Al Gore: 'The Revolution Is Beginning'

Al Gore is building a mass political movement to stop global warming. But can he stop the clock?

al gore climate revolution
Illustration by Tim O'Brien
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As the world heats up, so does Al Gore. Every melting glacier, every catastrophic storm, every record-breaking hot spell is a planetary-scale endorsement of his belief that tackling global warming is the biggest challenge of our time. Gore may not have announced his candidacy for president – not yet, anyway – but he is already running one of the most aggressive campaigns in American history. His Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, brought the harsh facts of the climate crisis to millions of people around the world. He's in the midst of an intensive tour to promote his new book, The Assault on Reason, which savages the Bush administration for its deceitful war in Iraq, its illegal wiretapping and its reckless refusal to take action on climate change. And he's gearing up for Live Earth, the global rock concert he has orchestrated for July 7th.

Gore understands that confronting the climate crisis will require not just new kinds of technology but a new kind of politics. In a sense, he is following a path blazed by filmmaker Michael Moore, using his own presence and political outrage to focus public attention on a broader cause. In the two years since he wrote "The Time to Act Is Now," the introduction to the special issue on global warming we published in 2005, Gore has not only shifted the national debate on planet-warming pollution, he has found his true voice – at once reasoned and impassioned, urgent and optimistic. At the end of May, he sat down with Rolling Stone in his office in Washington, D.C., to discuss the threat posed by catastrophic climate change – and why he believes it's not too late to stop it.

The world's leading climate scientists – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – issued a report earlier this year that shows global warming is far more advanced than even the most dire predictions had led us to believe. Is there any one finding from the most recent wave of science that alarms you?
The degree of certainty the scientists are willing to assign to their conclusions has gone up. But what's more interesting to me than the IPCC report is the stream of evidence just in the last five months since that report. Many scientists are now uncharacteristically scared. The typical pattern in a dialogue between scientific experts and the general public, of which I'm a part, is for the scientists to say, "Well, what you've heard is a little oversimplified. It's a lot more textured than that, and you need to calm down a little bit." This situation is exactly the reverse. Those who are most expert in the science are way more concerned than the general public.

Why?
For the first time, we can see in the numbers that the rate of increase in global warming is accelerating. One of the studies that has come out since the IPCC report shows that the Arctic ice cap is melting three times faster than the models predicted. And in the Antarctic, near the South Pole, an area the size of California has melted – with temperatures up to forty-one degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time. That's really unexpected.

I spent most of a day at the Scripps Institute last week reviewing the evidence with a large group of scientists. The IPCC will typically have projections for three scenarios: low, moderate and severe. Almost all of the new results that are cascading in are hugging the top, severe scenario. Any rational person who immerses himself or herself in this evidence would say, "Oh, my God, we've got to act immediately and drastically. We have a planetary emergency."

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Many climate scientists say, off the record, that they have grave doubts that we'll be able to slow global warming in time to stave off a planetwide catastrophe. James Lovelock, one of the world's most esteemed scientists, told us recently that he believes it is already too late to save ourselves by buying Priuses and changing light bulbs – that we need to begin preparing for life on a different planet. Do you agree with that?
I agree that we're not going to solve this problem by buying Priuses and changing our light bulbs. But driving hybrids and choosing better technology is still important in two respects. First, it makes a small contribution to reducing CO2. And second, when people make changes in their own lives, they are much more likely to become part of a critical mass of public opinion and to support the bigger policy changes that are going to be needed to really solve the problem.

Another part of Lovelock's analysis I agree with is that some degree of change in the planet's climate is now clearly unavoidable. Some is already beginning to take place, and a good deal more is programmed into the climate system because of the extra heat stored up in the oceans. That will play out in our lifetimes and beyond. So some degree of adaptation is sensible and necessary. But it's crucial that we not fool ourselves into thinking that we can adapt to this climate crisis. If we don't begin to sharply reduce CO2 emissions, then there would be no adaptation to the constant reshuffling of the climate deck – rainfall and storms and sea level and soil moisture and diseases and ice melting and all the rest. It would be a different planet from the one on which human beings evolved

So does that mean we need to start figuring out how to terraform Mars?
No. It's impertinent for me to disagree with such a distinguished scientist about anything in the scientific realm – James Lovelock has forgotten more than I will ever learn. But I think I may know one thing about politics that he doesn't know. And that is that the political system shares one thing in common with the climate system: They're both nonlinear. For those who look at the frustratingly slow pace of change that has characterized the last few decades on this issue, it is tempting to simply extrapolate that pace of change and conclude that we're not going to get there. But I think that we are closer than ever before to a genuine political tipping point beyond which the pace of change is going to accelerate very dramatically.

So despite the accelerating pace of changes that climate scientists are seeing, you're still optimistic?
Look, I will 'fess up to the element of "hope being father to the thought" here. But I don't think it's an unrealistic hope at all. I believe that it's much more likely than not that we will see within the next few years a very dramatic political change in most of the world, including in the United States, that will sharply reduce CO2. We're on the threshold of the kind of sweeping policy changes that we really need. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.

What do you think will drive that change? Will it take another planetary-scale disaster like Hurricane Katrina? Or do you envision a more organic sort of awakening?
I think it's a combination of the two. More and more people are taking the time to learn about the science, and they are connecting the dots for themselves. When those dots are connected – when families and churches and synagogues and mosques and civic organizations and entire communities all start to focus on the evidence – then even evidence from Mother Nature that falls short of a Katrina-scale catastrophe reinforces the message. The heat wave last summer didn't reach the level of Katrina, but it led Pat Robertson to say, "I've changed my mind, global warming is real, we've got to sharply reduce fossil-fuel use." There will be no shortage of statements from Mother Nature. April was the hottest April in the history of Europe. The hottest winter in the world's history was December, January and February. The hottest year in America's history was 2006.

There is also a very deep emotional and spiritual component to this tipping point we're going to cross. The civil rights movement took off in the United States only when it was lifted out of the political framework and placed in a spiritual framework. Young people asked their parents, "You tell me to choose right over wrong, so explain to me why this guy Bull Connor is acceptable." When the adults couldn't answer, that's when the laws changed. Young people are now asking their parents and grandparents, "Please explain to me why what's going on with global warming isn't insane." A lot of adults can't answer. The revolution is beginning.

But let's be real about the political obstacles. Public awareness and a growing desire for change are important, but against that you have the oil and coal and automobile industries – entrenched interests that have been able to stave off any sort of meaningful action on global warming for years, including the eight years when you were vice president. Is it realistic to expect that Washington will ever enact the kind of wholesale changes needed to address this crisis?
I concluded a long time ago that the only pathway is through a mass political movement that engenders a sea change in public opinion across the planet. Special interests have way too much power to block progressive change. But their power, as impressive as it is, is still no match for a genuine mass movement. Reason, logic, knowledge, evidence – these all may play a diminished role in our conversation of democracy today. But when enough people lock into the same narrative and connect the same dots and feel the danger facing their children, then these objections will be set aside. They will be. And we're close. We're not there yet. But we're close.

You have compared the mobilization that would be required to deal with global warming to the way America came together to win the Second World War. But that effort required great personal sacrifice on the part of the American people. People did without. They melted their scrap metal, they planted victory gardens. Yet very few politicians are talking about the kinds of sacrifice that will be required to deal with climate change. What will Americans have to give up to stop global warming?
There's a philosophical question embedded in what you're asking: Is this important enough for us to make sacrifices? The answer is yes, of course – we're talking about the survival of human civilization. But in answering that way, I don't want to convey the faulty impression that most of what needs to be done involves hair-shirt economics or going back to some miserable standard of living. That's simply not true. Most of the changes we need to make don't involve sacrifice in the way you are using the word – instead, they require us to overcome inertia and eliminate absurdly wasteful practices.

Amory Lovins, the brilliant and respected physicist, was addressing this question in a conversation with me recently. He said, "When it comes to making sacrifices, they've got the sign wrong." I'm thinking, "This guy's so smart, he must be talking about trigonometry – sines, cosines." Turns out he was talking about a plus sign and a minus sign. His point was that most of the important changes that have to be made to sharply reduce CO2 actually have a plus sign instead of a minus sign – they represent improvements to our quality of life. Changing the pattern that causes people to sit in traffic jams for an hour and a half every day is not a sacrifice, it's an enhancement. Changing the assumption that it's perfectly natural to take 4,000 pounds of metal with us everywhere we go doesn't have to be a sacrifice. Whether it's ultralight, ultrasafe vehicles or plug-in hybrid technology or some better alternative that is still on the drawing boards, let's have at it. Will there come a time when harder choices or more difficult and painful choices have to be made? Probably. But the sacrifices associated with not doing it completely overwhelm whatever difficulty might eventually be involved in making this transformation.

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In your new book, you're brutal on the Bush administration for how they deceived the country in leading us into war. How does that compare to the way they've manipulated the climate debate?
It's the same. In both cases the policy outcome was predetermined, in spite of the voluminous evidence that it would lead to catastrophe. It was known at the time we decided to invade Iraq that Saddam Hussein had absolutely nothing to do with Osama bin Laden or Al Qaeda. It was known that if we tried to occupy Iraq with a force of less than several hundred thousand troops, the prospects for sectarian violence and disintegration of the nation were very, very high. Those facts, which could have been easily established as the basis for decision-making at the time, were ignored. That's why 150,000 of our troops are still trapped in a civil war.

In exactly the same way, it has been known and provable to the satisfaction of any reasonable person for a long time that the climate crisis is real, that we're responsible for it, that it's extremely dangerous and that we have to start now if we're going to solve it. In spite of that evidence, we brushed aside the facts and pursued a preconceived ideological notion offered up by ExxonMobil and the coal companies and other large carbon polluters that said, "The scientists are wrong, there's no problem here. Move along, nothing to see, nothing to see." Instead, we eliminated any commitment to reduce carbon – and now we're proposing to subsidize an acceleration in carbon pollution. So it's the same problem.

Our democracy is supposed to operate more often than not according to the rule of reason. A well-informed citizenry, to use the phrase our founders revered, has a conversation according to the best evidence available and tries to make the best decision. But that's not how it works today. That's what's gone wrong.

What figure in the administration, other than the president himself, do you hold most responsible for standing in the way of meaningful change on global warming?
Oh, Cheney, of course. Both Bush and Cheney come out of the carbon-extraction industry. But Cheney has been the more forceful determinant of the two where this issue is concerned. Not that Bush has ever wavered – he does what ExxonMobil wants, every single time. When support for action against the climate crisis rises, he sometimes tweaks his rhetoric ever so slightly. But he never actually does anything to try to solve the problem. To the contrary, he's made it much, much worse.

Here's another thing Bush and Cheney have in common: Who would you rely on as the source of the best information about the wisdom of invading Iraq? Ahmad Chalabi, of course. Who would you choose to rely on as the source of the best information about global warming? ExxonMobil, of course.

Are you at least glad that Bush now refers to our "addiction to foreign oil"?
I don't like the addiction metaphor, because it carries with it a sense of powerlessness. But there are some aspects of the metaphor that are accurate in ways that Bush doesn't intend. The spiral of increasingly self-destructive behavior – spending more and more for supplies of a substance that is harder and harder to get – is just bizarre. I caused a stir in Alberta, Canada, recently when someone asked me about the advisability of trying to extract oil by processing the tar sands they have up there. I said, "Well, junkies find veins in their toes" [laughs]. The then-premier of Alberta lost it – and hasn't recovered since.

You speak eloquently about forging a mass movement to halt global warming. But the surest way to kill any emerging movement is to put a new system in place, only to have it rigged to benefit the same old special interests. What's going to keep the fossil-fuel industry from creating offsets and other loopholes to profit from the kind of carbon-trading system you advocate? Won't Wall Street just get rich off this huge new commodity market?
Once you establish the framework, then the passionate advocates of solving this crisis can channel their energies into policing and improving the integrity of that framework. The emissions-trading system in the European Union experienced serious start-up mistakes, but now it's actually working pretty damn well. It's driving a hell of a lot of carbon reduction. And when the world as a whole adopts such a system, the synergies of a global market will be incredibly powerful. The day after that is put in place, every member of a corporate board of directors on the planet will have a fiduciary responsibility to aggressively reduce CO2 emissions. Because they won't be able to protect shareholder value if they don't.

What about a straight tax on carbon emissions, which many consider the single best way to curb climate-warming pollution?
We need both – a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade system where the emissions rights are auctioned and the revenue is plowed back into renewable-energy development. I challenge the conventional wisdom that we have to pick one or the other. If you replace the payroll tax with a tax on CO2, it would discourage the destruction of the planet's environment without increasing total taxes. And a global system that caps and trades emissions would create the most effective reductions in the shortest period of time.

You've devoted much of your life to building a movement to combat the climate crisis. Be honest: Wouldn't that movement be far, far better off if you were able to lead it as president?
I'm going to do my best to provide leadership for this movement in whatever position I hold. I think there are a lot of good reasons not to run for president. But as you know, I haven't completely ruled out getting involved in the political system again at some point in time – there's no reason to do that. I hear myself repeating the same phrases, so forgive me if you hear that too. I really am focusing on this larger – make that different – kind of campaign. I won't say larger, because I know there's no position that can even approach the position of president in terms of the ability to influence events. But the way our political system operates in the United States today, the politics of reason faces a head wind. The skills that are rewarded in this communications environment include a lot of skills I don't think I possess in abundance. Some people catch on earlier than others that they're not well suited to the career they've chosen [laughs]. I'm fighting through the denial right now.

But don't you think that this movement you have played such a big part in mobilizing might offset those perceived weaknesses?
What a devious question. I haven't heard that one before. [Pauses] I really think those two things are different tracks. If I do my job right, then the sea change I'm trying to help accelerate will make it more likely that whoever runs in both parties will be forced to respond to a popular demand that they make the climate crisis the top priority. I know we're not there yet. I know we're not close to where we should be. But we're closer. And I can see it from here. I can see it. We've got to keep moving and build the momentum and pick up the pace.

The Live Earth concerts on July 7th represent the starting gun. It's a unique moment to ask for the world's attention to deliver an SOS for the climate – and to then begin a multiyear campaign to persuade enough people at the grass-roots level to become a part of that mass movement. We'll have a very specific set of tasks around which everybody in the world who chooses to do so can mobilize. What's the old Bob Dylan line? "Come senators, congressmen, please heed the call/Rattle your windows" – what's the rest of it? – "for the times they are a-changin'." That's what I want to happen. And I think it's going to. I really do.

This story is from the June 28th, 2007 issue of Rolling Stone. 

From The Archives Issue 1029: June 28, 2007