Yes, we’re branching out. Inspired by the success of ‘Building buys a pint’, we took a group from consultant WSP to see Al Gore’s eco-documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Lydia Stockdale forked out for the Butterkist …

Ever eager to be of service to the construction industry, Building decided to give a group from consultant WSP a break from the office and take them to the cinema.

With sustainability high on the industry’s agenda, we wondered what they would think of An Inconvenient Truth, the film documenting the crusade of former US vice-president Al Gore to challenge the myths surrounding climate change and to halt the progression of global warming.

After sitting through the 100-minute movie, the team settles in the cinema bar. There are some general mutterings of approval until Azra Hussain, personal assistant to Kamran Moazami, WSP’s UK managing director of high-rise buildings, admits she was sceptical about Gore’s motivation. “When it started, I wasn’t quite sure whether to believe him because he’s a politician,” she says.

The film opens with Gore introducing himself to a live audience. “My name’s Al Gore. I used to be the next president of the United States of America,” he says, with heavy irony that sends a knowing laugh around the cinema.

Since his controversial defeat by George W Bush in the 2000 election, Gore has dedicated himself to delivering a slide-show revealing what he says is the truth about climate change to audiences around the world. He has given the lecture more than 1000 times. Director Davis Guggenheim’s movie shows it from beginning to end, interspersed with segments seeking to clarify why and when the son of a tobacco farmer decided to save the planet.

“I thought, is he really serious about the environment, or is he just trying to get back at the Bush administration?” says Azra. “That was there, but it was very subtle and cleverly done. He never actually comes out and says: ‘If I’d been president, I’d have made a difference’.”

Stuart Alexander, WSP’s group technical co-ordinator, believes Gore’s political past was an asset – it made the film more watchable: “You can tell he’s a politician. He’s a very good lecturer.” He complained, though, about the focus on the former vice-president’s personal history. “There was too much of him. If you had to lose 20% of the film, 19% would have been the personal things. It wasn’t really necessary.”

Al Gore

Raul Maura, energy director and the environmental expert of the group, admits he was “pleasantly surprised” by Gore’s grasp of the subject. The lecture, he says, was a sound reflection of the facts. Azra insists there were details missing, however. “I’d have been interested to know how he’s changed his life to help the environment,” she says.

“It didn’t touch on that at all.”

The youngest member of the group, graduate engineer Madhumita Nag, has been quiet until this point, but now she pipes up with a comment that strikes a chord with the others.

“It wasn’t very well balanced,” she declares. “Almost the entire film was saying: ‘Yes, we’ve got a problem’, but it took too long to explain what can be done to solve it. “

Azra nods furiously. “You’re right! How many people are going to sit there until those tips come across the screen during the credits, saying ‘Do this’, ‘Do that’? I never usually stay for the credits.”

Raul adds: “It’s okay for us because we know those things already, but viewers in the US are more likely not to.”

“The best thing about that film was that it demonstrates that Americans are, at long last, becoming aware,’ says Stuart. ‘I think you have to accept it was made for a US audience.”

“How many Republicans would watch that film?” Azra wonders. “They wouldn’t watch it out of principle because it’s Al Gore.”

During the film, Gore breaks down the myths surrounding climate change and describes how some American officials have tried to cover up scientific discoveries proving global warming.

Raul is inspired: “It’s an excuse, saying sustainability is a burden on the economy. Politicians think in terms of the length of their mandate. If it’s not happening in the next four or six years, they won’t do it. Sustainability takes a long time.”

The conversation turns to what WSP as a company does to promote sustainability.

Left to right: Raul, Azra, Madhumita and Stuart
Left to right: Raul, Azra, Madhumita and Stuart

“Maybe people in the construction industry should be made to see this film,” says Raul. “It contributes as much as 40% to 50% of energy used – that includes sourcing and so on.”

“The actual construction contributes 10%,” adds Madhumita, her civil engineering studies obviously still fresh in her mind.

Now things start getting technical. “Most of the graphs Gore used were pretty rigorous, but the solutions were not as simplistic as he pointed out,” says Stuart as he takes out a notepad and pen and demonstrates to the group how one of the graphs featured in the film should have looked.

Madhumita complains that most of the diagrams Gore used lacked reference points. “The main graph he used showed a general trend up, but it didn’t have a single number or unit on there, so you don’t know whether it’s going up a lot or just a little bit. He could make it as steep as he wanted.”

As the conversation comes to a close, the WSP team agrees the film was too long. “There was a point when I started to nod off,” recalls Azra. “I didn’t want to do that, because I was genuinely interested in the movie.

But I wasn’t able to apply it to my daily life and it makes me wonder how long I’ll remember it all.”

Despite their reservations, the group all agree that they are happy Building took them to the cinema and admit they would not have gone out of their way to see it otherwise.

As they put on their coats to head out into the rain, Madhumita launches into a monologue about some of the points raised earlier. She disagrees with the others’ assumption that the Americans are less aware than Europeans – she studied for a year at MIT in Massachusetts and says she learned most about sustainability there.

She also has more time for the biographical aspects of the film. “I actually liked the bits with Al Gore. I think the personal stuff showed you why he was doing it,” she declares. “Like the part about his son nearly dying, people can relate to that. It’s at a time like that you’d make a conscious decision to do something.”

Figures of fear

Among his evidence that climate change is real, Gore cites the fact that the number of category 4 and 5 hurricanes has almost doubled in the past 30 years and that the flow of ice from glaciers in Greenland has more than doubled over the past decade.

He warns of catastrophe if the situation continues: deaths from global warming will double in just 25 years to 300,000 people a year, sea levels could rise by more than 20ft and more than a million species could be driven to extinction by 2050.

“It is now clear that we face a deepening global climate crisis that requires us to act boldly, quickly, and wisely,” says Gore. “We have a moral obligation to solve this problem. The time to come together to solve it is now.”

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