A conversation with Al Gore.
The Rice Thresher and the Houston Chronicle sat down with Al Gore after his talk on Monday to discuss a future marked by climate change. This is the full version of the condensed and edited interview that ran in the October 25th issue.
Houston Chronicle: How does a city like Houston, so based on oil and gas, stop from becoming a 21st century equivalent of an abandoned rust belt town?
Al Gore: I don’t think I can give a better answer than say that that process begins with debating the future based on honest information. One of the slides I showed pointed out that solar jobs are growing 17 times faster than other jobs; wind turbine technician, the fastest growing job of all. Texas is the epicenter not only of the petrochemical industry but also the renewable energy push here in the United States of America. I may be biased of course but I would double down on the latter and try to navigate a very tricky transition from the former.
Maybe new technologies will bring a magic solution but it’s not smart to count on that, so I say get on with this transition and double down on the prosperity that may be created in the future. I believe very strongly that we are in the early stages of a sustainability revolution worldwide, that has the scope of the industrial revolution but the speed of the digital revolution. Houston is well positioned to provide leadership in that sustainability revolution.
Rice Thresher: As students move forward in their careers and lives, how should they factor in climate change in the choices they make?
AG: I’ve felt for a long time that solving the climate crisis must be the organizing principle for global civilization, and your generation is the one that has the primary task of driving that new way of thinking about it forward. So I would say simply that you ought to factor in everything.
RT: Many Rice graduates are looking into careers in oil and gas. Would you advise them to not do so, with the rise of renewable energy you’ve discussed? What advice would you give them?
AG: I don’t want to be the one to say that. Many come from families that have been able to send them to college because of what they’ve earned in the fossil fuel industry. All of us owe a tremendous debt to the men and women who went into the fossil fuel industry all these decades and generations. As I said at the outset [the industry] helped bring down poverty, raise standards of living, build our civilization, and we owe them. But we also owe them a truthful discussion of where we are as we look at the future of the human race. It’s that serious. Where young people are concerned I do not want to be the one to tell somebody who might figure out a new way to do things that surprises all of us. So whatever industry somebody’s aiming towards, I would urge them to keep this very much in mind and look for solutions wherever they end up.
RT: Despite numerous awareness campaigns regarding climate change, the percent of Americans who say human-caused climate change exists hasn’t changed in the last decade. How do you reach the large segment of people who aren’t convinced by the scientific consensus? What methods have you found to be successful to bridge the ideological divide that is associated with different opinions on climate change?
AG: The numbers tell me that actually there has been a change in the last several years. It’s not as dramatic as I would like but the percentage has been going up. A majority of Republican voters now believe we have to solve the climate crisis. A plurality of Trump voters believe we need to solve the climate crisis. In your generation, the percentages are growing much faster. This is one of those generational change issues. To repeat something I did say from the stage, Mother Nature is a more powerful participant in this debate than any of us. I really think that in these last few years the dramatic increase in the severity and frequency of these events that scientists had long predicted have caused a lot of people to look at their hole cards.
But the question you ask is one that I actually ask myself practically every day. I’ll give you one sort of offbeat answer. My organization, the Climate Reality Project, engaged a firm that was responsible for something called the Truth Campaign. They came up for a really interesting approach. They said if you can get this target audience to ask themselves a question, not come at it with full frontal force — ‘Am I being fooled? Am I being taken advantage of? Am I in danger of looking like a fool?’ — that begins the process of making them change their minds. They ran these ads that were designed in a completely offbeat way. We hired them to run ads when we were trying to demolish the ‘clean coal’ meme, and we raised a ton of money.
HC: If storms like Harvey are going to happen more frequently, how does Houston prepare better for the next time?
AG: I think lots — and I think you have lots of smart people here who have been writing and speaking about what needs to be done. I’m really not an expert. I versed myself in this a year ago when I did a three-day training here a year ago and I mentioned this professor of architecture here [Albert Pope] who’s talking about buyouts and orderly retreats from the zones that are certain to be flooded again. Boy, that’s a hard conversation to have and I don’t want it to have to be the ‘Gore Plan.’ I’d rather it be named after him or someone else. There are going to be some excruciatingly difficult decisions, but the only thing more difficult is not making them.
Changing climate dynamics in Houston make it one of the most vulnerable cities in the world. It’s not like Miami where it’s going to be inundated by rising seas, or Mumbai, or Kolkata, but it is highly vulnerable to these repeated record downpours that have just been coming one right after the other.
HC: I’m struck by what you were saying before about the problems in the media today — that’s there is this emphasis on making profit ahead of truth and public service and it’s something that comes up in the energy industry too, that these companies have an incentive simply to their shareholders to maximize profit ahead of truth and ahead of planetary health. Are we facing a crisis not just on an ecological scale but of crisis itself?
AG: I’ve thought a lot about this and I have very strong views on it. I do not agree with those who say that capitalism is inherently in conflict with the effort to save the global ecological system. I do agree that the current form of capitalism is posing serious dangers and requires reform.
We’ve assumed that the Earth’s ecological systems have an unlimited capacity for self-renewal, but the rapidly increasing impacts of the way we do growth as we define it have revealed this assumption to be false. So are we blind to the real consequences of economic decisions.
In capitalism today, we focus on a very narrow slice of value spectrum. And we have to look beyond the informational quarterly reports, on short-term measures, and beyond some of the measurements of value that dominate accounting systems today. In 1937 a famous economist named Simon Kuznets created gross domestic product (GDP) and he was greatly honored for that. But when he was honored he made speeches repeatedly saying ‘please, do not use this as a guide for national economic policy’. And seven years later at Bretton Woods it was codified. And most of the business accounting systems that are in use today are derived from his categories. And the metrics are short-term, and here are the four things he ignored: negative externalities, positive externalities, depletion of resources, and inequality. What we have now in the world is, when GDP goes up a little bit, yay. But it’s frequently accompanied by a massive increase in pollution, chronic underinvestment in public goods, depletion of topsoil, groundwater, et cetera, and the increase in inequality which has now become hyperinequality. So capitalism has to be reformed to include in the measurements of value those things that are outside of the spectrum we obsess on.