Al Gore tries to smile

For­mer Vice Pres­i­dent Al Gore, star of the up­com­ing film An In­con­ve­nient Se­quel, has a new mes­sage about cli­mate change— and it’s not all bad.

Fast Company - - Contents - In­ter­view by Adele Peters Pho­to­graphs by Mark Ma­haney

Why the for­mer vice pres­i­dent is op­ti­mistic de­spite cli­mate change.

A decade af­ter the Os­car-win­ning doc­u­men­tary An In­con­ve­nient Truth made the threat of cli­mate change real to mil­lions of movie­go­ers, the film’s star, Al Gore, is back to make it even more so. In An In­con­ve­nient Se­quel, due in the­aters July 28, he shares an out­look that is both more dire and more op­ti­mistic: Last year was the hottest ever on record, but it also marked a high point for in­stal­la­tions of re­new­able en­ergy. Gore be­lieves that the mo­men­tum for pos­i­tive change has be­come un­stop­pable, no mat­ter what cur­rent pol­i­tics might in­di­cate. “We will solve this cri­sis,” Gore says. “No doubt about it.”

What made you want to make a se­quel to An In­con­ve­nient Truth? Since we still have so much work to do, a lot of peo­ple over the past sev­eral years have asked me if I would be will­ing to make a se­quel—in par­tic­u­lar

Jeff Skoll, whose com­pany, Par­tic­i­pant Me­dia, made the first movie. I have to tell you that when the idea for the first movie was pre­sented to me, over a decade ago, I was skep­ti­cal. I was con­sis­tent this time around and skep­ti­cal once more. I guess I was just wor­ried be­cause the first one was so well re­ceived. But I’m glad that wiser heads pre­vailed.

The movie bal­ances a sense of ur­gency over the grow­ing cli­mate cri­sis with a great deal of hope. At one point, you visit a small, con­ser­va­tive town in Texas that’s now com­mit­ted to be­ing 100% pow­ered by re­new­able elec­tric­ity. That’s one of my fa­vorite scenes. I think the achieve­ments of Ge­orge­town, Texas, are es­pe­cially im­por­tant be­cause they demon­strate that all the won­der­ful work that has been done by in­no­va­tors, by sci­en­tists, tech­nol­o­gists, star­tups, and CEOS has come to­gether to pro­duce a star­tling rev­o­lu­tion in re­new­able en­ergy, with so­lar and wind elec­tric­ity now cheaper than elec­tric­ity made from burn­ing fos­sil fu­els in many places. Ge­orge­town, a very con­ser­va­tive com­mu­nity, took a close look at the eco­nom­ics of all the op­tions avail­able to them. Partly be­cause they have a CPA as the mayor, they made the bold de­ci­sion to fol­low the eco­nom­ics and break free from the pat­terns of the past. They’re en­joy­ing the ben­e­fits of that de­ci­sion now.

In­dus­try ex­perts have ar­gued that wind and so­lar power are now cheap enough that they will con­tinue to grow re­gard­less of what hap­pens po­lit­i­cally. Some cor­po­ra­tions are also com­mit­ting to am­bi­tious cli­mate ac­tion. How much do you think the busi­ness world can ac­com­plish on its own with­out strong pol­icy? Many parts in the busi­ness world are way ahead of most of the po­lit­i­cal world, at least in the U.S. How­ever, the pace of change can be pro­foundly ac­cel­er­ated with the right gov­ern­ment poli­cies. We’re still putting 110 mil­lion tons of globe-warm­ing pol­lu­tion into the earth’s at­mos­phere ev­ery 24 hours—treat­ing it like an open sewer—and much of it will re­main there for hun­dreds of years. Some for thou­sands of years. If we don’t ac­cel­er­ate the pace of change, the dam­age done to the prospects for hu­man civ­i­liza­tion would be quite se­vere. So it is im­por­tant that we have the right poli­cies. For ex­am­ple, the sub­si­dies around the world for the burn­ing of fos­sil fu­els are 40 times larger than the mea­ger sub­si­dies for re­new­able en­ergy.

There’s a scene in the movie, filmed on Novem­ber 10, where you call the 2016 elec­tion a set­back and say that it’s one of a long line of set­backs in ad­dress­ing cli­mate change. How much dam­age do you think the new ad­min­is­tra­tion could do, or how much has it pos­si­bly al­ready done? (Trump is ex­pected to an­nounce in late May or early June whether the U.S. will stay in the Paris cli­mate agree­ment.) It’s dif­fi­cult to pre­dict. Some of their early pol­icy de­ci­sions have of course been dis­cour­ag­ing, but it’s al­most im­pos­si­ble to over­state the sig­nif­i­cance of what hap­pened in Paris, a year ago De­cem­ber, when ev­ery na­tion in the world, save a few ex­cep­tions hardly worth men­tion­ing, agreed to go to net zero green­house emis­sions early in the sec­ond half of this cen­tury. Be­cause that sent a sig­nal to busi­nesses, in­vestors, and lo­cal and na­tional gov­ern­ments ev­ery­where. And that sig­nal has been re­ceived. The pace of change has ac­cel­er­ated dra­mat­i­cally.

You have said that Amer­i­can lead­er­ship is nec­es­sary for cli­mate ac­tion. Do you still think that? Yes, I do. There is a law of physics that has be­come some­thing of a cliché in pol­i­tics, and that is that for ev­ery ac­tion, there is an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion. There’s no doubt in my mind that the im­pres­sive surge of sup­port for pro­gres­sive or­ga­ni­za­tions is ev­i­dence that there is an equal and op­po­site re­ac­tion to Trump­ism that is now tak­ing hold in Amer­i­can democ­racy.

“Mother Na­ture has joined this dis­cus­sion. Cli­matere­lated ex­treme weather events are in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble for peo­ple to ig­nore.”

What hap­pened dur­ing your meet­ing with Pres­i­dent Trump

in De­cem­ber? (The two also re­port­edly spoke by phone in May.) Well, I appreciate and re­spect the ques­tion. But I have fol­lowed a pol­icy of not vi­o­lat­ing the pri­vacy of those ex­changes. I be­lieve that any pres­i­dent who en­ters into a set of con­fi­den­tial ex­changes de­serves to have them treated pri­vately. And so for­give me if I don’t vi­o­late that rule. It also safe­guards the op­por­tu­nity for a con­tin­u­a­tion of the di­a­logue.

In or­der to fix the cli­mate cri­sis, you be­lieve that we need to fix the democ­racy cri­sis. Do you think we can re­store po­lit­i­cal dis­course quickly enough to ad­dress cli­mate change? I sure hope so. Al­ready we see ev­ery im­por­tant pol­icy-re­form move­ment liv­ing and breath­ing on the in­ter­net. We see blog­gers af­fect­ing pol­icy de­bates. We see dig­i­tal fact-check­ers blow­ing the whis­tle on these big lie cam­paigns that still flour­ish in tele­vi­sion ad­ver­tis­ing—the cli­mate de­niers, for ex­am­ple. I’m op­ti­mistic that this trend will con­tinue. And you know, the Bernie San­ders cam­paign last year. I’m not en­dors­ing his plat­form—i agreed with some of his ideas and dis­agreed with oth­ers—but I want to give him all the credit he de­serves for prov­ing that a se­ri­ous na­tion­wide pres­i­den­tial cam­paign can be mounted with­out any spe­cial-in­ter­est money, re­ly­ing ex­clu­sively on small con­tri­bu­tions over the in­ter­net from peo­ple who agree with the ideas a can­di­date ex­presses. Ideas, the best avail­able ev­i­dence, vi­sion, a sen­si­ble course for the fu­ture—that should count for a lot more than some fat cat’s con­tri­bu­tions of money in re­turn for spe­cial fa­vors in pol­icy de­signed to sup­port their source of rev­enue.

I’m very fond of the wis­dom ex­pressed by the late econ­o­mist Rudi Dorn­busch, who I had the priv­i­lege of know­ing. He once said that things take longer to hap­pen than you think they will. But then they hap­pen much faster than you thought they ever could. The civil rights move­ment, the women’s suf­frage move­ment, the abo­li­tion move­ment long be­fore, an­ti­a­partheid, gay rights—all of these rev­o­lu­tions seemed at times al­most hope­less to many of the ad­vo­cates. But once the un­der­brush was cleared away, and the ul­ti­mate choice was re­solved into a bi­nary de­ci­sion be­tween what’s right and what’s wrong, then it be­gan to hap­pen with light­ning speed. And I think that’s where the cli­mate move­ment is now. We are right at that in­flec­tion point.

“Many parts in the busi­ness world are way ahead of most of the po­lit­i­cal world, at least in the U.S. How­ever, the pace of change can be pro­foundly ac­cel­er­ated with the right gov­ern­ment poli­cies.”

Cli­mate change is a topic you’ve been talk­ing about for years. What have you found to be the most ef­fec­tive way to com­mu­ni­cate your mes­sage? Among the lessons I’ve learned is the im­por­tance of con­vey­ing re­al­is­tic hope. Be­cause de­spair can be par­a­lyz­ing, and the fear of these consequences is not nec­es­sar­ily the most ef­fec­tive way to change minds and mo­ti­vate peo­ple. But when you can con­vey hope in a re­al­is­tic way, that un­locks a higher frac­tion of the po­ten­tial for change.

How do you make cli­mate change a pri­or­ity for peo­ple wor­ried about more im­me­di­ate is­sues, such as their job? First of all, jobs in the so­lar in­dus­try are grow­ing on an an­nual ba­sis 17 times faster than av­er­age job growth in the econ­omy as a whole. The sin­gle fastest-grow­ing job de­scrip­tion over the next 10 years is pre­dicted to be wind-power tech­ni­cians. Sec­ond, more peo­ple are ac­tu­ally be­gin­ning to make so­lu­tions to the cli­mate cri­sis one of their top pri­or­i­ties. One rea­son is that Mother Na­ture has joined this dis­cus­sion. Cli­mate-re­lated ex­treme weather events are in­creas­ingly im­pos­si­ble for peo­ple to ig­nore. Af­ter a while, peo­ple say, Wait a minute, this is not an ab­stract de­bate. This is af­fect­ing my life.

You run an in­vest­ment man­age­ment firm that fo­cuses on sus­tain­abil­ity. How long do you think it will take for sus­tain­abil­ity to be a stan­dard con­sid­er­a­tion for all in­vest­ment firms? I think there is a big move­ment now that is gain­ing speed. When sus­tain­abil­ity is in­te­grated prop­erly into the in­vest­ment process, the ev­i­dence in­di­cates that re­turns can im­prove. There is vo­lu­mi­nous aca­demic re­search now show­ing that in most sec­tors of the econ­omy, com­pa­nies that fully in­te­grate sus­tain­abil­ity into their busi­ness plans are out­per­form­ing their com­peti­tors. For ex­am­ple, it helps tremen­dously in re­cruit­ing and re­tain­ing the best em­ploy­ees. Be­cause peo­ple want to work for a firm that shares their val­ues.

What would you tell some­one who wants to sup­port cli­mate ac­tion but doesn’t know where to be­gin? Learn about it. Don’t let cli­mat­e­change de­nial go un­chal­lenged. Be a con­scious par­tic­i­pant in the mar­ket­place, be­cause your choices not only help in­cre­men­tally, but also ex­ert lever­age on busi­nesses. And par­tic­i­pate in the po­lit­i­cal process. The thresh­old for pop­u­lar democ­racy mak­ing a dif­fer­ence may be higher in an age when big money con­tri­bu­tions still play an un­healthy role. But that thresh­old can be crossed, and we’re see­ing the im­pact of all the peo­ple show­ing up at these town hall meet­ings al­ready. There are now 30 Repub­li­can mem­bers of the House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives who have changed their po­si­tions to be sup­port­ive of solv­ing the cli­mate cri­sis. We don’t need many more be­fore we have a work­ing ma­jor­ity in Congress. And it never should have been a par­ti­san is­sue any­way.

The ex­tended fore­cast “Among the lessons I’ve learned is the im­por­tance of con­vey­ing re­al­is­tic hope. Be­cause de­spair can be par­a­lyz­ing.”

Man on a mis­sion Right: In a scene from An In­con­ve­nient

Se­quel, Gore talks with ty­phoon sur­vivors in the Philip­pines. Be­low: Gore vis­its Trump Tower in De­cem­ber.

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