With the sequel to his blockbuster documentary An Inconvenient Truth about to be released, Al Gore tells Carole Cadwalladr how his role at the forefront of the fight against climate change consumes his life
In the ballroom of a conference centre in Denver, Colorado, 972 people from 42 countries have come together to talk about climate change. It is March 2017, six weeks since Trump’s inauguration; eight weeks before Trump will announce to the world that he is withdrawing America from the Paris Climate Agreement.
These are the early dark days of the new America and yet, in the conference centre, the crowd is upbeat. They’ve all paid out of their own pockets to travel to Denver. They have taken time off work. And they are here, in the presence of their master, Al Gore. Because Al Gore is to climate change… well, what Donald Trump is to climate change denial.
It’s 10 years since the reason for this, the documentary An Inconvenient Truth, was released into cinemas. It was an improbable project on almost every level: a film about what was then practically a non-subject, starring the man best known for not winning the 2000 US election, its beating heart and the engine of its narrative drive a PowerPoint presentation.
When the filmmakers approached him, he explains to the room, “I thought they were nuts. A movie of a slideshow, delivered by Al Gore, what doesn’t scream blockbuster about it?” Except it was a blockbuster. In documentary terms, anyway. The careful accretion of facts and figures genuinely shocked people. And it’s a measure of the impact it had, and still continues to have, that Gore delivers this vignette to a rapt crowd who, over the course of three days, are learning how to be “Climate Reality Leaders”.
It’s the reason why we are all here – his foundation, the Climate Reality Project, an initiative that grew out of the film, provides intensive training in talking about climate change, combating climate change denial – and the tone might be described as “activist upbeat”. This is a crisis that is solvable, we’re told. Trump is just another hitch, another hurdle to overcome. And it will be overcome. Only occasionally does a sliver of despair leak around the edges. You have to stay positive, a man called David Ellenberger tells the audience. Though sometimes, he admits: “There’s not enough Prozac to get through the day.”
It’s almost a relief to hear someone acknowledge this. Because before there was “FAKE NEWS!!!” and the “FAILING New York Times!” Trump was tweeting about “GLOBAL WARMING hoaxsters!” and “GLOBAL WARMING bullshit!” The war on the mainstream media may capture the headlines currently, but the war on climate change science has been in play for years. And it’s this that is one of the most fascinating aspects of Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Because if the US had a subtitle at the moment, it might be that, too, and the struggle to overcome fake facts and false narratives funded by corporate interests and politically motivated billionaires is one that Gore has been at the frontline of for more than a decade.
The film runs through a host of facts – that 14 of the 15 hottest years on record have occurred since 2001 is just one. And the accompanying footage is biblical, terrifying: tornadoes, floods, “rain bombs”, exploding glaciers. We see roads falling into rivers and fish swimming through the streets of Miami.
The nightly news, Gore says, has become “a nature hike through the Book of Revelations”. But what his work has shown and continues to show is that evidence is not enough. The film opens with clips from Fox News ridiculing global warming. In recent weeks, the New York Times has started describing the Trump administration as waging a “war on science”, a full-on assault against evidence-based science that runs in parallel with his attacks on evidence-based reporting. And Gore is in something of a unique position to understand this. What becomes clear over the course of several conversations is how entwined he believes it all is – climate change denial, the interests of big capital, “dark money”, billionaire political funders, the ascendancy of Trump and what he calls (he’s written a book on it) “the assault against reason”. They are all pieces of the same puzzle; a puzzle that Gore has been tracking for years, because it turns out that climate change denial was the canary in the coal mine.
“In order to fix the climate crisis, we need to first fix the government crisis,” he says. “Big money has so much influence now.” And he says a phrase that is as dramatic as it is multilayered: “Our democracy has been hacked.” It’s something I hear him repeat – to the audience in the ballroom, in a room backstage, a few weeks later in London, and finally on the phone earlier this month.
What do you mean by it exactly? “I mean that those with access to large amounts of money and raw power,” says Gore, “have been able to subvert all reason and fact in collective decision making. The Koch brothers are the largest funders of climate change denial. And ExxonMobil claims it has stopped, but it really hasn’t. It has given a quarter of a billion dollars in donations to climate denial groups. It’s clear they are trying to cripple our ability to respond to this existential threat.”
One of Trump’s first acts after his inauguration was to remove all mentions of climate change from federal websites. More overlooked is that one of Theresa May’s first actions on becoming prime minister – within 24 hours of taking office – was to close the Department for Energy and Climate Change; subsequently donations from oil and gas companies to the Conservative party continued to roll in. And what is increasingly apparent is that the same think tanks that operate in the States are also at work in Britain, and climate change denial operates as a bridgehead: uniting the right and providing an entry route for other tenets of Alt-Right belief. And, it’s this network of power that Gore has had to try to understand, in order to find a way to combat it.
“In Tennessee we have an expression: ‘If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you can be pretty sure it didn’t get there by itself.’ And if you see these levels of climate denial, you can be pretty sure it didn’t just spread itself. The large carbon polluters have spent between $1bn and $2bn spreading false doubt. Do you know the book, Merchants of Doubt? It documents how the tobacco industry discredited the consensus on cigarette smoking and cancer by creating doubt, and shows how it’s linked to the climate denial movement. They hired many of the same PR firms and some of the same think tanks. And, in fact, some of those who work on climate change denial actually still dispute the links between cigarette smoking and lung cancer.”
The big change between our first conversation in Denver and our last, on the phone this month, is the news that Gore had been desperately hoping wouldn’t happen: Trump’s announcement on 1 June that he was pulling America out of the Paris Agreement. The negotiations in Paris are right at the heart of the new film, its emotional centre, and when I watch it in March, the ending still sees Gore expressing guarded optimism.
So, what happened? “I was wrong,” he says on the phone from Australia, where he’s been promoting the film. “Based on what he told me, I definitely thought there was a better than even chance he might choose to stay in. But I was wrong. I was fearful that other countries for whom it was a close call would follow his lead, but I’m thrilled the reaction has been exactly the opposite. The other 19 members of the G20 have reiterated that Paris is irreversible. And governors and mayors all over the country have been saying we are all still in and, in fact, it’s just going to make us redouble our commitments.”
The film had to be recut, the ending changed, the gloves are now off. What changed Trump’s mind? “I think Steve Bannon and his crowd put a big push on Trump and convinced him that he needed to give this to his base supporters. He had blood in his eyes.” It’s instructive because Bannon, Trump’s chief strategist, is also the ideologue behind Trump’s assault on the media. And Bannon’s understanding of the news and information space, and efforts to manipulate it via Breitbart News and Cambridge Analytica, both funded by another key climate change denier, Robert Mercer, are at the heart of the Trump agenda.
And what becomes clear if you Google “climate change” is how effective the right has been in owning the subject. YouTube’s results are dominated by nothing but climate change denial videos. This isn’t news for Gore. He has multiple high-level links to Silicon Valley. He’s on the board of Apple and used to be an adviser for Google. “We are fully aware of the problem,” he says with what sounds like resigned understatement. Gore has had more than a decade fighting climate change denial, and in some respects, the problem has simply worsened and deepened.
“On the other hand, two-thirds of the American people are convinced that it’s an extremely serious crisis and we have to take it on,” he says. “And there is a law of physics that every action produces an equal and opposite reaction. And I do think there is a reaction to the Trump/Brexit/Alt-Right populist authoritarianism around the world. People who took liberal democracy more or less for granted are now awakening to a sense that it can only be defended by the people themselves.”
And it’s in this, his belief in social progress against all odds, that he takes his lead from the civil rights movement. The cut of the film I see compares the climate change movement to the other great social movements that eventually won out: the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, civil rights. Something profound and disturbing is happening right now, though, he admits. “The information system is in such a chaotic transition and people are deluged with so much noise that it gives an opening for Trump and his forces to wage war against facts and reason.”
Is it, as some people describe, an information war? “Absolutely,” he says. “There’s no question about it.”
What there isn’t much of, in the film, is Al Gore, the man. In 2010, he split from Tipper, his wife of 40 years and the mother of his two grown-up daughters, and what becomes clear is just how much of his life the fight takes up. When I catch up with him next, he’s in London for a board meeting of his green-focused investment firm, Generation Investment Management, and I ask him to tell me about his recent travels.
“Two weeks ago, I had three red-eyes in five days. I’ve been in Sweden, the Netherlands, Sharjah, then let’s see, San Francisco, New York, Los Angeles. Where else?” he asks his assistant.
“Vegas,” she says. “We did CinemaCon.”
“Vegas, we did that. And then, let’s see, Nashville, on my farm.”
I assume this amount of travel is connected to the release of the film, but no. “I’ve been at this level for the past 10 years and longer.” He hesitates to use the word “mission”, he says, and then uses it. “When you feel a sense of purpose that seems to justify pouring everything you can into it, it makes it easier to get up in the morning.”
He does tell me a bit about his parents though. He describes his father, Al Gore Sr, who grew up poor then became a lawyer and a politician, as “a hero to me”. And it was at the family farm in Carthage, Tennessee, that he held the first Climate Reality training, an informal get-together of 50 people that has morphed into the event I witnessed in Denver. There’s no “type” or demographic, I shared a table with a disparate group – including a consultant for the aerospace industry, a French lawyer and an American chef. And they seemed to have almost nothing in common aside from their passion to do something about climate change. “I’m a gardener so I’m seeing what’s happening with my own eyes,” the chef, Susan Kutner, told me. “You can’t ignore it.”
In light of Trump’s fixation with fake news, it’s fascinating to see. Gore has been fighting disinformation for more than a decade. And, he’s developed his training programme counter to the prevailing ideology. The answer is not online. Social media will not save us. We will not click climate change away. The answer he’s come up with is low-tech, old-fashioned, human. He takes the time to talk to people directly, one to one, in the hope they will speak to other people – who will speak to other people.
The course is run by Gore. He is on stage almost the entire time over three intensive days. And the heart of it is still the slideshow. One of his aides tells me how he was up until 2am the night before. “He’s obsessed with his slides, he has 30,000 of them and he switches them around all the time.”
In the film, you see him perpetually hustling, calling world leaders, rounding up solar energy entrepreneurs, training activists. Hearing information from “people you know” is at the heart of his strategy. “You need people who will look you in the eye and say: ‘Look, this is what I’ve learned, this is what you need to know.’ It works. I’ve seen it work. It is working. And it’s just getting started. We’ve got 12,000 trained leaders now.”
How many people do you think it’s impacted?
“Millions. Honestly, millions. And a non- trivial percentage of them have gone on to become ministers in their countries’ governments or take leadership roles in international organisations. They’ve had an outsized impact. Christiana Figueres [the UN climate chief], who ran the Paris meeting, she was in the second training session I did in Tennessee. And, right now, people are getting really fired up.”
Al Gore shared the Nobel Prize in 2007 for his efforts in combating climate change, but in some ways it feels like he’s just getting started. The rest of the world is only now cottoning on to the enlightenment struggle that’s at the heart of it – a battle royal to defend facts and reason against people and forces for whom it’s a truth too inconvenient to allow. For Gore, the US oil companies are the ultimate culprits, but it’s only just becoming apparent that Russia has also played a role, amplifying messages around climate change as it did around the other issues at the heart of Trump’s agenda, and we segue into his visits to Russia in the early 90s, during one of which he met Putin for the first time.
What did you make of him? “I would not have thought of him as the future president of Russia. I once did a televised town hall event to the whole of Russia and Putin was the one who was in charge of making sure all the cables were connected and whatnot.”
What does he make of the investigations into Russian interference? “I think the investigation of the Trump campaign’s collusions with the Russians and the existence of financial levers of Putin over Trump is proceeding with its own rhythm beneath the news cycle, and may well strike pay dirt.” It’s also worth pointing out that when someone passed his campaign stolen information about George W Bush’s debate research, he handed it to the FBI.
And then he amazes me by pulling out a reference to an interview I conducted with Arron Banks, the Bristol businessman who funded Nigel Farage’s Leave campaign. He’s been reading up about the links between Brexit and Trump, and Banks’s and Farage’s support of Putin and Russia. “He told you: ‘Russia needs a strong man,’ didn’t he? And you hear that in the US, and I don’t think it’s fair to the Russians. I am a true believer in the superiority of representative democracy where there is a healthy ecosystem characterised by free speech and an informed citizenry. I really resist the slur against any nation that they’re incapable of governing themselves.”
Brexit, Trump, climate change, oil producers, dark money, Russian influence, a full- frontal assault on facts, evidence, journalism, science, it’s all connected. Ask Al Gore. You may want to watch Wonder Woman this summer, but to understand the new reality we’re living in, you really should watch An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. Because, terrifying as they are, in some ways the typhoons and exploding glaciers are just the start of it.
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power is in cinemas everywhere from 18 August
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