Al Gore: "We're at a fork in the road and we can take one of two paths."

Former Vice President Al Gore calls for action to address the climate crisis threatening our planet in An Inconvenient Truth.
France, May 2006

Is the slideshow you deliver in An Inconvenient Truth, and your engagement with environmental issues, part of an engagement with something you think politicians have overlooked?

“Yes, it is. This climate crisis has not been dealt with by the world’s political systems, and my own country has, along with Australia, been one of only two nations not to join the global treaty that helps to start the world fighting against the climate crisis. My objective with the slideshow, and now the movie and the book, is to help persuade the people of the United States, and the people of the world, that we must urgently face this climate crisis.

“It is a planetary emergency, and we have to work together to solve it. We can solve it. We have everything we need to get started very effectively, save, perhaps, political will. But as I say in the movie, political will is a renewable resource. In democracies we can make choices about our own future. This movie is designed to push the world toward a tipping point beyond which politicians in all parties, of every system, make this a priority and start offering meaningful solutions.”

Does the responsibility ultimately lie with us making it clear to politicians that unless they address these issues, they won’t get our votes?

“Yes, precisely. It lies with the politicians as well. But I was in politics for a long time, and I have worked on this crisis for a long time, and I do believe very strongly that because it’s complex, that because it defies our accepted understanding of our relationship with the earth itself that our culture and our history have equipped us with, because we now have a radically new relationship to the planet that we haven’t fully absorbed, politicians have been timid and have largely failed to safeguard the future of civilisation, because that’s what’s at risk now. Consequently, I’ve come to believe that we have to change the minds of the people by giving them the basic facts about the crisis, the dangers it poses, and the solutions; and why there’s every reason for hope that we can in fact solve it. And that’s what the movie and the book are aimed at. There’s also a website – – and at the end of the summer I’m starting a training programme to train others in how to give my slideshow in their voices all around the world, to try to spread this message as far and wide as possible.”

Is that the new forum you have created, because it’s been said by one of your colleagues that it’s going to look like a political campaign?

“Yeah. Yeah. It’s a campaign not for a candidacy but for a cause: to change the minds of the American people and the minds of people throughout the world. The leading scientists who I most respect are now saying, for the first time, that we may have less than 10 years before we cross a point of no return, unless we begin soon to make significant changes. If you believe that, and I do, then nothing else matters.”

Are you optimistic about the issue?

“I am optimistic because I know from my experience that the political system has one thing in common with the climate system: it is non-linear. It can seem to move at a glacier’s pace, but then suddenly move quickly. The concept of a tipping point is that threshold beyond which the political system shifts into high gear, stops moving so slowly, and starts moving swiftly, dramatically, and urgently. We are capable of that. And when parents understand that their children are at risk, when they understand that they themselves are at risk, when they understand that the habitability of the planet for human beings is at risk then it becomes no longer a political issue, it’s a moral issue. It’s an ethical issue. And, in a real sense, a spiritual issue. It causes us to ask, who are we? What is our purpose in life? Are we meant to destroy the planet that is our only home, or to destroy those characteristics that nurture human life and civilisation? Of course not. But if we do not find ways to change and transform the patterns and behaviours and activities that are destroying the planet’s climate, then we are what we should not want to be, and I refuse to believe that. I know that we are capable, as human beings, in every nation, obviously, of transcending our limitations. We’re complex creatures with a complex evolutionary heritage, we have the potential for good and bad, and we have to choose who we are and how we proceed from here. We’re at a fork in the road and we can take one of two paths.”

Are you now regarded as a dangerous man by some of the lobbyists for, say, the oil industry?

“Well, uh, I am telling an inconvenient truth. I don’t like to think of myself as a dangerous person to the oil companies and the coal companies and some of the others that want to continue dumping all this pollution into the earth’s environment. Um, maybe some of them do see me that way. But, you know, today, looking at this beautiful ocean here [we’re on the French Riviera], today, 25 million tons of carbon dioxide will be absorbed into the oceans of the world. Much more than that will be added to the burden in the earth’s atmosphere. But just the amount in the oceans has now turned the oceans more acidic. And if we continue, forget about the warming for a moment, forget about the atmospheric effects of trapping more heat from the sun and causing all these dire consequences, just look at the amount going into the oceans. It is now beginning to interfere with the process by which sea creatures make shells. It’s beginning to make it impossible, in the colder waters near both poles, for the cold water coral polyps to make their skeletons or reefs. And if it continues, and there will be another 25 million tons going into the ocean tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day, and the next day [getting quieter for effect], if it continues for a few more years, for another 40 years, the oceans will reach a condition they haven’t been in for 300 million years. It’s insane for us to continue this.”

What specific differences did you make when you were in office that you are proud of?

“Er, I helped to get the breakthrough at Kyoto. I helped to draft that treaty and I went to Kyoto personally to help achieve the breakthrough. I helped to pass a form of a carbon tax in the US and to change, for the better, our environmental laws. The Republicans took control of the Congress only two years into the Clinton/Gore terms, and so we met with a lot of resistance. So we were not able to do everything that we would have wanted to do. But that is the reason why I am focusing on changing the minds of the people. Because the politicians are more vulnerable to the influence of these polluting lobbies of the people are quiet on this subject. If the people are not exercised about it, if they don’t demand action, the oil companies and the coal companies, some of them are very observant and very active in the political system, not only in the United States but in a lot of other places. So, in order to take their influence away, as the driving force, we have to get the truth of our situation into the hearts and minds of the people generally.”

You’ve said you don’t mean to campaign for the 2008 election but that would be the fastest track, wouldn’t it?

"Well, I appreciate you saying that but I do not have plans to be a candidate again. I think that whoever is elected President in 2008 will be able to do more or less depending on what happens in the minds of the people; if, by the time of that election, there is a demand on the part of the people, in both of the major political parties in the US, for action on this issue.”

Do you see anyone on either side of the political divide with such an ecological conscience?

“Well no. But it’s too early. And if the people make it clear that this is a top priority, then that will bring forth politicians that will understand that and speak to that in both parties.”

I wonder if Michael Moore has been a kind of role model . . .


I mean as someone who has used film as a vehicle for an issue and who also took his film [Fahrenheit 9/11] to Cannes and used the audience.

“I like Michael Moore but there is a big difference between Fahrenheit 9/11 and An Inconvenient Truth. An Inconvenient Truth is not seen by the audience as a political movie. It’s not seen as a partisan movie. There are a few comments I make because I am who I am, but Republicans and conservatives, no less than Democrats and liberals, react the same way, that it’s not political. Now, the fact is there is a new market in cinema, in the US and worldwide, for movies that don’t simply entertain with fictional stories, but for movies that entertain and amuse while delivering information that is not accessible in other ways. Our political dialogue, at least in the United States, has been shrunken to fit these tiny little sound bites, and an issue like the climate crisis doesn’t fit in a sound bite. It will fit in a 90-minute, entertaining presentation, with cartoons and jokes.“

Has the slideshow been changed for the movie or is it the same as it has always been?

“It’s the same slideshow. It was improved for the movie with computer-driven, high-density versions, but all the images are basically the same. The cartoon with Mr Sunbeam is from a show called Futurama. One of my daughters worked for Matt Groening for three years, as a comedy writer there, and she had heard my slideshow for so long that she joined with her colleagues there to create that little segment. Matt Groening and Fox allowed me to use that for free. Now, the cartoon of the polar bear is not in the slideshow. That was created for the movie. The frog is in the slideshow. It’s a new frog for the movie. But it’s the same sequence.”

In the film you say that science should be free from political manipulation but at the same time you speak about sceptical scientists. What makes you think that this is the mother of all emergencies?

“There has been the largest and most complete scientific effort in all of history on this issue. Two thousand scientists, in a hundred countries, over 20 years, have produced as strong a consensus as ever produced in science that this crisis is real, that we are causing it, that the consequences will be catastrophic, that we must act to solve it, and it is not too late to do so. There are a handful of so-called sceptics, none of them taken seriously by their colleagues, many of them on the payroll, directly or indirectly, of large polluters, who try to create just enough confusion to prevent the people generally from locking on the gravity and urgency of the scientific consensus. And it is a challenge to our democracies, it is a challenge to our way of making decisions in this world, that this flow of information from the scientists to the rest of us has been so easily interrupted and distorted, and that our ability to act has been so easily paralysed.

“It is similar in my country, and I do draw this analogy in the movie, to what happened when the Surgeon General of the United States, and the doctors and scientists, said, ‘Smoking cigarettes causes lung disease, and every year more Americans die from smoking cigarettes than all of the Americans that died in World War 2. Every year.’ But, for 40 years, the tobacco companies were able to do the same thing that Exxon Mobil and some of the oil and coal companies are doing now: taking pseudo scientists, giving them money, financing publications that look like very serious publications, and putting out to the news media, ‘Oh, there’s a lot of doubt about smoking and lung disease. Don’t worry. More doctors smoke Camels than any other brand’, etc, etc. It’s immoral. It’s immoral. And some of the tobacco companies now look back and they feel ashamed about what they did. Others still don’t. But the day is coming soon when executives at companies like Exxon Mobil will look back at their activities in the year 2006 and they will feel ashamed.”

Your son’s accident was also a turning point within your own attitude, wasn't it?

“Yes. There have been three turning points for me, and all three of them had the same result where my commitment to global warming is concerned. I received this information, as I told you, as a student, but the first turning point was when I was first elected to Congress and I had the ability to choose, among all the issues, what should I focus on? I said, ‘I’m going to focus on global warming.’ No one else was. That’s when I started.

“In 1989, when my family went through his traumatic event - which had a happy ending, my son is fully recovered – it was a time that caused me to completely re-evaluate my own priorities in life, both on the personal side and the professional side, and this issue rose to the surface even higher. That’s when I started putting the slideshow together. That’s when I wrote a book called ‘Earth in the Balance’.

“Then, after the Presidential Election of 2000, the third point arrived when I had a chance to start over in my life. I needed a job, among other things, and I had the chance to decide, ‘What will I focus on?’, and again this came rising even more to the top of the list of how I should spend my time. So I am doing everything I can.”

You introduce yourself in the movie with the words, ‘I used to be the future President of the United States.’ It sounds funny but how much bitterness is in those words?

“Well there’s no bitterness in the words. [Pretends to cry] There are millions and millions of people who have been through so much worse than I have been through. If you walk out here on the sidewalk, four out of every 10 people that you see, if you spend time with them, and really understood what had happened in their lives and what they’d been through, it’s part of the human condition. So I put it in perspective. I feel badly for the people who have been hurt by policies that are profoundly mistaken, in my view, and I won’t go into all the policy mistakes I think have been made, but for myself I feel grateful for the chance I have had to serve in American democracy, to have success in many fields of life, to have a wonderful family, a great life. So why dwell on causes of regret and yield to bitterness? Look forward.”

Some people said you should have fought longer after the Supreme Court’s decision, that you accepted it too soon. Was there anything you could have done at that point?

“Yes, well, in the American system there is no intermediate step between a final Supreme Court decision and violent revolution.”

Instead there was a kind of quiet revolution. You had the popular vote.

“Yes, well, in our system it is the Electoral College. Now leaving aside whether it should be changed or not, I think it should be, but underlying all of the possibilities of democracy being able to exist at all is the rule of law. What allows us to govern ourselves, ultimately, is a commitment to the rule of law. And, in the US context, our founders famously said, ‘We are a nation of laws, not men’. They would say 'people' today, hopefully. But once the Supreme Court, which is in our system the ultimate arbiter of what the law means as against the requirements of the Constitution, once they had made a final decision, then my choice was either to accept the rule of law or to stand outside the law and challenge the legitimacy of the entire system. Now, you can make a case for doing the latter. But I believe I made the right choice. I know that I would make that choice again, even with the terrible consequences that have flowed from the decisions made by the person chosen by the Supreme Court to be President.”

Is there a downside to being Al Gore? Could . . .

“[Mock affront] How could you possibly think so?”

Have you been able to achieve everything you want to achieve or not, because of the person you are?

“Er, any time you’re in a high profile position in the political context, you’re going to have a lot of friends and have some enemies [Laughs], and you’re going to make some people happy with what you’ve done and some people angry with what you’ve done. In my case I feel very fortunate that the positives have outweighed the negatives. But that’s true in everybody’s life, you know? It’s just magnified in somebody that has been in the political arena because people project things onto you, whether positive or negative, and they may feel things that have nothing to do with you but it's because they’ve associated it with you. But the positives far, far, far outweigh the negatives for me.”

An Incovenient Truth is released to buy on DVD on December 26th.

©Stephen Applebaum, 2006

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