Al Gore explains our chances against climate change, and his fateful meeting with Donald Trump
For most of his adult life, former US Vice President Al Gore has warned of the dangers of global warming.
The 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" revealed the eye-opening presentation Gore had been delivering around the globe for decades. The movie earned $50 million worldwide and won an Oscar for best documentary. In 2007, Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental work.
Gore returns to the big screen with "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, opening in limited release July 28 and in wide release August 4. This time, Gore serves as our guide to show us the effects of global warming firsthand, whether walking through floods in Miami or seeing the melting of huge glaciers.
The movie's most gripping scenes capture Gore's tireless - and successful - efforts in 2015 to get global leaders to sign onto the Paris Agreement. The historic climate accord gives individual countries the freedom to set their own goals to lower their carbon footprint. It was a major achievement for Gore and the environmental movement. But earlier this year, President Donald Trump withdrew the US from the pact, despite Gore's personal appeal to the president.
Business Insider spoke with Gore in New York City about the documentary, his belief that the US will continue to be a leader on climate change, and why he has no interest in talking to Trump again. This interview has been edited for clarity and length.
Jason Guerrasio: I've read that you weren't fully sold on doing a sequel to "An Inconvenient Truth." Why?
Gore: It took me a bit to realize how big the changes have been in the last decade. Number one, the climate-related extreme-weather events are way more frequent now and way more destructive. We have had 11 once-in-a-thousand-year events in the US just in the last seven years.
Secondly, we've got the solutions now. They were in the first movie a decade ago, but they were on the horizon, and you had to take the technology business point of view to say, "Oh, yeah, that will eventually get here." Now they are here. And in so many places - electricity from solar and wind is cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels, and now the batteries are coming down in costs very quickly. So it's very exciting news that needed to be told.
Guerrasio: But still, as you say, very scary events still happen. There's the icebergs, and in Antarctica that piece that collapsed that was the size of Delaware.
Guerrasio: When you hear news like that, what do you think? Is that a major issue when it comes to climate change?
Gore: Well, it's a major signal that the warming of Antarctica is moving even faster than was predicted.
Guerrasio: And it's real; it's hard to dispute that.
Gore: It's hard to dispute it. Absolutely. It's one of the largest icebergs ever recorded. Now, it was already floating in the sea, so by itself it will not raise the sea level, but it's part of a larger pattern in Antarctica that's very tightly connected to how much the seas will rise in the decades ahead.
Guerrasio: We're talking about sea level. One of the things you show in the sequel is that one of the scenarios in the first movie - the flooding of lower Manhattan and the damage to the 9/11 Memorial - could happen and did happen with Hurricane Sandy.
Gore: It happened many years before the scientists predicted that it would.
Guerrasio: And to give a modern-day look, you go to Miami and you show parts of Miami that are flooded, with people driving and walking through knee-high water.
Gore: On a sunny day.
Guerrasio: Yeah, it's not like it's pouring rain.
Gore: The sea levels have risen so much that when a high tide comes in, it floods the streets. I saw fish from the ocean swimming in the streets. Since then, somebody sent me a picture of an octopus in a parking garage there. That's not something you see every day. But there are a lot of low-lying coastal cities that are now seriously threatened by sea level rise, which comes from the melting ice.
Guerrasio: Scientists are saying the same thing. In a story we ran not too long ago by David Wallace-Wells for New York Magazine, he said: "Most people talk as if Miami and Bangladesh still have a chance of surviving: most of the scientists I spoke with assume we'll lose them within the century, even if we stop burning fossil fuel in the next decade." So when you hear a quote like that, and you see that President Trump has a Cabinet with many people who feel climate change is not a major issue, how does that make you feel?
Gore: The truth about the climate crisis is still inconvenient for the large carbon polluters and the politicians who are in their pockets.
Guerrasio: But are you disappointed that in some ways America is not a leader in climate change on the world stage?
Gore: Of course, but I would distinguish between Donald Trump and the United States of America. Although he is president, he does not speak for the country on this issue, and that was vividly illustrated in the aftermath of his speech pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement.
Almost immediately, not only did the rest of the world double down on its commitments, but also here in this country, governors, mayors, business leaders, they said, we're still in the Paris Agreement, and they're doubling down. A lot of cities have now made a decision to go 100% renewable energy, and the latest studies indicate that the US is certainly going to meet its commitments under the Paris Agreement, regardless of what Donald Trump says.
Guerrasio: Recently, Trump has said he might reconsider going back into the agreement. Do you feel that's a good thing? Does it even matter?
Gore: I'm not going to hold my breath. I had conversations with him after the election and during the first part of his presidency, trying to convince him to stay in the Paris Agreement, and I thought there was an excellent chance that he would come to his senses and stay in, but I was wrong about that. I would take his statements to the French president, that he might come back into the Paris Agreement, with a grain of salt, but I hope I'm wrong again. I hope that actually he does reconsider. But I don't put much stock into it.
Guerrasio: You rattle off many stats about climate change - you know many of them. Is there one stat that scares you the most when it comes to climate change?
Gore: There are a couple that go together, and this is a bit geeky. So you asked for it.
Guerrasio: No, let's geek out.
Gore: The cumulative amount of man-made global pollution that's in the atmosphere now traps as much extra heat energy every day as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every day. It's a big planet, but that's an awful lot of energy.
Now the second statistic is, we're still putting 110 million tons of that stuff into the air every single day as if the sky is an open sewer. And all of the increase temperatures that people talk about, that's air temperature. More than 90% of the extra heat energy is going into the oceans, and that's why superstorm Sandy was so much more destructive, that's why the ice is melting more rapidly, that's why the water cycle is being disrupted and we get a lot more water vapor coming from the oceans into the sky, and that's why we get these enormous downpours and big floods. They happen all the time. Every night on the TV news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.
Guerrasio: One thing that stood out for me with "An Inconvenient Sequel" is you touch on, for one moment, the personal failures in the evolution of bringing climate change to all our attention. Though off the Paris Agreement, it seems everyone has rebounded to get back on. What was it like initially for you when you heard Trump pulled out of the agreement? For you, was that up to that level of a personal failure?
Gore: Well, I worried a lot that other countries would follow his lead, but I was so gratified when the rest of the world said, "No, we're not going to pay any attention to that. We're still in, and we're going to double down." And I was even more gratified when all of the domestic political and business leaders stepped up to the plate and said we're going to fill the gap.
Guerrasio: In a strange way, with all the news about the Paris Agreement, did it give a heightened sense of the climate-change issue? I mean, there's more press talking about it now, the Weather Channel changed their whole homepage to show the effects of climate change. This movie was coming out regardless, so we were going to have this conversation. But it seems like a lot more people are talking about it now because of the actions he took.
Gore: Yeah, I think it's partly a reaction to Donald Trump. You know, in physics there's the old law for every action there's a equal amount of reaction. Sometimes that's true in politics. If somebody's out there making nonsensical statements, but wielding power behind them a lot of people say, "Well, I need to react to that." I think that's happening. I also think another reason for the increased prominence of the issue is the Paris Agreement itself. It's not a small thing when just about every nation in the entire world comes together and makes an historic agreement like this. It's a big deal. And the old cliché "The train is leaving the station" kind of applies. People who might not regularly pay that much attention to it, they say, "Oh, the whole world is moving in this direction. I guess there's a lot to this, we better go along."
Guerrasio: And you must be very proud of it. As the movie shows, you were backstage, wheeling and dealing, making calls, trying to get India on board.
Gore: I was doing my best and so were lots of other people. It was a group effort and a lot of people succeeded in getting an agreement that many thought was impossible.
Guerrasio: A very powerful moment in the movie is you taking that elevator ride up Trump Tower to meet the president-elect, which I believe was organized by his daughter Ivanka Trump. Have you spoken to Ivanka since that meeting?
Gore: Oh, yes. Many times. But not since the speech in which President Trump pulled out of Paris.
Guerrasio: Have you talked to President Trump at all since that meeting?
Gore: Not since his decision on Paris, no.
Guerrasio: One thing you said when you left Trump Tower was that it was a conversation that would be continued. Do you feel you need to continue that conversation with him?
Gore: I did continue it. And that was not the only conversation I had with him. But after he made his decision on Paris, I have not reached out to him again; he has not reached out to me.
Guerrasio: Do you feel it's important? Do you need to talk to him anymore?
Gore: I would never close the door to responding, but I don't expect that and have no real desire to talk to him anymore. I think he made such an obviously reckless and indefensible decision, I think now, my time, the time of others, is better spent helping to move the country forward in spite of him.
Guerrasio: You say it in the movie, and I think you've said it a few times in other places, that you're a recovering politician.
Gore: Yeah. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: But I do want you to do a little armchair quarterbacking for me. What is your feeling of Trump as a president? Give me a grade: How is he doing?
Gore: Well, I never like the question about letter grades, but I think he's failing. I think that every day there's another set of tweets and another set of controversies, and nothing seems to be getting done that's any good. And there seems to be kind of a policy paralysis in Washington. Even the appointments he's supposed to make as a new president - he's way behind all his modern-day predecessors, as I understand the statistics - so I focus most of all on climate, and so my opinion of his time as president is certainly influenced by my opinion of the job he's done on climate. He's tried to move the country in the wrong direction.
Guerrasio: Believe it or not, we're going to ask some question other than Trump.
Guerrasio: Do you think about your own legacy? Are you at a point in your life where you think about that at all?
Gore: No, not really. Maybe I should. [Laughs]
Guerrasio: I don't know. You've done many things, many very important things. Does that every pop in your head, of what you want to be remembered for?
Gore: I don't really think about that. It's not about me. I have a sense of mission on this climate crisis, and I'm trying to pour all the energy I have into it. And I hope that I, along with others, can catalyze the emergence of real solutions to the climate crisis. I think we're making a lot of progress. I think we're going to win this, but it matters how quickly we win it. So I'm focused on that.
Guerrasio: Give me the next decade for you, goal-wise, with climate change. What needs to be accomplished?
Gore: Every five years, under the Paris Agreement, all the countries that signed to it have an obligation to renew their plans and ratchet up their commitments, which is going to be easy to do because, again, the cost reductions for renewable energy continue downward in a very dramatic way. We're in the early stages of a sustainability revolution in the globe that has the scale of the industrial revolution but the speed of the digital revolution. And you see it with renewable energy and you see it with LED lighting, which takes a fraction of the energy for the existing bulbs. And within a few years, all new lights are going to be LED. Electric vehicles. I can go down the list for sustainable agriculture and forestry. There are a lot of changes underway right now. I'm excited by the prospect, and I look forward to working in the months and years to come to accelerate this transition.
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