Al Gore has been the Cassandra of the climate crisis seemingly since the times of Cassandra. Starting in Congress more than 40 years ago, he has been ringing the alarm for more than half his life. Gore was back at Davos this week, and his message remained as stark as ever.
At 71, Gore is still younger than Donald Trump, Joe Biden, and Bernie Sanders. He has lost none of his passion for climate change, even if he delivers it painlessly in his Tennessee accent.
Speaking during a panel on protecting the Amazon, Gore proclaimed it was later than everyone thought. “The burden to act on the shoulders of the generation of the people alive today is a challenge to our moral imagination,” Gore said. “This is Thermopylae. This is Agincourt. This is the Battle of the Bulge. This is Dunkirk. This is 9/11,” declared Gore. “We have to rise to this occasion.”
On another panel, it was suggested to Gore that a too-rapid change to a green economy could lead to a global financial problem.
“There’s no jobs on a dead planet,” responded Gore.
I caught up with Gore at his hotel in Davos, Switzerland. The restaurant was playing throbbing Euro pop, so we took refuge on a pair of basement couches outside the restrooms. Occasionally, a Davoite dying for a piss would stop in their tracks and whisper a hello or thank you to the former vice president.
I wonder if you think that actual climate science matters anymore, or is it now so established that it’s all about policy and politics? Is it now about implementation rather than proving it?
No, I think it does matter. The issue itself is so complex that there are always people who evolve their opinions or level of certainty and refer to the science as they do so. The scientific consensus is moving toward unanimity; it’s nearly there. And I think that does have an impact. Of course, there are those who will never accept it. But even in that group, there are a growing number who decide to withhold their previous objections and just quietly accept the movement toward a consensus.
So it’s more people who are not going to have the kind of road to Damascus experience but will, as you say, get on board quietly…
Yeah. Well, for example, look at Davos this year. I mean the fact that [Davos founder] Klaus Schwab has made climate the principle focus of the World Economic Forum this year is a nontrivial development, and the captains of industry that make up a big part of this gathering include quite a number who fit the definition I was giving you a moment ago. They don’t necessarily want to see this be the number-one topic, but they’ve gotten to the point now where they are not going to object to it. And that in itself is significant.
Some activists describe Donald Trump as the greatest thing to happen to the climate movement, in the sense of it generating activism and energy. How do you see him as a catalyst to the movement, in the three years since he’s been in office?
Well, there’s no doubt, and I’ve said this since the election that, in physics, there’s a well-known principle: “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction.” And the reaction to Trump’s anti-climate extremism is a very powerful new element in the climate movement, for sure. I remember in 1979-1980, there was a nuclear-arms-control agreement pending in the Senate, the SALT II agreement that Jimmy Carter had negotiated. The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. Candidate Ronald Reagan coined that phrase, “the Evil Empire,” and promoted a mass expansion of the ICBM arsenal. And Carter withdrew the Salt treaty from the Senate, and all of a sudden, the nuclear freeze movement emerged spontaneously. And that’s an example of this same physics [at play]. I think we’re seeing that. Would I trade it for having a president that would implement barriers and provide leadership? No. But it is there.
From your point of view as both an activist and a politician, Trump’s America Goes Alone strategy is particularly acute when it comes to climate. How does that impact the way the United States can still have influence if your president is not just being neutral, but having open scorn for it?
Trump is — and this is not original with me, and I don’t know who to attribute it to — but a mix of malevolence and incompetence. And the latter characteristic has led to many of his anti-climate moves being blocked by the courts. And yet the absence of aggressive, creative, innovative leadership by the United States — it really diminishes, really, really hurts the ability of the world community to congeal around a new consensus to move forward more rapidly. And Madrid was more like Copenhagen and Paris, and one reason was that there was no U.S. advocacy. And the governors and mayors, they redeemed the reputation of the U.S. to some extent, for sure, but they could not push hard the way Obama pushed hard, the way Clinton and I pushed hard at Kyoto.
You have been involved with climate activism for more than 40 years. What have you you learned about American psychology, in terms of, what are some of the most-effective ways to influence or change American minds.
Well, I’ve learned that the most powerful advocate is Mother Nature. And I can point to many examples of progress being made in changing minds in the immediate aftermath of these climate-related extreme events. And, in general, the increasing prevalence and severity of these events has been largely responsible for the dramatic change in public opinion. Climate is the number-one issue among Democrats according to some polls and the number-one issue among the liberal Democrats, according to a lot of measures; majority Republicans are now one side, basically, and young people, it’s not even close. And, I think, again, that’s largely because of these climate-related extreme events. The Australian fires sort of revive and magnify the shock that we had last fall and last summer with the California fires. And the shock toward the end of the calendar year of the Amazon fires. I could go on: We have these deluges that are nearly biblical in their scale. “Rain bombs” we call them now.
Is there anything to be done? Or is it just a fact of life that climate denial on the Republican side has become a litmus test, almost a dogma?
It’s weird. I still have some hope that it will change. And I see erosion around the edges. The tribal pact is still in place, and it’s a kind of a Three Musketeers principle. You have the anti-choice people, the pro-gun people, and the anti-climate people. And you could add several other things to that constellation. And it’s like, “One for all, and all for one.” And if you depart from one of their main ones — climate or guns — then you lose your badge that identifies you as a member of the tribe. And then you lose your funding, and then you get a primary opponent, and then you leave the Congress. So it’s a simple algorithm on one level, but it becomes more complicated when they talk to their families, and when they talk to their staff, and when they talk to some of their constituents.
But this existed before Trump. It’s been thoroughly documented how the fossil-fuel companies adopted, whole cloth, the blueprint of the tobacco industry — even using some of the same PR people and some of the same unethical messaging. And it’s been documented now that the fossil-fuel executives — not all of them, but a lot of them — devoted enormous amounts of money to a deeply unethical propaganda campaign that was directly counter to what their own scientists were telling them. The old saying goes, “If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you can be pretty sure it didn’t get there by itself.” And if you see this extraordinarily high level of climate denial, it didn’t happen by itself.
Now Rupert Murdoch is one of the major reasons for it. And even as Australia is burning to a crisp, he still puts out these horrific falsehoods every single day and poisons the ability of Australians to form a consensus just as he’s done with Fox News here in the U.S.
So much talk about climate is about we have to do X before X year before the temperature is going to go up 1.5, and it gets into the data. But a lot of it now has become a much more emotional issue impacting people. Do you see that?
I’ve seen it more, for sure. All issues are emotional to some degree. The psychologists are right when they tell us how we really make decisions. But I see it, also, in the temptation of some, not too many, but of a growing minimal percentage, to give in to despair. And despair is just another form of denial. And that’s not just a word sandwich. It’s true.
How do you deal with it emotionally?
I tell people that we don’t have time for despair. I mean, the truth is, anybody who deals with this issue on a sustained basis has to somehow deal with that issue. It’s never been a particular problem for me, but it’s there, for sure.
I know, in your travels, you meet people who lost their homes and way of life because of climate change.
Absolutely. In my hometown, in Nashville, we’re on the 10th anniversary of a massive flood. Thousands of my neighbors lost their homes and businesses. And they had no insurance because it had never, ever flooded in the regions that we’re in. I mean, it was insane. There was an elderly couple that died just a few blocks from my house. They were caught in the road.
Do you think there is a scenario where we can get to zero emissions by 2050?
I think that net zero with offsets is imminently feasible. I really do. And I’m fond of quoting an MIT economist who famously said, “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, but then they happen faster than you thought they could.” And I think the transition to renewable energy, and hyper efficiency, and electric vehicles, and the circular economy, and regenerative agriculture, and zero-emission buildings, all that’s very feasible. And we’re seeing a massive shift in resources, a massive deployment of commitment. I think it will happen. I really do.
I spent some time in New Hampshire following Democratic candidates. I just wanted to get your sense of whether you are liking what you’re hearing in terms of the climate. For many of them, it is the first or second thing mentioned in their stump speeches.
I’m super impressed with this field of candidates. It’s kind of en vogue for people who say, “Oh, woe is us,” and some version of that. But I don’t feel that. I think we have a lot of talent in the field. I am thrilled that virtually all of them have made the climate a very high priority — some of them in the top two issues. I’m not totally surprised by that because of polling shows that Democrats are prioritizing it. So naturally they’re going to get that message. But so many of them have put out genuinely impressive, comprehensive plans.
What are your thoughts on the New Green Deal, in terms of it incorporating social justice and economic angles? You must see it as a step in the right direction.
I’m all for it. I’m an enthusiastic supporter, and I want to refer back to something I said to you earlier when I described the period when the nuclear freeze emerged. I was deeply into the details of nuclear-arms control in those years, and I actually thought that the nuclear freeze was simplistic, naive, and unworkable. But I watched as an overwhelming majority of Americans said, “We like this nuclear freeze” — a majority in both parties. And it ended up being a nontrivial factor in Ronald Reagan’s change of mind when he and Gorbachev discussed the Zero Option and then achieved a START agreement that was really quite a historic agreement. I’ve learned from that experience, because the same criticisms that were aimed at the nuclear freeze by people, who fancied themselves experts, are being aimed at the Green New Deal now. The details are going to be worked out in the legislative process anyway, so I am enthusiastically all in for it.
I know you’ve met Greta Thunberg and watched her action. What is the impact she has on youth involvement on climate issues?
I think she’s phenomenal. I remember many things she said, but one line in particular. I was at the U.N. General Assembly when she spoke in September, and she said to the assembled world leaders, “You say you understand the science, but I don’t believe you. Because if you did and then you continue to act as you do, that would mean you’re evil. And I don’t believe that.” I went, “Wow!” I just think she’s great. And the phrase “a little child shall lead them” has come to mind more than once. There have been other times in human history when the moment a morally based social movement reached the tipping point was the moment when the younger generation made it their own. And so she’s very clear in saying, “Don’t tell me about hope,” but she gives me hope and her generation gives me hope.
Last question. Off topic. I saw a recent story on Ralph Nader where he talks about how people still yell at him about 2000, 20 years later. Did you have to just reach peace with that?
Well, I often think of the famous dictum from Winston Churchill that Americans generally do the right thing after first exhausting every other option. I remember when [Nader] came to a book signing that I held at one of the bookstores in D.C. when I published a book in 2007 called, The Assault on Reason. And he stood in line and waited for an autograph, and I thought that was a nice thing to do. And, you know, why carry a grudge? It does no good.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.