This week, thousands of environmental advocates gathered in Los Angeles for a summit hosted by the Climate Reality Project, a non-profit founded by former Vice President Al Gore that, since 2006, has worked to create a grassroots network of climate activists. This year's summit is the non-profit's largest "climate leadership corps" training event to date: More than 2,200 people signed up for the training to become "Climate Reality Leaders," after which they'll take these lessons back to their communities to push for urgent, local action on climate change.
The summit began on the heels of the release of California's fourth climate assessment, a dire report that found heat waves, wildfires, and sea-level rise will be more destructive, deadly, and costly than previously thought. But Gore remained characteristically optimistic as he delivered one of his now-legendary slideshows about the climate crisis and its solutions, noting that California lawmakers were at that very moment considering legislation that would require the state to get 100 percent of its electricity from renewable sources by 2045. (The bill, known as Senate Bill 100, passed the state assembly on Tuesday and now goes to the state senate for consideration.)
"We're going to win this," Gore said to the crowd, "but it matters a lot how long it takes to win this."
Pacific Standard sat down with Gore after the first day's events to talk about the past and future of climate messaging, President Donald Trump's failures on the climate crisis, and what individual citizens can do to combat global warming.
You've said before that changing laws and policies is more important than changing lightbulbs, and is arguably more efficient for solving this time-sensitive crisis, so why do you focus on grassroots efforts with the Climate Reality Project? What is that strategy uniquely capable of accomplishing?
With more grassroots political activism, you will see state senators and state representatives, congressmembers, and United States senators pay more attention to what the majority opinion really is, and pay less attention to lobbyists for large carbon polluters.
If you could wave a wand and go back to 1992, when you published Earth in the Balance—is there anything you have done differently in terms of messaging?
I feel as if I've learned a lot over the years. I don't know how I could have learned it without going through the experiences I went through, but in retrospect I think that more emphasis earlier on focused on health effects of the climate crisis would probably be something that I would emphasize more. In general, I have poured every ounce of energy I have into this struggle, and I guess if I had a time machine and could go back, I would try to find even more energy to pour into it. The resistance has been more than I expected from the large carbon polluters. I think that's partly because, during this struggle, our democracy was hacked. Long before the Russians hacked it, lobbyists and big contributors hacked it, and we really have to deal with the dysfunction in American democracy in order to solve problems like the climate crisis.
What do you make of Democrats' messaging on climate today?
Of course I believe that advocating for solutions to the climate crisis should be at the center of the Democratic Party's message. I also think it should be at the center of the Republican Party's message. I know that sounds unlikely, but this used to be a bipartisan issue, years ago. There used to be Republican presidents who were very much in favor of protecting the environment and protecting the climate. Again, the influence of the large carbon polluters has had more of an impact on the Republican Party than on the Democratic Party, but it's had an impact on the Democratic Party as well. So I think that it's really important, especially for the members of my party, to put solutions to the climate crisis at the center of their narrative. It creates millions of jobs, it improves health, it cleans up the environment, improves our national security—what's not to like?
Within the Democratic Party, there are divisions between keep-it-in-the-ground types and pro-business folks—how do you see those getting resolved?
I don't want to minimize the division that you've pointed to; it's certainly real. But I think, increasingly, the continued decrease in the price of renewable electricity is making that choice an easier one to make. The fact that solar jobs are growing nine times faster than other jobs in the economy, the fact that wind turbine technician is the second fastest-growing job, the fact that there's so many millions of job opportunities in efficiency and sustainability—this makes the old argument about a conflict between the economy and the environment completely obsolete. More and more candidates and political activists are recognizing that.
Given the harm caused to the environment and human health by the fossil fuel industry so far, will we reach a point where the government should step in to stop the expansion or operation of fossil fuel companies?
Yes, but we can start by eliminating the taxpayer subsidies of fossil fuel production and infrastructure. We now subsidize fossil fuels at a rate 38 times larger than the subsidies for renewables. That's crazy. The president is proposing massive increases in these subsidies for fossil fuels. If we just let the market forces operate, we would see a much faster transition to renewable sources. But yes, I do believe, in addition to eliminating these subsidies, we should have tighter regulations on global warming pollution, on particulate pollution that causes lung diseases, and we should see mandatory goals for the achievement of 100 percent renewable energy. I do very strongly support much tighter limits on the emissions that can come from the production of electricity, and that can come from cars and trucks, and if those limits are imposed, and if there is a requirement for a sharp reduction in global warming pollution, then that in itself will have the effect of slowing and then shutting down fossil fuel production. I hope that occurs sooner rather than later.
Do you think that indirect approach will still be quick enough to stave off the worst effects of climate change?
I think that a requirement to reach 100 percent renewable energy is not indirect; I think that's a direct approach.
The Trump administration is systematically dismantling the previous administration's climate policies, and it can be hard to keep track of everything. In your view, what is the single most harmful thing that the current administration has done for climate action?
It's a lot of competition. Personally, I was more affected emotionally by the incredibly cruel decision to separate children from their parents at the border. That was functionally evil. It hurt my heart. It really made me feel that something is deeply wrong with the way this administration conceives of policies. But in the environment area, which is what you're asking about, I feared that the worst decision would have been the decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement, but that has not turned out to be as damaging as I feared. I did worry that other nations would follow Trump's lead and use his decision as an excuse for them to pull out themselves, but none of them did. And to the contrary, so many states, including California, have stepped up to say, "We'll continue abiding by this agreement." And [Trump] can't legally accomplish [exiting the Paris Agreement] until the day after the next election anyway.
Among those policies that he has enacted, I think his decision to dismantle the Clean Power Plan is also a very harmful policy, but it's yet another example of how the courts are limiting what he can do. The technology and business trends are overwhelming what Trump has tried to accomplish, so I would really look at the totality of his overall approach and say that I'm opposed to just about every part of it. I think he's a terrible president, and that may sound partisan, but I have many Republican friends who feel the same way.
Our dependence on fossil fuels is systemic, we're all complicit to a certain extent, so on a personal responsibility front, what can individuals do to change that and combat climate change?
In every consumer purchase, you send a signal through the marketplace to businesses and manufacturers. I think that's happening now, but the more people who become climate-conscience consumers, the more that will happen in the economy. So many businesses have now said they're going to become 100 percent renewable, they're going to recycle all their materials, and more will as more consumers are aware. But I think the most important thing, honestly, is to register to vote, and to vote, and to make sure that your friends and family members and colleagues and acquaintances vote, and communicate with the candidates and office holders. We have to bring our democracy back to life, and it seems sometimes like a futile task, but it's not. We're close to a tipping point here. I think the odds are now in favor of the House of Representatives changing hands in November. [Knocks on wood] I don't want to jinx it, but it certainly feels like that's going to happen.
What about divesting from fossil fuels?
I'm in favor of pension funds and asset managers divesting from fossil fuels. I think that's not only the correct decision morally, but I think it's the correct decision economically. Because two-thirds of the fossil fuels that are already discovered—already marked on the books of these companies, already reflected in their stock prices—two-thirds of those fuels can't be burned, won't be burned. It's a little like the subprime mortgage crisis of years ago—2008—where all of a sudden people realized, "Oh my gosh, these assets have no value," and that triggered the credit crisis and then the Great Recession. Well, these subprime carbon assets amount to $22 trillion of dead weight in the global economy. So asset managers should look very carefully at the risk they're facing if they hold onto these stocks.
Are you personally divested?
Oh yes, absolutely. Totally.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.