Al Gore sneezes a hefty achoo. “Excuse me,” the former vice president says, dabbing a tissue at his nose before offering up an explanation. “Spring.”
Outside Gore’s New York City office, spring has certainly sprung—early too. This March was the hottest one ever, beating the prior record set in March 2015. The same goes for February and January of this year, and, oh, the eight consecutive months before. Gore knows these statistics by heart. The fact that you might know them too is likely because of him. These kinds of numbers—and the scary story they tell about the future of Earth—have been Gore’s chief motivation since he failed to win the presidency in 2000. Gore emerged from that weird, disputed election armed with what is now possibly the most famous slideshow in human history. He has traveled the world delivering that deck to hundreds of people at a time, showing in irrefutable detail just how mind-bogglingly badly we have treated our planet and what we might be able to do about it.
Ten years ago, the slideshow became An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that spread those ideas to millions. Gore says he still tinkers with the slideshow every day, because, well, the numbers keep changing. Not always for the better. Yet this year Gore and his fellow activists have a rare reason to celebrate. In April, 175 world leaders gathered at the United Nations to sign the Paris Agreement, a global pact that aims to keep global temperatures from rising more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels. Now, a decade after his movie sounded the alarm about climate change and 16 years after he ran for president, it looks like Al Gore might finally be … winning?
WIRED: Why did you want to make An Inconvenient Truth?
GORE: I have to admit to you that initially I did not want to do a documentary.
What? Why not?
It’s a dumb reason. I didn’t think a slideshow could translate into a movie. I thought back to my days in school, when I tried to take a shortcut studying Shakespeare by watching filmed versions of the plays, where they just set up a camera and filmed the stage. It didn’t translate. Participant Media and Davis Guggenheim had to convince me it was a good idea, and I’m so glad they found ways to reveal to me the depths of my ignorance about moviemaking. It’s a message that has to be heard. Sorry to risk sounding grandiose, but the future of human civilization is at stake.
I saw you give your updated talk at TED this year, and it made me wonder how you stay passionate now that you’ve given it so many times.
Every one is different, but the passion doesn’t require summoning. It just bubbles up. It is a source of some joy to have work to do that justifies pouring every ounce of energy you have into it. And when I’m in front of an audience that can make a difference in solving this crisis, I really want to make every syllable count. Sometimes I gear down the passion so it doesn’t overwhelm the message.
The Paris Agreement must feel like a big point of progress.
It really does. Sometimes in sports you can sense a palpable shift in the momentum of the contest. A team will be behind on the scoreboard, but the shift in momentum is so obvious and dramatic that you just have the feeling they’re going to win. That’s where we are in solving the climate crisis. We’re still behind on the scoreboard, but the momentum has shifted. We are winning.
When renewable electricity becomes cheaper than electricity that comes from burning coal or gas, then that changes everything. The marketplace makes it the default option, and you get what you saw in the world in 2015—90 percent of the new electricity generated in the world last year was from renewables. That is an astonishing change. The Paris Agreement exceeded the upper range of my expectations. Does it go far enough? No, of course not. Can it be improved? Yes, it’s designed to be constantly improved, and that’s what I’m focused on now.
In what way did it exceed your expectations?
I guess having followed the process since I led the Senate delegation to the Earth Summit down in Rio de Janeiro back in 1992, my expectations had been kind of beaten down.
You’ve been at this a long time. Was it lonely fighting for this stuff in government in the 1980s and 1990s?
It was certainly a different time and a different environment. But I don’t ever remember feeling lonely, because I was always focused on reaching more and more people. Building a global grassroots movement is really the only way to solve this, because so many political systems have been captured by legacy industries. And that influence over policymaking has to be counterbalanced by a grassroots awareness.
You’ve always said climate change shouldn’t be a partisan issue. But it seems like it’s only becoming more partisan. This election cycle we’ve heard candidates saying things like, “Climate change is a religion, not a science.” Does that make your brain explode?
I actually feel that partisan blockade is coming apart. There were 11 Republican members of the House of Representatives who joined in a very powerful statement last fall. The Republican mayor of Miami is part of a bipartisan coalition of mayors across South Florida who have said the time for partisanship is long past. The city of Georgetown, Texas, announced that it’s going to switch to 100 percent renewables. And one of the city officials said, “I’m about the furthest thing you can imagine from Al Gore.” Great! That works for me!
But there’s a reason President Obama had to initiate his Clean Power Plan without Congress. How do you think we got to this place politically?
Well, to begin with, our democracy has been hacked. It is shockingly unresponsive to considerations of the public interest. But I think technology can come to the rescue here. When the printing press was the dominant medium, as it was when the United States was founded and the Constitution was written, individuals were able to enter the virtual public square and use ideas and the best available evidence as a source of political power. When television displaced print as the principal source of information, the architecture of that new information ecosystem changed radically. Instead of having low entry barriers, people encountered gatekeepers. Money came to dominate policymaking. The third information ecosystem of the modern era, which is Internet-based and includes social media, once again features extremely low entry barriers for individuals and favors a meritocracy of ideas. When members of Congress, who used to be beholden to special interests, are confronted by individuals and small groups who can crowdsource fund-raising for candidates, that begins to restore the kind of representative democracy that our founders dreamed of.
Bernie Sanders put those issues front and center in this election. What impact do you think that’s having on the race?
I don’t want anything I say to put me in support or opposition to any of the candidates. But I see a lot of hope in the idea that an Internet-based campaign can eliminate the older culture of politics. That’s not to say that candidates who practice those older techniques cannot also break free of the influence of campaign contributions. I think the future is increasingly going to be shaped by candidates in both parties who go directly to the people, by means of social media and Internet-based forms of communication, and over time diminish their reliance on money from big contributors.
What do you think President Obama’s climate legacy will be? He’s done a lot to spur investment in renewables, for example.
I think he’s building an unparalleled climate legacy. He supported legislation in the spring of 2009 that passed the House of Representatives. The legislation stalled in the Senate, and the balance of his first term turned out to be somewhat disappointing where climate is concerned. But starting with his inaugural address at the beginning of his second term, he launched a series of new initiatives on climate. Faced with the opposition he’s encountered in Congress, he came up with the Clean Power Plan. He successfully negotiated a bilateral agreement with China that completely reshaped the prospects for negotiation in Paris. He improved the mileage standards for automobiles in his first term and has continued to do more there. He’s now turned to the issue of methane emissions, and the list goes on.
On the converse side, do you feel like you’ve been able to achieve anything as a private citizen that you wouldn’t have been able to do in the public sector?
I’m under no illusions that there is any position that can compete with that of president of the United States in shaping policy and influencing the way people think. People occasionally say to me, “You’ve been able to do more outside of government than you would have if you had these duties as president.” I don’t agree with that. But I am extremely grateful to have found a way to make a difference outside of the political system. I’m not the best judge of what I’ve been able to accomplish. But when people come up to me and tell me they saw the movie 10 years ago and it changed their life or they started a new business, that is extremely gratifying. It’s also an encouragement to do more. How fast we win matters a lot.
How do you think this conversation would be different if you’d become president?
I like to think a lot of things would be different. I would have done my best to put a price on carbon and taken a number of other steps. I certainly would not have invaded Iraq. There’s a long list of things I like to think would have turned out differently, but it’s pointless, in my opinion, to go down that road, because it’s just fantasy. It’s much better and more productive—and certainly healthier—to focus on the future, and that’s what I’ve been doing since the day of the Supreme Court decision.
So, looking toward the future, what do you think will happen to the climate conversation under the next administration?
Whoever becomes president, whatever party controls the White House and Congress, the fact that renewable energy is now getting cheaper than fossil fuel energy will shape choices and policies. The difference would be how quickly the change will take place.
It’s sometimes tough for people to get climate change because they’re not seeing its effects every day—or at least they don’t realize they are. What have you seen that has stuck with you?
In March, I went to Tacloban in the Philippines and talked with survivors there who endured the ravages of Super Typhoon Haiyan. When you see how their lives were utterly transformed and feel the painful losses they suffered, it certainly will stick with you. I conducted a training in Miami last fall during one of the highest high tides and saw fish from the ocean swimming in the streets in Miami Beach and Fort Lauderdale on a sunny day.
You talk a lot about “winning” the fight against climate change. How do you define a win?
Winning means avoiding catastrophic consequences that could utterly disrupt the future of human civilization. It means bending the curves downward so that the global warming pollution stops accumulating in the atmosphere and begins to reduce in volume. It means creating tens of millions of new jobs to retrofit buildings, to transform energy systems and install advanced batteries, to transform agriculture and forestry, and to make the solutions to the climate crisis the central organizing principle of our civilization.
You now have Silicon Valley’s help in this fight. What role can tech play in all this?
All the consumer-facing companies—Google, Facebook, Apple, Amazon, go right down the list—they’re all eager to reduce their carbon footprint, and they’re saving money by doing so. Companies that don’t take that initiative are in danger of losing customers and losing brand value.
We do have the capacity as human beings to communicate and to think together, within the format of our constitutional democracy, about our shared challenges. And then we can devise policies that steer toward the most important long-term goals. We’ve done it in the past. We’ve done it more successfully when the dialog of democracy was healthier. And we’ll do it more successfully in the future, as new Internet-based forms of democracy once again elevate the importance of ideas and reasoned discourse.
Last question: Darrell Hammond played you on Saturday Night Live, and now he’s playing Donald Trump. Who does he do better?
I think whoever he impersonates, he does an unbelievable job. It’s uncanny. He’s so good.
Did you think that back when you were in office?
Yeah! I mean, you have no choice.
Staff writer Issie Lapowsky (@issielapowsky) is covering the 2016 presidential campaign for WIRED.
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