Al Gore: America Is Close to a ‘Political Tipping Point’ on Climate Change

The former vice president discusses how the politics of the environment have changed considerably over his decades of advocacy.

Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

Al Gore is mostly done with politics these days. Though he popped up at a campaign stop with Hillary Clinton in 2016, he’s otherwise safely in the very small group of nationally known Democrats not thinking of running for president in 2020.

But Gore remains engaged on his signature policy issue: climate change, for which the national political conversation is just starting to catch up to his warnings from decades ago. While he was a senator, through his eight years as vice president, and during his 2000 presidential campaign, Gore was tagged on the campaign trail as a global-warning alarmist obsessed with data and far-off predictions. Now, between the growing support for the Green New Deal in Congress and the presidential candidates railing against climate change, the Democratic Party has made aggressive action central to its developing identity.

The former vice president, who’s won an Oscar for his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth and a Nobel Peace Prize for his environmental advocacy, speaks often at United Nations and other international meetings on climate change, events that some American officials and other prominent figures continue to attend despite President Donald Trump’s decision to stop sending official representatives on behalf of his administration.

What Gore hasn’t done much of, though, is talk directly about American politics and political candidates, including the dynamics within the party that nominated him for president 18 years ago.

Gore and I spoke recently for a story about Washington State Governor Jay Inslee, who is readying a presidential campaign that will make climate change and America’s response to it the central issue and cause. (Gore says he isn’t making an endorsement, or at least not yet.) We talked about why he thinks the national conversation on climate has changed and what he thinks hasn’t changed quickly enough. Here’s more of our interview, which has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Isaac Dovere: Where do you see the politics of climate change right now?

Al Gore: I think that we are extremely close to a political tipping point. We may actually be crossing it right about now. The much-vaunted tribalism in American politics has contributed to an odd anomaly, in that the core of one of our political parties is uniquely—in all of the world—still rejecting not just the science, but also the messages from Mother Nature that have pushed toward, and perhaps are pushing across, this political tipping point right now.

More and more people on the conservative side of the spectrum are really changing their positions now. This election, in 2020, is almost certainly going to be different from any previous presidential election in that a number of candidates will be placing climate at or near the top of their agenda. And I think that by the time the first primary and caucus votes are cast a year from now, you’re going to see a very different political dialogue in the U.S.

The climate-related extreme-weather events are causing millions of people who had successfully pushed this issue into the background and into the projected distant future to now be finding ways to talk about it and to express their deep concern.

Dovere: When you were in politics and talking about climate change, you were made fun of for it. Is that weird to think about now?

Gore: Forty years ago, it was not easy to get people’s sustained attention for this looming crisis. It’s much easier now.

Dovere: What do you make of the Democratic presidential contenders talking about climate change now?

Gore: Leaders who advocate solutions to the climate crisis should all run. There are several who have indicated they want to make this the No. 1 issue, who are in the midst of deciding whether to run or not. And I think it’s good for the country and good for the world to have this issue elevated into the top tier during this upcoming campaign.

Dovere: Every time there’s a new report on climate change, activists say, “We’ve got to get going before it’s too late.” And every time there’s a new report, climate-change deniers say, “Well, you said the world was ending the last time.” Do you think there’s actually a point when it will be too late?

Gore: Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. famously said, “There is such a thing as too late.” [Editor’s Note: King’s words are often remembered this way, but the actual quote is,“We are faced with the fact, my friends, that tomorrow is today. Procrastination is still the thief of time. Over the bleached bones and jumbled residues of numerous civilizations are written the pathetic words Too Late.”] And indeed there is. But where the climate crisis is concerned, we have actually already done some significant damage, some of which, regrettably, is not recoverable. Many people are hesitant to acknowledge that, because it creates a risk of despair. I know that from my long political involvement in this issue. In my first movie, I made this statement: “There are people who go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step, to actually solving the crisis.” That is the case.

But let me be clear: Even though some low-lying coastal communities are already going to face devastating sea-level rise no matter what we do, it is also undeniably true that we still have the ability to prevent the absolutely catastrophic results that would pose an existential threat to human civilization’s survival. And we must act, even while acknowledging that some damage has already been done.

Dovere: Where is it too late?

Gore: We heard the discouraging news a couple of years ago that a major component of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet has now crossed a negative tipping point, and will almost certainly collapse no matter what we do. So for those who were hoping that we could have a comprehensive global response in time to prevent any of these damages, that was an emotional blow. But the scientists who have deep expertise on that part of the issue tell us quickly, “Okay, wait. We still have the ability to affect the rate of that collapse, and more importantly, we still have the ability almost certainly to forestall the collapse of the other large ice sheets, behind that one. And we still have the ability to prevent the collapse of ice sheets in East Antarctica that could take the sea-level rise unimaginably higher.”

So how do we respond emotionally and, then, politically? We just have to be clear-eyed about it—and we have to be brave about it—in acknowledging that for some of these consequences, it’s already too late, but for the most serious of them, it is not too late.