Former VP Al Gore on environmentalism, Trump, and the climate crisis - full, extended transcript

Al Gore's climate crusade
Al Gore's climate crusade 09:12

Last Updated Jul 17, 2017 10:06 AM EDT

In this expanded transcript of his interview with correspondent Lee Cowan, former Vice President Al Gore talks about how he came to preach the dangers of the climate crisis; his new film, "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power"; and of training people to speak out for solutions as carbon polluters and their lobbyists ratchet up their efforts to spread disinformation. He also discusses his (unsuccessful) efforts to persuade President Trump to keep the United States within the framework of the Paris Climate Agreement.

LEE COWAN: Let's talk about the obvious, which is the Paris Climate Accord. I mean, what do you think is the practical implication of us pulling out? I mean, have we ceded, in some ways, our leadership on climate control by doing that?

AL GORE:  Well, traditionally the United States has been the natural leader of the world. That's not just pride as an American speaking; it's just the reality. And so without the U.S. being involved, it's hard for the world community to move forward as effectively. However, the backlash and reaction to President Trump's decision has really brought the rest of the world more firmly behind the Paris Agreement.

LEE COWAN:  It's galvanized a lot of people.

AL GORE:  It's galvanized the rest of the world. And it's galvanized a lot of states, and cities, and business leaders here in the U.S. So one of the big fears was that if he pulled out it would give an excuse for other countries like India, for example, to pull out also. But instead it has actually galvanized a lot of these other countries to say, "Well, we'll show him. We're gonna even more!" India's just announced within the last couple weeks that within 13 years 100% of all their cars have to be electric vehicles. That's amazing! And they're canceling all these coal plants and ramping up on the solar, and that's happening in lots of places now.

LEE COWAN: So it's almost like pulling out [gave] impetus to change that you talk about -- that sometimes you really need a jolt to something.

AL GORE: Yeah, I think so. There's always a risk of being Pollyannaish on some of these things. But honestly, that is the way it looks now. The rest of the world is expressing determination to go even farther even faster, and that's a really good thing. Those who were worried the U.S. would be isolated, there are some dangers there. But it's really the president who's more isolated now in the aftermath of this. At least that's what it looks like to me.

LEE COWAN: On the international front, can you compartmentalize this decision, or is there still going to be some collateral damage on other issues as a result?

AL GORE: There could well be because the decision was made immediately after President Trump also damaged the cohesion of the NATO alliance by declining to reaffirm our obligations to come to the defense of our European allies. And so those and other things taken together could complicate the ability of the U.S. to get cooperation from some of these other countries on matters of top priority to us.

LEE COWAN: So it's not just climate that could be affected?

AL GORE: That's the way I see it. But the rest of the world, like many of us here in the U.S., are kind of looking at President Trump -- and I know some people are really still all for him and everything -- but the majority are trying to make sense of how this presidency is unfolding. And I think the rest of the world's doing the same thing, and so they may not put the full blame on our country as a whole. They recognize we're going through a tough stretch here.

Former Vice President Al Gore with correspondent Lee Cowan. CBS News

LEE COWAN: I know you've been asked this before, but if so [much] of what was decided in Paris was voluntary, why did we need the accord in the first place? And if a lot of these states and businesses step up here to do this on their own despite what the White House does, why was the Paris Accord so important?

AL GORE: Well, it was really and truly an historic breakthrough. And your question's a great one, but it has a real clear answer: When the entire world came together and expressed a common determination to reduce the net greenhouse gas emissions to zero as early in the second half of this century as possible, what that did was send a really powerful signal, not just to governments who had signed the pledges, but to businesses and industries and investors. And as a result it's like the train's leaving the station and everybody's on board. "You're on the platform. Do you wanna be left behind or not?"

And most people said, "Yeah, we wanna be on that train. If the whole world is moving in this direction, let's do it together." And here in this country there's this big group saying, "We're still in the Paris Agreement," and it includes California, New York, and the state of Washington, Connecticut, Hawaii. You can go right down the list, and all these cities including the big metropolis of Atlanta has just signed up to be 100% renewable as quick as they can get there. And business leaders, you know? There's a huge, impressive list of businesses that are saying, "We are in the Paris Agreement. We're going to meet and exceed these commitments."

LEE COWAN: On that point, though, the president has made an economic argument, that there just isn't room, essentially, in the economy to be sustainable and at the same time provide jobs. And a lot of his base believes that.

AL GORE: Well, the business community does not believe that at all. And even a lot of people in his base don't believe it -- a majority of Trump's voters were in favor of staying in the Paris Agreement. And if you look at what's really happening in the economy, the economic argument actually is very strongly in favor of the Paris Agreement. There are now twice as many jobs in the solar industry as in the coal industry. Solar jobs are growing 17 times faster than other jobs in the U.S.

LEE COWAN: Seventeen times?

AL GORE: It's one of the brightest spots in our economic revival. And the single fastest-growing job over the next ten years, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, is wind turbine technician. And if you take the efficiency jobs and the renewable energy jobs and add them together, they're significantly more numerous now than all of the jobs in fossil energy. Fossil jobs are declining while the renewable jobs are growing fasters than other jobs.

LEE COWAN: It seems like [Trump] in some ways wants a return to the 19th century in terms of some of these jobs that really just don't seem like they're there anymore, at least not viable for very long.

AL GORE: Yeah. And in coal country he found a base of support from people who'd been hurt by trends that started decades ago: the mechanization of coal mining, and then natural gas, and now renewables really eliminating the market for coal. The global coal industry has lost most of its market capitalization over the last decades. And those jobs are really not coming back. I know some people don't like to hear that, but I've always supported a really robust retraining program, reemployment program with better wages and better jobs, healthier jobs. But he has reached out to some people who understandably are very upset over the economic trends in Appalachia, for example. And he's basically promised to recreate the 19th century.

LEE COWAN: When you talk about his base, though, one of the things you bring up in the movie is the town in Texas that is about as red as you're gonna get, reddest county in the reddest state, and that's an example of people who, despite their conservative leanings, still get it, or are getting it from an economic standpoint if nothing else, right?

AL GORE: Yeah. People who are really connected to what's really happening on the ground understand that this is an historic transition. For example, there's a big coal museum. It just switched over to solar energy.

LEE COWAN: The coal museum?

AL GORE: The coal museum, absolutely! Because it's cheaper. And Georgetown, Texas -- an oil state -- one of the most conservative Republican cities in the country, they just completed a transition to 100% renewable energy because it's cheaper than fossil fuels.

One of the great developments is that solar energy, wind energy, a lot of the other renewable technologies turn out to respond to research and development, and scaling in the same way that computer chips did, and cell phones, and flat screen TVs. It keeps on getting cheaper, and cheaper, and cheaper. And now in a growing number of regions and countries, it's significantly cheaper than electricity from burning fossil fuels. And so people are saying, "Hey, let's go for that."

LEE COWAN: That has to make your argument easier, because you can show the cost-benefit relationship, which even ten years ago was a little harder argument to make, perhaps?

Al Gore. CBS News

AL GORE: Yeah, it's true. I look back at where the facts and figures were ten, 11 years ago and the curve on solar energy was just beginning to start moving up. Now it's way up here and it's just a completely new world. We're seeing a dramatic transformation all around the world. The sustainability revolution, which includes renewable energy, electric cars, efficiency, it has the scope and magnitude of the Industrial Revolution. But it has the speed of the Digital Revolution, and it's happening in rich and poor countries simultaneously, all over the world. It's really great. We can move faster with better policies, and we need to move faster. But we're gonna win this regardless.

LEE COWAN: When you met with the president-elect at Trump Tower -- and I know you don't want to go into the specifics of the meeting -- did you find him receptive, Mr. Trump, to your argument?

AL GORE: I found him attentive, and you can misinterpret that for being receptive. And I think he's probably pretty good at that as a businessman. But yes, I did think that there was a real chance that he would come to his senses on this.

LEE COWAN: You thought you might have gotten through to him?

AL GORE: Yeah, I did. And by the way, that was not the only conversation. My communication with him continued and I have respected the confidentiality of it. But no, I actually thought there was a better-than-even chance that he would end up staying in Paris. But let me point out one salient fact here: Under his decision, legally the U.S. cannot leave the Paris Agreement until November 4th, 2020, which happens to be the day after the next presidential election.

And if there's a new president who wants to go back into Paris it just requires 30 days' notice. So the net effect of President Trump's decision will be discouraging for a lot of people, but as a practical matter --

LEE COWAN: Nothing changes?

AL GORE: Well, some things do, but the overall thrust of this sustainability revolution's going to continue. Towns, cities, states, businesses, they're going with the flow, which is cheaper renewable electricity. And the rest of the world is even speeding up.

LEE COWAN: In those conversations with Mr. Trump did you get the sense that he understood climate change? Does he understand the scope of the problem?

AL GORE: Well, you'd have to ask him that. I don't want to get into the details of what he said to me. I just focused on one thing, and that is trying to get him to stay in the Paris Agreement, and I didn't succeed on that part of it. (laughs) But I think that the larger battle is one that we are gonna win.

LEE COWAN: You've spent half your life in politics, some of it at the highest levels.

AL GORE: Second-highest level.

LEE COWAN: Second highest-level, (laughs) excuse me, Mr. Vice President, that's right. But what do you make of this young administration so far?

AL GORE: Oh, (sighs) yeah --

LEE COWAN: It's hard to do a blanket statement. But --

AL GORE: Yeah, it's -- it's -- it's --

LEE COWAN: You've seen it from inside --

AL GORE: -- a challenging time for our country. And I say that with respect for those who are enthusiastic members of the base, still supporting President Trump. But I was talking to a Republican senator this morning, one who's a close friend of mine, and I heard from him what I hear from quite a few of them, that they're really concerned. And of course the Democrats are on the warpath. But there are more and more Republicans in the House and Senate who are wondering how they're going to manage to separate from him in the midterm elections.

But the politics are the least important part of it. What's really important is how our country gets through this period, because nothing's getting done in Washington. Every day it's another set of tweets and another set of controversies. And they're not getting anything done.

LEE COWAN: But do you get the sense that climate change is getting lost in all of this fervor over whether it's Russian hacking, or whatever it is? Does it feel like [climate] is getting pushed further down the --?

AL GORE: I really don't think so, because there's a law of physics: For every action there's an equal and opposite reaction. And sometimes that shows up in politics and society. And I think that the reaction to President Trump's decision on the Paris Agreement has been much stronger than I had even hoped for. And the determination being expressed by so many people in state governments, city governments, in the business community, the investor community, is really heartening to me. I think there is an excellent chance that the United States will meet and possibly exceed the commitments made by former President Obama in Paris, regardless of what President Trump does.

LEE COWAN: Back to the economic argument, you mention in the movie that there are a lot of people who recognize the power of solar and wind technologies, but there are those who don't think that they'll really ever lead the energy sector economically. And you've called that essentially a different form of denial.

AL GORE: It is a new form of denial.

LEE COWAN: Because?

AL GORE: There's an investigation underway right now by some of our state attorneys general, including the attorney general of the State of New York, Eric Schneiderman. And they have found evidence, they say, that the internal deliberations of some of the large carbon polluters have led them to mount a campaign to mislead people into thinking that solar and wind is not going to amount to much.

But again, if you look at the economic facts, last year you add up all of the new electricity generating facilities built in the United States last year, three quarters of them are wind and solar. Virtually none of them are coal. There's a little sliver of less than a tenth of a percent. About a quarter of it is natural gas, but now solar electricity is getting cheaper than electricity from gas.

LEE COWAN: So where do you think we are now? What's changed since the original "Inconvenient Truth" and now? Where does the debate on climate change sit, do you think?

AL GORE: Over the last decade there have been a lot of changes, but the two biggest changes are, number one, the economics of renewable energy, solar and wind particularly, and battery storage, and electric vehicles, a lot of other things. The economics have changed radically and now it's becoming cheaper than fossil fuel-based energy in more and more places, and that's going to continue. That's the first big change. The second big change is that over the last decade it's no longer just the virtually unanimous scientific community telling us we've gotta change, now Mother Nature has entered the debate. In the last seven years we've had 11 "One-in-1,000-year" downpours in the U.S. We have these floods, and droughts, and sea level rise events, and the melting ice, and tropical diseases. Every night now on the television news is like a nature hike through the book of Revelation. And even if some of the newscasters don't connect the dots, people themselves are. People who don't want to use the phrase "global warming" or "climate crisis" are saying, "Wait a minute. Something's going on here that's not right."

And so Mother Nature is persuading a lot of people who weren't ready to believe what the scientists were saying.

LEE COWAN: So what was your biggest obstacle ten years ago to making this argument, and what's the biggest obstacle now? Has it changed?

AL GORE: I have felt for a long time that the pathway to solving the climate crisis is through the building of a massive grassroots army of men and women who will go out there and win the conversation on climate, and persuade businesses, and universities, and towns to switch to renewable energy and to reduce emissions. And the big change from ten years ago is that people are way more receptive, not only to the message that we have to act, not only to the message that now we can act, we have the solutions now -- that's the biggest change -- but also willing to make a commitment that we will act. There's a real determination out there to make this happen. They know we owe it to our kids and the generations to come, but they're also seeing that the impact is affecting us right now.

LEE COWAN: It's still largely in your mind, though, a moral imperative to fix this. This isn't a political debate.

AL GORE: I don't think it ever should have been a political issue. After the great recession and when Barack Obama's time in office began in January of '09, that's when the Tea Party movement launched, that's when the Citizens United Supreme Court decision took effect and freed up this flow of anonymous dark money, a lot of it from the carbon polluters, into the political system.

The carbon polluters have taken the playbook from the tobacco companies. We're here on the site of an old tobacco barn. I know a lot about it. And back when the surgeon general came out and reported that the doctors and scientists had found out that smoking cigarettes causes lung cancer and other diseases, the tobacco companies hired actors and dressed 'em up as doctors, put 'em in front of the camera with a script to say, "I am a doctor and you don't have to worry about smoking. I do it myself, it's fine." And the large carbon polluters have actually hired a lot of the same PR people that did that work for the tobacco companies.

And that really got cranked up at the beginning of Obama's term. And they polarized the debate, and then the Koch brothers and others came in and basically threatened to run primary opponents against any Republican who expressed the view that, "Yeah, we oughta do something to save the climate balance." And so they all mostly got scared and stayed silent on it.

LEE COWAN: But if there's that much money, how do you battle that kind of money and that kind of influence?

AL GORE: Well, we have a lot of help. Mother Nature has weighed in with these climate-related extreme weather events that have really changed a lot of minds. And perhaps most significantly, the technology and business experts have now developed the solutions to the point where they're available and often cheaper than the old dirty polluting fuels. So we're winning this debate, we're winning this struggle. We're going to solve the climate crisis.

The only remaining challenge is winning it in time, because every day we put another 110 million tons of global warming pollution into the sky as if it's an open sewer, and it's still building up. And the scientists tell us it's a race against time. We've stabilized emissions globally now for the last three years, but they need to start coming down quickly. We've got the momentum, we've got the wind in our sails, we're gonna win this.

LEE COWAN: And that's why you're so optimistic? People would look at some of the examples in the movie, how all these different climate events have gotten worse, and worse, and worse, the death toll, everything. And yet the movie comes out with a very hopeful message that we are gonna fix this.

AL GORE: Well, the movie is unstinting in presenting the latest scientific evidence for why we really have to act urgently, but it also is devoted to showing the new facts on the ground that we now have the solutions. We can fix this.

LEE COWAN: Which you didn't ten years ago?

AL GORE: Well, there were some in the first movie, but honestly the new technologies were just beginning to be developed then to the point where they were ready for primetime. Now in a relatively short ten, 11 years they've become available.

I see this climate movement as being in the tradition of the other great moral causes that humanity has encountered. The Civil Rights Movement, which I watched from the vantage point here in Tennessee when I was a kid; the abolition movement 150, almost 200 years ago; the Women's Suffrage movement; the Women's Rights movement; the anti-apartheid movement; more recently the gay rights movement. All of them shared common characteristics. They all were aimed at reaching goals that the majority of people said were impossible to reach. In South Africa Nelson Mandela said, "It's always impossible until it's done."

But in every one of these previous movements, finally the underbrush was cleared away and it became a simple choice between what's right and what's wrong. And once that happens, the outcome is foreordained. A great economist, Rudi Dornbusch, once said, "Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen much faster than you thought they could."

LEE COWAN: And that's where we are now, you think?

AL GORE: That's where we are now. We're right at that tipping point. The percentage of people in the U.S. who support this, solving the climate crisis, is back up close to the levels it was after the first movie. And we're seeing now Republican members of Congress begin to switch sides. There's a new caucus on climate solutions in the House of Representatives that has quite a few Republicans that have just joined. There are about ten Republican senators -- three already have switched, there are about ten more that are on the verge of switching. So we're going to have a working majority fairly soon.

LEE COWAN: The first movie made a lot of money, a lot of people saw it. How much impact do you think "An Inconvenient Truth" had on the debate itself?

AL GORE: Well, based on what people come up and tell me about the impact it had on their individual life choices, I'm tempted to say it had a big impact. There are also a lot of social science studies that show that it really pushed the support for solving the climate crisis to the highest levels ever. And it remained bipartisan for years after the movie came out, until the new Supreme Court decision on Citizens United unleashed this flow of dark money from the carbon polluters, and it became an artificially partisan issue on the other side of the aisle.

But I think the overall impact of the first movie was certainly positive, and I think that's the reason why for the last ten years so many people come up and said, "When are you gonna make another movie? We need another movie."

LEE COWAN: That said, though, you weren't all that happy about trying to do a sequel at first, right?

AL GORE: I really wasn't because I have to admit to you that I didn't think the first movie was a good idea. That's just how little I know about the movie industry. (laughs)

LEE COWAN: Why didn't you think that was gonna be a good idea?

AL GORE: Well, it's kind of a silly reason. Back when I was a student I tried to take a shortcut on Shakespeare by getting these videotapes where they set up a camera looking at a stage presentation of Shakespeare's plays, and I thought that'd be a faster way to do a study. And I thought it was just terrible because translating from one medium to another didn't always work. And I foolishly thought that the same thing would happen if they tried to take my slideshow and make it into a movie.

What I didn't understand was that there's a lotta talent in Hollywood (laughs) behind the camera: the directors, the producers, I mean, they know how to tell a story in ways that I would never be able to do in a million years.

And when the second proposal came around I had another flawed assumption, that it might come off as if I was trying to tell the same story all over again. But instead, the directors of this movie, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, took a completely different approach with what they call cinéma vérité. They just followed me around for two years, and human nature being what it is, you forget that they're always there if they're with you all the time. And when they showed me their first rough cut of the movie I was shocked at a lot of the scenes that they captured.  I had completely forgotten they were there! And of course, some of the things are so emotionally engaging I didn't have any spare attention left over to remember that they were filming. And people who haven't been through that experience find it hard to believe, but trust me, it works that way. If you have somebody follow you around with a camera for two years you just naturally tend to forget they're there.

LEE COWAN: It didn't get annoying? Didn't get cumbersome?

AL GORE: Almost never, almost never. Inevitably, there were a few meetings and scenes where the person I was meeting with wasn't cool with having a camera come in. But with those few exceptions, no, we became great friends during the process, so that made it easy and fun.

LEE COWAN: So as serious a topic as this is you've gotta be having fun with this. I mean, you're going to Sundance, you're going to Cannes. I mean, you're a movie star in a lotta respects.

AL GORE: Come on, I'm-- no, no, no, I'm not-- I'm not--

LEE COWAN: No, you really are. It's you and Wonder Woman this summer. (laughs)

AL GORE: Yeah, right. (laughs)

LEE COWAN: But I mean, that has a lot power with it, and a lot of responsibility, I guess, that comes with that notoriety.

AL GORE: Well, if I had the power, I would've asked them to take some of the scenes out 'cause I don't think I look -- I think I look like the farthest thing from a movie star. (laughs) But what's important to me is the ability of this film to convey the facts about the climate crisis: Why we have to change, the fact that we now can change 'cause we have the solutions, and we must make a commitment that we will change.

That's really, now, where happiness and joy is concerned, I will tell you that what gives me a sense of joy is having work to do that justifies pouring every ounce of energy I have into it. That's really a blessing to have in your life. And it gives you energy back when you have the privilege of doing work that makes you feel that way.