Al Gore: ‘We Are in the Early Stages of a Sustainability Revolution’

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Photo: Valerie Macon/AFP/Getty Images

In the immediate aftermath of the 2000 election, Al Gore was often said to have retreated from the public spotlight. But, a decade and a half in, his has been a relentlessly active post-political life, as he’s become the face of climate activism in the United States and abroad. On Tuesday night, after a screening of his new documentary An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power — directed by Bonni Cohen and Jonathan Shenk, it adds to the case for urgent action advanced in the landmark 2006 An Inconvenient Truth and also vividly documents the frantic negotiations over the Paris climate accord, in which Gore played a pivotal role — the former vice-president spoke with me about his own climate optimism, extreme weather in the age of global warming, and what he calls the “democracy crisis” in America —including just how worried he is about the current president. This is a transcript of that conversation.

Thanks everybody for coming. So you know who I am, I’m David Wallace-Wells, I’m with New York Magazine and I’m completely honored and thrilled to be here speaking with you about this incredible movie. 
David Wallace-Wells wrote the amazing cover story for New York Magazine on the climate crisis, the most-read story in the history of New York Magazine just a couple of weeks ago, congratulations.

It’s interesting, that story was a tour of worst-case situations, and I wanted to ask you, in light of this movie, to talk a little bit about your optimism. We’re in a kind of interesting moment with climate, where there are reasons for despair and there are reasons for hope. I wondered if you could talk a little bit about how you balance that information and come out optimistic.
Well, thank you so much David, I really admired the article you wrote, took note of some of the snipes and critiques, and I agreed with some of the climate writers that I most respect, like David Roberts and Joe Romm, who said, good for David Wallace-Wells, it’s a real wake-up call. We need to be aware of how things could go really badly wrong. I want to, before I answer your question, I want to acknowledge the three people here who are loves in my life more than words can say. My daughter Karenna Gore and my granddaughter Anna Schiff and my grandson Oscar Schiff.

Anybody who works on the climate crisis has to deal with an internal struggle between hope and despair. I have been dealing with this, with escalating degrees of involvement, for 40 years now, and in the policy realm for 25 years. And actually there are two big changes since the first movie that I was involved with came out a decade ago. One is, the climate-related extreme weather events are, unfortunately, becoming a lot more serious and destructive and a lot more common. Superstorm Sandy was one of the ones that we saw on the screen here and that some of you lived through. But the other big change is that we have solutions now that are not simply visible on the horizon as they were a decade ago, when you had to rely on the technology experts to assure you that they were coming, they’ll be here, just wait. But now, they’re popping out all over the place.

My hope comes from two sources. Number one, there is a growing awareness of how serious this is — Mother Nature’s had the most persuasive voice because of change number-one that I mentioned. But the second source is that these new technologies, like ultracheap electricity from solar and wind, now electric cars are coming down very quickly, and batteries are coming down very quickly. The addition of batteries to renewable energy sources will be a complete game changer because you can use solar electricity at night and wind electricity during the day — a lot of that usually comes at night. I believe that we are in the early stages of a sustainability revolution in the world powered by new digital tools, the Internet of Things, and machine intelligence that extends our power to manage molecules and atoms the way we’ve managed bits of information. And it’s opening up a lot of possibilities.

Now, that hope is premised on the assumption that the growing awareness will lead to the emergence of more political will and the adoption of these new solutions in order to solve this crisis in time to avoid the worst-case outcomes that you said in your article could be mitigated and dampened by an awareness that leads to a political awakening. An economist who I knew who’s deceased now, his name was Rudi Dornbusch, he once said things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you thought they could. And I’ve seen that in the technology areas with these exponential curves. I’ve seen it in political and social revolutions. I’ll just use one quick example. If somebody had told me even five years ago that in 2017, gay marriage would be fully legal in all 50 states and accepted and honored and celebrated by two-thirds of the American people, I would’ve said well I sure hope so, but I think that’s wildly unrealistic, you’re being naïve. Change can’t happen that quickly. But it did. Nelson Mandela once said during the anti-apartheid movement, it’s always impossible until it’s done. And so the hope is partly an act of will but it is mainly a hopeful projection of the trends that I see underway, including the Paris agreement — which was a huge historic breakthrough that not only bound virtually every country in the world to these reductions, but in many ways, more importantly, sent a powerful signal to investors and business and industry.

We’re seeing big shifts around the world. Just last month, two months ago, India announced that within only 13 years, 100 percent of their new cars and trucks were going to have to be electric vehicles. That’s faster than we’re moving in the United States. And so there are a lot of things like that that give me hope.

In the movie, I think you mentioned that we’re not just dealing with a climate crisis, we’re dealing with a sort of political crisis as well. And one of the ways in which the current moment seems to me different than the gay-marriage movement, for instance, is there are some very serious forces in American politics that are opposed to the kind of progress that you and I and probably everyone in this room are looking for. How do we deal with that gridlock and how do we make sure that the progress that’s necessary can take place?
Our democracy has been hacked by big money — before Putin hacked our democracy. The big lobbyists and campaign contributors and special interests occupy way too big a role in determining the decisions that are supposed to be made by the elected representatives of the people, of, by, and for the people, and that’s a serious problem. I’ve watched it happen in my lifetime; I went to Congress in the mid-’70s, I didn’t have a single fundraiser; by eight years later, fundraising was really a dominant activity in campaigns, and what happened in the interim is that the 30-second TV ads became the currency of politics and determined the outcome of most races. So today, the average member of Congress spends, on average, four to five hours every single day begging special interests and lobbyists and wealthy people for money to pile up for their next campaign so they can buy more TV ads than the other candidates, and too often that actually does determine the outcome. So, human nature being what it is, these members of Congress naturally begin to think more of the impact of their words and deeds on the following day’s telephone calls than they do on the impact of legislation on their constituents. And that has really distorted and warped our politics. And when you add in the redistricting — the shaping of congressional districts to be always dominated by one party and never even think about appealing to the middle or independents between Democrats and Republicans because all they’re worried about is getting a primary challenge, in the case of Republicans, from somebody from the tea party or somebody from the far right that’s financed by these special interests. And they know that the choice is up to them. If they toe the line and do what the special interests do what they want them to do, they’re safe. If they don’t, the special interests will just give all this money to their challengers in the primary and so they get scared, and in service of their political survival, they just do whatever the lobbyists tell them to do.

Now there is hope there. If indeed it was mainly the dominance of television over the previous print medium that was in existence when our Constitution was written that gave individuals the ability to enter the public forum and use ideas and knowledge as a source of power versus money, then television changed that. But now, with internet-based media — including social media, with all of the problems, and there are serious problems there that we need to really do a lot of hard work in — we now see the emergence of new possibilities for individuals who can once again use the power of ideas and the best available evidence and logic and reason to appeal to others who might share their points of view and ideas and then use that as an alternative to wealth as a source of power. Take the Bernie Sanders campaign.

Whether you agree with his agenda or not, I admired the fact that he proved you can now run a credible campaign and potentially a winning campaign by not taking any special-interest or lobby money but instead just relying on small donations from individuals over the internet. I hope that’s the future of our politics. If it is, we have a chance to rekindle the spirit of America and reinvigorate our democracy.

I think it’s important to distinguish between the worldview of our leaders and the worldview of the people who elected them. The story in the movie with the mayor of the town in Texas, I mean there are huge numbers of conservatives who are quite open to a lot of policy initiatives and are taking action on their own.

But I’m also interested to hear you talk about geopolitics. You talked a little bit about our domestic issues, but obviously China and India in particular are hugely important going forward and we’ll need to have some kind of global cooperation to really tackle this issue in a way that is necessary. Watching you in the movie negotiate or help negotiate the Paris deal was hugely eye-opening to me because it was just a reminder of how even when we talk about nations getting together it is really about people in a room talking. I worry sometimes that there are not enough of those gatherings, not enough of those interfaces. We’re living in a world now where there are more walls being built than ever before, people are skeptical of globalization and any kind of global alliance. But obviously as someone who helped bring the Paris agreement together, you saw the other side of that. 
Yeah, when we face a common threat it’s easier to get unity of purpose. But it is tough, and of course we’re going through tough times in our democracy now. I don’t want to get sidetracked into that …

Please. 

I know there are probably some people here who supported Trump, maybe still support Trump, and I want to be respectful of that.

[Laughter.]

But I’m worried. And I think that it’s likely that the next few months are going to be very challenging for our country. Some of us feel like we’ve seen a movie like what’s going on in the White House now once before, and I think this investigation by the independent counsel may have its own rhythm underneath the news cycle, from the chatter of the commentators in public view, and may yet lead to a result that will be challenging for us as a nation. But, I mean, this experiment’s only six months old now, and some experiments are terminated early for ethical reasons.

[Laughter, cheering.]

Believe me, I have absolutely no inside information at all, but it is challenging. But aside from what’s going on in the White House right now and what the Trump administration is doing, on a global basis, there is now much more unity of purpose in confronting the climate crisis, and it is increasingly powered by the availability of clean alternatives to fossil fuel. I love your phrase in your magazine article, fossil capitalism, and I don’t know if you invented that …

I stole it. 

You stole it, okay. You gave credit the first time, that’s the practice these days, but thank you. It’s a compelling phrase.

When the cost of renewable energy is lower than the cost of fossil energy, then that creates a whole new reality, and crossing that line between more expensive than and cheaper than is like crossing the line between 33 degrees and 32 degrees. It’s more than one degree, it’s the difference between ice and water. And in markets, it’s the difference between markets that are frozen up as they were for renewable energy, and liquid flows of capital into exploiting the new opportunities that are available now. I use the analogy in the movie of cell phones, which really took off in the developing countries because they were able to leapfrog over the old landline technology. I don’t know if anybody here is the same, but I don’t even answer my landline anymore because nine times out of ten it’s a telemarketer or a recording and I long ago stopped shouting angrily at the recording. Who put me on your list? But anyway, they can skip all that by just going straight to cell phones and they have. And the landline electricity grids don’t exist in many parts of the developing countries. So they’re leapfrogging to the solar panels, and it’s really happening with dizzying speed. So that’s also driving investment by China and now India.
India’s created this international solar alliance to spread solar panels all over South Asia and Africa, they’re really aggressive now, as China is in Africa, so I do think that the unity of purpose in developing these solutions is stronger now than it’s ever been.

You mentioned the sort of dizzying speed of the technological change, which is mind-blowing — there’s also the speed of climate change. I think the stat is 50 percent of all of our emissions in human history have been in the last 30 years —which puts us back around the time when you were first running for president. And I wonder — obviously, you’ve been asked alternate-history questions many times before — but I wonder, are there any things that you think about from your time in the vice-presidency that you wish you had done more on, or options that we could have taken more aggressive action on that would have left us in a better place now, when we wouldn’t be as in crisis as we are? 
It’s a great question. I usually get too criticized for being way too aggressive in coming up with solutions that were very difficult to sell to the Congress, like the Kyoto agreement in 1997 — a time when the vast majority of global warming and pollution was still coming from the rich countries, and so it had to be designed in a way that had the rich countries take the first steps and have the developing countries come in in the second phase. And I was very aggressive in negotiating and agreeing to that, and then the Congress said no way and would not accept it. How would I have done that differently? I’m not really sure, I’d have to give some thought to that.

Do you think it was important that the emissions started to come from the developing world before there would be truly global action on it?
I think that the postcolonial mind-set in much of the developing world led to an international politics that was characterized by insistent demands by developing countries that the rich countries pay them before they would join in. And of course it’s easy to see the justice of those demands. But in a world already experiencing middle-income wage stagnation in the wealthy countries because globalization had a centrifugal force flinging jobs out to the lower-wage venues — there was already a growing anxiety in the U.S., at least, about jobs being lost to some of these developing countries that were paying very low wages and factories moving overseas, and the idea of sending tax dollars to those same countries played into their anger and anxiety about that. You know, middle-income wages in the U.S. have stagnated really since the mid-’70s, and it’s been masked by a lot of other improvements in the quality of life. We sometimes question whether there are improvements while looking at our smartphones all the time, but the late, great Neil Postman from this city wrote a fabulous book called Amusing Ourselves to Death — I think we have a fan of Neil Postman here! I had the privilege of knowing and working with him. He was wonderful; I don’t want to get sidetracked, but my point is that we didn’t really realize fully in the U.S. — because incomes among elites were rising rapidly — we didn’t fully realize the distress that was being felt by so many in the middle-income, lower-middle-income groups in this country, and the rise of inequality in incomes and net worths as technology has played a larger role in the production process. The three classic factors of production: land, labor, and capital, land being resources, labor, and capital. Capital, when it started to flow into increasingly efficacious forms of technology that substituted for labor, then all of a sudden, the returns from the production process went more and more to the providers of capital, so wages stagnated. It’s immensely complicated and it’s above my pay grade, but this was already underway in the late ’90s, and so the politics of a treaty that included transfers of wealth from the rich countries to the poor countries ran headlong into this political turbulence in the Congress.

Think we’re about out of time, but I just wanted to thank Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk for the movie …

The directors! Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk really get the credit for this movie.

David, it’s a privilege to be interviewed by you, and, ladies and gentlemen, I have one request before we leave. In this chaotic communications environment of today, the one thing that has the most influence on people is when they hear, by word of mouth or social media, that a movie is worth seeing. And this movie opens widely this Friday, and the more people who see it, the better chance we have to build this climate movement. One-hundred percent of the profits from the movie and the book, of the same title — comes out this week also — one-hundred percent of the profits go to training even more climate activists around this country and around the world. If you thought the movie was worthwhile and if you’re willing to do it, you can make a huge difference by recommending it to your friends, recommend that they learn what’s in the movie. Use your voice — in conversations on climate. Use your vote — become politically active, it’s really important. Use your choices and influence businesses to be even greener, much greener than they are now. Political will is a renewable resource. It’s up to all of us now to renew it. We owe it to our kids and grandkids and we owe it to ourselves to solve this climate crisis.

Al Gore: ‘We Are in the Early Stages of a Revolution’