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Al's World

Al Gore's outlook on the global warming fight is surprisingly optimistic. And that's not the only surprise revealed in this interview with the crusading ex-veep



As the presidential seal filled the screen on a recent episode of Saturday Night Live, viewers might have expected to see one of the show's regular impersonators-in-chief. But the fake president who opened the show turned out to be an erstwhile contender: former Vice President Al Gore. Dryly jabbing the Bush administration (and mildly mocking himself), "President Gore" looked back on the past five years of untrammeled prosperity, plummeting gas prices and the end of global warming. The latter victory, Gore confessed, had spawned unforeseen consequences: attacks by bellicose "renegade glaciers," which had already claimed several northern states. But Gore was resolute. Adopting the steely resolve that his former rival has made his stock in trade, Gore looked the camera dead-on and mock-pledged, "We will not let the glaciers win."

Global warming is not a joke to Al Gore. It is, it's fair to say, a crusade -- an issue he made the centerpiece of his presidential run in 1988 and his vice presidential candidacy in 1992, and one he has brought back to the fore since re-entering public life. Gore likes to quote the old saw about how the Chinese write the word "crisis" using the characters for "danger" and "opportunity," and he has seized opportunities by the handful: cofounding a green investment firm, Generation Investment Management, and a youth-oriented TV network, Current TV, and accepting a post on the board of Apple and a senior advisor position at Google. Not bad for a "recovering politician."

What's more, the man SNL once caricatured as a droning, robotic spewer of non-catchy catchphrases has indisputably lightened up since ending, at least for now, his career in politics. To see how Gore has changed his approach, you need only compare Gore's 1992 manifesto, Earth in the Balance, with An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary adaptation of what Gore calls his global-warming "slide show" -- a presentation he has been giving audiences since the 1980s. Where Earth in the Balance is a serious, historically minded ecological argument that ends with an extended analogy to the Marshall Plan (still a favorite point of comparison), An Inconvenient Truth (currently playing in Charlotte theaters, including Ballantyne Village Theatre and Concord Mills 24) finds Gore stepping into a cherry-picker to illustrate the spiking height of the earth's average temperature and ceding the stage to an animated Futurama interlude. (Truth's book version, too, is full of visual aids, including photos of Gore camping in the High Sierra in the early 1970s.) Sometimes, Gore's newly playful approach seems a tad forced; at one point in the movie, he's stranded for what seems like ages in front of a cartoon frog in sunglasses. But it's clear Gore is intent on getting his message out to audiences he's so far failed to reach.

The effort involves a few compromises. Gore, who in a 2004 New Yorker profile called George W. Bush "a bully" and "a coward," is apparently refraining from direct criticism while on the global-warming campaign trail (although he did recently compare George W. Bush to the scheming, homicidal president on 24). As we settle into our seats at a Philadelphia hotel, an aide brings in a copy of Rolling Stone featuring a rave review of An Inconvenient Truth. Gore flips to the cover, on which is a caricature of Bush in a dunce's hat and the text "The Worst President in History?" Gore pitches his voice to a falsetto parody of queenly remove and grandly remarks, "No comment. No, it would be ungraceful of me."

So yes, Al Gore does funny voices. And he watches The Sopranos. And he snorts when he laughs. If you think you already know what he has to say, read on.

According to the latest polls, 85 percent of Americans believe global warming exists, and 88 percent believe that it presents a threat to future generations. With numbers like those, why aren't we doing more?

Those same polls also sometimes measure the level of urgency that people attach to particular issues. And unfortunately, even though the awareness numbers are much higher now, the urgency is still quite low. Even though more people are connecting the dots and understanding that global warming is real, there are other dots that still need to be connected to produce an appropriate sense of urgency. The global scientific consensus has five elements [Gore ticks them off on his fingers]: Global warming is real. We're responsible for it. The consequences are very bad and getting worse, and headed toward catastrophic unless we act quickly. Number four, we can fix it, and number five, we can fix it because it's not too late.

Al Gore discusses the effects of global warming in this scene from An Inconvenient Truth. - ERIC LEE / PARAMOUNT CLASSICS

There are some people who say [counting back down on his fingers], OK, I accept that fact that it's real, but I'm not sure that we're the ones responsible for it. It may be just natural. [Three:] I'm not sure the consequences are all gonna be so bad. It may be some good, some bad. Maybe it's a wash. [Two:] I'm not sure that fixing it isn't gonna cause more problems than it will solve. [One:] And then there are people who say, it's too late, we can't do anything anyway. Connecting all five of those dots is really important. And that's what the movie does. That's what the book does.

I've been trying to tell this story for 30 years, and I've felt that I failed in it. But I think I'm making progress, and that's one reason I'm so happy that these moviemakers convinced me. They came to one of my slide shows and asked if they could make a movie out of it, and I was skeptical, but they convinced me, and I'm so glad now, because they've made a really entertaining movie that stays true to the science. I think when people connect all those dots, you will see a sense of urgency that goes up to the levels that match the awareness. And then the country will move past a tipping point and start taking action.

You said just now, and you say in the movie, that you've failed. That's not something we're used to hearing from politicians, even recovering ones. When did you come to feel that way, and how has it changed your approach?

Well, I've been at this a long time. When I started having hearings and making speeches, and especially after I started giving the slide show in the late '80s, I felt that it would only be a matter of time before the message was received, and taken in by enough people so that there would be a big response. And after so many years of trudgin' around the country and around the world, givin' this thing, and still there's no action to solve it, you would feel the same way, I guarantee you.

There have been times in the past when I thought we were close to a tipping point, and I turned out to be wrong. I don't think I'm wrong this time. I do believe that there are lots of shifts taking place. Eighty-five conservative evangelical ministers just broke with Bush and Cheney and announced they were going all-out to solve the climate crisis, and calling on their congregations to do so. Two hundred and eighteen cities have independently ratified Kyoto and are taking steps to comply with it. Big companies like General Electric that used to be on the other side of it are switching sides and fighting against global warming. At the grass-roots level, you see lots of people beginning to shift. I met with these kids from Alaska who signed up 10 percent of all the high school students in Alaska on a petition to urge their elected officials to change on this. Alaska's just melting, and all their elected officials are saying "What? What?" The grassroots is beginning to force the change. And so I'm optimistic.

It does seem like the American people are beginning to take the issue of global warming more seriously than they have in the past. How big a role do you think Katrina played?

I think it's played a big role. A big role. Just three weeks before Katrina hit, MIT put out a major new scientific study linking the strength and intensity of hurricanes to global warming. And then just three weeks later -- boom. To lose a major city, for however long a period, that's a big wake-up call. A lot of people did a gut check when they saw those images of corpses floating in the water five days later in a major American city. They thought, "Wait a minute. This isn't supposed to happen in the United States of America." And then they hear the scientists saying, "We warned you that these hurricanes are gonna get stronger."

Now, it's true that no individual hurricane can be attributed entirely to global warming. We've always had hurricanes. But it's also true that if the scientists say the average hurricane is gonna get a lot stronger because of global warming, and then we get hit by lots of much-stronger-than-normal hurricanes -- Hello! Those dots are not that hard to connect. And a lot of people who connected those dots started shifting on global warming. I've heard personally from a lot of people who said it was Katrina that got them to really shift off dead center and start thinking about it differently.

You've said many times recently that the government's attitude on climate change will change 15 minutes after Bush leaves office. But I don't get the sense that Congress is champing at the bit.

No, they're not. It's an inconvenient truth. It's inconvenient because even though the nation is addicted to oil, a lot of politicians are addicted to money from the oil companies. And more than that, addicted to a comprehensive pattern of massive consumption of fossil fuels, and the pollution it generates, and desert wars to protect the source, and huge debts to pay for the oil. It's a big dysfunctional pattern. When you get trapped in a big dysfunctional pattern, it's hard to change. And we're in Category Five denial, still.

But there is an awakening, and politics, like the climate, is a nonlinear system. The potential for change can build up unseen beneath the surface. But you can sense it building up. And it builds up to a point when suddenly something triggers the release of all that pent-up energy.

Assessing the melting snows of Mount Kilimanjaro - LONNIE G. THOMPSON
  • Lonnie G. Thompson
  • Assessing the melting snows of Mount Kilimanjaro

We have two gears in America, slow and lightning. In 1941, it was impossible to build 1,000 airplanes. But in 1943, it was pretty simple. When we make up our minds to do something, you might as well stand back and get out of the way. When, under President Kennedy, we made up our mind to put a man on the moon and bring him back safely in 10 years, we did it in nine. This will be the same thing. I know it's not easy, believe me. I have come face to face with resistance on every level. But it is yielding. It is beginning to yield.

Ever after 9/11, this administration seems to be unwilling to ask Americans to sacrifice. They'd rather send people $100 to buy gas than tell them to drive less.

[Snorts with laughter] You know, it's painful. "Let's give everybody $100." Do you watch The Sopranos? Tony Soprano beats up his driver. Did you see that episode? Some of his lieutenants are questioning whether he's got the moxie after his operation. So he comes back and he decides to just beat the hell out of his driver. And they're all going, "Whoaaa, the man's still got it." So after he does that, he sees the driver, and he goes and he gives him $100. That's what I thought of when I saw the proposal. "Hey, let's give everybody $100, because they've been beaten up by this."

So do you think they're right in their assumption that Americans are unwilling to sacrifice?

I think that the people are ahead of the politicians. I think that the willingness to sacrifice is connected to an overarching vision of what sacrifice means. The word sacrifice can be, like the word crisis, uni-dimensional, when it's actually made up of several factors. You've probably read where I've cited this old cliché about the word crisis the way the Chinese do it. Well, the word sacrifice is similar. It was a sacrifice when the American taxpayers financed the Marshall Plan after World War II. I'm sure the Chinese don't write it this way, but you could deconstruct the word sacrifice to wedge in the concept of investment in a situation like that. If people see that a near-term change is going to bring a mid-term or long-term benefit that is far larger, then they're willing to say, Yeah, we'll do this because it means that. Unfortunately, the word sacrifice sometimes gets compressed into a plea for masochism. "Ohh, you have to suffer. You have to do this because it's spiritually good for you." Nobody's sayin' that, or at least I'm not.

The word sacrifice, I think, is a difficult one, but going back to the Marshall Plan concept, what happened there is that the World War II generation, often called the Greatest Generation, rose to meet an overarching challenge in the form of global fascism, coming from Imperial Japan and Nazi Germany and Fascist Italy, and take on a war in Europe and the Pacific simultaneously. And they made sacrifices to do so. But the consequences of not doing so were unthinkable. So they transcended their limitations, and our nation transcended its limitations -- perceived limitations. In the process, they gained moral authority. They were energized and thrilled by the experience of sharing a common purpose, and setting aside the pettiness and bickering that we're all vulnerable to, and focusing on something that was inarguably crucial.

Having done so, they then found they had grown in their moral authority to the point where they could see clearly that the Marshall Plan was really a good thing to do. Even though it meant lifting to their knees the defeated Germans and the defeated Japanese. Even though we had just been face to face with them, looking at their bayonets. The American taxpayers paid for it -- heavily! It was a big expense. But it was wise. And it wasn't seen as a painful sacrifice. It was seen as a wise, visionary approach to building a better future.

Now, I believe that rising to meet the challenge of this climate crisis, with all of the transformations it will involve -- shifting to renewable fuels, integrating conservation and efficiency in every part of our lives, redesigning and rearchitecting the patterns of our cities and communities and lifestyles -- it seems impossible now. But it will also be energizing. It will lead to benefits that we don't yet see so clearly. And in the process, we will also, again, gain moral authority. And the ability to see other crises that are mislabeled as political problems, but actually also represent moral imperatives. The HIV/AIDS crisis, 20 million orphans in Africa alone. Child soldiers in intractable civil wars. Genocide in Darfur. Famine and starvation and tens of millions dying of these easily preventable diseases. Grinding poverty for billions. We are in a moment of potential global awakening, where global civilization is connecting in a new way, with the Internet and your generation perceiving itself so clearly to be part of a global generation, that the time is ripe for a new consciousness of how we can actually take these things in hand and solve them. There's a moral imperative to do it. And just as with the Marshall Plan, the benefits of doing so completely outweigh the near-term inconveniences and expense of taking it on. In retrospect, many years from now, it'll seem pretty obvious.

The biggest question to me is how to sell this to industry. To the Milton Friedmans of the world, corporate trustees who take environmental considerations into account are breaching their duty to maximize profits and ought to be fired. How do you convince corporations to earn less profit for the good of the planet?

Gore confers with An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim. - ERIC LEE / PARAMOUNT CLASSICS

The way we define profits is itself deeply flawed. The convenient use of the label "externalities" has masked and concealed this massive oversight. It has a history. It has a specific birthday. In the 1930s, between the two wars, Lord Keynes created the so-called National Accounts. Out of that came GDP, and out of that came the standard techniques for business accounting. He created this accounting system during the tail end of the colonial era. And mainly because of that, natural resources were seen as essentially limitless, and therefore a free good that didn't have to be [accounted for]. You had to account for the labor used in extracting it, the capital used to go and get it, but if you ran out -- you wouldn't run out, because you'd just go conquer another little country somewhere, and exploit it. As a result, he came up with very rigorous rules for keeping track of all the capital, slightly less rigorous rules for accounting for the labor. But natural resources were handled in a very sloppy way. Depreciation, for example, doesn't apply.

So if you're a third world country, and you have a million acres of rainforest, rich in biodiversity, and you decide to cut down every last tree and bush in one year, on your accounting system, that will come up as a huge positive. Congratulations. Nowhere will it show you that you've just completely destroyed your future. Writ large, that same flaw has led to what some people say is the case: We're operating planet Earth as if it's a business in liquidation. Because we're liquidating the ecological system.

Everything must go.

Everything must go -- and everything is going! But actually, if you look beyond the filter of the accounting system, and see the reality behind it, there are countless examples of businesses that have suddenly fallen off a cliff and been completely mystified by what happened, because they've been failing to take these factors into account, just in terms of their own business. And where the larger common good is concerned, of course, we have the result that we're now seeing. So there is a movement to change the accounting system. And Generation [X], incidentally, is very successful because it retrofits into the traditional accounting and measurement system a new way of taking that into account.

Abraham Maslow, the great psychologist of value, once said that if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. In the same way, if the only tool we use for measuring value is a price tag, then the things that don't come with price tags attached begin to look like they have no value. And yet they do. Businesses are getting wise to this. Investors are getting wise to this.

The whole quarterly-report mentality is a part of the same problem. We have to look at a business cycle, at least five to seven years, and not just demand that CEOs avoid environmental investments. They'll pay back handsomely, way above the price of capital, but not until two years have passed. So that means we may slightly miss the next quarterly report? God forbid. We have to change that.

This story originally appeared in the Philadelphia City Paper.


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