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

Al Gore's climate crusade

Last Updated Jul 17, 2017 10:06 AM EDT

LEE COWAN: And you still get that back after you've been doing this so long?

AL GORE: Absolutely. I could not lay this down or put it aside even if I wanted to, and I don't want to. We've still got to win this. We are winning, but we're not yet winning fast enough. It really is a race. And we need to pick up the pace considerably, and it's gonna make our lives better in so many other ways. It cuts air pollution, it creates jobs at the same time, it gets the economy healthier at the same time.

And the U.S. is able to provide the kind of moral leadership in the world that we're intended to provide. I believe in American exceptionalism, I believe that there's a reason why people all around the world look to the U.S. as a special place. And I'm grateful that even though our current president made what I regard as a terrible decision on the Paris Agreement, that the rest of the world's now recognizing that on this issue he really does not speak for the American people. America is moving forward without him.

LEE COWAN: Which is a distinction that might surprise a lot of people that actually comes through.

AL GORE: Yeah. Well, Jerry Brown, the governor of our biggest state, was just meeting with Xi Jinping, the president of China, laying plans for them to work together. Mike Bloomberg has rallied mayors from around the world. Andrew Cuomo in New York is working with the Northeastern states and the eastern provinces of Canada. I mean, this is happening.

LEE COWAN: There's so many different examples in the film of different natural disasters, whether it's typhoons or sea level rising in Miami or whatnot. What to you stood out the most? What was the most disturbing event that you've put in the film that really, you think, gets your point across?

AL GORE: Well, I'll mention two things -- one on the sad side and one on the happy side. When I sat down face-to-face with some of the folks in the Philippines who went through harrowing experiences and almost died during Super Typhoon Haiyan, feeling the emotions that were brought back to them as they're telling me about what they went through, that was really a powerful scene for me.

And then on the happy side, I loved being in Georgetown, Texas and making friends with the conservative Republican mayor there, who is the farthest thing from what would in some places be called an environmentalist. But because he's a certified public accountant also serving as mayor, he looked at the facts and figures and said, "Hey, we need to switch to solar and wind -- it'll save our taxpayers money here." And just laughing and talking with him about how politics didn't matter on this anymore,. I really got a big kick outta that.

LEE COWAN:  So many of the things that you had predicted would happen in the first film, have in fact happened. Is there just a little bit of an "I told ya' so" element in this?

AL GORE:  No. No. If you work on this as long as I have-- that'll get squeezed out of you pretty quick. This is so dangerous and so harmful to people all over the world. And by the way the predictions that came true were not really my predictions. What I do is I sit with the leading scientists and they're generous with their time, and I draw on their patience to explain their predictions over and over again, until it gets into simple enough language for me to understand.

And if I can get it in simple terms then I know I can then communicate it to others; that's my whole role in this. So it's not that I predicted so-and-so; I relayed what the scientists are telling the world, that they are predicting. And because their predictions from ten years ago came true, that should give them way more credibility than maybe they've had with some in the past when they tell us what they're predicting now.

In the event that we do not solve this the consequences would be unthinkable. Look at the Zika virus and what that meant in Florida last year, and some of the Texas Gulf Coast areas. Look at the fact that doctors said something in parts of Central and South America last year that I never expected to hear in my life: They told women, "Don't get pregnant for two years, until we get a handle on this." And these diseases that we never heard of before are coming North as the climate bands change. Shouldn't that set off alarm bells? My goodness. And thankfully, for many it does, and that's why we're seeing a big rise in support for solving this.

LEE COWAN: And yet, you've talked about this before, that there's a little bit despair at what's happening to the environment, and then there's the hopeful side, too. And it's this sort of internal struggle, it seems, between hoping that things will change and despair that it's not changing fast enough.

AL GORE: Yeah. Any of us who work on the task of solving the climate crisis have at times an internal struggle between hope and despair. But that's one of the things that connects this climate movement to the previous great moral revolutions, like the civil rights movement and more recently the gay rights movement. Dr. Martin Luther King said during some of the bleakest hours of the civil rights movement, when people felt despair that they were ever going to get it done and asked him how long, and he famously said, "How long? Not long, because no lie can live forever. How long? Not long, because the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends toward justice."

And with gay rights, if somebody had told me even five or seven years ago that in the year 2017 gay marriage would be fully legal in all 50 states, and accepted and even celebrated by two-thirds of the American people, I would've said, "I sure hope so because it feels just to me, but I just think it's unrealistic to think we could have that much change so quickly." But the same thing is happening now. So those who feel despair should be of good cheer, as the Bible says. Have faith, have hope. We are going to win this.


LEE COWAN: When did your interest in the environment really begin?

AL GORE: I had the good fortune to walk into a classroom when I was a college student in a course that was taught by one of the greatest climate scientists of all time. The man's name was Roger Revelle, he designed the first experiments to measure CO2 in the Earth's atmosphere. This was in the 1960s, and he opened my eyes to this that long ago. And everything that's happened since in broad brushstrokes is what he predicted. Seven years after that, I was elected to the Congress and I asked what was going on with global warming, and nothing was, and I helped organize the first hearing and invited that professor to come be the leadoff witness.

LEE COWAN: 'Cause you were hoping that he would have the same impact on government that he had on you in that class?

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Senator Al Gore speaks on the environment, Feb. 21, 1991. C-Span

AL GORE: Yeah, yeah. I naively hoped that my colleagues sitting on the dais, listening to him give a 20-minute statement would have something like the effect that a full college course had had on me. (laughs) And of course that was naive. But when it didn't happen, when they didn't change, when they didn't feel the significance of it, that's really the first time that I felt that I needed to look for ways to translate what he was saying, that scientist, into terms that would give anybody else the same "a-ha" moment that Roger Revelle gave me.

And over time that became a slideshow, and a movie, and a training program. At the beginning I never expected at all that this would be my life's mission. I never expected that at all. But you get into something and you get committed to it, and then you see some progress and you can see that we're getting close to winning this, and it fires you up to keep going.

LEE COWAN: But it could've just as easily been so discouraging that you'd give up?

AL GORE: Maybe. I never was tempted to that outcome. Not at all. If you take on a challenge like this and you're not confronted every day with people saying, "Give it up, this is never gonna get ya' anywhere in solving this," maybe if I had just had people discourage me every day maybe I would've been tempted that way, but that's not the case. What I have found in the years I've worked on this is that the number of people who get it and then who change their lives and make a commitment to being part of this is growing, growing, growing. And it's becoming an enormous global movement and I really am encouraged by that.

LEE COWAN: That said, though, I mean, you faced some pretty stiff criticism from people that called you everything from a fanatic to a fraud, really. I mean, the criticism wasn't slight.

AL GORE: Well, there is a time-honored tradition for people who disagree with a particular message to attack the person delivering that message. And that's an honor, to be attacked for those reasons. (laughs) It didn't always feel like an honor, I grant you. But at the base of it, that's the way I feel about it. And you've gotta be willing to take that heat and keep going. And when I spoke at my father's funeral, I quoted a passage from scripture: "Woe unto him about whom all men say good things." (laughs) If everybody's just completely happy with what you're doing, you not be working hard enough to bring about the kind of change that we need.

LEE COWAN: You talked in the first movie about the effect of Albert [Gore's son and youngest child] being hit by the car, and how that was a moment for you that made you sort of think about life and the kind of things we were gonna leave to our kids. Was that one of those moments that perhaps this mission was based in?

AL GORE: Yeah, yeah. I don't often talk about that but since you've asked I will respond to you. Intellectually, in sort of the way we think about the climate crisis, my journey started with that professor and built over the years as more and more facts came in. Emotionally, there was a real turning point when one of my children was almost killed in an accident that just unfolded right in front of my eyes, and it had a searing impact on me. And after a month in the intensive care unit and terrible uncertainty -- and by the way, let me hasten to say this story has a very happy ending, my child has grown up to be 100% healed and a fantastic human being in every way -- during those dark days in the hospital I cast aside everything else on my calendar, what I was supposed to be doing, obviously, and I only slowly put things back. And the one thing that stayed with me for whatever reason was, as I looked at my priorities going forward, "this climate crisis also affects my kids."

And so it was in that same emotional space. But the big change for me was, when I went back to work on the climate crisis, it felt differently to me. During those dark days in the hospital I was forced to confront what all too many parents have had to go through, facing the possibility that you would lose a child. There are no words for that.

And again, thank God it turned out happily. But during that time it left a raw space in my heart. And you can't normally imagine losing what's most precious to you, and then when you have to confront it, it changes you. When I went back to the global environment issue I realized emotionally for the first time that all the beauty of this Earth is something we could lose. And I wasn't capable of letting myself feel that previously. And that gave a new emotional sense of urgency to me. It's kind of hard to describe in words, but that's the best I can do.

LEE COWAN: It gave your argument a heart, in a way?

AL GORE: Well, that's why you have a job working with words and I don't. (laughs)

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LEE COWAN: The Greenland stuff in the film is really pretty shocking. And so sad.

AL GORE: Yeah, yeah.

LEE COWAN: That helicopter flight over where you just see everything --

AL GORE: They're just exploding, yeah. And it looks like a computer-generated image that's speeded up, but it's not -- it's in real time, just collapsing. Oh my God.

LEE COWAN: So the fresh water is heavier than the salt water? That's why it goes down?

AL GORE: Well, water is heavier than ice is what you're getting at. There is another part of this, [where] the gulf stream could be blocked.

So, 11,000 years ago (laughs) when the last glaciers retreated, there was an enormous lake called Lake Agassiz. And the all of the Great Lakes are remnants of that huge freshwater lake. And on the Southeastern border there was a massive ice dam. And then one day the ice dam began to break, and then it picked up speed in a very short period of time. All that fresh water rushed out into the North Atlantic, and it sliced open the Saint Lawrence River. And that's why it's the deepest river and the biggest tidal flux.

But when all that enormous amount of freshwater came out just south of Greenland, the gulf stream, it's part of a giant ocean conveyer belt that's like a big mobius strip surrounding the planet. It comes up the east coast of North America and then when it hits the cold waters and winds south of Greenland the warmth evaporates in enormous quantities. And the water vapor that has a lot of heat energy is carried by the prevailing winds over to Europe. That's why Europe is much warmer than the latitudes would lead you to believe. Like, Rome is on the same latitude as, I think, Montreal. I mean, it's weird.

All that heat vapor comes over, does that. What's left is much saltier water because the salt didn't evaporate. So it's more concentrated and it's colder. So colder, denser, saltier water sinks five billion gallons per second. And it goes straight down to the bottom of the ocean and then flows underneath the gulf stream, back south. So when all this fresh water came out from that Lake Agassiz, it diluted the salt water, and they call that a thermohaline pump -- "thermo" for temperature, "haline" for salinity. And that pump that drives the ocean currents was short circuited, it stopped. And so Europe went back into an ice age for another 1,000 years, even as most of the rest of the world continued warming.

So what they're worried about now is that if the volume of fresh melt water coming off Greenland gets to too big of a scale, it could do something like that again. The science fiction movie, "The Day After Tomorrow" was really based on that premise. And they asked me at the time, "Isn't this fiction?" I said, "Yes, but it's not as fictional as the Bush/Cheney view of of global warming!"

But there is a basis to it. And the gulf stream, according to a lot of evidence now, does appear to be slowing. They're still waiting to get the kind of measures they need.

But on the surface of Greenland the water is heavier than ice, because the ice is packed with air. So it tunnels all the way to the bottom.


LEE COWAN: In both films you certainly don't shy away from losing the White House. Is it fair to say, though, that that loss, as devastating as it was for you, opened the door for this whole second chapter for you?

AL GORE: I like to think that I would've continued my advocacy for solving the climate crisis no matter what, but yes, I think you're right in the sense that a president has to focus on so many challenges facing the country. It's hard to indulge in the luxury of just focusing single-mindedly on one thing.

LEE COWAN: Like you've been able to do now?

AL GORE: Like I've been able to do with the climate crisis, yes. So I never have fallen prey to the illusion that there's any job with as much ability to influence the future as that of President of the United States, but I do feel grateful that I found other ways to do work that serves the public interest.

LEE COWAN: You did have (and you've said this a lot) big plans had you gotten into the White House?

AL GORE: I had a detailed plan for my life, but it turned out life had a completely different plan for me. (laughs) And I feel joy that I have work that feels like it justifies pouring everything I have into it.

LEE COWAN: You are really one of the only people alive who knows what Hillary Clinton must have felt like. Have you talked to her after?

AL GORE: Oh, sure. I called her after the election, and she's gonna be fine. Because she's a strong person and she has a lot of opportunities in life. And where I'm concerned, you know, I had already been through much worse experiences than having the Supreme Court decide, "You can't be president." (laughs) And I grieve some of what I believe was harm that came to the country after that. But where I personally am concerned, I learned from earlier experiences in life that there are millions of people who have been through so much worse than I've been through. When I went through that period in my life worrying if a child was gonna make it or not, one of the profound lessons from that experience was a number of people who I did not know in any way, who would come up to me and share things they had been through, and lift me up and support me. Elevator operators in the Capitol Building, waiters in the cafeteria, cleaning ladies, people that normally I'd be nice to and say hi, but all of a sudden were having these very meaningful human exchanges. And some of what I came to understand they had been through, were going through in many cases, it opened my eyes, and I'm kind of embarrassed that I didn't realize this before.

But if we walk down the sidewalk of any street in America a significant number of the people we pass by, if we dug into what they're going through in their lives, they're carrying burdens that they don't talk about but they're extremely heavy and painful. And so as I also say in the movie, one of the secrets of the human condition is that suffering binds people together.

And when you go through something that's agonizing, others who know what you're feeling because they've been through it will so often reach out to you and connect with you, and give you strength and lift you up. So when I went through that experience in the election of 2000 and the Supreme Court decision, I knew I was gonna be fine. I hated the result, obviously. But I just started looking for other ways I could be of service.

LEE COWAN: Is that when you sort of found the slideshow again and started going through it?

AL GORE: Yeah, yeah. And in those days they were Kodak slides in one of those plastic carousels. And when I got really fancy I got three projectors, each with its own carousel and a little controller that would switch from one projector to the other  -- I thought that was the cat's meow.

LEE COWAN: You completely geeked out on the slide projectors? (laughs)

AL GORE: And by the way I'm not the only one who's been driven to distraction by putting the slides in upside down and backwards, and right in the middle of the slide show it's hard to change 'em. Steve Jobs asked me to join the Apple board and he gave me a lot of advice in translating it to a computer. And he assigned one of the experts at Apple on their Keynote program to teach me how to use that.

LEE COWAN: Really?

AL GORE: Yeah. And it didn't last for that long, because after about a month Steve called me and said, "Al, I didn't mean that you could use this guy fulltime. He's workin' for the company." (laughs) And so I said, "Okay, I get it." And so this guy recommended somebody in the private sector who could take over from him, and that's when it really began to take off.

And the first time I realized that it was finally in a form where it could really give people that "a-ha" moment I was looking for was up on Center Hill Lake not far from where we are right now, on a Saturday night with a bunch of my rowdy friends, drinking Pabst Blue Ribbon beer. (laughs) And one thing led to another, and here I am on the deck of the house, firing up my computer, and givin' my slideshow.

LEE COWAN: Nothing says a party like a slideshow! (laughs)

AL GORE: Well, yeah, I'm sorry that I carry that reputation with me. But they were really convinced by it. And they were telling me, you know, in their own way, "Wow, you've gotta get this out there." That's the first time that I felt like I had crossed a threshold where I might really be able to connect with people. And then I started giving the slideshow way more frequently, just giving it everywhere.

LEE COWAN: And to this day, I mean, you update it every single time you give it, right? Almost every day in fact?

AL GORE: Yeah, almost every single day. And I have a staff here in Tennessee that scours the Internet and the news outlet ever single day, looking for the climate-related extreme weather events, the new advances in technology that are making the solutions ever easier, and new developments in political and social coalitions with people joining the movement to solve this crisis.

LEE COWAN: And that's part of what the training is all about?

AL GORE: Absolutely. This upcoming slideshow in the Seattle area, it's different from any slideshow I've ever given. Because it will have a lot of examples from Puget Sound, and from the area surrounding Seattle.

LEE COWAN: So, it's very localized?

AL GORE: Yes, absolutely. I just finished a training for a group of ministers at the Center for Earth Ethics in New York City, at Union Theological Seminary, and in that slideshow it was filled with phrases from the Bible. And it was Christian ministers, and faith leaders from Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, some indigenous Native American leaders were there, and quotes from all those traditions interspersed with the slides.

LEE COWAN: How many different versions of this do you have?

AL GORE: The slideshow genome, if you will, has about 20,000 slides in it, and each version is tailor-made for the particular audience involved. And there's a common thread in all of them. But here's an exciting thing that comes out with the movie, and I can't even tell you how hard this was for me to do. But I have made a ten-minute version of the slideshow, and I'm trying to find the words to tell you how hard that is for me.

LEE COWAN: Brevity?

AL GORE: Normally, I show at least a two-hour slideshow. Sometimes I'll squeeze it down to one hour. Ten minutes? Wow, that's tough, but it works. And we're gonna give it away for free to everybody who wants it, anywhere in the world, and encourage them to show it to their friends and neighbors.

LEE COWAN: And that's what you want it to be, is you want it to be more localized, and more grassroots--

AL GORE: Absolutely, absolutely, and that's why I spend so much time training people to communicate about this in ways that don't accidentally overstate it, or misstate the science. Because it's tricky to communicate about this without giving the carbon polluters and others an opportunity to come in and say, "Oh, that was wrong! That was wrong!" So, getting it right is really important in communicating it.

LEE COWAN: I don't know whether experiment's the right word or what, but Current TV, what was your plan for that? Was it hope that that could be an outlet for more of your climate change talk?

AL GORE: Partly. In order to solve the climate crisis in this country, we have to also spend time on the democracy crisis. Because our democracy has been hacked and the influence of big money has made it more difficult to bring this into the political sphere, because the carbon polluters have used their money to really put false evidence out there, and try to fool people into thinking it's not real.

So, I wanted to look for ways to use a new approach to television news, that would take advantage of all the new digital tools that were out there, and create citizen journalists. And it was successful up to a point, but competing with the big media conglomerates turns out to be a real challenge.

It was successful economically, and the quality of journalism was something I was really proud of. We won a Peabody, and a DuPont, and two Emmys, and so, I'm really proud of the experiment. But it ended up not being one that grew as much as I hoped it would.

LEE COWAN: Was that hard to let it go, in a way? Or was it time?

AL GORE: It was definitely time for our investors, it was definitely time to let it go, yes. I wish that it could have continued indefinitely, but it didn't.

LEE COWAN: Speaking of investments, what is sustainable capitalism, that you've described?

AL GORE: Capitalism is the best way of organizing economic activity for a lot of reasons. It unlocks a higher fraction of human potential, it balances supply and demand, it's more consistent with higher levels of freedom. But the way we're pursuing it now, focuses on such short-term horizons, that a lot of businesses and investors are tempted to look at investments in terms of what's gonna happen in the next 90 days, what's gonna happen in one year.

But the old phrase, "Good things take time," is true of successful businesses as well. And in order to really invest wisely, you need to be able to have some patience. So, sustainable capitalism focuses on long-term decision-making. It also has some other characteristics. Instead of just looking at the narrow economic data that shows up in these quarterly reports, you also need to look at what a company is doing in its relationship to the environment, to the communities where they're located, to the health of their workforce, to the ethics in the executive suites. And if you integrate sustainability in all those dimensions into the process, then you get better returns, the economy is healthier, and our society is better.

LEE COWAN: And that's what you see with your investments?

AL GORE: Generation Investment Management, which is the firm I co-founded 14 years ago with my friend, David Blood, and our partners, is something I'm really proud of because it has the mission of proving the business case that, if you fully integrate sustainability into the investing process you can give better returns for your clients.

LEE COWAN: In the long run?

AL GORE: In the long run, but even over five to seven years. And in the process, you can influence others in that business to ask, well, wait a minute, if they're doing better than we are, maybe we should integrate sustainability into our thinking, and into our process.

LEE COWAN: So, back to the film real quick, because of Paris, how much do you have to change, and then how much do you have to re-edit, so that it's current when it comes out? 'Cause so much of it is based on what you were dealing in Paris, and all the side deals, and everything else?

AL GORE: The directors of the movie, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shank are right now, adding a new section at the end of the movie to take into account President Trump's decision to pull out of Paris, and to take into account the reaction that's come to that decision. And I think it's an appropriate decision for them to make. We always knew that we were gonna have to wait to complete the movie until after the election. We really didn't know how the election was gonna come out. And didn't know what it would feel like after the outcome was known. I had hoped President Trump would stay in the Paris Agreement, but he didn't. And so, the movie's ending will now take that into account.

LEE COWAN: Do you think it makes it more powerful in a way?

AL GORE: I don't know. It makes it more factual, it makes it more up-to-date. So, if that also makes it more powerful, maybe so.

LEE COWAN: How do you manage to stay so optimistic dealing with the climate crisis, which on a day-to-day basis is not always the most uplifting thing to think about or talk about?

AL GORE: Well, having worked on this for almost 40 years now, I've seen good days and bad days. And through all of that time, the general trajectory has been it's getting worse, it's getting worse. But in the last ten to 20 years, there's a second development; the solutions are more and more, and more available. So having this broad overview that I've developed over a long period of time, I now see the evidence that the solutions are available. We're gonna do this.

LEE COWAN: Do you miss anything about politics?

AL GORE: (laughs) Yeah, well, there's a lot I don't miss, I'll tell you that. Because it's become so dominated by big money. A lot of my friends who are still in it tell me it's depressing to have to spend so much time raising money all the time. And that warps the process. So, I don't miss any of that. I do miss being able to call up the head of an agency or a cabinet department and say, "Here's what you need to do today," and they'll respond to you -- pulling the levers, and pushing the buttons. I miss that part of it, for sure. There's a lot that I would like to be doing differently right now, than the current president is. But you know, the day-to-day politics and all of that, I don't miss that at all really.


LEE COWAN: Given the direction that the administration is going, does that sort of galvanize people? Do you get a sense that if they start doing less, people will start doing more?

AL GORE: Yeah. I think it's definitely the case. I've seen this with other issues. When people get concerned that the President of the United States or national leaders are dogging it on something that's clearly important, then they feel the impulse to step up and do more themselves.

I saw this back in the 1980s when President Ronald Reagan talked about the evil empire and started building up the nuclear arsenal. Before long, there were people marching in the streets saying, hey, we need to emphasize arms control more, and we need to try to tamp this down.

And then, President Reagan changed and really began pursuing some arms control agreements. I'm not saying President Trump is going to change on this. (laughs) I've given up predicting what he's gonna do. But I do think that the similarity in the situation is that when people see the president going in what they regard as the wrong direction on climate, they feel like they've got to step up and do more themselves. That's definitely happening all over the country.

LEE COWAN: You may not have seen this 'cause it just happened today. But Secretary Perry was in the briefing room today and essentially said that he thinks that we need to have a conversation about climate change, alluding to the fact that people who don't believe in the science, [think] that that's still a matter of debate.

AL GORE: Yeah.

LEE COWAN: So what do you tell an audience like this when you've got the Secretary of Energy saying, "We still need to have a conversation about –"

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AL GORE: Yeah, yeah. They want to pretend that this is up for debate. Like, whether or not the world is round is up for debate, or whether the moon landing really took place. You probably know all those examples. But it's very, very similar.

But you know, they're tongue-tied and confused and tentative about this for one simple reason: The truth about the climate crisis is still inconvenient to the large carbon polluters. And so they want to bob and weave and dodge the truth, and pretend like it's still a big controversy, and it's not.

LEE COWAN: Do you ever get tired of going out and giving the slideshow? Does it ever get old?

AL GORE: Honestly, it does not, for me, because I really have a strong sense that this is what I'm supposed to be doing. And I see a little progress that results from it, and that gives me more energy. When I see and hear people say, this has really given me what I need to know to go out and help bring about change, then that makes me want to do more. Like anybody, sometimes, you get physically tired after a long day of course. But the next morning, I'm rarin' to go. I mean, I really am energized by this work.

And as I've said, there is a pattern that shows up in all these great moral causes. A lot of resistance, a lot of effort to try to make it into some phony controversy, but then, when people really take the time to focus on what's right and what's wrong, then there's a breakthrough. We cross a threshold and then the change happens much faster.

       
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