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  • 06.25.17

The Al Gore Interview: Full Transcript

Our entire conversation with the former vice president.

The Al Gore Interview: Full Transcript
“While changing the lightbulbs is important, changing the laws and policies is far more important. And that can happen when people who do care about solving the climate crisis speak up.” [Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images/Sundance Film Festival]

This is a full transcript of the condensed and edited interview, which you can find here.

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Fast Company: Why did you want to make a sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, and why now?

Al Gore: Well, a number of people have been encouraging me to make a sequel for quite a few years. I think one reason is that the first movie gave or seemed to give a big boost to the efforts to solve the climate crisis–at least a number of people have generously said that–and since we still have so much work to do, a lot of people over the last 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, has been enthusiastic about trying to find a way to make a sequel. And parenthetically, I have to tell you that when the idea for the first movie was presented to me over a decade ago, I was actually skeptical about whether it was a good idea. I was consistent this time around and skeptical once more. But I’m glad that wiser heads prevailed. I guess I was just worried about trying to attempt to make the second movie because the first one was so well received. But that was not a good reason not to do it. And I’m so glad they talked me into moving forward a second time.

FC: The movie balances a message about the urgency of the climate crisis with hope. I liked the scene in the movie where you visit a small, conservative town in Texas that’s now powered by 100% renewable energy. Can you talk about what that town represents about the adoption of renewables?

AG: Yeah, that’s one of my favorite scenes, too. Thank you. 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, and technologists, and startups, and CEOs, has all 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 around the world and many places in the United States. You know at Fast Company that there are some areas of technology that yield to research and development and then scale in ways that reduce the costs dramatically even as the quality goes up at the same time. And the exciting development is that that pattern applies to renewable energy. Georgetown, Texas–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, and they’re enjoying the benefits of that decision now.

FC: Many people 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: Well, many parts of the business world are way ahead of most of the political world, at least in the U.S. I do believe that the underlying technological and economic trends guarantee that the shift to renewable energy and to sustainability in general will continue regardless of what government policies are adopted. However, the pace of change can be profoundly accelerated with the right government policies. And it’s important to always remember that we’re still putting 110 million tons of global 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 of it will remain there for thousands of years. The scientific projections, which have been proven so correct in the predictions made decades ago, now tell us that 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.

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For example, the subsidies around the world for the burning of fossil fuels are 40 times larger than the meager subsidies for renewable energy. And if we removed all subsidies, the pace of change would accelerate even more. But of course I believe we should continue and amplify the encouragement for a faster shift to renewable energy and sustainability while eliminating these absurd subsidies that encourage the destruction of the Earth’s ecological balance.

FC: In the movie, on November 10, 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 maybe has it has it already done? [Note: This conversation took place before Trump’s decision to pull out of the Paris climate agreement.]

AG: Well, it’s important to remember that we haven’t even reached the 100-day mark of our new administration. And so it’s difficult to predict. Some of their early policy decisions have of course been discouraging, but they may yet decide to stay in the Paris agreement, which is the most important decision relative to climate. 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 business, to industry, to investors, to local and regional governments, and to national governments everywhere. And that signal has been received. The pace of change has accelerated dramatically since the Paris agreement was formally adopted. And if the U.S. does–in spite of President Trump’s changes to the Clean Power Plan and other U.S. policies–if the U.S. stays in the international consensus then that will continue to accelerate the pace of change.

FC: What do you think it would mean if the U.S. actually did pull out of the Paris agreement? What consequences would that have?

AG: Well I don’t think they’re going to. I think the odds are better than even that they will stay in the agreement. If the U.S. does pull out, it would raise a risk of undermining the hard-won global consensus. But I would be surprised if they make that decision.

FC: There’s a scene in the movie that shows your work behind the scenes at the Paris conference, and how you convinced SolarCity to donate some of its technology to India to address concerns India had about the cost of renewables. Can you talk a little bit about why it was so critical to get India on board and how much importance you think that donation played in actually making the Paris agreement happen?

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AG: Well, according to the environment minister of India and according to the U.S. participants in that tough negotiation, it helped to get them across the line and withdraw their objections to having a strong treaty. I give tremendous credit to Lyndon Rive and Peter Rive and the leaders of SolarCity, and to Elon Musk, who chairs the SolarCity board and who has a history of giving up intellectual property for larger strategic goals. He invented the Hyperloop idea, for example, and just gave it away. Some of the key intellectual property involved with Tesla he gave away to see what others could do with it. I knew that history, and I know Elon and Lyndon very well, so I had an inkling that it might just barely be possible to convince them to to make this generous and visionary offer. And after only 24 hours of thinking it over, they agreed to do it. The Indians were the real key to the agreement, because unlike China, they had not yet resolved in their own minds the risk/benefit equation for joining the world’s sustainability revolution. As you know, India is almost as populous as China now, and will shortly overtake China as the largest nation on Earth. And even though India’s economy is much, much smaller than China’s economy, they are growing faster than China, and their choices of energy sources to fuel that growth could make all the difference for the future of humanity.

FC: Going back to the U.S., what do you think are the opportunities for the federal government to make progress now? For example, do you think there’s a chance of a carbon tax happening?

AG: Well, I hope so. I’ve advocated a revenue-neutral CO2 tax since the late 1980s, and I included it in my first book on climate, Earth in the Balance. But in the years since, I’ve come to appreciate the durability of the resistance to a CO2 tax. And along with others, I came to support an alternative, the so-called cap and trade system, which had been dramatically successful in removing sulfur dioxide from power plant emissions and helping to mitigate the acid rain problem, which we don’t hear about much anymore because it’s so much less severe now than it was before cap and trade reduced SO2. That was a conservative Republican idea that originated in the Heritage Foundation and was adopted by the first President Bush. So many people who ran into a brick wall in advocating a CO2 tax began to encourage the cap and trade system as a second-best alternative.

I still prefer the CO2 tax. And by the way, in 1993, I persuaded President Clinton and the economic team of our then-new incoming administration to include a carbon tax and our principal economic package in January of ’93. It passed the House of Representatives by one vote, but then foundered in the Senate. Then in the aftermath of that failure to enact a carbon tax, many of us said well, if cap and trade system is the best we can get, and if conservative Republicans can be given credit for originating this idea, maybe they will make it easier to form a bipartisan consensus around that idea. But they quickly abandoned it as soon as it became leading policy choice. Once again it passed the House of Representatives in the first year of Obama’s administration and foundered in the Senate.

But I favor both. I would like to see both a CO2 tax and a cap and trade system, and a few countries that have adopted both have done extremely well economically and in reducing emissions. Now that there are some prominent Republican senior statesmen advocating a carbon tax, including George Schultz and James Baker, and a number of others; there is a little bit of renewed hope that maybe it will gain some altitude. But I’ve learned over the years that the resistance, as I’ve said before, is quite durable. Even China, China changed its whole approach to the climate crisis partly because they have to deal with the co-pollutant air pollution that’s making their cities unlivable. And they tried to build support for a CO2 tax in China and they defaulted to the cap and trade system that they are implementing nationwide this year. So one way or another, either directly or indirectly, we have to put a price on carbon pollution and accelerate the reduction of these emissions in order to avoid the catastrophic consequences of global warming.

FC: Why do you think we need both cap and trade and a carbon tax?

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AG: Well I’m not predicting that we will have both. Please understand I’m just telling you my personal preferences. But the reason I think we ought to have both is that that policy has worked extremely well in Sweden, for example. And I think that both approaches have their own distinctive benefits. If I had to choose one I would choose a carbon tax as long as it was of sufficient size to really solve the crisis. The benefits of the cap and trade approach include giving different businesses and industries the flexibility to use market forces as an aid to their emissions reduction trajectory. The first movers that make a commitment make money, boost profits while reducing emissions, and others that are slower off the mark begin to see that it’s in their economic interest to accelerate the pace. That’s what happened with sulfur dioxide and I’m sure it’s what will happen with an adequate cap and trade approach with respect to CO2. And by the way, California is moving ahead on its own. New York state is moving ahead. A number of other states and quite a large number of cities and local governments are moving forward. There is a third policy option in the mix I should mention, and that is some form of regulation like a renewable energy portfolio standard, I’m sure you’re quite familiar with that. And the number of cities that are now committing to go to 100% renewable energy is quite impressive. And the number is growing every day.

FC: What can you tell me about your meeting with President Trump in December?

AG: Well, I appreciate and respect the question. But I have followed a policy of not violating the privacy of those exchanges. And the reason is that for eight years in the Clinton-Gore White House I always protected the privacy of my conversations with President Clinton, and 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, but I’ve learned, it seems like the right approach to me, and it also safeguards the opportunity for a continuation of the dialogue.

FC: Did you feel any differently after that meeting, or any more hopeful than you had going into it?

AG: It was an interesting conversation. And whenever you talk with someone face to face, you have the opportunity to adjust your preconceptions. Of course, many of the early policy moves by the Trump administration have been discouraging where climate is concerned. But again, I believe the most important decision is whether or not he decides to remain in the Paris agreement. And again, I’m optimistic that he will.

FC: You’ve said that in order to fix the climate crisis we need to fix the democracy crisis. Can you talk a little bit about how you think we can begin to do that, particularly with the problem of big money in politics?

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AG: I’m gathering my thoughts so that I can be succinct. I’ve written a book about this—I’ve written two books about it, actually, so I won’t beleaguer you was a long answer, but basically we’ve seen two tectonic shifts in the technologies that support the conversation of democracy. The shift to a print-based civilization 500 years ago actually led to the modern version of representative democracy. And the shift from the printing press as the dominant means of communication to electronic broadcasting installed the gatekeepers that charge enormous sums of money for the privilege of communicating with the public on a constant repetitive basis. And that shift was depressing for the dynamism of democracy.

But now we have a third shift that will almost certainly become more important than either the printing press or electronic broadcasting, supplemented by cable and satellite. And that, of course, is the internet and social media. And with all of its problems, the internet once again removes the gatekeepers and allows individuals to gain an audience based on the perceived value of what thoughts they’re expressing and the way they express them. I believe that the internet brings with it a realistic hope for reestablishing the dynamism of American democracy. Already we see every important reform policy reform movement living and breathing on the internet.

And as more people, particularly in your generation, begin to rely more on the internet and social media than older technologies, we see bloggers now 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–and I’m actually quite 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 now be mounted without any special interest money. By relying exclusively on small contributions over the internet from people who agree with the ideas a candidate expresses. That’s the way democracy is supposed to work. Ideas, the best available evidence, vision, a sensible course for the future–that should count for a lot more than some enormous fat cat’s contributions of money in return for special favors in policy designed to support their source of revenue.

FC: Do you think that we can restore political discourse–whether it’s on the internet or otherwise–quickly enough to address what needs to happen regarding climate change?

AG: I sure hope so. I see that happening now. I’m very fond of the wisdom expressed by the late economist Rudy Dornbusch, who I had the privilege of knowing and working with. 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. And I see that pattern taking place in America today. I’ll give you a quick example. If someone had said to me even five years ago that gay marriage would be legal everywhere in the United States and would be supported and celebrated by the overwhelming majority of the American people, I would have said well I sure hope so, but I’m just not sure if that’s realistic. But that has happened. And it’s not only technological revolutions that often will follow that exponential pattern. Social revolutions do as well. The civil rights movement, the women’s suffrage movement, the abolition movement long before, the anti-apartheid movement. And as I’ve just mentioned the gay rights movement. 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 right now. We are right at that inflection point.

FC: I’ve seen in recent polls that more Americans than ever before are worried about climate change. But it still isn’t a top priority for most. How do you think that it can become a priority when many people are concerned about issues that seem more immediate, like their job, or health care, or whatever else?

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AG: Well, two answers. First of all, the jobs in the solar industry are now 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. And as you see in the example of Georgetown, Texas, when the economics of emissions-reducing renewable energy crossover and become clearly more attractive than burning coal or gas or oil, then everything changes. In Kentucky–you may have noticed this story, I tweeted about it a week ago, and Tom Friedman had a column this morning in the New York Times–the Coal Museum in Kentucky just switched to solar energy. It saves them a lot of money.

FC: That’s great.

AG: Yeah, it is great! And that’s the first answer to your question. The second answer is that more and more people are actually beginning to make solutions to the climate crisis one of their top priorities. I would invite you to look at the recent coverage of the town hall meetings held by Republican members of Congress during this holiday break when they go back and have these meetings. It’s partly due to the Indivisible movement, but they’re being put on the spot in their town hall meetings about the climate crisis and they’re being held to account. That’s something not entirely new, but the scale and vigor with which people are taking them to task is really very different now.

And I think one of the reasons for that is not only the changes in the way we’re all communicating among ourselves, but maybe an even bigger reason is that Mother Nature has joined this debate or this discussion. And the climate-related extreme weather events are now increasingly impossible for people to ignore. You take Houston, the center of the global petroleum industry. In one 12-month period last year they had two 500-year floods, and one 1,000-year downpour. And in fact, they’ve had another huge rain with flooding just this week. So after a while people say, “Wait a minute, this is not an abstract debate. This is affecting my life.”

FC: As you’ve thought about how to talk to people about climate change over the years, and there is the issue that a lot of changes will come in the future and it’s sort of hard for people to wrap their minds around that–not the immediate effects, but what will come in the next century–what have you learned about the most effective ways to communicate with people about climate change, or to persuade people who aren’t concerned about it?

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–whether long term, mid-term or short term, 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.

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FC: To shift topics, I know you run an investment management firm that focuses on sustainability. How long do you think it will take–or is it already happening–for sustainability to be a standard consideration for all investment firms?

AG: I think that change is accelerating. When sustainability is fully integrated properly into the investment process, the evidence now 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. It’s now best practice to fully integrate sustainability. It helps in ways that the CEOs and managers don’t necessarily think about in the first instance. For example, it helps tremendously in recruiting and retaining the best employees. Because again, particularly in your generation, people want to work for a firm that shares their values, and a paycheck is crucial, of course, but taking pride in one’s work and feeling that the firm at which you’re employed is about more than simply making profit but also cares about doing the right thing and helping in its own way to make the world a better place. That is in itself a revolution that’s gaining speed.

FC: Do you think that consumer demand for that is also increasing?

AG: Absolutely, no question about it. And since the difference between profit and loss is usually at the margins, it doesn’t take a majority of consumers to express a preference for the most climate friendly and environmentally responsible alternative before businesses catch on and realize that they’re going to lose customers, they’re going to lose brand value, they’re going to lose some employees, they’re going to lose some of the enthusiasm of their workforce, if they don’t align themselves with what people feel is the right thing.

FC: For someone who wants to support climate action but doesn’t know where to begin, what would you tell them?

AG: Learn about it. Go to the movie. Read the book. The book will come out the same day as the movie in July. Then win the conversations you have about the climate crisis–don’t let climate denial go unchallenged. Be a conscious participant in the marketplace because your choices not only help incrementally but exert leverage on businesses that is more powerful than your individual consumer choices. And then finally, participate in the political process. While changing the lightbulbs is important, changing the laws and policies is far more important. And that can happen when people who do care about solving the climate crisis speak up, as these Indivisible members are doing at these town hall meetings, as others are doing by emailing and writing and calling the offices of their elected representatives. 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 passed, can be crossed, and we’re now 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.

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FC: Why did climate change become a partisan issue?

AG: I think that the enormous expenditures by the climate deniers played the leading role. And I think that in the immediate aftermath of the great recession in 2008 they stepped up their spending and actively made it a partisan issue by threatening Republican members of Congress with the Tea Party primary opponents unless they toed the line. But now with enough members of the general public saying no, this is important to us, their ability to do that is being sharply diminished.

FC: To return to the movie, who are you hoping to reach with this, and what sort of impact are you hoping that it has?

AG: I hope that everybody will go to see it, of course, but I say that not just in an aspirational way but as an expression of my strong feeling that there’s no particular age group or demographic group that there is a special target for this movie. The first movie found resonance with people in every demographic category, and I hope that this movie will as well.

FC: What impact do you hope that the movie can have on our current trajectory?

AG: My greatest hope is that it will significantly increase the number of people who make this challenge a personal priority. And communicate that commitment to solving the climate crisis in their personal circle of friends and acquaintances, in their businesses and social networks, and then the political system. And that they do so as market participants as well. When enough people express that commitment in all those ways, we will solve this crisis, no doubt about it.

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FC: What does “speak truth to power” mean to you?

AG: It means using facts, as defined by the best available evidence, and a deeply felt conviction about what’s more likely to be true than not as the basis for demands expressed to those in political power, and those in power in the marketplace as well. And midway through the last century, Mahatma Gandhi spoke about what he called a truth force. The word he used in Sanskrit is one I can’t really necessarily pronounce correctly but it’s called Satyagraha. And Gandhi’s view was that truth has a force in human affairs and when it is passionately expressed, it can be the most powerful force for changing things for the good.

FC: How do you think that, especially now, how do we overcome the problem of fake news?

AG: The reading I’ve done about this has informed me that it’s been around since news itself has been around. It’s not in any way a new phenomenon. But it’s more visible on the internet when Russian-paid trolls and others who benefit economically from spreading fake news are given an incentive to make it a bigger phenomenon than it was in the past. And I welcome the recent statements by leaders of digital companies that they are recognizing that they have a responsibility to curate content and not just wash their hands of the responsibility that’s turned over to algorithms and bots. I think that over time there may well be self-healing dynamism that it kicks in.

FC: One thing I want to ask you, since I know you’ve really thought about such a wide range of issues deeply, how do you think that more people can become systems thinkers and rather than just specialists in one field, and begin to understand the bigger picture and many issues that are going on simultaneously?

AG: Boy, that’s a deep and thoughtful question. I’m not sure I know the answer to it. But I think that we are in the midst of a shift in the way we approach knowledge. I think people now are more likely to become thinkers in an age when knowledge is on the web and not just in silos, and the reductionist effect, the way we used to organize knowledge into these vertical silos, started changing really with environmental science. At least that’s where I first encountered that change. And I think that the increasing interconnections that are more visible and accessible on the web, have encouraged people to make that shift. In business the same is true. If you look, for example, at Germany’s manufacturing 4.0 initiative, they are essentially turning factories into computers. And when you do that, you certainly have to adopt the systems approach.

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FC: You have said that American leadership is necessary for climate action. Do you still think that, and do you think that we will be able to restore our political system to the point where the U.S. can lead the world on climate?

AG: Yes, I do. The old cliche “it’s always darkest before the dawn” springs to mind. Because I think that the new administration’s early moves on environmental policy are, as I said previously, certainly discouraging. But I think that there is a law of physics that has become something of a cliche 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 energy and creativity and the Indivisible movement and the surge of support for progressive organizations and the voter turnout in that district in Georgia yesterday [during the run-off in the 6th congressional district], to pick one of many examples.

All of that is evidence that there is an equal and opposite reaction to Trumpism that is now taking hold in American democracy. I remember back in the early 1980s when then-President Ronald Reagan declared his opposition to arms control and called the Soviet Union the evil empire, and people began to worry much more about the nuclear arms race, what happened was the emergence of the nuclear freeze movements and many other popular based movements demanding that we slow and if possible halt the nuclear arms race, and President Reagan changed his mind and entered into a series of very productive arms reduction agreements with the then Soviet Union. And I think it’s possible that these first 100 days, almost, of the Trump administration will not necessarily define where American policy is a year from now, or two years from now, or four years from now, because the surge of progressive activism in response to President Trump is still building.

About the author

Adele Peters is a staff writer at Fast Company who focuses on solutions to some of the world's largest problems, from climate change to homelessness. Previously, she worked with GOOD, BioLite, and the Sustainable Products and Solutions program at UC Berkeley.

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