Al Gore interview: ‘We’ll show you, Donald Trump’
The Nobel-prizewinning, vegan politician on America’s inconvenient president
Just over 10 years ago, An Inconvenient Truth, featuring former US vice-president Al Gore, opened in cinemas. Jollied along by Gore’s now well-travelled PowerPoint presentation on climate change, the Davis Guggenheim-directed documentary went on to win two Academy Awards and become one of the highest-grossing non-fiction films of all time.
Gore, additionally, landed the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to depict human-induced climate change.
Not everybody was a fan. As An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power – a new follow-up feature – opens, an aural collage of right-leaning commentators, including Glenn Beck, deride the original movie and compare Gore to Nazi propagandist Joseph Goebbels.
“It’s lucky that I did not have final cut,” laughs Gore. “Because some of those statements might not have survived. Also, in my mind I’m about 20 years younger and thinner with darker hair. So there were any number of scenes that would never have made it in for that reason.”
The former vice-president is unexpectedly chipper as we meet in London just ahead of An Inconvenient Sequel’s release. The film, too, is rather more optimistic than one might expect from a documentary that carefully joins the dots between alarming weather patterns and political crises, including the current situation in Syria, where the 2006-2011 drought is linked with agricultural collapse, mass migration and conflict.
Mother Nature, as Gore puts it, is weighing in on the debate.
“There are two major changes since the first film,” he says. “Every night on the news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations. People are connecting the dots even if the news media doesn’t.
“Secondly, the solutions are here. Electricity from solar and wind, for example, has come down in price. In many places it’s much cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels. And we now have the 2015 Paris agreement in which virtually every nation in the world has agreed to go to net zero global emissions by the mid-century. That’s a historic breakthrough. And it’s already making a huge difference.”
Aye, there’s the rub. Last June, Donald Trump confirmed that he would withdraw the US from the Paris climate accord. Gore remains confident, nonetheless, that the US – and the rest of the planet – will reach the Paris emission targets with or without the US president.
“Initially I was worried,” says Gore. “I did fear that other countries would use his decision as an excuse to withdraw themselves. But the very next day the entire rest of the world redoubled their commitments. As if to say: ‘We’ll show you, Donald Trump.’
The carbon polluters have consciously taken the old playbook of the tobacco companies
“In the US the governors of our largest states and hundreds of mayors and cities and business leaders stepped up to say: ‘We’re still in this.’
“In his speech he said he represented Pittsburgh, not Paris. And the mayor of Pittsburgh immediately said: We’re going to meet our commitments in spite of Donald Trump. The classic law of physics – that for every action there’s an equal and opposite reaction – often applies in politics. And the reaction to Donald Trump is very impressive.”
It remains striking, nonetheless, that between the two Inconvenient films, climate change denial has become mainstream, transforming from outlying opinion to official US policy. Since the beginning of the year, the phrase “climate change” has been systematically “scrubbed” from many federal websites.
“I’m not sure it’s quite mainstream,” says Gore. “But it is persistent. In my home state of Tennessee, there’s an old saying that if you see a turtle on top of a fence post you can be pretty sure that it didn’t get there by itself. So when you see persistent climate denial, you can be pretty sure that didn’t happen spontaneously.
“The carbon polluters have consciously taken the old playbook of the tobacco companies. The tobacco companies hired actors to dress up as doctors and reassured people there were no health problems associated with cigarettes. One hundred million people died as they delayed the appropriate policy changes to prevent young people from starting to smoke.
“Now the carbon polluters are doing exactly the same thing. They have hired many of the same PR firms. They’re dressing up pseudoscience and putting out false narratives to create false doubt. Not to win the argument. But so that the appearance of uncertainty will paralyse the political system and delay the time at which governments say: you can no longer use the sky as an open sewer for your 100 million tonnes of pollution every day. They are losing the struggle but we are not yet winning it fast enough.”
The “supreme court decision”, as he euphemistically refers to the Gore v Bush electoral contest of 2000 (without a trace of bitterness), may have nudged Al Gore along the ecological path. But as one of a group of scientifically-minded “Atari Democrats” of the 1980s, he was already deep into environmental science when, in 1989, a family crisis inspired his authorship of The Earth in Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.
Four books and two movies later, and there are several studies illustrating that his work has made a difference: in the months following the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the Pew Research Centre for People and the Press found that the percentage of Americans attributing global warming to human activity rose from 41 per cent to 50 per cent.
Preaching to the choir
He must worry, nonetheless, about preaching to the choir, particularly in an era when the cry of “fake news” rings out at the highest levels against anything deemed, well, inconvenient.
“Dale Ross, the mayor of Georgetown, Texas, is not a member of the choir,” he says. “But the new economics of renewable energy persuaded him to switch his city to 100 per cent renewable energy, and they have completed that transition. And their electricity bills have gone way down. The air is cleaner. And as a side benefit, they are helping the future of humanity.”
At 69, Gore retains the precise, pedagogic delivery that defined his years in office, not to mention the same deadpan humour he once used to deliver the line “Remember, America, I gave you the internet and I can take it away!” on the David Letterman Show (a self-deprecating response to the ludicrous urban myth that lampooned him as the self-appointed inventor of the worldwide web).
His apparently infinite capacity for politesse (“This was such a great pleasure for me,” he says at the end of what is likely his 160th interview of the day) speaks to an upbringing that straddled the American South and Washington, DC, where his father, Albert Gore Sr, served in the Senate for 18 years.
The Bernie Sanders campaign proves that you can run a powerful campaign without taking any money from lobbyists
Between well-rehearsed eco arguments, he’s happy to engage in banter. Yes, he and Bill Clinton are still friends. “We talked just the other day. It’s not the same as it was. We were almost like brothers for eight years. Or at least for seven of those eight years.”
And yes, having endured what he calls a “similar experience” to what Hillary Clinton went through last November, he was in a unique position to sympathise: “She’s going to be fine.” He pauses. “The country is another matter.”
An Inconvenient Sequel follows Gore to the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference in Paris, from where he tries to persuade Lyndon Rive, then chief executive of the American company SolarCity, to grant India – a possible treaty holdout – the rights to a patent on a type of solar technology. His horse-trading feels like a blueprint, an antidote to what he characterises as a “hacked” democracy.
“I believe one reason our democracy has been hacked is the information ecosystem,” says Gore. “When the American constitution was written, the printing press gave individuals access to reason, the best available evidence and pre-discourse.
“In the last third of the 20th century television replaced the written word as the dominant medium. And in the US, at least, that changed the political system radically, as candidates and office holders turned to special interests and rich people for the vast sums of money required for television ads. So they began to think about pleasing these interests rather than what would benefit their constituents. I watched this happen during my time in government.
“Now there’s a third information ecosystem emerging: the internet. For all its problems – like echo chambers and all the rest – individuals once again have access to the public forum. Bloggers and internet publications are shaping debates.
“And the Bernie Sanders campaign proves that you can run a powerful campaign without taking any money from lobbyists. I have hope that this will lead to a new politics, one which is accountable to the people again.”
Since 2010, repeated UN reports have suggested that a global shift towards a vegan diet is vital to save the world from hunger, fuel poverty and the worst impacts of climate change. An Inconvenient Sequel broaches the problem of agricultural emissions but does not directly address meat consumption. Why?
“There are many aspects of the climate crisis that I have explored in books but that are not the central focus of the films. I became a vegan five years ago just as an experiment. And I felt much better so I continued with it.
“But there’s another reason I didn’t get into it and I’ll admit to it: choice of diet is such a personal thing. And I don’t yet feel comfortable proselytising to others on what they choose to eat. Their doctors will tell them that eating less meat is healthier, as well as being advantageous for the climate. Agriculture accounts for about 15 per cent of the climate crisis. That’s a huge number.”
Gore compares climate change activism with “the great social revolutions: civil rights, women’s suffrage, the anti-apartheid movement, gay rights” and has now spent years on the road as an eco-evangelist.
There can be little doubt that he is an ethical fellow. As a young man he served in Vietnam so “someone else wouldn’t have to”, even though he, like his father, was against the war.
Following the death of his sister Nancy Gore Hunger from lung cancer, he and his parents stopped growing tobacco on their own farms. Contrary to many “Learjet environmentalist” caricatures, he doesn’t own a private jet, and when he does fly, he is careful to offset the carbon footprint.
Still, one has to wonder about his unshakeable faith in the current political system. In an interview with Vox this month, Gore’s eldest daughter Karenna, the director of New York’s Centre for Earth Ethics, seemed to chime with Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs the Climate, a book that frames climate change as a battle between capitalism and the planet.
“The rise of income inequality is a dangerous trend that threatens both capitalism and democracy,” says Gore. “I don’t agree with the view that this is fundamentally a conflict between capitalism and ecology. I do agree that we need dramatic reforms in capitalism.
“There was moment in 1937 when the national accounts were formed along with GDP. And the author of that innovation pleaded with people not to use this as a guide for national economic policy. Why? Because the way we measure value in capitalism today excludes externalities: both negative externalities like pollution and positive externalities like mental health care or childcare.
“If you invest in those services it’s counted as an expense. The depletion of natural resources and the distribution of net income do not show up as expenses. These are serious defects.
“The short focus of how capitalism is currently being pursued is a defect. All of these defects must be reformed. If not, then capitalism would be in conflict with the planet.
“But I believe the way forward is to capture the benefits of capitalism. When it works it balances supply with demand rather ingeniously, it unlocks a higher fraction of the human potential, rewards hard work and innovation, and is congruent with personal, religious and economic freedom.”
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is on general release
Al Gore on . . . riding the mighty moon worm in ‘Futurama’
Chalk it up to the Mandela Effect, but during An Inconvenient Sequel, Al Gore is variously recognised by members of the public as the current vice-president of the US and the former president of the US.
Having made several guest appearances on Futurama, Matt Groening’s animated sci-fi series, he can top that. “There’s a certain demographic who will walk up to me on the sidewalk,” he laughs. “And they appear to have no knowledge or interest in the fact that I was vice-president or whatever. But they will shout things like, ‘Ride the mighty moon worm!’”