Al Gore Doesn’t Say I Told You So

Al Gore Doesn’t Say I Told You So

The former Vice-President revisits his early advocacy for the environment, assesses the impact of Elon Musk, and explains his optimism about two existential crises.

Black and white photograph of former U.S. Vice President Al Gore
Photograph by Fabrice Coffrini / AFP / Getty

There was always the possibility that Al Gore, after making the hideously painful decision to concede the contested 2000 Presidential election to George W. Bush, would have to live out the remainder of his life as both a tragic loser and a tragic hero—someone who stood down in the name of the orderly transition of power. Gore resisted self-pity by projecting mordant good humor. “Hi, I’m Al Gore,” he would tell audiences. “I used to be the next President of the United States.” Or, in slightly darker moods, he’d say, “You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some—and then there’s that little-known third category.”

In the years to come, Gore made targeted criticisms of the Bush Administration—particularly of the war in Iraq—and became a kind of evangelist on the issue of climate change. His interest in ecological issues was evident as early as 1976, when he was elected to Congress as a young Democrat from Tennessee; in 1992, he published “Earth in the Balance,” which called for a “Global Marshall Plan” to protect the environment.

In 2006, instead of seeking some other political office, he collaborated with the writer and director Davis Guggenheim on the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” delivering a kind of lecture-with-slides on the environmental disasters that the world would face if people and governments remained indifferent to the price of burning fossil fuels. In 2007, Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were together awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.”

Gore is an investor in green-technology businesses—a fact that regularly provokes criticism for alleged conflicts of interest—and he continues to write about the threat of climate change; promote the work of nonprofits, such as the Climate Reality Project and Climate TRACE; and, generally, campaign for governments, institutions, and individuals to act to prevent the worst.

Recently, as the warmest summer in recorded history was coming to an end, I spoke with Gore, who was in New York while the U.N. General Assembly was meeting. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, the former Vice-President discussed the fossil-fuel industry’s influence in politics, the U.N.’s climate efforts, and his hopes for America’s political will. Gore is seventy-five and lives in Nashville and also, as he put it, “on the road.” Our conversation also appears on The New Yorker Radio Hour.

Well, here we are. The last time I saw you, you came to The New Yorker and Condé Nast to talk about climate—this was probably ten years ago. And you were in the mode of warning, pushing, just as you had even years before, with “An Inconvenient Truth.” And now we’re through the summer of 2023, and anybody has to recognize that this is not a matter of the future—this is a matter of now. The climate crisis is now. We’re living in it. How do you assess what you saw—what we all saw—in the summer, all across the world?

Well, as you say, it now seems obvious to almost everyone that the severity of the crisis has reached a new level of intensity. Climate-related extreme events have become so common and so dangerous that people who wanted to dismiss it are now waking up to the reality that we’re facing. And, of course, the underlying substance is shocking. We’re still using the sky as an open sewer for the heat-trapping, gaseous pollution that we spew into it at the rate of a hundred and sixty-two million tons every single day. And we know how to solve it. We have the means to solve it. I’ve used the metaphor of flipping a switch, and some people have objected to that. But, really, we have a switch we can flip.

Describe what the switch is, what the political means are, and what stands in the way.

The climate crisis is really a fossil-fuel crisis. There are other components of it, for sure, but eighty per cent of it is the burning of fossil fuels. And scientists now know—and this is a relatively new finding, a very firm understanding—that, once we stop net additions to the overburden of greenhouse gases, once we reach so-called net zero, then temperatures on Earth will stop going up almost immediately. The lag time is as little as three to five years. They used to think that temperatures would keep on worsening because of positive-feedback loops—and some things, tragically, will. The melting of the ice, for example, will continue, though we can moderate the pace of that; the extinction crisis will continue without other major changes. But we can stop temperatures from going up almost immediately, and that’s the switch we need to flip. And then, if we can stay at true net zero, half of all human-caused greenhouse-gas pollution will fall out of the atmosphere in twenty-five to thirty years. So we can start the long and slow healing process almost immediately, if we act.

What’s required?

We have to find a way to shift out of our dependence on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. And, of course, the fossil-fuel industry, and the financial institutions that have grown codependent on them—

The banks—

The banks and the other large lenders, and associated industries, have, for more than a hundred years, built up a legacy network of political and economic influence. Shockingly, they have managed to convert their economic power into political power with lobbying, and campaign contributions, and the revolving-door phenomenon—where fossil-fuel executives go into the government.

I mean, the last President of the United States made the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil the Secretary of State. It’s almost hard to believe, but that is a symbol of how fossil-fuel companies have penetrated governments around the world. When ExxonMobil or Chevron puts its ads on the air, the purpose is not for a husband and wife to say, “Oh, let’s go down to the store and buy some motor oil.” The purpose is to condition the political space so that they have a continued license to keep producing and selling more and more fossil fuels.

Well, you’re not only an evangelist for climate change; you also are a politician, a seasoned politician.

I’m a recovering politician.

You’re looking better already. Tell me, why is it impossible for politicians to run on this successfully? What are the barriers preventing a day-to-day politician, on the state or national level, from making this an effective electoral cause?

The polluters have gained a high degree of control over the processes of self-government. I’ve often said that, in order to solve the crisis, we have to pay a lot of attention to the democracy crisis. Our representative democracy is not working very well. We have a dual hegemonic ideology called democratic capitalism, and the democracy part of our ideology has been cannibalized, to some extent, by economic actors, who have found ways to convert wealth into political influence. Wealth has always had its usefulness in the political sphere, but much more so in an era in which the candidate who raises the most money, and can buy the most media presence, almost always wins the election. And there’s been kind of evolutionary pressure as to people who go into politics: people who don’t want to put up with that kind of routine shy away from it now. Those who like it are more likely to run and get elected.

It seems to me that, until alternative energy sources are cheap enough and ubiquitous enough to overcome the price and ubiquity of fossil fuels, you’re always going to have a problem. Bill McKibben will argue—as you do, I think—that those sources of energy are around, and, no matter what you may think of Elon Musk as a matter of character, that electric cars are on their way. How far away are we, in technological and financial terms, from being able to overwhelm fossil fuels?

Well, we’re getting closer and closer. I’ll give you one statistic. If you were asked what percentage of the new electricity generation in the most populous country in the world—India—came from solar and wind last year, you might be surprised to hear that the answer was ninety-two per cent. Globally, eighty-eight per cent of all the new electricity generation last year was from renewables—eighty per cent from solar and wind. And yet we are still building more fossil-fuel facilities. There is now more money going into renewables than into fossil fuels, but the base of fossil-fuel generation is so large that it continues.

And, yes, Elon Musk single-handedly advanced the distribution of electric vehicles by fifteen, twenty years. Really quite a remarkable story.

You give him a lot of credit.

Oh, of course. As you said, whatever you think of him, he’s done a lot of good things.

But are you troubled by Elon Musk as a tribune for the cause?

Well, sure, sure. I mean, I have known him for a long time, and like some other of his longtime friends I have been puzzled and concerned by the U-turn he’s taken on some very fundamental issues. But electric vehicles made up nearly twenty per cent of all the new vehicles sold last year, and all of the big auto companies have long since shifted their R. & D. budgets and their focus to trying to compete in the electric-vehicle space. It will be a bumpy transition, but it is well under way.

So, how do you do that from the White House, from Congress? What do you want to see Joe Biden do? And can he do it—does he have the political and rhetorical capacity to do it effectively?

What Joe Biden did last year, in passing the so-called Inflation Reduction Act, which is really a climate bill, was the most extraordinary legislative achievement of any head of state and any country in history. However, we are still permitting fossil-fuel production on public lands. What would be the political cost for him of bringing it to a halt on public lands? Significant—and it can’t be blinked away, because of, again, the influence of the fossil-fuel industry. They have taken over one of our two major political parties, lock, stock, and oil barrel. It’s really quite shocking. But, as someone wrote, Mother Nature is staging an intervention, and I think we’re quite close to crossing a political tipping point.

Now, economists, to a person, will say that a carbon price is essential, whether in the form of a tax, or a fee, or whatever, but it’s seen as a political—


Death. I have the scars to prove it. I succeeded in January, 1993, at persuading the incoming Clinton-Gore Administration to put a carbon tax in our first budget proposal. And it passed the House of Representatives, and then was killed in the Senate. A decade and more later, Barack Obama succeeded in getting a so-called cap and trade, which is an indirect price on carbon, passed by the House, and again it died in the Senate.

But we now have seen the European Union innovate, and come to something called the Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism, which has appeal in the U.S. as well. It can be a back door to a more global carbon price. There are seventy-three jurisdictions around the world that have already enacted a form of a carbon tax. Most of them are too small and too weak, but they can be scaled up. I think we’re close to seeing a carbon tax. Look, at the African Climate Summit, the first ever, the leaders in Africa said, We need to have a carbon tax. And we need to devote the money to helping developing countries gain access to private capital markets so that they can participate in this clean-energy revolution; they’ve been walled off from it.

Yet another climate summit is coming up, this time in the Middle East. It seems odd who is leading it. How do you feel about that?

Yeah, it’s absurd. This year, the annual United Nations Climate Conference is in the United Arab Emirates, and they have named the head of their national oil company, Sultan al-Jaber, as the president of the conference. I think it’s—

[Laughs.] What does that portend?

Well, I think that it takes off a disguise that has masked the reality for quite some time. It’s absurd to put the C.E.O. of one of the largest and, by many measures, least responsible oil and gas companies in the world in charge of the climate conference. At last year’s conference, in Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt, the delegates from oil and gas companies outnumbered the combined delegations of the ten most climate-affected nations. The year before, in Glasgow, the fossil-fuel delegates outnumbered the largest national delegation. They have dominated this U.N. process the same way they’ve dominated so many state governments in the U.S., and the national government much of the time.

It goes back to the weakness of the United Nations as an institution. It has been that way since its creation. It’s the best we’ve got, so we have to make the best of it. COP1, the first of these annual conferences, took place three years after the Earth Summit, in Berlin. The young environment minister of Germany, Angela Merkel, was the president of COP1. The first order of business was to adopt the rules, including for how the world was going to make decisions. The default procedure was something called consensus, which is the same as unanimity, unless the president of the COP recognizes someone who is trying to object.

And so the petrostates—and in effect the fossil-fuel industry—have had a veto over anything the world community tried to do on fossil fuels. Even the great Paris agreement, which was a genuine achievement, could not use the phrase “fossil fuels.” Last year, there was a movement by the European Union and others to phase out fossil fuels—to begin the phaseout. And Saudi Arabia said, No, I’m sorry, we won’t permit that—you have to have our permission, and we will not grant you our permission. Sorry, world. We can’t even talk about fossil fuels.

It’s insane.

It’s insane. It’s utterly insane. Now, we can change those rules. Three-quarters of the nations could vote to change the rules and give a supermajority the political power to adopt binding resolutions. It’s a tough challenge, for sure. But we have to do it, and we have to find a way to do it. You’re right that, even if a supermajority of the nations gained the ability to pass binding resolutions, they’re not really binding if nations like Russia or Saudi Arabia—or the U.S.—want to just ignore them. But we can establish the so-called direction of travel. We can establish a new and strong consensus in the world that in order to save humanity’s future we have to phase out fossil fuels. I’m not saying it’s easy. It’s not easy. It’s the toughest thing humanity has ever tried to do.

Aren’t we losing the race miserably?

I would define it in different terms. Yes, we are. The crisis is still getting worse, faster than we are implementing the solutions. However, we are gaining momentum, and we’re gaining momentum so rapidly that I’m convinced we will soon be gaining on the crisis itself.

Is that your natural optimism speaking, or is it the facts? Do they back you up?

Well, I am temperamentally optimistic.

If I ask Elizabeth Kolbert, I get quite a different answer. She does everything she can to prevent despair, which is the unforgivable sin, but it creeps in.

Well, the old cliché “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt” should be joined by “Despair ain’t just a tire in the trunk.” Despair is just another form of climate denial. We don’t have time for it. The stakes are so high.

Just look at the climate migrants. There are many examples of this already. People from Central America coming through Mexico to the southern border of the U.S.—that’s driven by climate. You’ve got Viktor Orbán, and you’ve got ultranationalism rising in so many places. The Lancet Commission, which is widely respected, says that in this century we may have one billion climate migrants crossing international borders. That could threaten our capacity for self-governance.

So we have to act. We have no choice, really. There are obstacles to move out of the way. It’s not fair, perhaps, to ask the fossil-fuel companies to solve this crisis. They’re incentivized to keep on burning more fossil fuels. But it is fair to ask them to stop disrupting and blocking the efforts of everyone else to solve it.

You mentioned democracy early on. It is well known, at least to people of a certain age, that after challenging the results in 2000 you painfully, elegantly, and with grace conceded. We saw what we saw with January 6th. And now we face the possibility of that being a permanent condition, something that could happen over and over again, the way we’re now seeing impeachment as a kind of political weapon being used in the Republican House. You were prescient about the environmental crisis. Did the crisis of democracy take you by surprise?

No. Well, I wrote a book called “The Assault on Reason,” in 2007. It began with a notation that many Americans were asking the question, What has happened to America? It has been building for quite some time. But I think that the love people have for freedom, for self-determination, and for self-government is reawakening, and people are—

You think it’ll prevail?

I do. Again, I’m temperamentally optimistic. We don’t have time to wallow in despair. We’ve got work to do, and the stakes have never been higher. It’s hard to find words adequate to this challenge. I wish, so deeply, that I could find the words to inspire in others the burning passion for saving our country and making it, in Lincoln’s phrase, “the last best hope”; and revivifying the promise that America has always held for the world, with all of our contradictions and weaknesses and failures. But it relies upon the willingness of the American people to wake up, and fight to save our democracy, and to save the future of humanity. This all sounds so dire—but it is. ♦

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our privacy policy for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

Get Insightful, Cutting-Edge, Black Content Daily - Join "The Neo Jim Crow" Newsletter!

We don’t spam! Read our [link]privacy policy[/link] for more info.

This post was originally published on this site