April 29, 2017: Climate change has sent an emissary to the 2017 People’s Climate March on Washington: a freakish, one-day heat wave. The temperature is 91 degrees as we march, 200,000 of us, sweating profusely but wary of hydrating too fully (because where would 200,000 people pee?), past the new Trump hotel on Pennsylvania Avenue, on to the White House.
Al Gore, the unofficial Moses of this march, is dressed in black jeans, black boots, a black polo-style shirt. He’s carrying not a staff but a banner for his Climate Reality Project. He can barely progress up the avenue, because every few paces people stop him to get a selfie, to hug him and shake his hand, or to tell him that they’re among the 10,000 people the former vice president has trained over the last decade to present the climate slide show he made famous in An Inconvenient Truth.
Loosely flanking Gore are his oldest child, Karenna, the director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological Seminary; his youngest child, Albert, who works for Tesla; and about a dozen of the brainiac millennials who work for him at Climate Reality Project, the nonprofit he started in 2006, following the huge success of An Inconvenient Truth and the best-selling book of the same name. The former vice president’s Johnny Cash ensemble is just absorbing sun; his face is alarmingly red. One of his staffers, a tall guy, is standing right behind Gore, angling a protest sign over his boss’s schvitzing head and neck, trying to give him some shade in the beating sun…when pushing into our midst is a little old lady from Long Island, brandishing her iPhone.
“You’re in my way,” she jabs at the young man. Then, to me: “Al Gore should have been the president, you know.”
“I’m trying to shade him from the sun, ma’am,” the staffer says.
She is unmoved: “But I can’t see.”
There’s so much to say about Al Gore and our relationship to him and his message over the last decade. A lot has happened—
is happening—in the realms of political will and climate change. A lot hasn’t. And in this window during which we have to choose between saving ourselves from the worst effects of the most challenging crisis of our time—or not—we’re given a koan in the form of the lady from Long Island. She’s made the trip all the way from New York to DC. She voted for the VP in 2000. She’s here in the hot sun. But in the balance between a greater good and her, uh, needs, it’s no contest. She wants her picture.
After the march, we retreat to the DC Climate Reality Project offices; Gore is based in Nashville, though he travels frequently all over the globe. “Al is one of the greatest guys in the world. He’s genuine, smart, emotional,” says Jeff Skoll, a philanthropist, a sustainability investor, and the chairman of Participant Media, which produced An Inconvenient Truth as well as Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Skoll has known Gore well for about 10 years. “When he first meets people, he might be awkward and standoffish. When you get to know him, he’s the opposite. I don’t know which Al you’ll meet,” he says.
Gore and his staff are pretty spent from the day and the heat. But he settles into a chair in an ascetic, blissfully air-conditioned conference room and starts talking about how, at the urging of producer and environmental activist Laurie David, he shortened his slide show from two hours to 20 minutes, then down to 10 minutes. David pressed on him that he had to have a version to share over social media. (Here’s a mind-bender: Twitter and Facebook were newbie launches at the time of An Inconvenient Truth.) “And Donald Trump was running The Apprentice,” Gore notes dryly.
“I had to kill my darlings,” he says of the slide-show cuts. “I’m sure you’ve heard that phrase.”
Why, yes. And that’s the conundrum, in trying to pick which of the Al Gore threads to unspool. He’s a Zelig, at the center of pivotal events in late-twentieth-century/early-twenty-first-century American politics, history, and environmental concerns. He at once cuts a melancholy figure, schlepping his carry-on roller bag through airport security, and that of a man full of hope and optimism, with the powerful connections to world leaders and business titans to make things happen.
Here’s an Al Gore time line, in which many darlings have been killed:
1. As the lady from Long Island would have it, Gore should have become the president in 2000—like Hillary Clinton, he won the popular vote. But when the Electoral College win came down to Florida and a few hundred contested votes there, a majority-conservative Supreme Court ruled in favor of George W. Bush.
2. For a time, Gore sported an impressive beard known as either an “achievement beard,” per the New Yorker, or a “failure beard,” per the Internet, that seemed emblematic of his movement from politics into postpolitics.
3. While the following should not necessarily be viewed as cause and effect, Gore shaved the beard, and Laurie David talked him into turning his climate-change slide show into An Inconvenient Truth. It all started, oddly enough, with the global-warming disaster movie The Day After Tomorrow, which twigged people’s fears about how real the climate calamity might actually be. “The producers wanted to do a town hall with Al Gore and asked me to host it,” David remembers. “Al presented a four-minute version of his slide show. I was floored by how simple it was, how he’d communicated it. After that event, I said, ‘Just give me two dates, and I will present this to opinion leaders.’ I booked hotel ballrooms in L.A. and New York. It was very hard to get interest at first, because people were still pissed at him for losing the election. At both events, he got standing ovations.”
That was the moment David knew that Gore had to do more than a slide show. The movie won two Oscars in 2006. Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Hundreds of thousands—maybe millions—of us were moved to change our ways, reduce our emissions, recycle, even compost.
4. Meanwhile, Gore had become a savvy investor, having cofounded the managed-asset fund Generation Investment Management in 2004. To borrow from the Atlantic, Generation is a “demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations to reduce the environmental, social, political, and long-term economic damage being caused by unsustainable commercial excesses.” Between 2005 and 2015, the average annual return for Generation’s global equity fund was 12.1 percent; the average stock market return in the same period was around 7 percent.
5. In 2010, Al and Tipper Gore separated after 40 years of marriage and four kids (Karenna, Kristin, Sarah, and Albert). That was sad. They’d seemed like Paul and Linda, Goldie and Kurt.… A few years ago, the vice president began dating a politically connected environmental activist named Elizabeth Keadle. He took her to Cannes in May! (See number 8.)
6. He sold his Current TV cable channel to Al Jazeera in 2013 for a reported several hundred million dollars. Al Jazeera then used the frequency to launch (the now shuttered) Al Jazeera America, which fed animus against Gore; he’s also been a lightning rod for animus from the likes of Oklahoma senator James Inhofe, former vice president Dick Cheney, and the Koch brothers.
7. He can get Tesla’s Elon Musk on the phone anytime, including evenings and weekends.
8. An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which screened in Cannes in May and is out this month, is both more hopeful and scarier than the first film. It dwells on Gore’s many climate-change triumphs and setbacks since losing the 2000 election and has higher production values. (It’s directed by documentarians Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, who filmed Gore for more than a year on multiple continents.)
A sequence early in Truth to Power finds Gore in a helicopter flying over Greenland’s ice sheet, geopolitical-thriller music in the background, as we watch giant chunks of glacier seem to smoke and then explode, almost as if they’re being bombed. “The exploding part of it was dramatic,” Gore says, “and then a couple of minutes later, when it’s kind of crumbling, in real time, it’s like a computer-generated image.” Except it’s not computer generated; this is really happening.
There are other moments in the sequel that are real, and terrifying: the footage of the destructive force of the 195-mile-per-hour winds of Typhoon Haiyan that utterly leveled Tacloban City in the Philippines in 2013; a storm vortex forming suddenly like a dark turbine over the Midwest; “a rain bomb” that appears to hit Phoenix with the strength of a tidal wave; 122-degree temperatures in India that turn the roads to taffy, so that pedestrians lose their shoes in the sticky pavement as they walk.
The movie does an excellent job of something that’s been elusive in climate-change messaging: It makes you see the connections between melting ice sheets and glaciers in Greenland and West Antarctica and the extreme weather shifts back home that many of us are beginning to recognize as weird, or worse. Greenland’s ice sheet is disintegrating far faster than current climate models have predicted. (In 2016, Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in a New Yorker piece about Greenland that “in the past four years, more than a trillion tons of ice have been lost. This is four hundred million Olympic swimming pools’ worth of water.”) The rapid melting is setting in motion complex weather biofeedback loops that make it increasingly difficult for climate modelers to predict at what rates and how high the oceans will rise; how long the droughts and heat waves will last; how far afield diseases will travel out of tropical zones; how many years before the Great Barrier Reef dies completely; and when Miami, parts of southern Manhattan, and many other major cities will be underwater. Depending on how the next 10 to 20 years go, you may live to witness all of this.
9. On December 5, 2016, TV cameras glimpsed Gore stepping into the gilded elevator at Trump Tower on his way up to see the president-elect in a meeting brokered by Ivanka Trump. “You really have to give him a lot of credit. He really puts himself out there. He’s taken a lot of shit. He has a sense of mission, which is very impressive,” says Kolbert, who’s interviewed Gore many times over the years and has written extensively on climate change, including the critically acclaimed Field Notes From a Catastrophe and The Sixth Extinction.
So what did he say to Donald Trump that day?
“You’ve probably read enough stories to know I don’t talk about that,” Gore says. “First…while I was vice president, I always protected the confidence of my communications; I think any president who enters into private conversation is entitled to that kind of respect. Secondly, I want to have more conversations. I don’t have a hunger for access. I don’t crave that at all. Believe me. I have had all of that that I need for several lifetimes. But the chance to affect decision points on a few really important things, like staying in Paris, is important to me right now.”
Gore, of course, means the monumental Paris Agreement, in which 195 countries pledged to work toward the goal of net-zero carbon emissions and invest in renewable energy–powered economies, so that global temperatures will rise no more than 2 degrees Celsius by the year 2100. Any rise beyond that, and the world’s climate, which has been more or less stable for the past 10,000 years, will enter a new era of weather instability that no serious climate scientist is prepared to call.
Al Gore’s trajectory on this issue is full of ironies, twists of fate, successes, and failures. Truth to Power is in large part about that twisty path; more so than in the first film, this time Gore is willing to go there. He’s been so close, so many times, only to lose the thing he was seeking, from U.S. political engagement on climate change…to the presidency. The date on which the Paris Agreement went into effect was November 4, 2016. Four days later, we elected Trump, who’d promised during his campaign to “cancel” the agreement. Plenty of people in his administration and in Congress lobbied him to stay in. Almost 70 percent of Americans wanted to stay in. But on June 1, 2017, the nationalist and fossil-fuel Trump influencers prevailed, and the president announced that he was pulling the country out of the agreement.
How might the story of climate change and the United States have been written had Gore become president? As Kolbert says, “It’s really awful that we wasted the Bush years, and now we’re going to waste the Trump years, and we don’t have those years to waste.”
In 2013, Gore told a New York magazine writer, “I’m under no illusion that there’s any position with anywhere near as much potential for shaping the future in a positive way than as the president of the United States.”
And yet, watch the movie and read about all he’s done in the last decade, and you’ll think, He’s getting stuff done! He’s got deep moral purpose! There are two scenes in Truth to Power that involve the struggle to get India to sign on to the Paris Agreement. Piyush Goyal, India’s minister of energy and power, argues compellingly that the West had 150 years of fossil-fueled economies; why shouldn’t India have the same 150 years to raise its people out of poverty and build its infrastructure before being asked to reduce greenhouse gas emissions? Gore works his connections in politics, renewable energy, and international banking to help solve a previously insurmountable problem, and it’s thrilling to watch him operate. He’s a positively nimble global citizen.
“A nimble president could do that seven days a week,” Gore says.
But is there such a thing as a nimble president? Watching Donald Trump thrash and bang up against the norms and rules of the presidency, diplomacy, the judiciary, and even Congress oddly reveals the constraints of the office in ways we never really considered during past administrations.
“Well, I do stand by that quote,” Gore says. "I still believe there is no position with this much influence as the president of the United States.
“Now the flip side of that is, there’s no position with as many competing priorities. But a president who is really committed from day one to bring about this change could do more than anyone in any other position. I am thrilled to have been able to find ways to do work that I think is crucial and that has become a kind of mission for me, even though that word sounds weird, but that’s kind of what it is. I’m thrilled because it is a joy and a privilege to have work that seemingly justifies every ounce of energy you can put into it. I don’t feel tired; I don’t begrudge more hours on the task. I love it because it feels like what I am supposed to be doing, and I feel the results.
“There is a law of physics that becomes a cliché in politics, and it is this: For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction,” he continues. “And the reactions to Trump’s moves on climate are even more passionate than his statements that are antienvironment and anticlimate. Millions of people are having the same kind of internal dialogue, namely: ’I’m gonna have to get involved in this. The political system has produced President Donald Trump, and he in turn has put people in charge of climate policy who don’t even accept the basics of science, so I have to get involved.’ ”
You could see the seeds of this renewed activism almost immediately. The same day that Trump made his announcement, former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg, along with the mayors of 30 cities (L.A., Atlanta, Salt Lake City, and Pittsburgh among them); the governors of Washington, California, and New York; and more than 100 companies and 80 university presidents were organizing to submit a plan to the United Nations pledging to meet the United States’ greenhouse gas emissions targets under the Paris Agreement. Meanwhile, global investment in renewable electricity now surpasses investment in fossil fuels.
“The same kind of exponential change that characterizes the high-technology sector also, sometimes, describes the pattern of change in human affairs,” Gore says. “If someone had told me even five or six years ago that going into 2017, gay marriage would be legal in all 50 states, and not only supported but celebrated and honored by a supermajority of the American people, my response would have been, ‘I sure hope so, but I’m afraid I just don’t think that that much change can happen that fast.’ But it did.… I do think that the climate movement is at the inflection point. No question in my mind. More and more people every day—”
Suddenly he is interrupted, by himself: He sneezes.
“I tried to stop that sneeze,” he says. “I learned a way to stop a sneeze, but I did not deploy it quickly enough.”
“How do you do it?” I ask.
“You bite your tongue about an inch back from the tip,” he says.
“But I like to sneeze,” I reply.
“In the middle of interviews?”
“It’s fine, you know, it’s okay,” I stammer, embarrassed that I’ve started down this road with the former vice president of the United States. “It can be an off-the-record sneeze.” But the sneeze stays on the record.
“I’m glad you’re cool with it,” Gore says.
I’m pretty certain I’ve met genuine, smart, emotional, and funny Al Gore today; awkward, standoffish Al Gore would probably not engage with a reporter in a sidebar about sneezing.
“I’ll get a little geeky on you here for just a moment,” he says. “Anybody who works on this issue has to deal with the phenomena of climate denial. One of the exotic forms of denial has a geeky name: system justification theory. What it basically means is that we all have an innate need to believe that the large systems in which we live our lives are okay. And if somebody walks in the door with his hair on fire and says, ‘Everything is not okay—all of these systems have to change radically, right away,’ then the natural reaction is, ‘If I bought into that, I would feel really anxious and stressed out. And so I am not going to believe you.’ ”
Then came the Paris Agreement. “The entire world sends a nearly unanimous signal to industry, investors, city leaders, state and regional leaders, civil society: ’Here’s what we’re doing, folks. This train is leaving the station. We are all changing. We are going to net-zero carbon emissions as early in the second half of the century as possible. Just so you know, that’s what our system is doing now. And if you’re not part of that, maybe you need to feel some stress.’ ”
I used to wish this guy would run for president again—he’s so prepped for it, so intelligent, so right-thinking—but not anymore. I actually hope he never does. I hardly know him, of course, but my impression is that of a man who’s found his way and who feels an almost religious compulsion to help guide us through the climate crisis in these late days, in this time of Trump. Al Gore’s got the right job.