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12.09.09

Al Gore Warms Up

Fresh from his visit with Obama, climate change warrior Al Gore spoke with Lloyd Grove—about the deniers’ latest charges, his buddy Joe Lieberman’s health care stand, and how it feels to be rich.

In An Inconvenient Truth—the book and the Academy Award-winning documentary—Al Gore described the accelerating man-made apocalypse being created by pollution and global warming. In his latest book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, the 61-year-old Nobel Peace Prize laureate sketches out some possible solutions.

In an interview with The Daily Beast on Tuesday—the day after he briefed President Obama on this week’s United Nations Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen—the former vice president praised Obama’s environmental ambitions and skewered the climate-change deniers who, in his view, are up to something rotten in Denmark.

“There is a large noise machine that receives a lot of financing from carbon polluters, a lot of support from ideological opponents of government doing anything at all,” says Gore.

“There is a large noise machine that receives a lot of financing from carbon polluters, a lot of support from ideological opponents of government doing anything at all,” Gore told The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, when asked to respond to the mini-scandal over several British scientists’ private emails that are being used to cast doubt on prevailing climate change theory. “I haven’t read all these emails. The most recent one is apparently more than 10 years old, and they’re private expressions between scientists. I haven't seen anything that poses the slightest challenge to the scientific consensus over the prevailing evidence that’s just overwhelming.”

Gore—who’s heading for Copenhagen next week, when Obama attends the climate conference along with dozens of other world leaders—accused the planet’s corporate polluters of cynically raising doubts and spreading disinformation in order to delay the inevitable—strong international action. “They have drawn out the timetable in much the same way the tobacco companies delayed the recommendations from the surgeon general back in 1964, when they dressed up actors as doctors, and gave them cigarettes and told them to look into the camera and tell people that there was no real linkage between smoking cigarettes and lung diseases,” Gore said. “This is exactly the same thing. The stakes are infinitely higher…And we’re in a race against time, because we’re putting 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day.”

In a wide-ranging conversation, Gore also discussed his evolving relationships with former running mates Joe Lieberman and Bill Clinton; offered measured support for Obama’s Afghanistan surge, talked about becoming a rich man as a founder of Current TV and a partner in Generation Investment Management, an environmentally-oriented investment fund, and explained his newfound penchant for writing “scientific poetry.”

The Daily Beast: This is a very impressive and handsome book. Did you write it?

Gore: Yeah. Every word. It took three years.

What got you into writing the global warming poem that appears in the book?

Well, thanks for asking. You're the first interviewer who has asked the first question about that.

Thank you for pointing that out!

You’re welcome for thanking me! I had a very long outline for the book, and I clustered all of the updates on the impacts of climate change into about 28 pages. An Inconvenient Truth was 90 percent on the crisis, its causes and its impacts, about 10 percent on the solutions. This is the solutions book. Those 28 pages didn’t really fit anywhere. I cut and pasted and it stuck out like a sore thumb, so I went back and squeezed it down to be much shorter and it still didn’t work. I just didn't feel right about having no mention of the updated science, so I tried to squeeze it and squeeze it. Then one night, I went to bed worrying about it, and when I woke up, one line took the place of three paragraphs, then I said, hmm I wonder… So, I spent that day fleshing out, I just took all of the impacts and squeezed them into single lines and played around with it and that’s what resulted.

It’s been well received.

Well, surprisingly enough. And, it does reflect the science. It’s an acquired taste, scientific poetry.

Who’s winning the message battle? Today we have this mini-scandal in Copenhagen over stolen emails from British climatologists which apparently reveal flaws in their data and schemes to silence their legitimate critics. The climate change deniers are jumping on this, as the first George Bush would have said, like ugly on an ape. What’s your assessment of the propaganda battle?

I haven’t read all these emails. The most recent one is apparently more than 10 years old, and they’re private expressions between scientists. I haven't seen anything that poses the slightest challenge to the scientific consensus over the prevailing evidence that’s just overwhelming. I haven’t seen anything that really has any substance to it. Now, there is a large noise machine that receives a lot of financing from carbon polluters, a lot of support from ideological opponents of government doing anything at all.

You’ve seen that [conservative Hollywood screenwriter] Lionel Chetwynd has called for the rescinding of your Oscar?

I don’t know who he is. The long and short of it is, it doesn’t amount to anything. But it’s hardly the first time that climate deniers have tried to blow up some trivial thing into seeming like it’s a big deal, and this is another such occasion. You asked before, who was wining the debate? The winner of the debate is Mother Nature. The changes now taking place on the earth are on a Biblical scale. The North Polar ice cap has been roughly the size of the continental United States for most of the last three million years, and it is disappearing before our very eyes right now. The emissions of frozen CO2 and the tundra around the Arctic Ocean have already begun as it thaws. The sea level increases are accelerating and the flow of climate refugees has begun. The record storms, droughts, fires, floods, come one after the other on every single continent.

Is that message getting through? There’s a lot of resistance in Congress to cap and trade and the Obama climate program, for instance. The Environmental Protection Agency has said, “We’re going to institute new policies of our own accord, we don’t have to go to Congress,” and obviously there’s going to be a big fight over that. And the big corporate interests don’t want to spend the money and incur the costs of additional anti-pollution regulations. How do you assess the political situation?

They’ve succeeded in delaying action. They have drawn out the timetable in much the same way the tobacco companies delayed the recommendations from the surgeon general back in 1964, when they dressed up actors as doctors, and gave them cigarettes and told them to look into the camera and tell people that there was no real linkage between smoking cigarettes and lung diseases. This is exactly the same thing. The stakes are a little higher, but you know, we were losing more Americans to cigarettes every year than the total number of Americans killed in all of World War II on a yearly basis. So the stakes were pretty high there. Here, the stakes are infinitely higher still– no question about it. And we’re in a race against time, because we’re putting 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day.

But how do you persuade the body politic that it’s worth it? Most people think it’s going to cost a lot of money to institute a lot of these reforms and reduce carbon emissions. And green jobs haven’t materialized in a significant way. In fact, President Obama’s green jobs czar, Van Jones, became a PR problem and was forced out of his job.

Yes, but the green jobs are in fact materializing. And there has been a pretty impressive consensus among governments that since interest rates are at such historic lows, the only economic policy tool to stimulate the economy is stimulus spending—infrastructure being the most effective way to do that. And the green stimulus provisions in these plans around the world have actually made a big difference.

So the way to get from A to B is just to keep trying to hammer home the message? How do you get the legislation enacted? How do you get Congress to approve whatever deal Obama makes in Copenhagen, with all this political resistance that you write about very compellingly in your book?

How do we win this battle? I search for the answer every day. I have organized and now chaired the Alliance for Climate Protection, and we have a very large program of television and Internet commercials. We have hundreds of paid political organizers in the key districts in the states. But the carbon polluters have a very big war chest and they’re willing to do damn near anything. If you stand back and look at it over a slightly longer period of time, in the last two decades we’ve seen a very impressive consensus emerge in most parts of the world that we’ve got to do this. There are more than 70 heads of state who are attending Copenhagen.

What did you tell the president yesterday?

It was a private conversation, but it was a very positive conversation about his appearance at Copenhagen and the Senate legislation, and what the first half of next year looks like in terms of the agenda on climate and energy. Beyond that, I’m not comfortable discussing the details of the private conversation, but it’s nothing that would be startling to you.

How do you respond to the predictable newspaper stories about the 1,200 limousines in Copenhagen and people flying in private jets to get there and the gigantic carbon footprint of a conference like that? Is that a significant propaganda advantage that the other side might have?

I don’t think that it’s important. The delegates have to be there at the conference. How the delegates get there is not a meaningless point, but it’s out of all scale and proportion to what’s being discussed there. Part of the denial game plan is to try to launch personal attacks on scientists, on policy-makers, et cetera. But you know, at the end of the day, the reality of this overwhelms all these things. And the human suffering that now is at risk has already begun. In the coastal areas of Bangladesh, this is how it begins to play out: They’re used to having big storms there, and they had a pattern where a lot of these subsistence farmers would rebuild their lives every 20 years. Now they have to rebuild their lives every four or five years, and they can’t do that, so they’re pulling up their stakes and moving to Dhaka or one of the other cities in Bangladesh. There is concertina barbed wire going up on parts of the border between Bangladesh and India. A one-meter increase displaces almost 20 million people in Bangladesh alone. Worldwide, it’s 100 million people. And here we’re just watching this unfold and dumping these 90 million tons every day as if the thin shell of atmosphere around the planet is an open sewer. And the fact that it traps more heat is as well-established as the gravity that pulls that pen to the table top. [Gore drops his pen.] It’s not complicated. It’s a matter of physics.

When you go to Copenhagen next week, are you going to fly commercial?

Oh yeah, flying out of Newark.

Most people in your position would be flying private at this point, but you can’t because as soon as you do, people will talk.

I wouldn’t anyway.

What was your take on Obama’s speech on Afghanistan?

I don’t remember a foreign policy challenge quite as complex as the one he faced here. I think he threaded a difficult needle, but success or failure will be determined in the execution of this plan, and a number of other factors—not all of which are totally in our control. But it’s really more about Pakistan than Afghanistan. Because were the Taliban to reconsolidate control over Afghanistan, then the ability of fundamentalist groups in Pakistan to de-stabilize that nuclear power would probably be greatly enhanced. The majority of the people in Pakistan don’t want that to happen. Yet our footprint has its own minuses as well as plusses—so he really faced a very difficult challenge and I think he did about as well as anybody.

So you agree with what he said?

Yes I do, but the most difficult parts of his plan lie ahead. It’s not just the speech, it’s execution, and adjusting to unexpected surprises which come up—of which there are likely to be many.

It seems everybody talks about the success of the surge in Iraq, but I’m reading about increased carnage there every day. Over 100 people were just killed in a bombing in Baghdad.

Well that’s an unfinished story as well. I think there has been progress in Iraq over the last couple of years, and I think they have a chance now to emerge with a stable nation. But they're far from being out of the woods. Going in to begin with was a historic mistake, and it was connected intimately to the catastrophic mistake in Afghanistan and, most of all, to the horrific misjudgment in letting Osama Bin Laden go when he was cornered. The evidence is now undeniable that he was at Tora Bora. He was in a location from which he could not easily escape if we mounted an assault, and they made the conscious decision, for whatever reasons, not to launch that assault. And as a direct result, he escaped. The removal of troops and intelligence assets and resources from Afghanistan, to make them available for diversion in the invasion of Iraq, created this simmering mess in Afghanistan that was dumped in Obama’s lap. Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan are all inextricably connected.

You went through the healthcare reform crucible in the Clinton administration. Where do you think we are on that?

Well, Obama has gotten a lot farther than we did. He passed a meaningful bill in one chamber, the House, and is close to getting it done in the Senate, I hope.

God and Joe Lieberman willing! Now, has Joe Lieberman changed or is he the same guy you picked to be your running mate?

Well, what hasn’t changed is that he’s my friend. His politics obviously have changed. He left the Democratic Party. But he’s still my friend, even though I disagree with him on lots of issues.

Why do you think his politics have changed?

You’ll have to ask him about that.

Do you think he can be persuaded not to be obstructionist?

Again, you would have to ask him.

I’m asking you! After all, you know the guy. You ran with him.

If he’s subject to change according to the amount of persuasion directed at him, then the answer is yes. Because I’m certain that a lot of people are trying to.

How is your relationship with Bill Clinton? It’s obviously been through quite an evolution.

Yeah, but we’re very good friends, and he was at the house in Nashville a few weeks ago. We had a good, long visit of three hours. As I said, I just talked to him on the phone three or four days ago. I was looking forward to Chelsea’s wedding—that’s a happy occasion.

Do you think Chelsea’s going to convert to Judaism?

I’m not going to answer any questions about Chelsea. She’s a great young woman, and she deserves to not have questions asked about her—not that there are any that pose any difficulties. She’s just a great young woman.

How does it feel to be rich?

I have enjoyed the business world much more than I thought that I would. I’ve never particularly cared about money or been motivated by money, but I enjoy the challenge of it and it’s very interesting. And I have pursued a business structure that at least gives me the feeling that I’m doing good while doing well.

How does it feel when every year your home electric bill in Tennessee is gone over with a fine tooth comb?

Well, first of all, in 2007 our home received a LEED gold certification which is the second highest you can get. We went through a two-year effort to get the zoning changed to allow us to put 33 solar panels on the roof. We dug seven geothermal wells. What electricity we do use, we buy solely from renewable sources, which is a little more expensive.

And you happen to be fortunate enough to be able to afford it. The great majority of the people in this country couldn’t do that.

Totally fair point, and that’s why we need policies to make these options accessible to people of low and middle income. And they should be, because they save money. The challenge is that the savings don’t overtake the initial upfront cost until a few years pass. And we need to make it easier for people to add insulation and change their windows and light bulbs, and even install ground-source heat pumps and solar panels. But I always say it's important for people to change their windows and light bulbs, but it’s more important to change our laws and policies.

Lloyd Grove is editor at large for The Daily Beast. He is also a frequent contributor to New York magazine and was a contributing editor for Condé Nast Portfolio. He wrote a gossip column for the New York Daily News from 2003 to 2006. Prior to that, he wrote the Reliable Source column for the Washington Post, where he spent 23 years covering politics, the media, and other subjects.