There was always the possibility that Al Gore, after making the hideously painful decision to concede the contested 2000 Presidential election to George W. Bush, would have to live out the remainder of his life as both a tragic loser and a tragic hero—someone who stood down in the name of the orderly transition of power. Gore resisted self-pity by projecting mordant good humor. “Hi, I’m Al Gore,” he would tell audiences. “I used to be the next President of the United States.” Or, in slightly darker moods, he’d say, “You know the old saying: you win some, you lose some—and then there’s that little-known third category.”
In the years to come, Gore made targeted criticisms of the Bush Administration—particularly of the war in Iraq—and became a kind of evangelist on the issue of climate change. His interest in ecological issues was evident as early as 1976, when he was elected to Congress as a young Democrat from Tennessee; in 1992, he published “Earth in the Balance,” which called for a “Global Marshall Plan” to protect the environment.
In 2006, instead of seeking some other political office, he collaborated with the writer and director Davis Guggenheim on the film “An Inconvenient Truth,” delivering a kind of lecture-with-slides on the environmental disasters that the world would face if people and governments remained indifferent to the price of burning fossil fuels. In 2007, Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were together awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace, “for their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change.”
Gore is an investor in green-technology businesses—a fact that regularly provokes criticism for alleged conflicts of interest—and he continues to write about the threat of climate change; promote the work of nonprofits, such as the Climate Reality Project and Climate TRACE; and, generally, campaign for governments, institutions, and individuals to act to prevent the worst.
Recently, as the warmest summer in recorded history was coming to an end, I spoke with Gore, who was in New York while the U.N. General Assembly was meeting. During our conversation, which has been edited for length and clarity, the former Vice-President discussed the fossil-fuel industry’s influence in politics, the U.N.’s climate efforts, and his hopes for America’s political will. Gore is seventy-five and lives in Nashville and also, as he put it, “on the road.” Our conversation also appears on The New Yorker Radio Hour.
Well, here we are. The last time I saw you, you came to The New Yorker and Condé Nast to talk about climate—this was probably ten years ago. And you were in the mode of warning, pushing, just as you had even years before, with “An Inconvenient Truth.” And now we’re through the summer of 2023, and anybody has to recognize that this is not a matter of the future—this is a matter of now. The climate crisis is now. We’re living in it. How do you assess what you saw—what we all saw—in the summer, all across the world?
Well, as you say, it now seems obvious to almost everyone that the severity of the crisis has reached a new level of intensity. Climate-related extreme events have become so common and so dangerous that people who wanted to dismiss it are now waking up to the reality that we’re facing. And, of course, the underlying substance is shocking. We’re still using the sky as an open sewer for the heat-trapping, gaseous pollution that we spew into it at the rate of a hundred and sixty-two million tons every single day. And we know how to solve it. We have the means to solve it. I’ve used the metaphor of flipping a switch, and some people have objected to that. But, really, we have a switch we can flip.
Describe what the switch is, what the political means are, and what stands in the way.
The climate crisis is really a fossil-fuel crisis. There are other components of it, for sure, but eighty per cent of it is the burning of fossil fuels. And scientists now know—and this is a relatively new finding, a very firm understanding—that, once we stop net additions to the overburden of greenhouse gases, once we reach so-called net zero, then temperatures on Earth will stop going up almost immediately. The lag time is as little as three to five years. They used to think that temperatures would keep on worsening because of positive-feedback loops—and some things, tragically, will. The melting of the ice, for example, will continue, though we can moderate the pace of that; the extinction crisis will continue without other major changes. But we can stop temperatures from going up almost immediately, and that’s the switch we need to flip. And then, if we can stay at true net zero, half of all human-caused greenhouse-gas pollution will fall out of the atmosphere in twenty-five to thirty years. So we can start the long and slow healing process almost immediately, if we act.
We have to find a way to shift out of our dependence on fossil fuels: coal, oil, and gas. And, of course, the fossil-fuel industry, and the financial institutions that have grown codependent on them—
The banks and the other large lenders, and associated industries, have, for more than a hundred years, built up a legacy network of political and economic influence. Shockingly, they have managed to convert their economic power into political power with lobbying, and campaign contributions, and the revolving-door phenomenon—where fossil-fuel executives go into the government.
I mean, the last President of the United States made the C.E.O. of ExxonMobil the Secretary of State. It’s almost hard to believe, but that is a symbol of how fossil-fuel companies have penetrated governments around the world. When ExxonMobil or Chevron puts its ads on the air, the purpose is not for a husband and wife to say, “Oh, let’s go down to the store and buy some motor oil.” The purpose is to condition the political space so that they have a continued license to keep producing and selling more and more fossil fuels.
Well, you’re not only an evangelist for climate change; you also are a politician, a seasoned politician.
I’m a recovering politician.
You’re looking better already. Tell me, why is it impossible for politicians to run on this successfully? What are the barriers preventing a day-to-day politician, on the state or national level, from making this an effective electoral cause?
The polluters have gained a high degree of control over the processes of self-government. I’ve often said that, in order to solve the crisis, we have to pay a lot of attention to the democracy crisis. Our representative democracy is not working very well. We have a dual hegemonic ideology called democratic capitalism, and the democracy part of our ideology has been cannibalized, to some extent, by economic actors, who have found ways to convert wealth into political influence. Wealth has always had its usefulness in the political sphere, but much more so in an era in which the candidate who raises the most money, and can buy the most media presence, almost always wins the election. And there’s been kind of evolutionary pressure as to people who go into politics: people who don’t want to put up with that kind of routine shy away from it now. Those who like it are more likely to run and get elected.