical strategy behind these narratives was, to put it simply: scare to initiate action. But recently it has been realized that the strategy of fear does not work, yet arouses counterproductive effects such as fatalism, neglect, or even denial. There are growing signs that, as a reaction to this, a paradigm shift is taking place. Terrifying narratives such as the opening video for the climate summit 2009 in Copenhagen are being replaced by a new humorous approach. One recent example could be the 2014 video campaign ‘Zusammen ist es Klimaschutz’ (‘Together we can achieve climate protection’) by the German Federal Environment Ministry, in which a teenager catches her parents literally with their pants down.

In my presentation, I will scrutinize this paradigm shift by focusing on a crucial turning point in climate discourse, that is Davis Guggenheim’s groundbreaking documentary ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ (2006), starring Al Gore. Due to its huge impact on the public sphere worldwide, ‘AIT’ has also attracted the attention of academia and especially discourse analysis. Nearly unanimous, researchers attested that the documentary applies the aforementioned rhetoric of apocalypse, combined with Gore’s act of self-staging (Bergin 2009; Rosteck/Frentz 2009; Smith/Howe 2015; or at least ‘tempered’ apocalypse Johnson 2009). However, it has been totally overlooked that ‘AIT’ seems to employ humor in many ways, too. For instance, the film engages self-irony, funny cartoon elements, and a wry critique of climate skepticism and the American car industry. Considering all this, AIT can be understood as a pivotal point, boosting the acceptance of humor as an appropriate rhetoric of climate discourse.