The crisis has continued to worsen much faster than we have been implementing solutions,” said Al Gore, near the start of a wide-ranging interview he gave on Earth Day, 2021. The climate crisis is “an existential threat to the future of human civilization.” He was speaking with journalist Jonathan Capehart, as part of the online video series called, Washington Post Live: “The Path Forward.”
At age 73, Gore has become an elder statesman of environmental advocacy. Over the years he has written a dozen thought-provoking books, including Earth in the Balance: Forging a New Common Purpose (1992; revised 2013), The Assault on Reason (2007; revised 2017), Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis (2009), The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change (2013), and An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: Your Action Handbook to Learn the Science, Find Your Voice, and Help Solve the Climate Crisis (2017). Among many other honors, he has won the Academy Award for Best Documentary for An Inconvenient Truth in 2007, also made into an influential book. With the IPCC, he won the Nobel Peace Prize that same year, for helping to educate people worldwide about the increasing dangers of a warming planet.
Few in the environmental fight have Al Gore’s breadth of experience. As a politician, he served four terms in the House of Representatives in the ‘70s and ‘80s, two terms in the Senate in the ‘80s and ‘90s, and two terms as the 45th Vice President of the United States, from 1993 to 2001.
After his unsuccessful Presidential bid in 2000, he left the world of elected politics and pursued experiences in different realms: in business, technology, and media; in universities as a professor; and as an executive and board member in non-profit organizations. He cofounded Generation Investment Management and is senior partner at the venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, in the area of climate change solutions. He has an advisory role with Google, and sits on the board at Apple, Inc., building ties with the tech world. From 2005 to 2013 he co-owned Current TV network, before it was sold to Al Jazeera America.
He travels, consults, and lectures frequently, going wherever he feels “he can make a difference,” as a friend told the New York Times in 2017. And he proudly leads the Climate Reality Project, which gives training workshops to climate activists in the U.S. and around the world. These varied experiences, and his long, studious absorption in the subject of global warming, have given Gore credible insights into the many facets of climate change.
The Bad News
So Gore’s view, as expressed to Jonathan Capehart, that the crisis is worsening “much faster than we have been implementing solutions” was spoken with knowledge and authority. He points out that the climate-change predictions made back in the 1970s have either come true or underestimated the pace of the unfolding crisis.
Hearing Gore speak along those lines might at first give the idea that he is discouraged. Or perhaps fatigued, after a lifetime of ceaseless but so-far fruitless efforts to bring the situation under control and galvanize sufficient response.
But in the bulk of his comments, he remained resolutely optimistic.
After a quick, early mention of our collective spate of alarming dangers—hurricanes, wildfires, record-breaking heat, the Texas freeze, warming oceans, droughts, and species extinctions—he then moved to the many encouraging signs he sees. It is there he seemed to prefer to focus.
The Good News
First, President Biden. Biden’s Climate Summit was a success, Gore believed, helping “to rally the nation and rally the world.” It signaled that America has once again assumed its proper leadership role.
Then, the cost of renewable energy has come down dramatically. With the new affordability of solar and wind power and the development of better batteries, Gore called the goal to cut greenhouse emissions by 52 percent by 2030 as “a real goal, and it can be achieved.” The lower costs are crucial: Electric cars are becoming affordable. Plans for new coal plants are being cancelled. Existing plants that burn fossil fuels are being retired. And China, which had announced the construction of many new coal plants, may be on the verge of reconsidering. A quicker move to solar and wind would save China a predicted 1.6 trillion dollars over the next 20 years.
Gore spoke with understandable enthusiasm about a coalition named Climate TRACE. (TRACE stands for Tracking Real Time Atmospheric Carbon Emissions.) This remarkable initiative uses advanced technology, satellites, AI, and other techniques to monitor greenhouse gas emissions with great speed, transparency, and detail. By the end of June, Gore said, negotiators and policy planners who are talking about their carbon commitments will not have to rely “on self-reported emissions that are often a year or two out of date, often inaccurate.” Instead, “we are going to have real time, highly accurate emissions data from every single country and every source within every country.”
Continuing the positive news, Gore spoke passionately about the “sustainability revolution” in the investment marketplace. Fund managers and others have put money into sustainable green companies, while turning more away from fossil fuel companies, especially coal. He said ESG investments—standing for Environmental Social Governance—are outperforming non-ESG investments. Brushing aside the anomaly of some big banks which are “lagging behind, still chasing profits from fossil fuels,” he said the move towards green companies “is the most significant investing and business opportunity in the entire history of the world.”
In another positive area, he discerns the environmental justice movement gaining momentum, aligned with the Black Lives Matter movement and an important component of that larger effort to combat systemic racism. In his travels he has noted residents’ growing pushback to the practice of locating toxic facilities and hazardous waste dumps “just upwind or upstream from communities of color.” As he put it, black citizens and their white allies are “standing up to say no more of this environmental racism.”
Finally, Gore cited with satisfaction a growing number and variety of voices making themselves heard on the climate issue. Not only are grassroots activists attending Climate Reality training workshops, but young people around the world are mobilizing and marching. Average voters are demanding change of their elected legislators. The whole world appeared to Gore to be “crossing the political tipping point on climate, right now, right this second.”
Ironically, much of this progress is triggered by the worsening crisis itself, as climate change becomes easier to see and feel, less deniable and ignorable. Is it Gore’s temperament and good fortune in life that make him see the glass half full? A strategic decision to emphasize hope? Or the judgment of a seasoned and dedicated advocate who has sighted a constellation of exciting, encouraging signs at last, along the path of his life’s mission.