Eight years ago, the film An Inconvenient Truth sent a generation of idealistic young people into a tailspin. We listened as narrator Al Gore calmly discussed the dire consequences of inaction on stopping climate change. And over the next near-decade, grassroots movements like 350.org and Avaaz popped up to put the strength of the masses behind a burgeoning climate movement, even as Gore himself moved away from the center of the spotlight.
These days, Gore is hopeful that the world will avoid the worst consequences of climate change, even as reports warn that the world hasn’t made any meaningful progress in slashing carbon emissions.
“I think the momentum is generally shifting,” says Gore. He has great hope that the recent People’s Climate March in New York City, an event held in the run-up to last week’s Climate Summit, will contribute to what he calls “a growing social movement.” He’s also encouraged by the 800-plus investors, including heirs to the Rockefeller family’s oil fortune, who recently engaged in a $50 billion divestment campaign from fossil fuels. The U.N. summit, he notes, “has been a trigger for the largest surge of attention by the media to this topic in several years.”
Aside from being a catalyst for other events, the summit itself ended with some significant pledges in play. China, for example, pledged to make significant emissions cuts by 2020–the country’s first big commitment to reducing CO2 emissions.
When I ask if this is a turning point for China, Gore responds he believes “some turning points are kind of rounded. I think China has been rounding the top of this turning point for a couple years now. Next March, we’ll see the definitive commitments China is prepared to make, but we’ve already seen the introduction of a cap and trade system in five cities and two provinces and a declaration that it will be the beginning of a nationwide cap and trade system.”
Gore was equally encouraged by the things that weren’t said in the days surrounding summit–specifically, the lack of climate deniers coming out in full force. “This is derivative of the famous Sherlock Holmes line about the dog that didn’t bark–the denier’s dog whined but didn’t bark. There was some whimpering and whining, but the barking was still muted,” he says. “Mother Nature has made a series of powerful statements about the impact of the climate crisis that has had a real effect on the public dialogue.”
Gore goes on to recite a laundry list of recent disasters (one thing that’s apparent even from having a short conversation with Gore: He always has a long list of climate-related facts and figures at the ready), like Superstorm Sandy and Typhoon Haiyan, that have instigated conversations about the changing climate.
The rapidly dropping cost of clean technologies like solar energy, as well as innovations in the wind energy and battery sectors, mean that there are concrete actions we can take, he says.
“That opens the door to people realizing that this challenge is in the tradition of the abolition movement and the women’s suffrage women and the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement and the LGBT rights movement in that, ultimately, it’s a question with a binary choice: Do we do the right thing or the wrong thing?”
Part of doing the right thing, according to Gore, means systemically reforming the markets so that they take into account externalities like environmental protection, health care, and community services. Through his investment management firm, Gore says that he wants to “prove the business case that full integration of sustainability is good for investors as well as the environment.” Most recently, his firm poured $30 million into green cleaning products company Seventh Generation.
“I think the trends that are now underway are unstoppable. There’s a remaining question of how quickly we’ll make this transition and how much damage we will bake into the climate,” says Gore. “But yes, we’re going to prevail, there’s no question about that.”