Climate Action

Climate change is at a 'political tipping point' - Al Gore on the Radio Davos podcast

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SDG 13: Climate Action

This article is part of: Centre for Nature and Climate
  • Former US vice president Al Gore has spoken on climate change for decades.
  • We have the solutions, he says, but climate change is happening faster than the actions being taken.
  • He recently spoke to Linda Lacina, host of Meet the Leader. This week's Radio Davos features an excerpt of that conversation.

Former US vice president Al Gore has been pushing for climate action for decades and maintains optimism, despite the fact that greenhouse gas emissions have continued to rise while the science says they need to be cut to zero by 2050.

In this interview, first broadcast on the World Economic Forum's Meet the Leader podcast, Gore rails against continuing subsidies for fossil fuels but says we are at a ‘political tipping point’ after which polluters will no longer hold sway.

Al Gore on Meet the Leader: transcript

Linda Lacina: We’re two years into the 'Decade of Action'. How are we doing?

Al Gore: That's a loaded question. Let me take a step back and start by explaining why so many people are saying this decade is so crucial for climate action. Over the last couple of years we've heard many leaders from all around the world make pledges to achieve net zero global warming pollution emissions by 2050. And that 2050 timeline is aligned with the latest science and the goal of the historic Paris Agreement in 2015. And if we reach net zero by 2050, we will be able to limit global temperature increases to 1.5 degrees Celsius and the Earth's temperatures will stop going up once we reach net zero with a lag time of as little as three to five years. But here's the catch: the science is very clear that we will only be able to achieve that goal if we cut our current emissions in half by 2030 over the next eight years. What that means is that the actions that our leaders take right now, this year, and over the next eight years, will determine whether we're able to keep that 2050 goal within reach.

We have the solutions. We need the policies and the political decisions and business decisions to implement them.

If we fail to do that then of course the world, according to the scientific community -- virtually unanimous -- saying that we will face increasingly disastrous impacts from the climate crisis. And it's becoming abundantly clear as we face these climate-induced, catastrophic weather disasters all around the globe. Obviously they're getting more frequent. They are getting worse, more extreme. The impacts of the climate crisis are still increasing much faster than we have yet been able to deploy the solutions. We have the solutions. We need the policies and the political decisions and business decisions to implement them. And now we know the last eight years were the warmest eight years ever measured with instruments in all of history. Twenty-five countries had their hottest years ever recorded last year. Just yesterday, the all-time heat record was broken in Argentina, the day before in Australia. And you saw the flooding in Germany and Belgium and so many places. I'm not going to go through the list of horribles but they're getting worse, faster than predicted.

Now, at the same time, the so-called direction of travel in global markets is now clear. We are moving away from fossil fuels toward clean, renewable energy. The astonishing cost reduction curves for clean electricity, from solar and wind, for batteries, for electric vehicles, for hundreds of less well known, but dramatic efficiency improvements -- they're all profoundly reshaping the economics of sustainability. In that respect, we're beginning to make some progress. And in roughly the past dozen years, here in my country, in the US, the cost of solar electricity has dropped 90%, for wind 72% down, EV battery costs have dropped 89%, LED lighting costs have dropped 94%. That means these resources are being deployed more broadly around the globe. And if you look at newly-installed electricity generation capacity last year, worldwide, 90% of it was renewables.

But the turnover is slow. And so we're still using a lot of fossil fuels. 80% of our energy is still coming from it. But in the next five years, the International Energy Agency projects, that percentage is going to increase to 95% of all new electricity generation is going to be renewable. And a lot of local and regional jurisdictions are mandating that renewables provide a 100% of their power and the market has been transformed with dizzying speed, but it's still not enough.

Here's a quick example, Linda. Just one year before the Paris Agreement was reached in 2015, solar and wind were cheaper than new coal and gas plants for electricity in only 1% of the world. But five years later, solar and wind were the cheapest sources of new electricity and more than two-thirds of the world. And in the next three years, they're going to be cheaper in 100% of the world.

Now, on the flip side of that, the market for fossil fuels is beginning to shrink. Many oil, gas, and coal resources are at high risk of becoming stranded assets. We have a subprime carbon bubble creating the foundation of a bubble many times larger than the subprime mortgage bubble that triggered the global financial crisis 15 years ago.

But big changes aren't limited only to the energy sector. Companies and innovators are rethinking mobility, our food systems, agriculture, building materials, and so much more. So we're going to see even bigger shifts and even more exciting opportunities for this investment as this sustainability revolution continues to take hold.

So to summarize: while we haven't moved nearly fast enough to deploy the solutions yet, we have developed some significant momentum over the past two years. And I choose to be optimistic that this momentum in the marketplace, paired with a renewed sense of political leadership on this issue, is going to drive significant progress. But we have to hold leaders’ feet to the fire. We have to ensure that the pledges that have recently been made are followed through and are paired with substantive action.

If you could drive a car straight up in the air at Autobahn speeds you’d get to the top of the sky in five minutes or so. You will then be all of the global warming pollution. And we're using that as an open sewer.

Linda Lacina: And if leaders lose the momentum that has been building - what happens?

Al Gore:
Well, you know, job number one for all leaders is to stop using the sky as an open sewer. The sky is not a vast and limitless expanse. The troposphere, the atmosphere within which we all live, is only five to seven kilometers high. If you could drive a car straight up in the air at Autobahn speeds, you’d get to the top of the sky in five minutes or so where you can't breathe unassisted anymore and below you will then be all of the global warming pollution. And we're using that as an open sewer. We're putting 162 million tons of manmade, global warming pollution into it every day. So, obviously we have to rapidly decarbonize all aspects of our lives and of our work.

Too often, we're seeing businesses make these ambiguous long-term net zero goals. Better than not making them at all, but it's just far short of what we need. We see a lot of leaders putting forward plans that rely predominantly on sketchy offsets to reach net zero. And offsets have a role to play, but they can't be a get-out-of-jail free card that continues the pollution unabated. We have the solutions. That’s what's so frustrating. And they're better. They're cheaper. They can save the lives of 9 million people every single year that died because of the coal pollution for burning fossil fuels. Our current course of action is quite literally insane and suicidal. So, it's not only the right thing to do, for business leaders. It also has the potential to help your bottom line. And for those who don't do it, we're entering a period of radical transparency. Your emissions are being measured. By the end of this year, we will have an asset-level inventory of every single significant emission source on the planet in near real time.

Offsets have a role to play, but they can't be a get-out-of-jail free card.

And now we see all these companies wanting their supply chains to be net zero. We're seeing investors demanding net zero portfolios. We're seeing executive teams moving in that direction and we have to hold them accountable. And those who don't follow through will be held accountable in the court of public opinion, which translates directly into lost business opportunities and the destruction of their own future.

Linda Lacina: You were talking a little bit about entrepreneurship and the innovations that are emerging. Where do you think that entrepreneurship and innovation can make the biggest impact right now? Where should people be investing? Where can we prioritize this sort of thinking?

Al Gore: Well, I, am a chairman and co-founder of an investment firm. So your question has a pointed meaning for me. But I always avoid singling out a handful of great investing opportunities. I'd rather talk about the themes that I think all investors should take into account. And here's the main one: we are now in the early stages of a global sustainability revolution that is empowered by new digital technologies, like machine learning and artificial intelligence and distributed ledgers, and the internet of things. Also in the biotechnology area – stunning advances. And all of these changes taken together are giving executive teams and businesses in every sector of the economy the new ability to deal with electrons and protons and atoms and molecules and proteins with the same proficiency that the IT companies have demonstrated in their handling of bits of information. This sustainability revolution has the scale of the industrial revolution coupled with the speed of the digital revolution.

It is already beginning to disrupt sector after sector. I talked about electricity generation. Look at EVs [electric vehicles]. Within one year, some of the most important model categories are going to be cheaper in the EV version than in the combustion version. And within three years, that will be true of all model categories.

Look at lighting. LEDs are already taking over almost 99% of that market. But there are less well-known changes. Like to take a mundane one: variable speed pumps and motors, and their analogs throughout industry. Why keep things running at a maximum RPM rate when the workflow changes and varies? New material sciences are allowing the demassification of construction and building in every sector of the economy. In agriculture, the regenerative agriculture movement is helping farmers cut down the absurd cost of surplus nitrogen fertilizing -- most of which is wasted and causes these dead zones. Sustainable forestry is another example and the so-called circular economy. These are all themes that are connected to this fast, moving sustainability revolution. And I believe that investing in that clean, prosperous and more equitable future, is not only morally, right, it is the smartest bet for maximizing returns on investing.

Linda Lacina: You have been an advocate for the climate for decades. How have you evolved, over that time, as a leader? Have there been tactics that you've changed, or ways that you've decided, ‘Hey, I can be more effective in using this trait’ or ‘I'm developing this habit in a new way’? How have you changed?

Al Gore: Well, thank you for asking that question. It underscores the fact that it's really essential for anybody who aspires to be a leader in whatever sector of our economy or our society to evolve. And of course we all grow and change, but if you are evolving in a positive way, it means you're growing and learning.

And in my case, I've found that one of the drivers of positive change and evolution as a leader is opening up to a diversity of perspectives and experiences. It's crucial as a leader to encourage diversity across all of the lines of gender, age, race, ethnicity, religion, orientation, abilities, et cetera.

You want maximum diversity in the people you rely on for information and advice and teamwork in every single area. Except for one: you have to ensure that your team is aligned in their values. And I think the role of a leader is to constantly elevate the importance of the values and the organization, to constantly reiterate an inspired vision, and, of course, to set time-relevant priorities in how to achieve that mission in a sensible way, with all decisions being based on the values that you have come to share with those in your organization. Across all roles in government, the private sector and civil society, encouraging open and candid debate and seeking out a maximum variety of perspectives, again, has not only helped me to lead the organizations that I am part of, but I think it's made me a better communicator.

Linda Lacina: Can you give us a sense for how that shapes your information gathering and how you inform yourself?

Al Gore: One bit of advice that was important for me is a simple phrase: seek first to understand. Try to understand the point of view that's being expressed to you, particularly if that point of view differs from your own. Try to listen and learn. And pay attention to the situations you're in.

I’ll give you one moment early in my career that helped to change my approach to leadership. When I first went to the United States Congress, quite a long time ago, I organized my first congressional hearing, the first in the house of representatives on the climate crisis. And I invited the professor who had inspired me as an undergraduate way back in the 1960s to be the lead witness in this hearing. Dr. Roger Revelle was his name. And I naively thought that when my colleagues at the dais heard this great wise professor, they would have the same epiphany that I had experienced in a full college course.

It turned out that the 20-minute congressional statement was not comparable. And at the end of that hearing there were the equivalent of yawns. And the experience that I had had listening to him through that full course was simply not replicated in that congressional hearing.

And so that caused me to stop and think, ‘Wait a minute, what were the elements of this, communication between him and me when I was younger that engaged me and caused me to really change my thinking? And how different that is from a congressional hearing? And so I began then a long journey that I'm still on to try and understand the best way to communicate with people about the existential nature of the climate crisis.

It is so different from anything humanity has ever experienced before. The threat of nuclear war during the height of the standoff between the US and the former Soviet Union is the only thing that really comes close. Because this too, like the prospect of nuclear war, is potentially civilization-ending. And it's changing - it's getting worse so quickly as I said earlier. We have to be willing to make bold moves.

You know the old cliche, a picture's worth a thousand words? Well, I found that a slideshow is worth a thousand speeches if it's done well.

You know, back during the years when I was in the Senate, working on nuclear arms control, I became friends with a Russian poet. He's passed on now. His name was Yevgeny Yevtushenko.

He wrote a famous poem in the last days of the old Soviet Union called Half Measures and the poem was about a man standing on the edge of a cliff, looking across the chasm, at the cliff on the other side, and preparing to leap across to safety. And the point of the poem was: don't try it in two leaps.

And the transition we are now trying to make from dirty destructive fossil fuels to renewable energy, from combustion vehicles to electric vehicles, from inefficient and wasteful approaches to business and industry to the new, clean, sustainable approaches -- we can't do it in two leaps because it just doesn't work.

So finding better ways to communicate to people generally that this is insane, we have to change it and we have to change it not gradually, but quickly. That is a mission that I've been on since that learning experience way back in the 1970s and early 80s when I first began to try to communicate more effectively about the climate crisis.

Linda Lacina: And what tactics do you employ since that realization to capture people's imaginations?

Al Gore: Some of this may sound, pretty elementary, you know, the old cliche, a picture's worth a thousand words. Well, I found that a slideshow is worth a thousand speeches if it's done well. And then I was approached by some folks in Hollywood who are very talented to make my slideshow into a movie.

And, another example of my own naivete, I thought that was a silly idea. I couldn't see how it would work, but they have more talent than I counted. And I've participated in launching two movies on climate thus far, but I've tried to use another tool as well, and that is to delegate, or to recruit others, to also deliver the message that needs to be heard round the world.

As important as it is to change the light bulbs, it's a lot more important to change the policies.

And when my first movie came out, I started training grassroots advocates. The first class was 50 people at my farm in Tennessee. And by now, I've personally trained almost 50,000 people who go through a lengthy almost week-long course, that goes into great detail on the causes and the solutions for the climate crisis, but also focuses on giving all of these people the skills and the tools and the network connections with one another and with the scientific community to be effective advocates.

And our focus is increasingly on convincing policymakers to make changes because some of the largest polluters tried to get across the idea that really this burden is on each individual to turn off the light switch when you leave the room to change the light bulbs to more efficient ones and, and so forth. And that's all fine and good, but as important as it is to change the light bulbs, it's a lot more important to change the policies. And our current policies around the world still subsidize the burning of fossil fuels, forcing taxpayers to subsidize the destruction of our future, with sums that are more than 30 times greater than the meagre amounts that are being used to accelerate the transition to renewable energy.

We have ridiculous policies that ignore the scientific truth of what we're doing. And by the way, going back to the subprime carbon bubble, continuing to spend all this money on fossil fuels is creating the number one financial risk for the global economy. I mentioned the subprime mortgage catastrophe. You know, that caused the great recession. When people suddenly realized that these mortgages given to millions of people who couldn't make the monthly payments couldn't make a down payment, it was ridiculous and absurd. But there was a kind of a mass delusion. There were big fees to be earned. And there was an illusion that if we just lump them all together and fob them off into the global marketplace, somehow the risk would magically disappear. Well, it didn't. When some guy on the spectrum in Silicon Valley took the time to really dig in and realized, ‘Oh my God, these things are worthless’ then in short order they collapsed and that's what caused the credit crisis and the Great Recession.

Now, the subprime carbon bubble is much larger. $22 trillion worth of assets that cannot be burned. Not only because of whatever legislation and treaty obligations are involved, but because they're losing the license, the public's license, to operate, and the competition from these new, sustainable technologies like solar and wind and batteries and EVs and the other things I've mentioned, are making them non-competitive. So, we really have to speed up the pace, and start making these changes much quicker.

Linda Lacina: You're the founder of the Climate Reality Project and in 2020 that initiative hosted its first ever virtual climate activist training to help climate leaders gain practical skills. Can you talk a little bit about the Climate Reality Project, what it is and what those practical skills are?

Al Gore: As a bit of background, through the Climate Reality Project, I've now personally hosted 48 trainings for climate leaders. The first one, as I mentioned was just 50 people at my farm, but when the pandemic forced so many of us to rethink what we were doing, like a lot of others, I said, ‘Okay, how can we do this in a virtual format.’ And that led to a discovery that is similar to what many have learned -- that sometimes these virtual technologies can be better.

You miss the in-person interactions and all of that. I'm looking forward to getting back to that. Pray God, this thing will soon be over to the point where we can get back in person. But I had already held trainings in major cities around the world and tailored them to the climate impacts and solutions and idiosyncratic policy landscape in each of those locations. We held trainings in Brazil and focused on the protection of biodiversity and learned from the land defenders there in the Amazon and elsewhere risking their lives to protect the planet. We held big trainings, for example, in Atlanta, Georgia - we invited all of the environmental justice grassroots leaders to come to that. And we've brought the latest science on projected impacts to our trainings all around the globe. And then when the world shifted online, we rethought and redesigned our training and ended up reaching significantly more leaders than we ever could have at the in-person trainings. And now, we're going to continue this. Our first global training in 2020 welcomed many thousands of new Climate Reality leaders from all around the world.

And we train people from a variety of backgrounds, all ages. And that means the skills they need to develop vary widely, but the basics are very similar. We found the most important step for any leader is developing the base of knowledge that can give you confidence and enable you to become a clear and concise communicator.

And one of the core pieces of every training is an overview of the latest science behind both the impacts and the solutions. And we believe that knowing and understanding the truth of this challenge is fundamental to effective action.

The other skill that's essential for any leader, no matter where you are, is an ability to grow your network and work well with others. One of the things we do in our trainings is to make sure that the leaders have the time and the space to talk to one another and learn on an ongoing basis from one another. We pair leaders with mentors from the region where they live, as well as with their peers who are going through the training with them in order to talk through the challenges that they're experiencing on the ground as they begin to become effective advocates and to provide a real time, real world advice and the connections that enable them to amplify their leadership. Effectively communicating the challenge posed by the climate crisis, articulating the solutions that can be implemented and building connections and broadening the movement in your own community -- those are some of the most important skills that any climate leader can and should develop. And we focus on trying to give all these folks exactly those skills.

Linda Lacina: And with this sort of army of people, armed with these skills, what is the impact that you could see happening maybe in five years, maybe even seven years down the line. What change can happen as you keep scaling this training?

Al Gore: Well, we are right now beginning to cross the fabled political tipping point beyond which there will be sufficient political support to overcome the rear guard lobbying actions and political actions by the polluters. And chief among them are the fossil fuel companies.

And by the way, some of them are trying to change and we need them to participate in this change. But here, for example, and in many places around the world, they are really working overtime using the wealth and political connections they built up over the last century or so in order to bend politicians to their political will and to fight against the changes that we need and to fight for continued subsidies for these dirty fossil fuels that are threatening our future. So, I think that this political tipping point I mentioned -- it's essential that we cross it as quickly as possible. In some countries we've already seen it. In my own country, the president is completely on board but our US Senate is divided 50/50. You may have seen some news stories about that. So we have to continue moving forward to build a solid majority in support of the kind of changes we need in policies to save our future.

Linda Lacina: Today, you said ‘We have to stop using our atmosphere as an open sewer.’ There's a lot of jargon in climate work these days and a lot of acronyms that get between people and the things that they need to understand. How important is straight talk to connecting to people on the climate?

Al Gore: Well, I think it's absolutely essential. Speaking truth to power on this issue has never been more important. It's also essential to demand straight talk from the leaders in business and government when they address this issue and go beyond simply allowing them to profess their commitment to climate action in a vague way aimed at distant goals, the achievement of which would not even be accomplished during the time when they're responsible for their companies or for their political organizations. We need the global community to hold leaders accountable for the words they speak and to make sure that those words are turned into concrete action.

One of the most powerful things I've seen in the climate movement over the past few years is the clarity of message and purpose expressed by young climate leaders. Their moral conviction and uncompromising straight talk has helped to drive significant progress. We need more of that. We need people young and old to call out whose climate commitments, to paraphrase Greta Thunberg, bear nothing more than blah, blah, blah.

Linda Lacina: If you could give advice to yourself at the beginning of your career, what would that be? What would you want that man to know, that younger version of yourself?

We don't have time for despair. We don't have time to be depressed. It’s an all-hands-on-deck time. We need to solve this crisis. We can't look away from it.

Al Gore: Oh, gosh, I started working on the climate crisis 45 years ago. If I had it to do over again, I would have started earlier.

Linda Lacina: So, you'd tell him to get working.

Al Gore: Yeah. Yeah. I mean, look, it is… to turn this around and look at it a different way, Linda, I think that those of us alive in this extraordinary time should see it as a privilege to have work to do that will determine the future of our civilization. It's really the case. And there's a sense of joy if you have work that makes you feel as if it justifies pouring every ounce of energy you have into it.

We don't have time for despair. We don't have time to be depressed. It’s an all-hands-on-deck time. We need to solve this crisis. We can't look away from it. We can't pretend that it's not as deadly serious as it is. We can't pretend it's not getting worse, faster, than we've yet begun to solve it.

I don't know if I could go back and do things over I would just start even earlier and put even more energy into it.

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