Al Gore Talks Climate Progress, Setbacks and the First Rule of Holes: Stop Digging

The former vice president wants to train Americans to make the most of the Inflation Reduction Act. He also talks about what he was thinking during that rip-roaring Davos speech.

Share this article

Al Gore speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 17, 2023. Credit: World Economic Forum/ Greg Beadle
Al Gore speaks at the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos, Switzerland on Jan. 17, 2023. Credit: World Economic Forum/ Greg Beadle

Share this article

Al Gore describes himself as an optimist about the world’s progress on climate change, but he doesn’t mince words about the obstacles that remain.

His optimism and frustration were clear last month when he gave fiery remarks during a panel at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Activists called it a refreshing moment of truth-telling while media outlets like Fox News ridiculed the Nobel Peace Prize winner for an “unhinged” rant.

In an interview on Friday, the former vice president talked about what he was thinking onstage, and how he feels about where the United States and the world stand in the push to reduce emissions. He has a special vantage point, having served at some of the highest levels of politics and as one of the world’s most prominent climate activists.

Election 2024

Explore the latest news about what’s at stake for the climate during this election season.

In April, he will be leading online training events open to the public through his nonprofit, The Climate Reality Project, to help people take advantage of the clean energy provisions of the Inflation Reduction Act.

He spoke by telephone from his farm in Tennessee. The following has been edited for length and clarity.

I’ve talked to a lot of people who feel like the legislation that became the inflation Reduction Act got watered down to the point that it’s not meeting the challenge we face. What do you think?

Well, I disagree with their bottom line conclusion, though I certainly understand the disappointment of activists who have set their sights even higher. But as a longtime participant, in a previous lifetime, in the legislative process, my view is that the net result is still, by far, the biggest and best climate legislation ever enacted by any country, ever. And, having been through legislative struggles for many years, I can say this is the kind of outcome that needs to be celebrated, even though many people, including me, had worked for much more.

One of the analyses says that for every increased ton of emissions coming from the provisions that folks like me don’t like in this legislation, there are (28) tons of emissions reductions. And in a representative democracy, where compromise is almost always essential to getting a big outcome, that’s a pretty good ratio of compromise. We can go through the particulars of the legislation as you wish, but overall I think that we need to look forward instead of backwards and build on the tremendous success that the legislation really does present, and then quickly leverage the provisions of the new laws, both the IRA and the climate provisions of the infrastructure law, and translate these new opportunities into significant climate action as quickly as possible.

These training sessions are springing directly from this legislation. So what’s the message you’re trying to get across by doing these sessions?

We are trying to give highly accurate, highly actionable information to as many people as are interested in using it. This is a somewhat different training from the ones we usually put together. I’ve done lots of trainings for many years for tens of thousands of people in 194 countries. This one’s focused on the U.S. and it’s focused on the specific ways that individuals, communities, businesses, NGOs and others can take advantage of the significant new resources and opportunities provided in this law, so that there is the minimal lag time between enactment of the law and the beneficial consequences of the law. That’s really the point of it.

We will give people up-to-date, factual information about the climate crisis, the causes of it, the solutions for it. We will give them specific skills in areas like communication and persuasion, and organizing at the grassroots level. And we will connect them with networks of like-minded individuals, so that they can take advantage of the tax credits, the other incentives, the matching grants, all of the different provisions of the law, whether it’s solar or wind, or community solar, or EV charging stations, or retrofitting or heat pumps, more insulation, better windows, and you can go down the long list. The more activity that people who implement this law can muster quickly, the better.

I wanted to ask you about the remarks you made at Davos last month. You spoke about some of the encouraging signs that you’re seeing, and then you pretty emphatically make the case that we’re failing. Did you come in thinking, “I’m gonna give these guys a wake-up call,” with a lot of emotion? Or was the emotion something that just happened in the moment?

Oh, it was definitely happening in the moment, for sure.

It was fascinating to watch, because I think a lot of the people who work in this space could really sympathize with, on one hand, saying there’s some good stuff happening, but on the other hand, I’m just ticked off. What were you thinking afterwards and what kind of reaction did you get?

Well, the reaction was more significant than I had expected. Evidently, some clips of that were widely shared. And I’m still hearing about it to tell you the truth. And, as for what was going through my mind at the time, I was just trying to be as truthful and helpful in parsing the world situation as I could be. For a long time, I’ve given a lot of thought, as so many people have in the activist community, to the right balance between sounding the alarm and also avoiding dipping people into despair.

As I said in my first movie, there are a lot of people that go straight from denial to despair without pausing, intermediate, to solving the problem. And so that’s definitely an issue and I have been emphasizing justifiable optimism for quite a long time. And it’s not an artifice. I genuinely believe that we are gaining momentum in an impressive way and we have the basis for success. And in dealing with this crisis we have these remarkable technological trends. We have undeniable progress in many political systems, nations and cities and provinces and states. We’re in the midst of a major sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution coupled with the speed of the digital revolution.

But having said that, and having noted the wonderful progress that has been made, it is still undeniably true that the crisis is still getting worse faster than we have yet begun to deploy these available solutions. Now we are gaining momentum, and I’m certain that we will soon be gaining on the crisis itself. And, by the way, the latest, the last IPCC report had buried within it some startling good news that if and when we reach true net-zero, the temperatures on earth will stop going up with a lag time of as little as three-to-five years. 

That’s a source of great hope and optimism. And if we stay at true net zero, half of the human-caused CO2 will fall out of the atmosphere in as little as 25 to 30 years. So when people talk about carbon removal, the best carbon removal is to obey the first law of holes and stop digging. We can remove massive amounts of CO2 if we just stop putting it up there, and let nature work for us instead of against us. And so, all of this optimism is justified. 

This story is funded by readers like you.

Our nonprofit newsroom provides award-winning climate coverage free of charge and advertising. We rely on donations from readers like you to keep going. Please donate now to support our work.

Donate Now

But it’s all predicated on the assumption that the momentum we’ve now amassed will continue to build, and that we will implement the solutions evermore quickly. The passage of this IRA and the climate elements of the infrastructure act, here in the US, have already stimulated second-order effects, with Europe trying to figure out how they can match the IRA, perhaps accelerating their carbon border adjustment mechanism, which I’m all for, by the way. I think we are beginning to see a race to the top.

But the background also includes a constant increase in the severity and frequency of the extreme climate-related events that are a much more powerful political force than anything that an activist like me could put into words. I mean, Mother Nature is the most persuasive advocate for getting on with this. And the legacy power of the polluting fossil fuel industry and their financial enablers is still awesome, and still determines the outcome of many legislative efforts at the local, state, federal and international level. But their ability to determine those outcomes is diminishing. They’re losing the electricity generation marketplace. 

Last year, worldwide, 90 percent of the new (generating capacity) was renewable. (Fossil fuel companies are in) the process of losing their second largest market, the transportation market. The EV penetration has now reached levels where it’s obvious they’re going to be moving, crossing the inflection point, and going out more quickly. All of the car and truck manufacturers are on board with this. The battery advances are almost as stunning as new chemistries are coming out. And (the fossil fuel companies) know that the handwriting is on the wall. It’s only a matter of time before the balance of power between the sustainability revolution and the fossil fuel polluters shifts. We’re going to cross that, that line of demarcation, and they’re going to start losing badly and quickly.

How soon do you think that’ll happen?

I think it’s already beginning to happen. I think that the response by Europe to the Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated this transition. Ironically, there was a big question mark, and the year we’ve just passed, the one year anniversary of the invasion, there’s been a lot of analyses and most of them come to the conclusion that Europe has fairly deftly balanced the needs to replace the short-term disruption of supply from Russia and Ukraine with the acceleration of the larger shift toward low-carbon and carbon-free energy. And I think the advocates for change (have) got the bit in their teeth now. I think we’re seeing a competition for one nation to outdo the others. We have seen the emergence of a race to the top.

Now the fossil fuel sector has not not given up the ghost yet. They’re still well-financed and and still some of them are completely unprincipled in using their power to block progress, and some are still lying to the public on an industrial scale. But I think that we’re crossing that political tipping point right about now.

Al Gore listens to Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, President of Colombia, speak at Davos on Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: World Economic Forum/Jakob Polacsek
Al Gore listens to Gustavo Francisco Petro Urrego, President of Colombia, speak at Davos on Jan. 18, 2023. Credit: World Economic Forum/Jakob Polacsek

At Davos, you mentioned Greta Thunberg getting arrested in Germany and how you support her efforts. There’s this broader discussion about the role of civil disobedience in dealing with climate change. What do you think the role of civil disobedience could be in the United States?

Well, first of all, you know, the Grantham Institute in London did a very thoughtful analysis of that coal mine that Greta and her posse were protesting, and came to the same conclusion as Greta. But now on to your question: I don’t know the answer to that question. You know, we sometimes are vulnerable to using past struggles as a guide to the way to win future struggles and the role of nonviolent civil disobedience in the civil rights movement and the anti-apartheid movement and the movement for LGBTQ rights, and, before that, women’s suffrage, you can go on and on. 

But the landscape has changed. And I don’t think I’m learned enough to understand exactly how civil disobedience will play a role. I’m sure that there will be people engaging in it for sure, and how effective it will be, I just don’t know. Historically, it’s been one of the most effective ways to bring change. And there may be people who are smart enough to figure out how to adapt it to this challenge. But there are many different positions on the field, with the field being the struggle to solve the climate crisis. And some of the positions involve the business community. So I’m involved with the finance community, so I’m involved with the political world. But those who plan to engage in civil disobedience, I’m sure will find creative ways to accelerate the change. I sure hope they hope they succeed.

Hi, and thanks for reading Inside Climate News. We hope you liked this article. While you were here, you may have noticed something that sets us apart from many other news outlets: our news is free to read.

That’s because Inside Climate News is a 501c3 nonprofit organization. We do not charge a subscription fee, lock our news behind a paywall, or clutter our website with ads. Instead, we give our news freely to you and to anyone who wants to learn about what’s happening to the climate.

We also share our news freely with scores of other media organizations around the country that can’t afford environmental journalism. We’ve built bureaus from coast to coast to get quality news to everyone who needs it. We collaborate, partner, and share.

Since day one, reader donations have funded every aspect of what we do. We opened our doors in 2007, and just six years later, earned a Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting. Now we run the oldest and largest dedicated climate newsroom in the country. We hold polluters accountable, expose environmental injustice, debunk misinformation, and inspire action.

It’s all possible because of readers like you. Today we’re asking you to invest in this work, our newsroom, and our continued growth. Help us keep reporting on the biggest crisis facing our planet and reach even more readers in more places. With your support, we can tell stories like the one you just read – stories that change hearts and minds and have seminal and enduring impact. Because of you, they’ll remain free for everyone, everywhere.

Please chip in now with whatever amount you can afford. It takes just a moment to give, and every gift makes a difference.

Thank you,

Share this article