A decade after the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth made the threat of climate change real to millions of moviegoers, the film’s star, Al Gore, is back to make it even more so. In An Inconvenient Sequel, due in theaters July 28, he shares an outlook that is both more dire and more optimistic: Last year was the hottest ever on record, but it also marked a high point for installations of renewable energy. Gore believes that the momentum for positive change has become unstoppable, no matter what current politics might indicate. “We will solve this crisis,” Gore says. “No doubt about it.” (This interview has been condensed and edited. You can read the full interview here.)
Fast Company: What made you want to make a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth?
Al Gore: Since we still have so much work to do, a lot of people over the past several years have asked me if I would be willing to make a sequel—in particular Jeff Skoll, whose company, Participant Media, made the first movie. I have to tell you that when the idea for the first movie was presented to me, over a decade ago, I was skeptical. I was consistent this time around and skeptical once more. I guess I was just worried because the first one was so well received. But I’m glad that wiser heads prevailed.
FC: The movie balances a sense of urgency over the growing climate crisis with a great deal of hope. At one point, you visit a small, conservative town in Texas that’s now committed to being 100% powered by renewable electricity.
AG: That’s one of my favorite scenes. I think the achievements of Georgetown, Texas, are especially important because they demonstrate that all the wonderful work that has been done by innovators, by scientists, technologists, startups, and CEOs has come together to produce a startling revolution in renewable energy, with solar and wind electricity now cheaper than electricity made from burning fossil fuels in many places. Georgetown, a very conservative community, took a close look at the economics of all the options available to them. Partly because they have a CPA as the mayor, they made the bold decision to follow the economics and break free from the patterns of the past. They’re enjoying the benefits of that decision now.
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FC: Industry experts have argued that wind and solar power are now cheap enough that they will continue to grow regardless of what happens politically. Some corporations are also committing to ambitious climate action. How much do you think the business world can accomplish on its own without strong policy?
AG: Many parts in the business world are way ahead of most of the political world, at least in the U.S. However, the pace of change can be profoundly accelerated with the right government policies. We’re still putting 110 million tons of globe-warming pollution into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours—treating it like an open sewer—and much of it will remain there for hundreds of years. Some for thousands of years. If we don’t accelerate the pace of change, the damage done to the prospects for human civilization would be quite severe. So it is important that we have the right policies. For example, the subsidies around the world for the burning of fossil fuels are 40 times larger than the meager subsidies for renewable energy.
FC: There’s a scene in the movie, filmed on November 10, where you call the 2016 election a setback and say that it’s one of a long line of setbacks in addressing climate change. How much damage do you think the new administration could do, or how much has it possibly already done? (Trump pulled out of the Paris climate agreement earlier this month after Fast Company‘s interview took place. Gore called the decision “reckless” yet made the case that cities states and businesses are still moving forward.)
AG: It’s difficult to predict. Some of their early policy decisions have of course been discouraging, but it’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of what happened in Paris, a year ago December, when every nation in the world, save a few exceptions hardly worth mentioning, agreed to go to net zero greenhouse emissions early in the second half of this century. Because that sent a signal to businesses, investors, and local and national governments everywhere. And that signal has been received. The pace of change has accelerated dramatically.
FC: You have said that American leadership is necessary for climate action. Do you still think that?
AG: Yes, I do. There is a law of physics that has become something of a cliché in politics, and that is that for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. There’s no doubt in my mind that the impressive surge of support for progressive organizations is evidence that there is an equal and opposite reaction to Trumpism that is now taking hold in American democracy.
FC: What happened during your meeting with President Trump in December? (The two also reportedly spoke by phone in May.)
AG: Well, I appreciate and respect the question. But I have followed a policy of not violating the privacy of those exchanges. I believe that any president who enters into a set of confidential exchanges deserves to have them treated privately. And so forgive me if I don’t violate that rule. It also safeguards the opportunity for a continuation of the dialogue.
FC: In order to fix the climate crisis, you believe that we need to fix the democracy crisis. Do you think we can restore political discourse quickly enough to address climate change?
AG: I sure hope so. Already we see every important policy-reform movement living and breathing on the internet. We see bloggers affecting policy debates. We see digital fact-checkers blowing the whistle on these big lie campaigns that still flourish in television advertising—the climate deniers, for example. I’m optimistic that this trend will continue. And you know, the Bernie Sanders campaign last year. I’m not endorsing his platform—I agreed with some of his ideas and disagreed with others—but I want to give him all the credit he deserves for proving that a serious nationwide presidential campaign can be mounted without any special-interest money, relying exclusively on small contributions over the internet from people who agree with the ideas a candidate expresses. Ideas, the best available evidence, vision, a sensible course for the future—that should count for a lot more than some fat cat’s contributions of money in return for special favors in policy designed to support their source of revenue.
I’m very fond of the wisdom expressed by the late economist Rudi Dornbusch, who I had the privilege of knowing. He once said that things take longer to happen than you think they will. But then they happen much faster than you thought they ever could. The civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the abolition movement long before, antiapartheid, gay rights—all of these revolutions seemed at times almost hopeless to many of the advocates. But once the underbrush was cleared away, and the ultimate choice was resolved into a binary decision between what’s right and what’s wrong, then it began to happen with lightning speed. And I think that’s where the climate movement is now. We are right at that inflection point.
FC: Climate change is a topic you’ve been talking about for years. What have you found to be the most effective way to communicate your message?
AG: Among the lessons I’ve learned is the importance of conveying realistic hope. Because despair can be paralyzing, and the fear of these consequences is not necessarily the most effective way to change minds and motivate people. But when you can convey hope in a realistic way, that unlocks a higher fraction of the potential for change.
FC: How do you make climate change a priority for people worried about more immediate issues, such as their job?
AG: First of all, jobs in the solar industry are growing on an annual basis 17 times faster than average job growth in the economy as a whole. The single fastest-growing job description over the next 10 years is predicted to be wind-power technicians. Second, more people are actually beginning to make solutions to the climate crisis one of their top priorities. One reason is that Mother Nature has joined this discussion. Climate-related extreme weather events are increasingly impossible for people to ignore. After a while, people say, Wait a minute, this is not an abstract debate. This is affecting my life.
FC: You run an investment management firm that focuses on sustainability. How long do you think it will take for sustainability to be a standard consideration for all investment firms?
AG: I think there is a big movement now that is gaining speed. When sustainability is integrated properly into the investment process, the evidence indicates that returns can improve. There is voluminous academic research now showing that in most sectors of the economy, companies that fully integrate sustainability into their business plans are outperforming their competitors. For example, it helps tremendously in recruiting and retaining the best employees. Because people want to work for a firm that shares their values.
FC: What would you tell someone who wants to support climate action but doesn’t know where to begin?
AG: Learn about it. Don’t let climate-change denial go unchallenged. Be a conscious participant in the marketplace, because your choices not only help incrementally but also exert leverage on businesses. And participate in the political process. The threshold for popular democracy making a difference may be higher in an age when big money contributions still play an unhealthy role. But that threshold can be crossed, and we’re seeing the impact of all the people showing up at these town hall meetings already. There are now 30 Republican members of the House of Representatives who have changed their positions to be supportive of solving the climate crisis. We don’t need many more before we have a working majority in Congress. And it never should have been a partisan issue anyway.
30-Second Bio: Al Gore
Title: Cofounder and chair of Generation Investment Management; partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers; founder and board member of the Climate Reality Project; board member at Apple
Education: Bachelor’s degree in government from Harvard University; studied philosophy and law at Vanderbilt University
Previous jobs: Former vice president of the United States and congressman from Tennessee; founder of the former Current TV network, which sold for a reported $500 million in 2013
Awards: Nobel Peace Prize, together with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in 2007; Primetime Emmy Award for Current TV in 2007; star of the 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which won the Academy Award for best documentary in 2007