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Q&A: Al Gore

The man who won the presidency in 2000 is looser and more outspoken than ever. Is his global-warming movie a warm-up for a third run at the White House?

Al Gore

Al Gore, former vice president on August 9th, 2006.

Jeff Overs/BBC News & Current Affairs/Getty

It is probably not fair to say that global warming excites Al Gore, but get him going on the subject and he becomes possessed by the spirit of a Holy Rolling preacher, swelling and quaking in his chair, hitting high notes, speaking in tongues. We are meeting in a cramped waiting room outside two TV studios in midtown Manhattan. Gore is spending the afternoon here, knocking off a dozen or so interviews with broadcast outlets across the country, one after the other, intimations of the apocalypse sandwiched between the local-anchor happy talk and car-dealership ads in markets like Houston and Kansas City.

Gore is in the middle of an exhaustive campaign to promote An Inconvenient Truth, a surprise hit that transposes to film a lecture about global warming that he has given more than a thousand times in the past six years. (An accompanying book of the same title is climbing the best-seller lists.) But while Gore’s message may be grim-in a nutshell, a warming climate threatens civilization, and if the human race wants to survive, we’ve got about ten years to start turning things around — Gore himself seems funnier, warmer and more relaxed than he ever did during his political years. You used to think: I wouldn’t mind taking a class from this guy. Nowadays, you wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. His recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, when he addressed the nation as president and boasted that gas prices were so low that the government had to bail out the big oil companies, was the single funniest moment on the show all season.

Gore’s renewed visibility has only fueled speculation that this is all part of a carefully orchestrated plan to launch his third bid for the presidency. Although Gore refuses to rule it out, he suggests that he’s having too much fun, and is too engaged in his various business interests, to subject himself to the endless slog of political life. It’s not unreasonable to hope that Gore runs, but the dream of a Gore candidacy also underscores the pathetic core of today’s Democratic Party: It has become so unusual to hear a mainstream Democratic politician speak from a sense of conviction that when one does, people practically start begging him to run.

But Gore really does seem to have put politics behind him. Whereas his one-time partner Bill Clinton clearly loves the game, Gore speaks of the political process as “toxic” and frames his arguments in purely moral terms. And one wonders: If he does decide to run again, will the New Gore go back to listening to his political advisers, or will he continue to follow his heart?

At the end of the movie, you make it sound like it’s not going to be that hard to stop global warming — we’ll just change our lifestyles and turn this thing around. But isn’t that too optimistic? The scientist James Lovelock says that by the end of this century, most of the Earth will be uninhabitable — the planet’s population will plummet by eighty percent.
Lovelock is truly a visionary. But I disagree with his darker view. He’s forgotten more about science than I’ll ever learn — but I think I know one thing about politics that he doesn’t. Sometimes, the political system is like the climate system, in that it’s nonlinear. It can seem to change at a snail’s pace and then suddenly cross a tipping point beyond which it shifts into a shockingly fast gear. All of a sudden, change that everybody thought was impossible becomes matter of fact. In 1941, it was absurd to think the U.S. could build a thousand air-planes a month to fight the Second World War. By 1943 that was a real small number. Imagine where we would be today if Bush, after properly invading Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden, had not unwisely invaded a country that had no role in the attack on us. He could have pursued the terrorists and called upon the United States to become independent of oil.

OK, say you’re the guy making that call. What do you ask us to do — trade in our cars and buy a hybrid?
Here’s the essence of our problem: Right now, the political environment in the country does not support the range of solutions that have to be introduced. The maximum you can imagine coming out of the current political environment still falls woefully short of the minimum that will really solve the crisis. But that’s just another way of saying we have to expand the limits of the possible. And that’s the main reason that I made this movie — because the path to a solution lies through changing the minds of the American people. Not just on the facts — they’re almost there on the facts — but in the sense of urgency that’s appropriate and necessary. Once that happens, then things that seem impossible now politically are going to be imperative. I believe there is a hunger in the country to be part of a larger vision that changes the way we relate to the environment and the economy. Right now we are borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the most unstable region of the world, and to bring it here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. That is nuts! We have to change every aspect of that.

And that has to be done within ten years?
No, we don’t have to do all of it in ten years — that would be impossible. What the scientists are saying when they give this dark warning is that we may have as little as ten years before we cross a tipping point, beyond which there’s an irretrievable process of degradation. They are saying that we have to make a large, good-faith start — to first reduce the amount of global-warming pollution, and then eventually to flatten it and turn it down. It is very possible to start leveling it out within the next five years.

How is that possible, given the current administration?
This is not a partisan issue. I talked to a CEO of one of the ten largest companies in the United States, who supported Bush and Cheney. He told me, “Al, let’s be honest. Fifteen minutes after George Bush leaves the presidency, America is going to have a new global-warming policy, and it doesn’t matter who’s elected.” And I think that the smartest CEOs, even in places like Exxon-Mobil, now understand that the clock is ticking, and the world is changing, and the United States is not going to be able to continue living in this little bubble of unreality.

Do you think these people are taking that message to Bush and Cheney?
Some of them are. But Bush is insulated — his staff smiles a lot and only gives him the news that he wants to hear. Unfortunately, they still have this delusion that they create their own reality. As George Orwell wrote, we human beings are capable of convincing ourselves of something that’s not true long after the accumulated evidence would convince any reasonable person that it’s wrong. And when leaders persist in that error, sooner or later they have a collision with reality, often on a battlefield.That, in essence, is exactly what happened in Iraq. But we have to keep that from happening with the climate crisis. Because by the time the worst consequences begin to unfold, it would be too late.

What gets in the way of people hearing that message?
Part of it is evolution. Our brains are much better at perceiving danger in fangs and claws and spiders and fire. It’s more difficult to trigger the alarm parts of the brain — those connected to survival — with grave dangers that can only be perceived through abstract models and complex data. Another part of it is the marketplace of ideas. A few loud voices have enough money to buy repetitive messages, like the Exxon-Mobil ads on the op-ed page of The New York Times. As the big money fueling political commercials does these little short slogans, it becomes even more difficult for a self-governing democracy to be honest with itself about an unprecedented danger that is woven into the fabric of our society.

How do you fight that big money?
Tipper and I are giving 100 percent of all the profits we get from both the movie and the book to a new bipartisan alliance for climate protection. It will run ads about the nature of the crisis and the way we can solve it.

But the profits from the film won’t begin to approach the money that Exxon has.
They will have a lot of money. I am not on the board of it, but I’m giving them a lot of money, and I’m raising them much, much more. There are some real heavyweights involved in this. We have former members of the Reagan and first Bush administrations. Steve Jobs is helping to design the ad campaign. At the end of September, I’m going to start training a thousand people to take my slide show all across the country, to high schools and civic clubs and anybody who will listen. We’re going to get this message out there — and when we do, the political system will shift gears, and you’ll see a dramatic change. I will make a prediction that within two years, Bush and Cheney themselves will change their position.

In two years they’ll be gone!
Before they leave office. Unfortunately, they’ve got two and a half years left. Two and a half days is too much, in my opinion. I must confess I’m beginning to lose my objectivity with Bush and Cheney. I regret that, but I must be candid with you [laughs].

What did you think during the 2000 campaign on the day that Bush announced he would limit CO2 missions if he were elected? Did you think, “That’s bullshit”?
I thought it was fraudulent. I actually did not anticipate that he would directly and brazenly break that pledge, and go 180 degrees in the opposite direction at full speed, but I thought that he would slow-walk it and make it meaningless. They were trying to drain the moral energy out of an issue that they felt could hurt them if the public perceived a clear contrast on the issue.

Did it seem like a smart move, strategically, at that point?
Well, if you define the word “smart” in an antiseptic and clinical way that excludes any ethical dimension, then, yeah, I guess it was smart. Smart, if you’re willing to say things that you know are not true. But that’s what Karl Rove is known for. Bush’s whole pose as a compassionate conservative was fraudulent. His budget was fraudulent. Even the idea that he would be staunchly opposed to nation building was fraudulent. I don’t mean that he actually knew at the time of the campaign that he was going to invade Iraq — because I don’t think Cheney had told him yet [laughs]. But the statement on global warming, and the specific pledge to reduce CO2 emissions with the force of law, was part of a larger pattern. He was completely fraudulent from head to toe.

Will changing their position be forced by external events, like another hurricane?
I see it being forced by a collision with reality. What part of their bubble feels the first impact of the collision? Is it the bumper or is it the windshield; is it the driver-side door? I don’t know. I think Katrina was a tipping point for millions of Americans. A top insurance executive at Lloyd’s of London said just the other week that if we don’t act now to prevent this looming catastrophe, “we will face extinction.” You know — just a typical, long-haired hippie at Lloyd’s of London.

Do you believe, as some predict, that we are going to run out of oil within fifty years?
It’s a sophisticated debate between the geologists on one side and the economists on the other. But the debate over oil reserves misses the point. We have more than enough oil, not to mention coal, to completely destroy the habitability of the planet. The real constraint on oil and coal is not supply, but global warming. There’s a saying: “The Stone Age didn’t end because we ran out of stones. And the Age of Fossil Fuels won’t end because we run out of fossil fuels.”

The fact that oil is beginning to get more expensive more quickly will contribute to the realization of how dysfunctional our current pattern is. Take the tar sands of western Canada. For every barrel of oil they extract there, they have to use enough natural gas to heat a family’s home for four days. And they have to tear up four tons of landscape, all for one barrel of oil. It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes. It seems reasonable, to them, because they’ve lost sight of the rest of their lives.

As Lincoln said in the darkest days of America’s darkest passage: “We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country.” Our biggest challenge, our biggest foe, is thrall. The word sounds ancient, but it means anything that imprisons our thinking and prevents us from seeing the reality of our situation. We’re in thrall to oil. We’ve got to break out of it. We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we will save our planet.

Let’s look at Iraq right now. Is there some way we can pull out?
We’re going to have to pull out of there. But the hard truth is that even those of us who tried like hell to prevent this catastrophic mistake are now bound to share in the moral consequences of whatever choices we as a nation make in the manner of our leaving. We have to pursue two objectives simultaneously, and that’s always hard. The first objective is to get the hell out of there as quickly as we can. The second objective is to avoid the moral mistake of doing even more harm to those people in the manner of our leaving than we did in the manner of our invasion. And, tragically, it is possible to do even more harm if we are not alert to the ethical choices that we have to make as we prepare to leave. Unfortunately there are no “good options,” because Bush and Cheney have driven us into an ethical cul-de-sac. General Odom, who used to run defense intelligence, said last year that the invasion of Iraq “will turn out to be the greatest strategic disaster in U.S. history.” “The whole political system is pretty toxic. Being a candidate is not part of my plan.”

So do you support the “strategic redeployment” advocated by Rep. Jack Murtha?
I think Jack’s awfully good on these questions, and yet I would like to know more about what that really means. It may be different in different parts of the country. Look at the looming conflict with Iran over its nuclear program and the bizarre statements by its president. We have in effect given him 135,000 hostages on his doorstep. And the government that has just emerged in Baghdad is on much more friendly terms with Tehran than Washington is.

We’re all, in some ways, lashed to the mast of our ship of state here. Because the little group at the helm should resign. You know, Rumsfeld and that whole gang have made horrible mistake after horrible mistake, and yet Bush continues to keep them in charge. How do the rest of us play a responsible role in advising the group in the White House that doesn’t want to hear what any of us say in any case?

If you had written this in a novel before it all played out, you’d get the proverbial rejection slip — nobody would believe it. That any group of leaders could be this incompetent, and catastrophically blind to reality. But here’s my point: What they’ve done with Iraq, what they did with Katrina, is exactly the approach they’re taking to global warming. They’re ignoring reality, they’re twisting and cherry-picking the evidence to create false impressions that serve the interests of a small, powerful group that has a financial interest in the outcome.

Now, Iraq was more complicated than that — there were other factors that created that perfect storm. But their willingness to deny reality and twist the truth is the same as with global warming. And the stakes are too high for us to let them proceed without pulling out all the stops and trying to alert the American people and engineer a very broad and strong consensus that crosses party lines, that causes people to rise up and say, “No, not with our future!”

I saw someone recently who knows you very well and asked, “Is he going to run for president?” And the answer was “I think he wants to be president, he just doesn’t want to spend two years in Iowa.”
[Laughs] I love Iowa! I do think the political system as a whole is pretty toxic. I think that it may well be that the highest and best use of whatever skills I have gained is to focus on trying to change the way we Americans think about the most serious challenge that our civilization has ever faced. So that those who do run will encounter an informed, aroused and demanding electorate, one that insists that all of the candidates, in both parties, make the climate crisis their top priority.

Do you still consider yourself a Democrat?
Oh, yeah. I mean, I still consider myself a Baptist too, even though the denomination has tried to run me off with their attitude toward women and so forth! [Laughs] I will continue to play a role as a citizen, not only on global warming but also on eaves-dropping and torture and civil liberties and the other vital issues of the day. I’ve got a full plate right now. Being a candidate for president again is not part of my plan for the next several years. If I can just figure out a way to appear in the pages of Rolling Stone every several months, that will be fulfillment enough.

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