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Science & the Political Dimension

Al Gore is not giving up

An interview by Darren Samuelsohn

"This is the challenge of our time. We have to solve this. And we can solve it. And it will be solved. The only question is: How long will it take us to get past that political and social tipping point? Not long...because no lie can live forever."


Darren Samuelson: On climate change, scientific warnings continue to build. Is it at this point too late to turn the tide?
Al Gore: No, not at all. But let’s define the terms you use in your question. No one should suffer the illusion that we’re capable now of stopping all of the impacts. Some impacts will unfold no matter what we do. And we’ll have to do our best to adapt to them. And some impacts will continue to occur for a long time into the future. However, the truly catastrophic impacts can still be avoided in the view of most scientists. There are a few who have a darker view, but the ones I believe are worthy of the most attention and respect almost all say, “Yes, we still have time to avoid the catastrophic consequences.”
Now, that invites a definition of catastrophic. What’s already been happening? Super Typhoon Haiyan, when it came across the Pacific headed to the Philippines, it was more than 3 degrees Celsius warmer than normal in the Pacific. When Sandy came across the areas of the Atlantic just windward from Manhattan and New Jersey, it was 9 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than normal. So those are catastrophic impacts, but we’re talking about a different scale of impacts here. Crop failures in many of the most important growing regions. Hundreds of millions of climate refugees.

Most of those impacts can still be avoided. But we need to move quickly, because as you know we’re still putting 90 million tons a day into the atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer. Some of that will stay there for 10,000 years. … So the sooner we get started the better. And yes, once we reach the political tipping point and there’s a shared resolve to do something about it, and we will reach it, then yes we can make an enormous difference and we can start the recovery.

DS: Define the political tipping point. Is that a moment in American politics?
AG: Every issue is paralyzed now because our democracy has been hacked and we’re suffering from what some have called demosclerosis.Big money is now at toxic levels. I don’t have to tell somebody from Politico that. And that’s too bad, but even in the U.S. it will come. There are encouraging signs that China is turning the corner now. All over the world there’s a growing chorus of people demanding action.

There are really two game changers that people have been underestimating for the last couple of years. And each of these game changers addresses respectively one of the two big questions that have to be answered. When you look at the climate crisis and the response of human civilization to it, there are really two questions. One is: “Do we have to make this change? We get 85 percent of our energy from carbon fuels. It’s been a long good run. Do we really have to do this?” And the second question is: “Can we do it?”

The game changer for the first question is the extreme weather events related to climate that are now 100 times more common than they were just 30 years ago. This is having a huge impact. And they’re getting more frequent. More common. Bigger. More destructive. And people are looking at their hole cards. The extreme weather events and the knock-on effects with the stronger ocean-based storms, the bigger downpours, more floods, mudslides, the saturation of that hillside in Snohomish County, for example – these things are way more common now, because the extremes are more extreme and they are more frequent.

This is all over the world. In the Philippines, there were four million homeless refugees and still are. That’s twice as many as the Indian Ocean tsunami. The Philippines has always been hit hard by typhoons, but this is something different and the warmer ocean is connected to it. And all over the world, people are saying, “Whoa, this is getting pretty crazy.” So the first question increasingly is being answered, “Yes, we do have to solve this.”

Now here’s the second game changer: Can we do it? The cost-down curve for photovoltaic electricity, and to a lesser extent wind electricity, even to a greater extent efficiency technologies and adaptations, is pushing alternative sources of energy below the grid-average price in country after country. There are now, as of [the first quarter of 2014], 79 countries where the price of photovoltaic electricity is equal to or less than the grid average price. Now I don’t care what the carbon polluter lobby says or does, or what the anti-statist right-wing ideological groups do or say; there’s just a very big difference between cheaper than and more expensive than. This is coming on so strongly. … We’re seeing a quiet largely invisible but unstoppable revolution in the shift toward renewable energy.

So these two things together bring me back to your original question about the political tipping point. When enough people agree, “Yeah, we’ve got to have action, and our elected officials have to act” and have the conviction that it’s not hopeless – yes we can do this, let’s get busy and do it. That’s when it’s going to happen. It is already. The tipping point has already been reached in a lot of places.

DS: During the “24-hour project” [a Gore-led October 2013 effort to raise awareness about climate change], there were a lot of critics who said it didn’t get the right message out, that you weren’t the best messenger, either. There was one response in particular that summed it up that came from Mike Shanahan, from the International Institute for Environment and Development: “Climate change needs a Gandhi or a Martin Luther King or a Mandela and Al Gore is none of those.” What do you say when critics note that Al Gore as a person polarizes half the country; you need someone different to lead the cause?
AG: It’s not about me. And I’ve never tried to make it about me. And far be it from me to disagree with someone who says I’m not Gandhi or Martin Luther King Jr. or Nelson Mandela. I have to plead guilty to that charge. I wish that I had the greatness of those three men. But I’m enough of a student of history to know that Martin Luther King Jr., to pick one example, was considered extremely polarizing and was by many hated and despised. And in the South it was not uncommon to hear people trying to appear reasonable on civil rights but nevertheless digging their heels in, who’d say, “Well, if King would just get out of the way this would just happen.” I think that whoever puts his head up above the trenches and says, “We’ve got to do this” is going to attract the ire of people who don’t want to do it. And there are plenty of them.

The partisanship that characterizes opinion polls on climate in the U.S. now is relatively new, and it has been intentionally created. You know, after I left the White House and started my NGO, I had an equal number of Republicans and Democrats on the board. I ran advertisements with Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson and other Republicans. Even now, I have Republicans that I have featured in the latest version of the slide show I give.

DS: Sen. John McCain supported cap and trade but backed away from it when President Obama was elected. He had his primary that he was thinking about in 2010.
AG: Hello! The Koch brothers and the others who operate the way they do have worked overtime to put fear in the hearts of Republicans that if they as much as breathe a favorable breath about solving the climate crisis they’re going to get a well-financed primary opponent. And so they’re all running scared. And this is part of the hacking of American democracy. Money. Big money has paralyzed American democracy to a shocking extent. Now it can change. And it will change.

DS: Do you regret not swinging on climate during the debates against Bush in 2000?
AG: Well, I did make quite a few speeches and try to make that issue. But the coverage of that issue has also been a problem, for reasons that are not entirely disconnected.

Here’s an analogy. You think of a family of an alcoholic father who flies into a rage every time the word alcohol is mentioned. Well, the rest of the family sometimes learns to never mention the gorilla in the middle of the room in order to avoid the rage. Well, that is what happens to some in the news media. … they get told by the conglomerate owners and managers hitting the bottom line: Our ratings go down if you make this percentage of people so angry that they switch the channel.

I don’t pretend to understand all of it, but I know that virtually every news and political talk show on television across the dial, one of the three largest advertisers is the American Petroleum Institute, the coal industry, the oil industry, the oil companies, the gas companies. It’s not uncommon to say, “Look I don’t want my ad to be adjacent to a story about the following list of issues.” In any case, there’s been an issue of coverage. I think that’s changing now a little bit, thankfully.

But anyway, the point I was trying to make is, I didn’t polarize it. When I started my efforts after the White House, I had Republicans joining with me to do it, and then there was a new orthodoxy enforced in the Republican Party. A law was laid down: You cannot admit that there is such a thing as man-made global warming and expect to survive in the Republican Party.

→ On his relationship with President Obama

DS: Obama gave a speech last summer on climate that put this front and center.
AG: Terrific speech. Terrific speech.
DS: Is he doing everything he can now?
AG: I have a huge amount of respect for President Obama. I also have a pretty good understanding of the obstacles that he faces. I’d say that his election night speech in November of 2012, and his inaugural address and his State of the Union address that year and his speech last June, you take those four together that’s a very, those were very powerful statements. The addition of John Podesta to the West Wing staff has made a difference. The priority being placed by Secretary Kerry on climate is quite impressive. The activities of the EPA head Gina McCarthy are very impressive. None of this would be happening without a continuing focus by President Obama on this issue.

Would I like to see more? Of course I would like to see more. Of course. But I have noticed a significant difference in the first year of his second term. A significant difference. Not all of it is headline material, highly visible. But at all levels I see a significant difference. I think he’s really trying hard.

DS: There’s a million different ways to ask you the 2016 question. If Hillary [Clinton] doesn’t run, would you even consider it at that point in time?
AG: You say you can ask the question a million ways. I’m going to only answer it one way. With apologies, I’m sure you’ve heard this answer before. I am a recovering politician. And the longer I avoid a relapse the more confidence that I will not succumb to the temptation to run yet again. But I’m a recovering politician. I’ll just leave it at that.

→ On being Al Gore

DS: So you’ve gone vegan?
AG: I decided a year ago January 1 to try that out just to see what it was like. And I was pleasantly surprised. I felt better. I felt healthier. And decided to stay with it. It’s not more complicated than that.
DS: What kind of car do you drive these days?
AG: I own a Prius. I own a Lexus hybrid. And I want one of those Teslas, but I don’t have room in my garage for it. I think that’s a very cool car.
DS: What do you do for fun?
AG: Hiking. Movies. I have a solar-powered houseboat up on the lake.
DS: You have more to say on climate? Another film?
AG: Let me answer both parts of the question separately. Do I have more to say on climate? Yes, I do. As the evidence not only gets even stronger, but as the picture resolves into a finer-grain image of regional impacts and better understandings of exactly how the water cycle is being disrupted, for example, then yes, I and others have a lot more to say about this.

This is the challenge of our time. We have to solve this. We have to solve it. And we can solve it. And it will be solved. We’re going to solve this. The only question is: How long will it take us to get past that political and social tipping point? We’re getting there. Forty-nine years ago, after the march from Selma to the Pettus Bridge in Montgomery, Martin Luther King Jr. made a famous speech in which he said, “How long? Not long. Because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long. Because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” That’s where we are on the climate crisis. How long will it take us to get to the point where we really start solving it? Not long.

DS: So you see climate change reaching a tipping point like civil rights or gay rights?
AG: Absolutely. No question about it. … What all three causes have in common is that ultimately, when any question is resolved into a choice between what’s clearly right and what’s clearly wrong, the outcome is foreordained, just because of who we are as human beings. And most of the effort by the climate deniers has been to delay the arrival of that binary choice. To cloud the issue. To create false doubt. To sow confusion. Just like the tobacco industry did in hopes that they can delay the clarity of the choice. It’s clearly wrong to do what we’re doing. It’s clearly right to change. We will change. It’s just a matter of time. And again, how long? Not long.

◊ Darren Samuelsohn is a senior policy reporter for Politico who has covered climate change for 14 years. Publ. here 4.5.2014

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