Climate-change documentarians usually appeal to reason, rather than emotion, to examine the intricacies and catastrophes associated with the growing warmth of our planet. In An Inconvenient Truth, director Davis Guggenheim famously made a film out of a chart-heavy, touring slideshow; The 11th Hour, co-produced and narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio, featured no less than 50 experts. But blockbuster director James Cameron isn’t your typical environmental documentarian, and in a new short film directed especially for the Democratic National Convention, the director of Titanic, Avatar, and Alien characteristically taps into viewers’ fear instincts and tear ducts rather than their ability to read charts—an approach that, he said, is nevertheless informed by social science.
Cameron’s film, Not Reality TV, premiered tonight at the Convention following an introduction by fellow celebrity climate activist (and former Alien collaborator) Sigourney Weaver, the latest in a spate of liberal celebrity appearances at the convention. Still, it’s a curious setting for a Cameron premiere. When it comes to his longtime work advocating for clean energy and plant-based diets, the director has long preferred grassroots efforts to political hobnobbing. The Showtime series Years of Living Dangerously, which Cameron executive produces, focuses on climate-change solutions pioneered by regular people; his non-profit Avatar Alliance Foundation funds ocean-science and agricultural research among other activities.(He previously stated, indeed, that he doesn’t “have much faith in the political process.”)
But developments in the past year, Cameron said in a conference call, have indicated world leaders aren’t ignoring climate change—largely because, with a less skeptical public putting pressure on them to act, they can’t. “We’ve seen huge shifts in the public’s perception of this as a problem,” Cameron said, citing polls indicating that 70 percent of Americans believe in climate change, and that the number of conservative voters who believe in a warming planet has doubled in the last two years. “We’re seeing a bottom-up pressure for leadership to do something about it.”
The growing public consensus on global warming influenced the film’s artistic approach, which doesn’t spare any time laying out the scientific evidence with charts or graphs. “We all know it’s happening. It’s real. It’s happening now,” Weaver says in the film’s first few seconds, introducing an impressionistic montage of droughts, storms, floods, and fires. Weaver’s remarks are buttressed by statements from leaders like New York Governor Andrew Cuomo and Pope Francis, and even Republicans such as George H.W. Bush and a conservative Christian. “We wanted this to be emotional and have the impact of how this is affecting us now,” Cameron said. “It is partially a reach across party lines and partially calling bullshit on hypocrisy of people who know that this is a serious problem and refuse to do anything about it, or are actively putting the brakes on it.”
Naturally, the end of Cameron’s film puts in a plug for Hillary Clinton’s solution, featuring original audio of Clinton essentially re-phrasing elements of her climate-change platform that she’s stated before—promising to lead the installment of half a billion solar panels across the country during her first term, and fund enough renewable energy to power every home in America within the next 10 years. But it spends nearly as much time excerpting Donald Trump’s statements that climate change is a hoax: included is the Republican nominee’s statement that he will cancel the Paris Agreement, and a joke making light of global warming (“It’s freezing!”). This, too, is founded in demographic trends, Cameron said. A Yale University poll conducted in April found that registered voters are four times more likely to vote against a presidential candidate who opposes taking measures to stop climate change than to vote for them. “That information fed into our thinking on this clip,” Cameron said, “because if Trump is a declared denier, and he is, it’s unequivocal, then you’ve got some leverage for someone who might be a swing voter.” Pair that with the fact that three in four Americans believe in climate change, and Cameron believes he has a solid angle for “an attack” against Trump.
Can exposing Trump’s denialism work to turn voters against him? Likely not—though most of Trump’s voters believe in climate change, only 35 percent of them say they are worried about it. As for swing voters, climate change likely isn’t at the top of their list of concerns. The four top priorities for Democrats and Republicans are economy, terrorism, jobs, and health care, a Gallup poll found this year. Even if terrorism, economic depressions, and worsening public health have all been linked to climate change, these connections may be elusive to the average voter—and don’t get much air time in Cameron’s five-minute film.
Nevertheless, Cameron’s hopeful that his emotional appeal will connect with people of all political denominations. “I’ve seen it about 50 times now, but I still tear up when I see the poor woman in Staten Island whose daughter died in a storm flood from Hurricane Sandy,” he said. “I think people of compassion and people of conscience really, really need to take this challenge seriously.”
At least on an artistic level, this film is a convincing appeal to that audience — if anyone at the DNC this year has the background and skill set to make a crowd weep with him, it’s the director of Titanic.