You've been heavily criticized for selling Current TV for $500 million to Al Jazeera, which is owned by the oil-rich nation of Qatar. After decades of talking about the climate crisis, this looks like you've put personal profit above all else.
I understand that criticism. Of course I disagree with it, because Al Jazeera has long since established itself as a journalistic organization worthy of respect. They have won awards all over the world and have developed a reputation for journalistic integrity. Their climate reporting, for example, has been extremely good. I think that their addition to the U.S. media landscape will be a big net plus.
Let's talk about climate. When does the public wake up to the extent of the problem?
Maybe if New York City flooded two years in a row, or maybe if we lost a major chunk of New Orleans, maybe if 60 percent of the country was in a severe drought ‐ you can go down the list – and maybe if we had $110 billion in climate-related-disaster impact in a single year, maybe if the Arctic ice cap disappeared . . . .
The problem has continued to get worse at an accelerated rate, even as we are still cogitating collectively about whether we put a priority on humanity's future, and if so, whether we have the gumption and resolve to do something to safeguard it. My innate optimism comes from my conviction that we as human beings do have that capacity.
I see many signs of great progress. The percentages of people who recognize and accept the gravity of the problem get larger. Many businesses are making significant changes and adopting a commitment to sustainability, finding they can save money by reducing energy use and waste flows and the like. We know what the solutions are. We know that the tools we can use are getting more effective and more cost-effective year by year.
In 2010, for the first time in world history, investments in renewables exceeded investments in carbon-based energy. Now, that flipped again last year, because of the shale-gas revolution, but the inexorable rise of solar and wind and related technologies is going to make a very profound difference. Nations that don't have pre-existing electrical grids find renewables more attractive in the same way that cellphones took of in developing countries. Australia, the second-largest coal exporter in the world, is holding a steady course toward taxing carbon and trading carbon permits, and now they've linked up with Europe. California started a carbon-trading program, and they're linking up with British Columbia, Quebec, some other U.S. states. China has launched a pilot program in two provinces that's intended to be a pilot for a nationwide carbon-trading system in 2015.
China is the big question – how it's going to change, when it will change.
China is the largest producer of coal, and the largest importer. It's unbelievable. It can't continue, and they know it. Li Keqiang, the new prime minister, has been involved with environmental policy, and I think he's pretty good – he may be a pleasant surprise. If they follow through on carbon trading, then we could see a new center of gravity for a way of using markets to drive the cost of carbon-based energy rationally higher and increase the adoption of renewables.
So I have felt, for a long time, that this is a big wheel turning slowly, but it's turning toward a point where a clear majority will be able to express its will in saying, "We will save the future, we know what needs to be done, and we're going to get on with it."
There's a big march in Washington in February about the Keystone Pipeline. Are you supportive of more civil action?
Yeah, yeah, and I have been for a long time. The tar sands represent an important decision point for the president and for the State Department, for the administration as a whole. I think Bill McKibben [climate activist and regular RS contributor] has done a terrific job on that issue. He's a real leader.
Your book is about the future, but let's talk about the past for a moment. How do you think now about the 2000 election?
Well, I've moved on long since, and I don't know what else to say about it, so much has been written about it.
Do you think about it as something in the distant past?
I think about it occurring maybe a little over a dozen years ago [laughs].
Putting aside your own feelings, do you think the decision by the Supreme Court stained our judiciary system?
Well, when I said earlier that I've moved on, there are a lot of reasons for moving on. I look toward the future – that sounds like a cliché, but it happens to be true. But there's a second reason I haven't made the kind of statements that your question is designed to elicit.
I just felt that the rule of law and the importance of respecting the rule of law gave me an obligation to conduct myself in ways that would honor the U.S. Constitution. It may sound highfalutin, but that's what I felt then, and it's what I feel now. You know, there's no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution [laughs]. Had there been, then maybe .
What was the lesson that was most clearly taught to you by the defeat in 2000?
It's not the first or the worst adversity that I've faced in my life, so I'll lump them all together and say that it teaches you the importance of perspective, and the importance of setting clear priorities, not letting the urgent displace the important, and thinking holistically about what you want to accomplish in your life, how you can serve, what good you can do, how you want to live your life.
When I was reading your book, I felt an unspoken sense of America in decline, and a certain wistfulness about it.
Well, you know, I went out of my way to specifically disclaim that view, saying that it is premature for anyone to reach that conclusion. I do believe that. I believe that America's in trouble, but we've been in trouble before, and we've come out of it. In this case, the degradation of our democratic decision-making process is reaching a low point just at the time when we desperately need it to function well, both for ourselves and the world as a whole – there is still no alternative to U.S. leadership that I can see. There may be one that emerges, but I don't see it. So if you pick up a deep concern in the book, that's really the basis of it. I think the United States is still an avatar for humanity.
And the mother of all leadership challenges is climate. You wrote, "We can either make the solution to the climate crisis the central organizing principle of global civilization, or the hostile conditions we are creating will destroy us." Can you conceive of a civilization destroying itself?
Well, I don't think it's going to happen. [Author and scientist] Jared Diamond tells us it has happened in the past – the Mayans, Easter Island, for instance, which were destroyed by environmental factors that they did not think through. The difference today is that this struggle now takes place on a global basis, whereas those civilizations succumbed to local or regional threats. We have to find a way to catalyze the emergence of a decision-making protocol that allows the world as a whole to take into account the fact that we're destroying the climate balance, that we're threatening human welfare, we're depleting our topsoil and fresh water, and we're toying with the genetic future of humanity. We have to find a way to chart a safer course.
It is difficult for us to conceive of geologic time and evolutionary time scales, but in spite of that, we humans have become a geological force, and we have become the principal agent of evolution. We have acquired powers beyond our imagining, and we have not yet catalyzed the emergence of wisdom or the ability to communicate effectively with one another in a way that can enable us to exercise that power with wise restraint. A scientist friend of mine said many years ago, "Ultimately, what is being tested is the proposition of whether or not the combination of an opposable thumb and a neocortex is a viable combination on this planet."
This story is from the February 28th, 2013 issue of Rolling Stone.
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