Al Gore on the climate-change fight’s new challenges

Eleven years after 'An Inconvenient Truth,' Al Gore speaks about his new film, and what's changed since—including the presidency of Donald Trump

Al Gore poses for a portrait while promoting his new film, An Inconvenient Sequel, in Toronto on Friday, July 21, 2017. (Photograph by Mikaela MacKenzie)

It may not feel like so long ago, but 2006 was a different time. Facebook and Twitter, which today fuel so much of our conversations, were still budding concerns. A blustering man named Donald Trump was a popular reality-TV host. And climate change was being discussed really at the edges, and hardly by the masses.

It was at this point, 11 years ago, that An Inconvenient Truth was released, and its dramatic talk of rising sea-levels made, well, waves. The movie, capturing and catalyzing the conversations being had about climate change at the time, made it the eleventh-highest grossing documentary in U.S. history, and it won an Academy Award for best documentary. Its star, the recount-rejected almost-President turned climate crusader Al Gore, earned a Nobel Prize and a reputation as a leader of the climate movement.

Advertisement

But Trump—these days, the president of the United States—has stated that he is not a believer in climate change. He’s surrounded himself with advisors who are evangelicals on that point, and America has pulled out of the international Paris Agreement. And the Trump White House is not alone in its skepticism. In the decade since An Inconvenient Truth premiered, general acceptance of the science behind climate change has been met by voices that continue to call it into question. The issue, seemingly settled by the data, is rhetorically stuck in a deadlock. Compounding the challenge to prompt immediate action is an apathy that has come with time: according to a recent Yale survey, while more than 70 per cent of Americans believe global warming is happening, and nearly 60 per cent are worried about climate change, only 43 per cent think it will “harm me, personally.”

Time for an update, then. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which comes out Aug. 4, is a call to arms for those invested in the climate-change fight, a personal polemic from Gore that’s less an education and more of an intervention.

In an interview with Maclean’s, the former U.S. vice president and the movie’s Canadian executive producer, Jeff Skoll, spoke about the challenges in communicating the threat of climate change, what happens when potential solutions fail, and what went wrong for the Democratic Party in the 2016 election. This interview has been condensed and edited.

One of the striking differences between An Inconvenient Truth and An Inconvenient Sequel was how personal it felt—for instance, it begins by listing off the criticisms against Mr. Gore. Why was that the case?

Al Gore: I think it mainly has to do with the point of view of the directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who are masters of cinema verité technique, and they followed me around with cameras for two years. There were a lot of times when I saw the first rough cut where I was astonished that they had captured things on film that I had forgotten were there. When you’re going through an emotional experience and you’re focussed completely on what’s happening, you can’t even spare any attention that the camera’s there.

The difference between the two films comes down to their different approach, and also that some things have changed in the last decade. The extreme weather events related to climate are more frequent and much worse, and the solutions are here now—we had an opportunity to tell a new story. And one of the reasons that Jeff was so adamant in convincing me in going forward with a new movie was that we have a new story to present to the world.

Jeff Skoll: Eleven years ago, no one was really talking about climate change, and Al brought that subject to the table. We shot that movie in five months; nobody really know what they had, and it came out and caught on in the world like gangbusters. Davis Guggenheim, the director of the first film, did a great job, and he rightly said, “I’ve done my best, it needs another point of view.” We had the luxury this time of two sensational filmmakers who took those two years and travelled with Al around the world that created this wonderful story.

You spoke in the film about a personal crisis of faith, a feeling of despair that overtook you at one point in your fight. What happened, and how did you move past it?

AG: Well, anyone who deals with the climate crisis has an internal dialogue between hope and despair, because the challenge is so huge and the danger is so great and the stakes are so high. But I have always resolved that in favour of hope, and actually I’m more hopeful now than I was a decade ago when the solutions were visible on the horizon, but you had to seek reassurance that the technology experts that they’re coming, they’ll be here. But now they’re here, and in many parts of the world, in North America, the electricity from solar and wind is much cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels, and now the batteries are coming down in price, which lets you use solar electricity at night and wind electricity in the day, and that’s going to be a complete game-changer, worldwide.

So that hope I feel is not based on an act of will, it’s based on the evidence I see, not least the results in the Paris conference 18 months ago, which saw every nation in the world come together in a really historic breakthrough—net-zero global warming pollution by mid-century or soon thereafter as possible. And now many countries, even in the wake of President Trump’s speech last month, are doubling down on their commitments, and in my country, many of our governors and mayors and business leaders have stepped up to fill the gap and say we’re going to meet the requirements of the Paris agreement regardless of what President Trump does.

 

What was your personal moment of despair?

AG: It was when I saw the evidence that the large carbon polluters were using the playbook of the tobacco companies from years ago and spending enormous sums of money to pull the wool over people’s eyes to put out false evidence to create false doubts. But now more and more people are seeing through that, and there’s a new participants in the discussion, and that’s Mother Nature—turns out she’s more persuasive than any of the scientists are. Just look at the fires in British Columbia today. More than 40 large fires raging in the United States, today. Every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation and more and more people are connecting the dots and realizing that we really have to face up to this challenge—not only for our kids and grandkids but for ourselves too, it’s happening right now.

As people do connect the dots, more people know about climate change—but there are fewer minds to change. People are hardening in their stances. An Inconvenient Sequel feels like it’s talking to the people who already believe—you’re giving presentations to people who are looking to give the same presentation to others. Is that dangerous, the risk of speaking only to the converted?

JS: One of the things we wanted to get across in this movie is that the solutions are there. The breakthrough in solar and in batteries and in other forms of renewables has happened.

AG: One of the things that is documented in the film is that people way outside any echo-chamber are now waking up to the new realities. For example there’s a moving scene in the movie that takes place in a conservative Republican city of Georgetown, Texas, with a conservative Republican Trump-supporting mayor who is also a CPA and ran the numbers and decided with his city council to shift over to 100 per cent renewable energy in the heart of oil country. And they’ve accomplished that now. And the electricity bills are going down and more jobs are being created. And that’s a new realization that’s spreading across North America, all across the world. India is closing coal-burning plants and vastly expanding solar. This is the kind of dramatic change and turn to the right direction that we need.

I want to talk about some of those solutions; one that was advocated in An Inconvenient Truth was carbon capture and sequestration. But that’s troubled now; for instance, the Kemper plant in Mississippi has moved away from CCS and is now burning natural gas. Saskatchewan’s Boundary Dam is experiencing cost overruns. You can put a lot of hope in some solutions, but what if these solutions start to fail? What if they don’t take?

JS: Obviously being entrepreneurial means taking risks, putting bets on lots of different things. Some of the things we put our bets on years ago were solar and wind; ten years ago, it cost $4 a watt to get solar installed, today it costs 38 cents a watt. It’s going down to pennies in the next years. Burning coal and trying to capture its off gasses, y’know, probably wasn’t the best idea, but we’re trying. In the meantime, I think the biggest breakthrough that’s upon us is the new generation of batteries which are super inexpensive, super powerful; we can have a global grid with batteries, solar and wind within a decade if we put our minds to it. The only thing that can slow us down are political obstacles, the economics are there. We’re still making bets on technologies and we always will, but the ones that are advanced now have not only have proven their track record but they’re about to demonstrate that even more so.

AG: And where carbon capture and sequestration is concerned, it’s still worth doing research to see if they can come up with a new approach. They’re using now a particular approach that works, but it’s just way too expensive and none of the utilities want to take a third of the electricity they’re now selling and divert it to run a carbon capture process. But if they come up with some breakthrough it may yet still play a role. But Jeff’s approach is I think exactly the right one—you’ve got to try a lot of different solutions and see which ones work.

Critics have called An Inconvenient Truth alarmist. And it is, at least, surely alarming. Between this film, America’s presidency and a New York Magazine story that provides doomsday scenarios, should fear be used as a motivator to reduce carbon emissions?

AG: Well, I think it always has to be leavened by hope. And the hope is real. And this movie leaves audiences extremely hopeful. It gives them an appreciation for how incredibly serious the challenge is, how dangerous the risks are, but it leaves them hopeful, and it should, because we’re seeing a turning now.

There have been endless debates how best to communicate concerning the climate crisis. My own answer to that question is that I’m not sophisticated enough to know all the behavioural psychology and neuroscience findings. I just concentrate on trying to tell the truth and trying to present the facts about the dangers and about the solutions and the activism.

Is there anything hopeful you can find about a U.S. administration that has pulled America out of the Paris Accord, has appointed climate-change deniers to environmental advisory roles, and will be in power for at least four crucial years when it comes to making a dent in carbon emissions?

AG: I’ve been looking for it, and I’m not going to hold my breath on Donald Trump changing his view. I tried very hard in conversations with him beginning in Trump Tower after the election and continuing in the first months of his presidency. I don’t think he’s going to change his mind, myself—I’d love to be proven wrong. But he’s surrounded himself with a rogues’ galleries of climate deniers and that’s unfortunate. But our governors and mayors and business leaders are working around him and we’re going to solve it regardless of what he tweets.

JS: I just happened to be amongst a group of the world’s top clean tech entrepreneurs and investors the day Trump announced the pullout from Prais—these are folks like Bill Gates and Elon Musk—and to a tee, every one of us was doubling down on our determination to make sure that our clean tech work advanced and we proved, one way or another, that the jobs that were being created out of clean tech, it’s the tip of the iceberg. So when you get people of that heft all determined to prove we can do this even without the federal government, we’re gonna do it.

MORE: What America’s Paris retreat means for global climate action

You endorsed Hillary Clinton in the last election. And she has become a pariah for many Democrats, having lost to a candidate like Donald Trump. What do you think went wrong for Democrats in 2016?

AG: Well, she’s a smart strong experienced person, and I think she ran for office at a time where the well-known eight-year pendulum was swinging back against her. You see the same phenomenon in Canada—when one party is in power for two terms or eight years, there’s a tremendous headwind confronting any candidate of that same party that wants to continue it. And also the global populist authoritarian wave that we’ve seen in Poland and Hungary and the Philippines and certainly Russia has been a phenomenon driven by concerns that the pattern of globalization is making a lot of people feel as if they’re being left behind. And Donald Trump has skilfully exploited that anger and has positioned himself as a candidate of change, and of course ever since he’s come into office he’s gone back to the old plutocratic polluter policies that helped to create all these problems, but that’s another matter. But Secretary Clinton is a strong person, and she’s going to be fine.