Al Gore calls for faster action on climate change

Gore at the premiere of An Incovenient Sequel at the 13th Zurich Film Festival on 8 October 2017

It’s easy to feel pessimistic, but with his 2017 documentary "An Inconvenient Sequel", former US vice president Al Gore continues to rally the fight for the planet.

By Adele Peters

A decade after the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth made the threat of climate change real to millions of moviegoers, the film’s star, former US vice president Al Gore, continues to make it even more so. In An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, he shared an outlook that is both more dire and more optimistic. 2016 was the hottest year on record globally, according to independent anlayses by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in the US. Gore, however, believes the momentum for positive change has become unstoppable. 

“We will solve this crisis,” Gore says. “No doubt about it.”

Adele Peters: What made you want to make a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth?

Al Gore: Since we still have so much work to do, a lot of people over the past several years have asked me if I would be willing to make a sequel. I have to tell you that when the idea for the first movie was presented to me, over a decade ago, I was sceptical. I was consistent this time around and sceptical once more. I guess I was just worried because the first one was so well received. But I’m glad that wiser heads prevailed.

Peters: The movie balances a sense of urgency over the growing climate crisis with a great deal of hope. At one point, you visit a small, conservative town in Texas that’s now committed to being 100 per cent powered by renewable electricity.

Gore: That’s one of my favourite scenes. I think the achievements of Georgetown, Texas [outside Austin], are especially important. They demonstrate that all the wonderful work that has been done by innovators, by scientists, technologists, start-ups and CEOs has come together to produce a startling revolution in renewable energy, with solar and wind electricity now cheaper than electricity made from burning fossil fuels in many places.

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Georgetown, a very conservative community, took a close look at the economics of all the options available to them. Partly because they have a CPA (Certified Public Accountant) as the mayor, they made the bold decision to follow the economics and break free from the patterns of the past. They’re enjoying the benefits of that decision now.

Peters: Industry experts have argued that wind and solar power are now cheap enough that they will continue to grow regardless of what happens politically. Some corporations are also committing to ambitious climate action. How much do you think the business world can accomplish on its own without strong policy?

Gore: Many parts in the business world are way ahead of most of the political world, at least in the US. However, the pace of change can be profoundly accelerated with the right government policies. 

We [globally] are still putting 110 million tons of global-warming pollution into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours – treating it like an open sewer – and much of it will remain there for hundreds of years; some for thousands of years. If we don’t accelerate the pace of change, the damage done to the prospects for human civilisation would be quite severe. 

It is important that we have the right policies. For example, the subsidies around the world for the burning of fossil fuels are 40 times larger than the meagre subsidies for renewable energy.

Peters: You run an investment management firm that focuses on sustainability. How long do you think it will take for sustainability to be a standard consideration for all investment firms?

Gore: I think there is a big movement now that is gaining speed. When sustainability is integrated properly into the investment process, the evidence indicates that returns can improve. There is voluminous academic research now showing that in most sectors of the economy, companies that fully integrate sustainability into their business plans are outperforming their competitors. For example, it helps tremendously in recruiting and retaining the best employees, because people want to work for a firm that shares their values.

“[India’s] choices of energy sources to fuel that growth could make all the difference for the future of humanity.”

Peters: There’s a scene in the movie, filmed on 10 November 2016, where you call the result of the 2016 US presidential election a setback, and say that it’s one of a long line of setbacks in addressing climate change. How much damage do you think the Trump administration could do, or how much has it possibly already done? [In June 2017, US President Donald Trump announced the US would pull out of the Paris climate agreement.]

Gore: It’s difficult to predict. Some of their early policy decisions have, of course, been discouraging, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of what happened in Paris, in December 2015, when every nation in the world, save a few exceptions, agreed to go to net zero greenhouse emissions early in the second half of this century. Because that sent a signal to businesses, investors, and local and national governments everywhere. And that signal has been received. The pace of change has accelerated dramatically. 

Peters: An Inconvenient Sequel shows you behind the scenes at the Paris conference, and how you convinced SolarCity [a Tesla subsidiary that makes solar panels] to donate some of its technology to India to address concerns India had about the cost of renewables. Why was it so critical to get India on board and how important was that donation in actually making the Paris agreement happen?

Gore: According to the environment minister of India, and the US participants in that tough negotiation, it helped get [India] across the line and withdraw their objections to having a strong treaty. I give tremendous credit to Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive and the leaders of SolarCity, and to Elon Musk, who chairs the SolarCity board. After only 24 hours of thinking it over, they agreed to do it. 

The Indians were the real key to the agreement because, unlike China, they had not yet resolved in their own minds the risk/benefit equation for joining the world’s sustainability revolution. 

As you know, India is almost as populous as China now, and will shortly overtake China as the largest nation on earth. And even though India’s economy is much, much smaller than China’s economy, they are growing faster than China, and their choices of energy sources to fuel that growth could make all the difference for the future of humanity.

Al Gore has advocated for a revenue-neutral carbon tax since the late 1980s, but now supports a cap-and-trade system

Peters: Going back to the US, do you think there’s a chance of a carbon tax happening?

Gore: I hope so. I’ve advocated a revenue-neutral CO2 tax since the late 1980s, and I included it in my first book on climate, Earth in the Balance. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate the durability of the resistance to a CO2 tax. And along with others, I came to support an alternative, the so-called cap-and-trade system, which had been dramatically successful in removing sulphur dioxide from power-plant emissions and helping to mitigate the acid rain problem [in the US]. 

I still prefer the CO2 tax. Even China; China changed its whole approach to the climate crisis partly because they have to deal with the co-pollutant air pollution that’s making their cities unlivable. They tried to build support for a CO2 tax in China and they defaulted to the cap-and-trade system that they are implementing nationwide [in 2017]. So one way or another, either directly or indirectly, we have to put a price on carbon pollution, and accelerate the reduction of these emissions, in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

Peters: Do you think that we can restore political discourse quickly enough to address what needs to happen regarding climate change?

Gore: I sure hope so. I see that happening now. I’m very fond of the wisdom expressed by the late economist Rudi Dornbusch, who I had the privilege of working with. He once said that things take longer to happen than you think they will. But then they happen much faster than you thought they ever could. And I see that pattern taking place in America today. 

I’ll give you an example. If someone had said to me even five years ago that gay marriage would be legal everywhere in the US and would be supported and celebrated by the overwhelming majority of the American people, I would have said well, I sure hope so, but I’m just not sure if that’s realistic. But that has happened. 

It’s not only technological revolutions that often will follow that exponential pattern, social revolutions do as well. The civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the abolition movement long before, the anti-apartheid movement and, as I’ve just mentioned, the gay rights movement. All of these revolutions seemed at times almost hopeless to many of the advocates. But once the underbrush was cleared away, and the ultimate choice was resolved into a binary decision between what’s right and what’s wrong, then it began to happen with lightning speed. And I think that’s where the climate movement is right now. We are right at that inflection point.

Peters: Climate change is a topic you’ve been talking about for years. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message?

“Gandhi’s view was that truth has a force in human affairs and … it can be the most powerful force for changing things for the good.”

Gore: Among the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of conveying realistic hope. Because despair can be paralysing, and the fear of these consequences is not necessarily the most effective way to change minds and motivate people. But when you can convey hope in a realistic way, that unlocks a higher fraction of the potential for change.

Peters: What impact do you hope that the movie can have on our current trajectory?

Gore: My greatest hope is it will significantly increase the number of people who make this challenge a personal priority. And communicate that commitment to solving the climate crisis in their personal circle of friends and acquaintances, in their businesses and social networks, and then the political system. And that they do so as market participants as well. When enough people express that commitment in all those ways, we will solve this crisis, no doubt about it.

Peters: What does “speak truth to power” mean to you?

Gore: It means using facts – as defined by the best available evidence and a deeply felt conviction about what’s more likely to be true than not – as the basis for demands expressed to those in political power and those in power in the marketplace as well. Midway through the last century, Mahatma Gandhi spoke about what he called a truth force. The word he used in Sanskrit is satyagraha. Gandhi’s view was that truth has a force in human affairs and, when it is passionately expressed, it can be the most powerful force for changing things for the good.

FAST FACTS ON AL GORE

Current roles: Co-founder and chair of Generation Investment Management; partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; founder and board member of The Climate Reality Project; board member at Apple

Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University; studied philosophy and law at Vanderbilt University

Previous jobs: Former vice president of the US and congressman from Tennessee; founder of the former Current TV network, which sold for a reported US$500 million in 2013

Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007; Primetime Emmy Award for Current TV in 2007; star of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2007

This article is used with permission of Fast Company. Copyright © 2017. All rights reserved.

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