Ronald Reagan. Al Franken. Both hosts of The Apprentice. Politics has long engaged in a complicated love affair with showbiz. But few public servants can lay claim to starring in an Oscar-winning film, which is just one of the countless milestones Al Gore has achieved since the end, in 2001, of his two terms as Bill Clinton’s vice president—and since winning the popular vote, but losing the electoral college, during his 2000 bid for the most powerful political office on the planet. One gets the sense, though, that the 69-year-old, who has described himself as a “recovering politician,” has cared at least as much about helping the planet as he has controlling it from any high office. Following the critical and box-office success of 2006’s An Inconvenient Truth, released in conjunction with his best-selling book of the same name, Gore has emerged as a permanent thorn in the sides of climate-change deniers. At its most basic, the task he’s assigned himself has been to spread awareness about our carbon footprint and the steps we can take to reduce it, or, as stated by the Nobel Committee when he was awarded the Peace Prize in 2007, “to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”
In 2004, Gore co-founded Generation Investment Management, a firm that seeks to integrate sustainability into finance. And then there’s the Climate Reality Project, which he created in 2006, and for which he continues to travel the world with his regularly updated slideshow, sharing frightening facts about global warming with like-minded scientists, activists, politicians, and students.
This is where we find Gore near the beginning of this summer’s An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which picks up roughly a decade after the release of the first documentary: onstage, listing off a litany of climate-related natural disasters with the clear-headed conviction of a scientist and logician. For two years, the film’s directors, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, followed Gore, to France, the Philippines, Greenland, and throughout the United States, capturing intimate moments of success and setbacks as he untiringly spread his message among allies and antagonists. An Inconvenient Sequel is a warning with doomsday overtures, to be sure, but it’s also a humanizing portrait of a man whose mission has never wavered, not once, for lack of hope.
NICK HARAMIS: Before we get into the movie and how the world is essentially over, I’m curious: Have you ever watched Veep?
AL GORE: [laughs] I have. Julia Louis-Dreyfus is a friend, and I’m in awe of her talent. She actually came with one of the show’s writers and spent several hours with me to collect ideas before the first season.
HARAMIS: Get out!
GORE: When she was getting ready to do the second season, she came back and we repeated the experience. I’m not suggesting I deserve any credit—or blame—for some of their more outrageous scenes, but we did have lots of laughs.
HARAMIS: She should give you one of her Emmys—not that you need any more awards. Where do you keep your Oscar and your Nobel Peace Prize?
GORE: Well, the Oscar actually belongs to Davis Guggenheim, the director of An Inconvenient Truth, but I like to say that I have visiting rights. As for the Nobel Peace Prize, it’s in a super-secure, secret location.
HARAMIS: Growing up with a senator father and a mother who went to law school, was public service a forgone conclusion for you? I suppose it seems unlikely you’d have become a rock star.
GORE: The full story, as usual, is a little more complicated, but it’s certainly true that when I was a very young boy, I wanted to do what my father did. My parents were true believers in the efficacy of American constitutional democracy, and I was thoroughly inculcated with reverence for what we the people are capable of doing. The complication in that simple narrative is that as I got older, the Vietnam War shook my confidence in how our democracy was working. I ended up serving in that war, but it started with a lie, and I was very proud of my father for being one of its earliest opponents.
HARAMIS: Your father served as a senator from Tennessee for 18 years until 1971.
GORE: He was defeated for reelection largely because of his position on the war and his support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and various other social issues that were driven into prominence by the resurgence of the right wing following the back-to-back presidencies of Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard Nixon. Those things discouraged me from a career in politics, so I became a journalist. I was in the Army for two years and then I was a journalist for five years and slowly came back to the idea of running for elected office. When I eventually did come back to that path, I was thrilled—a word I don’t use lightly. I could almost hear “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” being hummed in the background. [laughs]
HARAMIS: For years now, you’ve traveled the world leading seminars about the climate crisis for other activists. How do you keep from feeling like a touring comedian delivering the same set night after night?
GORE: It never seems stale to me, for several reasons, chief among them that I update my slideshow almost every day. I have a personal staff of ten in Nashville that helps me scour the internet and other media around the world for the latest scientific peer-reviewed findings, the latest examples of climate-related extreme weather events, and the latest examples of progress. The world is in the midst of a sustainability revolution that has the scope of the industrial revolution, but with the speed of the digital revolution. That’s not enough without new laws and the right kind of political leadership. But it does give us a base from which to build a movement that will save us from the most catastrophic consequences of the climate crisis.
HARAMIS: There’s a scene in the film where, shortly before taking the stage at one of your seminars, you’re updating your presentation with footage of that morning’s flooding of Miami. It contributes to the general vérité vibe, which is quite different from the way the first film was structured. What was it like being followed around the clock by cameras, as if you were the star of the highest-brow reality show ever made?
GORE: [laughs] Having cameras follow you for two years is something that requires a little personal adjustment, but you actually do begin to forget they’re there. It’s impossible to maintain that awareness all the time, and when you’re going through an emotional or absorbing experience, you really don’t have any spare attention to think, “Got to remember that the camera is rolling.”
HARAMIS: What resonates most for me about the work you’re doing is the way you marry science and emotion, so that the harrowing statistics you’re presenting—like how 14 of the 15 hottest years ever recorded have occurred since 2001—are propped up by real passion. What is the most emblematic, wrenching image of the climate crisis today?
GORE: Did you happen to watch the TV news this morning? The lead story on some channels is once again historic, record-breaking flooding in the Midwest and the Southeast, with many lives lost. This is now a daily occurrence in some parts of the world and by connecting the dots for people, my hope is that I can communicate emotionally as well as on an intellectual, factual basis. In regions where governance is a challenge at the best of times, chaos can emerge, like in Syria, where they had what was likely the worst drought in 900 years. Sixty percent of the farms were destroyed, 80 percent of the livestock, a million and a half refugees were driven into cities already crowded with refugees from the Iraq war. They said, “We can’t handle this. It’s going to explode,” and the gates of Hell opened in Syria. Now we have scientists saying that in parts of the Middle East and North Africa the temperature increases are approaching a level where some of these areas are literally going to become uninhabitable. Also on the news this morning: a disease I hadn’t known about before. Have you heard of Powassan?
HARAMIS: I have not.
GORE: Me neither. It’s a tick-born disease that is worse than Lyme and appears to be increasing. I don’t want to delve down into the weeds—no pun intended—but the fact is that these daily climate-related extreme weather events should create an emotional realization that we have a duty to our children and even to ourselves to take hold of this and realize how serious it is.
HARAMIS: And yet, despite everything you’ve just said—which will prevent me from ever again having a solid night’s sleep—yours is a message of hope.
GORE: I had the privilege of working with the late economist Rudi Dornbusch, who once said, “Things take longer to happen than you think they will, and then they happen faster than you thought they could.” Where solar energy is concerned—and wind energy and battery storage and electric vehicles and efficiency technologies—that is what we are now seeing. So, yes, I’m very optimistic, but anyone who works on the climate crisis has an internal struggle between hope and despair. I won’t deny that, but hope has always prevailed in my outlook.
HARAMIS: In terms of climate change, I’m most frustrated by the deniers. I feel genuine rage when people oppose gay rights, and although I know that I’m on the right side of history, I also know that the conversation is rooted in opinion. But in your case, climate-change denial is a refuting of fact, a refuting of science. Battling that type of obstinacy would drive me insane.
GORE: Actually, let’s compare the two. I think they’re more similar than different. The gay rights movement of recent years has been an inspiring victory for humanity and it is in the tradition of the civil rights movement when I was a young boy in the South, the women’s suffrage movement when my mother was a young woman in Tennessee, the abolition movement much farther back, and the anti-apartheid movement when I was in the House of Representatives. All of these movements have one thing in common: the opposition to progress was rooted in an outdated understanding of morality. If somebody had told me, even seven years ago, that in 2017 gay marriage would be legal in all 50 states, and even celebrated by almost two-thirds of the American people, I would have said, “I sure hope so, but I think that’s probably unrealistic.” But it happened. And the reason it happened, as with the civil rights movement before it, is that when the extraneous issues that stop people from really taking a look at the real issue are pushed aside, they get a clear view of a simple binary choice between right and wrong. Regarding the climate movement, there are people who say, “God is in complete control of everything that happens, and if the Earth is getting warmer, then maybe God intends that.” Well, no. God intends for us to take responsibility for how we treat God’s creation, and if we choose to use the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet as an open sewer for 110-million tons of global-warming pollution every day, the consequences are attributable to us. And if you are a believer, as I am, I think God intends for us to open our eyes and take responsibility for the moral consequences of our actions.
HARAMIS: How does it feel when you’re right? In An Inconvenient Sequel, there is a moment when you recall your prediction that lower Manhattan would be susceptible to flooding. Then Hurricane Sandy happened in 2012 and, sure enough, the area was under water.
GORE: I feel no temptation to say, “I told you so.” My role in this is not that of a seer or prophet. All I’m doing, all I have done for 40 years, is spend time with the best scientific experts, gain their confidence, and take advantage of their patience in explaining things to me over and over again in progressively simpler language that I can understand, so that I can read it back to them and get their sign off, where they say, “Yep, that’s it, Al. You’ve got it.” When I understand it, I know I can explain it to other people. When the scientists’ predictions end up being true, I see that as an opportunity to say to people, “Listen carefully to what they’re saying now.”
HARAMIS: On a considerably smaller scale, what do you do when you see someone littering?
GORE: You know, I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen that.
HARAMIS: That’s probably a good sign.
NICK HARAMIS IS INTERVIEW’S EDITOR IN CHIEF.