Al Gore: ‘The message still has to be about the reality we’re facing’
The years since Al Gore released “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2006 have not been kind to climate hawks. Cap-and-trade died in the Senate, skeptics have renewed their attacks on climate science, and the front-runner for the GOP presidential nomination, Rick Perry, denies that there’s even a problem. So what has the former vice-president decided to do about it? Double down his efforts and unveil yet another high-profile presentation on the threat posed by rising temperatures, in the hopes of converting climate skeptics. This week, Gore’s Climate Reality Project will launch a 24-hour global multimedia broadcast on the link between global warming and severe weather events. We spoke by phone in late August about his new project, on the link between climate change and natural disasters, and the challenges of swaying public opinion.
Brad Plumer: “An Inconvenient Truth” was basically a primer on global warming—the causes, the problems it creates, the ways we can avert it. So what more is there to add? How will this new presentation be different?
AG: It’s very different—a few of the images are the same, but 95 percent of the slides are completely new. The science linking the increased frequency and severity of extreme weather to the climate crisis has matured tremendously in the last couple of years. Think about the last year, we’ve had floods in Pakistan displacing 20 million people and further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country. We’ve had drought and wildfires in Russia. In Australia you’ve got floods the size of France and Germany combined. Then there’s drought in Texas—out of 254 counties in Texas, 252 are on fire. I’m talking to you from Nashville, where the city lost the equivalent of an entire year’s budget from recent floods—the area has never been flooded like this before, so no one had flood insurance.
That’s the reality we’ve got to focus on. This presentation is a defense of the science and the scientists, against the timeworn claims by deniers.
BP: Now, whenever a natural disaster happens—say, a flood or a wildfire—you typically see scientists quoted in the press saying, “Well, it’s hard to attribute any single event to global warming, although this is the sort of event we should see more of as the planet warms.” As I understand it, this sort of extra-careful hedge is becoming outdated. Scientists actually are making tighter connections between current disasters and climate change, correct?
AG: Yes, that shift in the way scientists describe the linkage is one of the elements of this new slideshow. It’s a subtle but extremely important shift. They used to say that the climate crisis changes the odds of extreme weather events—this was the old metaphor of “loading the dice.” Now, they say there’s not only a greater likelihood of rolling 12s, but we’re actually loading 13s and could soon be rolling 15s and 16s. As scientists like James Hansen [of NASA’s Goddard Institute for Space Studies] and Kevin Trenberth [of the National Center for Atmospheric Research] point out, the changes brought about by man-made global-warming pollution have reached the stage that every event is now being affected by it in some way.
In the last 30 years, for instance, we’ve seen water vapor above the oceans increase by 4 percent, and many storms reach as far as 2,000 miles out to collect water vapor. So when you have a 4 percent increase over such a large area, the storms are now fueled with more water vapor than was the case 30 years ago. That means we’re getting larger downpours. And in drought-prone areas, we’re seeing increasing intervals between downpours, which is one of several reasons why we’re seeing extreme droughts.
BP: Now, you’re talking about presenting the stark facts as a way of persuading people that climate change is a problem. Yet when you look at polls on climate belief, one thing that stands out is that the people most dismissive of global warming tend to be the most confident that they have all the information they need. Doesn’t that suggest there’s a point at which more information doesn’t actually persuade anyone?
AG: Well, that logic hasn’t led deniers to stop pressing the inaccurate disinformation about climate science. And the fact is that quite a few of the large carbon polluters and their allies in the ideological right wing have been spending hundreds of millions of dollars per year to mislead people. Have you read Naomi Oreske’s book “Merchants of Doubt”? The tobacco companies a few decades ago pioneered this organized disinformation technique to create artificial doubt about the science of their product—they hired actors to dress them up as doctors and had them say, “I’m a doctor, there’s nothing wrong with smoking cigarettes; in fact, it’ll make you feel better.” And some of the same people who took money from tobacco companies to lie about tobacco science are now taking money from large carbon polluters to lie about the reality of the climate crisis.
BP: Okay, but taking that opposition is a given, there’s been a lot of discussion about whether something more is needed to fight it than yet another recital of climate science facts.
AG: Right, you hear a lot of people giving advice on how to talk about climate science—how you need to dress differently or stand on your head and deliver the message in rhyme. And I respect all that, and I hope a lot of people will present the message in their own way. But my message is about presenting the reality. I have faith in the United States and our ability to make good decisions based on the facts. And I believe Mother Nature is speaking very loudly and clearly. We’ve had ten disasters in the United States this year alone costing more than $1 billion and which were climate-related. It’s only a matter of time before reality sinks in, and we need both parties involved. And the only way to get the right answer is to understand the question.
BP: What about the folks who say that environmentalists should drop the emphasis on climate change and instead just talk about the benefits of energy independence or the virtue of green jobs or whatnot?
AG: Well, I think the opportunities for tens of thousands of good new jobs and building infrastructure—that’s a powerful economic argument. Reducing our dependence on expensive dirty oil in a market dominated by the most unstable region of the world—that’s also important. But I think these arguments and others are far more effective when they are coupled with the main reason for doing this, which is to save the future of civilization. And I think when the right wing and carbon polluters intimidate people into avoiding the word climate or the subject of the climate crisis, that does not help in the long run. The core of the message still has to be about the reality we’re facing.
BP: Now, looking back over the last four years, we went from 2007, when it seemed like there was a lot of momentum for climate action, to 2011, when the subject of global warming has become highly politicized and the prospect for capping carbon pollution in the United States looks dim. Does that give you pause? Do you think climate advocates may have had the wrong strategy all those years?
AG: No, I still think that the massive disinformation campaign was the principle reason why the political system was paralyzed. The great recession played a role as well. Politics also played a role, in the sense that many people tend to follow their perceived leaders in the political system—and most of the change has been among self-designated Republicans. We are one of the only countries in the world where one of the major political parties has embraced an anti-science denial agenda, and I think that has had a big impact.
BP: Why do you think the United States is different in that respect? The only countries where you really see a critical mass of climate skeptics are Anglophone nations—the United States, England, Australia.
AG: Part of it is that money plays a much bigger role in American democracy now than it ever has previously, at least in my memory. The ability of big money to shape perceptions—where you have four anti-climate lobbyists for every single member of the House and Senate—is a big factor.
BP: There’s been talk lately among some pockets of the climate-science community that scientists themselves need to get more active in the debate, to stop being so reticent. Do you think that has to happen?
AG: That’s solely within their discretion. Some are already doing that, while others are constitutionally uncomfortable with such a role, and I respect that. It’s not what they trained themselves and educated themselves to do, and so I leave that to them. But I’m encouraged that there are a great many scientists who have decided to learn how they can communicate across the cultural divide. But it can’t just be up to scientists. The rest of us have to pitch in and given them a hand.
Transcript edited for length and clarity.