The former vice president and longtime climate crusader had swooped into the coal-mining region of Poland that is home this week to global climate talks, where delegates from nearly 200 countries have convened in an effort to begin implementing the 2015 Paris climate agreement.
Gore arrived in town amid worries that the talks — formally known as COP24 — were flailing. Negotiators had failed to come to consensus on key issues of transparency, finance and the ambition necessary to avoid the worst consequences of climate change. The head of the United Nations had warned that “the window of opportunity is closing” to act.
Gore, who is no stranger to such proceedings, seemed to take Wednesday’s atmosphere of angst in stride. He said he remains optimistic that the world will find a way to tackle climate change, and he said that it’s a good thing that Trump seems to have little interest in the talks unfolding in Katowice.
The following are excerpts from Gore’s interview with Washington Post national environmental reporter Brady Dennis and Berlin Bureau chief Griff Witte:
The Washington Post: We want to start with the leadership void at this COP. Given where the U.S. is, what do you see as far as the willingness or ability of other countries to step up?
Al Gore: I think the European Union's been playing a fairly impressive role, mostly behind the scenes. And China's role is complicated, but in some ways they're moving the ball in the right direction. But it's better when the U.S. is actually providing leadership. And maybe a couple of years from now it will again.
TWP: Is it just that the U.S. is not providing leadership or is it playing a negative role here?
AG: Those who are actually down in the trenches and engaged in a lot of the details are doing a workmanlike job. You get the political appointee types who come over here and put on a brief side show on promoting coal. And the kerfuffle over welcome-versus-note sent a chill down the spines of some people. But I don’t think that it was an indication of a large or malignant engagement by the White House. Of course, we have two days to go so we’ll know then. But I don’t think that this COP seems to be on the White House radar screen. I’m hoping it stays that way.
TWP: Overall are you optimistic or pessimistic that this COP will yield something substantive?
AG: I think that the essential agenda assigned to this COP is probably going to get done. There are 22,000 people here from 190 countries, and they’re continuing to do highly detailed work regardless of what Donald Trump thinks.
TWP: In the absence of a major U.S. role, how do you see the business world? Is the private sector filling the void?
AG: Many in the business world and in the investor world are trying to do exactly that. Not only out of a sense of moral duty but also because they see that the world is in the early stages of a sustainability revolution. It’s the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world and people are really seizing it. Look at the announcement just two days ago from Xcel Energy in Minnesota. Big utility right on the Canadian border. They just announced a shift to 100 percent renewable energy and a plan to close their existing fossil fuel plants. They’re doing it because the business realities are pushing them in that direction. That’s happening around the world.
TWP: We’ve seen suggestions that maybe there’s not enough urgency here. Do you think that’s the case?
AG: Whenever you have 197 nations trying to agree on anything it’s going to be an unwieldy process. But the new approach at these COPs since the Paris meeting has been to reach out beyond the government delegations to civil society, businesses, industry and investors and to welcome the commitments of regional and state governments and municipal governments. And I think that was a wise choice and I think those actors are feeling or are manifesting a greater sense of urgency than you might get from the official meetings.
TWP: How do you how see climate factoring into the 2020 presidential campaign?
AG: Well, I’m not a great political prognosticator. But I’m impressed that several of the candidates on the great-mentioned list have already said that climate is going to be their number one issue. So that’s a good sign.
TWP: It’s never been, as you well know, an issue that plays very well on the campaign trail.
AG: I think the main reason that’s changed is Mother Nature. The combination of Hurricane Florence, Hurricane Michael, the Camp Fire, the Woolsey Fire or the Mendocino Complex Fire, Hurricane Harvey the year before, $320 billion in damage from Hurricane Harvey and Maria and Irma. I mean, every night on the TV news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. I think people are connecting these dots on their own.
TWP: I know you gave it a try with Ivanka Trump and I guess Trump himself. Was there any willingness there?
AG: I met with Trump and continued my conversations during the first part of his first year in office. I've maintained the confidentiality of those communications. I'll simply say that I went into those discussions with some reason for legitimate hope that he might change. But I was disappointed.
TWP: What do you think is at the root of his climate change denial?
AG: Well, in Tennessee the farmers have an old saying that if you see a turtle on top of a fence post you can be pretty sure it didn’t get there by itself. And when you see the persistent climate denial in the U.S. among a big chunk of the Republican Party, it didn’t happen by itself. And Trump is in that category. The economic interests of the large carbon polluters led them some years back to adopt the playbook of the tobacco industry and to invest $2 billion over the years in promoting climate denial. So that’s my take on it. But surely some part of it is human nature, which makes us reluctant to engage with difficult subjects.