Al Gore typically begins his Climate Leadership Training meetings—gatherings sponsored by Gore’s Climate Reality Project that center around sustainability—with “Earthrise.” It’s a photograph of the Blue Planet taken on the Apollo 8 mission in 1968 to orbit the moon. The image is simple yet sublime, a reminder of what the former vice president fights for: our home.
For Gore, however, there have been so many obstructions in this broader fight for climate activism that he believes that the overall lack of progress boils down to a personal failure.
But this failure is hardly a personal one. Rather, it’s been due, in large part, to the collective negligence of the United States, once a proud leader of environmental initiatives like the Clean Air Act, the Kyoto Protocol, and the Paris Accord, to name a few, to act as the world superpower it claims to be. In a political season in which what’s needed is a concerted global effort, many of our nation’s most powerful people, including our current president, as well as segments of the media, seem to be willfully ignoring the climate crisis as a legitimate threat to the future of humanity.
Gore picked up on this thread again last Tuesday, during an interview with CNN’s Fareed Zakaria following a screening, hosted by New America, of Gore’s new film, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power. The film features harrowing images of extreme weather events that have struck the planet in recent years. We see, for instance, shots of Typhoon Haiyan, which in 2013 decimated Tacloban, a city in the Philippines, and of anticipatory mass graves dug in preparation for a massive 2016 heat wave in Pakistan, a country that, at the time, was only one a year removed from having lost 1,300 people to a previous heat wave. And then there’s Syria. Before an international proxy civil war in 2011 led to one of history’s greatest refugee crises, 2 million Syrians were driven out by a record-setting drought from 2006 to 2010.
These three nations undoubtedly lack the economic muscle to tackle this issue on their own; their collective GDP is about a third of a percent of that of the United States. But if you believe that they’re accountable for the consequences of their emissions—the developing world is responsible for 64 percent of global emissions—then you also should take a look at the example the United States has set. Home to only 4 percent of the planet’s population, the United States has managed to contribute over 25 percent of global emissions since 1850.
A major plot point in the film is India’s role as the “biggest holdout in the negotiations” of the Paris Agreement. With a plan to open 400 dirty coal plants in the works, a carbon-committed India has the potential to counteract any progress made by the global movement for sustainability. Gore, in the film, sits down with Indian Minister of Environment Prakash Javadekar to discuss avenues toward a more environmentally conscious India. Javadekar notes, however, that America’s own image isn’t even aligned with Gore’s nobel vision.
“The Western world does not show enough support for this movement, but rather is an impediment,” Javadekar says. He goes on to describe the United States as “all talk and no show,” while also pointing out the flaws with the fact that a country can have the privilege to burn coal for over 150 years, only to demand other nations not do so when it’s no longer convenient.
Miami provides support for the minister’s claim. Here, in the film, Gore is seen walking through the streets in knee-high water. Fish swim above pavement as the ex-vice president trudges alongside Mayor of Miami Beach Philip Levine. Miami is one of the most at-risk cities in the world in terms of rising sea-levels. Yet Governor of Florida Rick Scott refuses to meet with a single scientist to address the issue. It’s hard to tell if Scott even views this as an issue at all.
Indeed, despite the fact that scientists have, for decades, unanimously agreed that humans fuel climate change, Scott refuses to meet with any of these scientists. At least in part, this is because in Florida, like in many other parts of the United States, money trumps truth. “The fossil fuel companies and fossil fuel burning utilities have used their legacy politically and economically to control those who they have captured in the state legislatures to put obstacles in the path of energy freedom and energy choice,” Gore said in the conversation with Zakaria.
He points, as an example, to Florida fossil fuel burning companies’ attempt to outlaw leasing solar panels for anybody but the coal burning utilities. As solar power becomes more affordable, these coal burning utilities have been put on the defensive. The film draws attention to New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman’s investigation of possible consumers and securities fraud committed by these utilities. He believes companies, such as Exxonmobil and the American Petroleum Institute, try to distort markets and undermine public confidence in solar power.
But it’d be overly simple to point the finger solely at fossil fuel companies and politicians; the media, too, has played a role in hamstringing sustainability efforts. Elected officials have become dependent on screen time that has become increasingly difficult to finance, a gap easily filled by special interest groups tied to the very companies that could be skewing the markets. Take President Donald Trump’s decision to withdraw from the Paris Agreement in June. While the provisions of the agreement make it impossible for the United States to officially leave the agreement until the day after the next presidential election, special interest groups, like Americans for Prosperity, backed by the Koch brothers, and Crossroads GPS, whose donors include oil and gas executives, have had a corrosive impact behind the scenes.
“I’ve watched the impact of big money grow and grow and grow. It started when television displaced print as the dominant medium and candidates became dependent on 30-second commercials to reach voters, and all of sudden there were these gate keepers who charged huge amounts of money,” Gore said recently in an interview with Pod Save America. “The average member of Congress, in the House and Senate, spends 4 to 5 hours every day begging special interest and rich people for money.”
Over the past 17 years, the planet has experienced 16 of the hottest years on record. And in the past seven of these years, the United States has endured 11 supposed “once in a thousand years” downpours. But each has typically been covered by the media as a unique, localized occurrence, rather than an as an alarming aggregation of damage done to our planet—damage we’ve had a huge hand in causing. “The news media frequently failed to connect the dots and explain why these crises are occurring,” Gore explained in the interview.
So what can we do? For one, we can look to nations that are setting positive examples. China, perhaps surprisingly, is closing 100 of its coal-burning plants, and its emissions have gone down now for three consecutive years. Chile, for its part, has introduced its “Roadmap to 2050,” referring to the target year when it anticipates powering over 70 percent of its electricity from renewable energy. And in 13 years, India, the same country that previously was so hesitant to relinquish fossil fuels, expects to require all cars and trucks to be electric vehicles.
It’s become fiscally advantageous for these countries to pursue clean energy—and it can be that way for the United States, too. Solar jobs are growing 17 times faster today than any other job in the country, while the single fastest-growing job is one as a wind-turbine technician. And solar energy has already achieved price parity with fossil fuels in many states, while Arizona has taken even greater initiative by signing a contract that will reduce the price of solar to less than half of the price of fossil fuels.
Defying the legitimacy of climate change is a losing battle. But if the deniers and the discouraged can accept that the United States, as a nation, is morally and economically obligated to work with the rest of the world, then the fight against climate change can be a battle that we can win.