The traumas and discontinuities of the Trump era have brought with them a cloud of unease. A great many people have come to suspect that the system — pick your system: American democracy, late capitalism, civilization itself — is far more rigged, rotted, and unsteady than it appeared just a few years ago. Fear and dread stalk the land.
But Al Gore’s faith in reason, persuasion, democracy, and capitalism are as strong as ever.
When we met for a series of interviews this spring, there was little remaining of the tightly wound politician famously derided as “wooden” by the media. Gore’s manner is easier, looser, his Southern politesse weathered into genuine warmth. He’s a grandfather now, several times over, and “grandkids,” he tells me with a smile, “are not overrated.”
He still speaks in his plodding, precise, formal manner, and he’s still prone to profligate recycling of favorite lines and stories. But it’s easier to see these days that he’s in on the joke. Some of his best deadpan humor is, implicitly, about just how Al Gore he is.
At 69 (“the new 68,” he tells me and, I bet, everybody), he is long done with being a politician, committed to carrying on as long as he can doing what he has been doing for more than 15 years now: explaining climate change and teaching others to explain it.
His new movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, directed by Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk, continues that mission. But the movie, which is framed as something of a victory lap, was supposed to be released in the wake of a global climate agreement and a new president committed to ramping up climate efforts.
Instead it was released on July 28 into ... this farkakte situation we’re in.
The narrative of steady progress that Obama did so much to articulate and encourage — and that Gore’s movie echoes — has been, if not fatally wounded, at the very least confounded.
To treat Trump and what he represents as little more than a footnote, which the movie basically does, seems, in the face of rising nationalist discord across the developed world, somehow inadequate. It is ironic that, even as most of Gore’s mainstream and conservative critics see him as a staunch leftie (just as he sees himself), to many in the climate movement he represents a kind of mainstream, technocratic liberalism that is insufficient in the face of climate crisis. (To say nothing of the fact that he’s an older white male at a time when the climate movement is self-consciously attempting to diversify.)
His critics say he has plenty of reason to believe in the system; he has benefited from it richly. His investment fund, Generation Management (run with David Blood, a Goldman Sachs alum), and seats on the board of companies like Apple have made him quite wealthy. He has won high office, an Academy Award, and a Nobel Peace Prize. He is motivated to believe that the system can solve the problems it created.
There is a hunger in some quarters of the left for a deeper, more radical critique of the status quo than Gore will ever be equipped to provide. Among those making this deeper critique is his eldest daughter, Karenna, as we shall see.
But he has heard these criticisms before and is still committed to his course. Gore is sticking to his guns.
An Inconvenient Sequel got an inconvenient ending
Gore’s new film is not all that different from his first (An Inconvenient Truth, directed by Davis Guggenheim). It dials back on the slideshow and follows him into the field more — tromping across glaciers, through flood waters, and into small Texas towns — but the structure is roughly similar: It explains the problem (“we must change”), describes solutions (“we can change”), and points to progress (“we will change”).
It is less a sequel than a punctuation mark, an exclamation point, a grand I-told-you-so. Its opening scene shows criticisms of the first movie drifting by over footage of melting glaciers. “The most criticized scene in An Inconvenient Truth,” Gore says from stage, “was showing that the combination of sea level rise and storm surges would flood the 9/11 memorial site. People said, what a terrible exaggeration.”
The film then cuts to, you guessed it, footage of flood waters pouring into the 9/11 memorial site (after Hurricane Sandy in 2012). It’s in the trailer.
The message is not subtle: Al Gore hasn’t changed, the world has. In the intervening years, events have shown that Gore was right. It is playing out just as he said it would. Look.
The heat waves are here. The floods. But also the clean energy economy and international climate cooperation. On both sides, problem and solutions, Gore was right. We must change and we are changing.
Where it differs from the first movie, the second is somewhat more visceral. There are scenes of helpless people being rescued from floodwaters, the sandals of Indian peasants literally melting on the pavement, and thousands of people taking to the streets in protest.
What is unavoidable, despite the inevitable criticisms, is that the film is tightly and entirely about Gore; it follows his perspective even more closely than the first, cinema verite style. Those who find him divisive, stiff, or otherwise objectionable will find no succor in the new movie, any more than they did in the first.
This kind of filmmaking carries both dangers and opportunities. The danger is that it contains raw truth, but sometimes lacks context. The film’s treatment of the Paris climate agreement is a good example. By following Gore so closely as he negotiates a side deal with the Indian delegation, it inevitably leaves the impression that Gore’s overall role in the agreement was greater than it was.
On the other hand, the immediacy lends feeling. Gore’s personal experiences in Paris yield some of the movie’s most affecting scenes. The Paris shooting took place just as he was beginning one of his Climate Reality Project’s “24 hours of reality” (a day-long broadcast of climate content). He canceled it with a moving speech to his French crew, and experienced first-hand the fraternity the shooting inspired in its wake, which helped invigorate the climate talks.
And — the one time your author’s eyes got a little misty — there’s a moment in the wake of the Paris agreement being finalized when the camera catches Gore at a distance, stepping into an empty corridor for a moment alone. He is small in the frame, head bowed. Better than any other scene in the movie, it conveys the accumulated weight of Gore’s long effort.
But it also, in retrospect, seems incomplete. The US has, after all, withdrawn from the Paris agreement. Though the film was edited to reflect Donald Trump’s win and his Paris exit, they are acknowledged only briefly, odd discordant notes in an otherwise triumphant melody. The tone, message, and broad narrative arc of the movie are unchanged.
In an American political milieu that has rarely felt more tragic and irrational, Al Gore soldiers on as always, confident that it’s working, that things are moving in the right direction, that if he can teach and persuade enough people, democratic change will follow.
“There’s a moral and spiritual pain at the bottom of all this”
Trump’s rise has strengthened the sense among some on the left, and in the climate movement, that it’s time for a more radical rethinking. Global corporate capitalism, the endless growth it requires, and the way it alienates us from community and natural cycles — that’s the problem, they say. Climate change is just one symptom.
This sort of critique has been around as long as capitalism, of course, but today it has found an avid adherent in the somewhat unlikely personage of the first of Gore’s four children, his daughter Karenna, whose path has led her to some very different conclusions than his.
As we chatted in the Upper West Side condo she shares with her three children, now 17, 15, and 10, looking out over the greenery of Central Park on a warm early summer day, her thinking and cadences posed a striking contrast to her father’s. Where he is deliberate, slow, and thorough, her thoughts flit and tumble over one another. Where he is congenitally optimistic, she casts a more gimlet eye on capitalism’s notion of progress.
Though far less obsessively covered in the media than her father’s, Karenna’s adult life has been somewhat unsettled. During law school at Columbia (fresh off an early job at Slate magazine), she participated heavily in her father’s 2000 campaign, which not only ended in the most gutting way possible but was marked throughout by relentlessly negative coverage of the Gores. (When I remarked on the political press’s legendarily abysmal performance during that campaign, she replied, “Right? Thank you!”) She calls the experience “toxic,” a “vortex,” and a “hall of mirrors.”
After that came a book on overlooked women in US social movements (Lighting the Way), some law, some volunteering, three children — and in 2010, just months after her parents’ divorce, the end of her 12-year marriage to Drew Schiff.
A single mother in New York, somewhat adrift, she decided to attend Union Theological Seminary, where she got a Masters in social ethics. She went not to become a pastor, but simply to find something deeper and more stable, to figure out “why it is we think about things the way we do.”
“The kind of life experience that I had,” she said, “taught me to distrust celebrity, fame, materialism, and upward social mobility. I don’t trust those things at all.”
After graduating from Union, she found herself in a public programming job organizing a conference to take place alongside (but outside — the UN does not deal overtly with religion) the 2014 UN Climate Summit, bringing religious leaders together from around the world to discuss climate change.
That led to the establishment of the Union’s Center for Earth Ethics, where she is now director, working full time facilitating discussions around faith traditions and environmental stewardship.
Gore makes no bones about the fact that she has rejected her father’s faith in global capitalism. She believes climate change is a reflection of a deeper spiritual crisis “based on a distorted Judeo-Christian idea of anthropocentrism, of dominion, of a kind of teleology of progress.” She believes the reigning value system reduces everything to monetary value and has distanced us from the things that give our life meaning. “Everything is an object, a resource, and everything is about money,” she says. “It’s all about the stuff you measure with statistical tools, like GDP. It doesn’t count the most important stuff in life.”
She cites her hometown of Carthage, Tennessee, where the small downtown filled with local businesses was cut off and replaced by a highway strip filled with chain stores. The downtown has withered and the local businesses have shuttered, but Carthage has grown, and GDP is up. “I watched that,” she says, shaking her head, “and thought, why is this better? Why are people happy about this?”
She sees the same dynamic at work everywhere, as “progress” pushes people away from the work of the home, connections to community, and natural cycles.
“There’s a moral and spiritual pain at the bottom of all this,” she says. “It has to do not just with feeling disconnected from the life-giving beauty of the natural world, but also disconnected from community and culture, having a purpose and a role.”
She sees the Center’s work as exposing “the deeper root cause of climate change: a value system and an economic development paradigm based on short-term economic gain.”
As we were walking to her office in the Union, she told me about visiting a family outside of Bogota, Colombia, that raised its own chickens and grew its own avocado trees, yucca, potatoes, and limes, which they ate together. The women sewed the clothing and tended to the household.
“When I hear the development conversations here,” she says, “we’re told that’s poverty.” If everyone in the family “had jobs in factories making $15 a day” and bought pre-packaged imported food, it would count as development, she says, but much would be lost. “I think we are measuring these things wrong.”
“If I make this point, some people would attack and say I’m elitist, or I’m romanticizing it, even though I’m not willing to live that way,” she acknowledges. “But quite frankly,” she adds, “I am! I really would like to make some changes to live more that way.”
She has avoided politics, but has moved into activism; she was arrested last summer protesting the Spectra Energy pipeline in Boston. She speaks reverently of the Standing Rock Sioux, whose camp protesting the Dakota Access Pipeline she calls a “great source of insight and power for the whole climate movement.” (Many of the religious figures she brings in for discussions are leading local battles against polluters in rural areas.)
The Karenna Gore challenge to Al Gore
When I sat down to a lunch of veggie wraps with Al and Karenna at an event at the Center this Spring, I asked her to articulate her critique of the modern climate movement. “What I sense from people around me,” she said,” is that “the lifestyle and the set of values and aspirations that are being presented to us are not fulfilling.” People are “not connected to the food that they’re eating or the clothes that they’re wearing” and they are “isolated and driving, barely getting out of their cars, and watching too much TV.”
Globalized capitalism and the big corporations that drive it are “just draining the integrity and the meaning out of life,” she concludes. “I don’t think we can do all of the same stuff, with the same mentality, and just solar power it.”
In this, Gore echoes critics like Canadian activist and writer Naomi Klein, whose book on climate is called This Changes Everything: Capitalism vs. The Climate. Like Klein, Gore is not talking about dispensing with capitalism in favor of state ownership of the means of production. She just wants to shelter some basic areas — clean air and water, health care — from the logic of the marketplace. Some things, she says, are “too precious, too vital and essential to human dignity, to be left to a situation where they are hoarded and exploited.”
All of this, of course, is a not-so-implicit criticism of the messages and strategies not only of the mainstream climate movement, but of Al Gore himself. He is supportive of “green business” and a well-known advocate for a more long-term, ecological approach to finance, but he believes the climate crisis can be solved with the tools of modern capitalism. His comprehensive book on solutions, Our Choice, is a celebration of markets, technology, and progress.
Still, if he is bothered by any of this, he does not show it. While his daughter talks, he sits, regarding her, beaming. “It’s a real joy for me to have this ongoing dialogue with Karenna,” he says. “I really and truly do learn a lot from being challenged by her point of view, which I respect so much.”
Al Gore isn’t trying to solve humanity’s spiritual crisis
He has heard the critique before, not only in dinner table conversations, but from a large faction of the environmental movement, for years: Mainstream climate advocates are ignoring the larger spiritual crisis that drives humanity to act at odds with natural systems, to forever consume, expand, and pollute. They are tweaking (and profiting from) an unjust system.
The funny thing is, Gore has heard the critique from the other side, too. His first book, Earth In the Balance, was subtitled “Ecology and the Human Spirit.” It spent considerable time arguing that the core of the ecological crisis was a “spiritual crisis in modern civilization that seems to be based on an emptiness at its center and the absence of a larger spiritual purpose.” It got him derided as a hippie back when it came out in 1992.
He is frank and self-effacing about the fact that he has narrowed his ambitions over the years. Solving humanity’s spiritual crisis, he concluded, was perhaps beyond his purview. “I’m kind of drawn, because of the lifetime I spent in politics,” he says, “to search for a pathway to change that will be accessible to the majority.” That mostly means reforms to existing systems of politics and finance.
He worries about ideological factions that grow too narrow and exclusionary, so that “their recommended course of action may end up being appealing to a very small number of people who, notwithstanding their integrity and vision, are going to be separated from what is needed to influence the whole in a different direction.”
So there is nothing about a spiritual crisis in his slideshow or the new movie, nothing about the deeper flaws of global capitalism. There are moments of real emotion — many more than in the first movie — but at the root of things is the same practical argument: There’s an immediate crisis and we can solve it with the tools at hand.
Al Gore still has faith
Gore is not giving up on that argument. He has pursued it doggedly for most of his adult life, taking it directly to tens of thousands of people. In 2006, he founded the Climate Project (which merged with his Alliance for Climate Protection in 2011 to become the Climate Reality Project) in order to train other people to make the same argument.
Each of the Climate Reality Project’s training events is attended by Gore, who walks through the slideshow with every audience. As of 2017, he has helped train, according to the CRP, 12,438 “climate reality leaders” from 137 countries.
Those trainees, the organization says, have in turn given 23,764 presentations to more than 1.87 million audience members. They have convened or attended 10,516 policy meetings and registered 53,616 total “acts of leadership,” CRP’s term for efforts at communication outreach to lawmakers or the public.
Year after year, Gore and his organization send waves of slideshow troops into the field, across the world, to wage persuasive battle. How many of these meetings and presentations bring about real change and how many dissipate against a wall of tribal polarization?
It’s impossible to know. Tracing the effects of such a far-flung diaspora mostly relies on self-reports, and it’s difficult to link political or policy reforms back to any particular act of communication anyway.
The operation is ultimately built on Gore’s faith: that reason, persuasion, and democracy work. That persuasion leads to action leads to change.
It’s an old-fashioned view, somewhat out of favor these days, but he appears at peace with it, and with himself. He no longer spends as much time waging battle with the political press or with flat-earthers on the other side of the aisle. Instead, he mostly travels the globe meeting with crowds of people who admire and want to hear from him.
In politics, Gore never got by on charisma or gathered much of a cult of personality (nothing like Bill Clinton or Obama). He was criticized for being too self-conscious and professorial. But the applause that greets him at these events is sustained and heartfelt. These audiences don’t care that he is professorial. They came to learn, to become teachers themselves, and their gratitude is palpable.
It is no surprise, in the wake of the trauma visited on the left last year, that parts of the movement Gore helped birth are taking his message beyond where he can carry it. He finds himself a consensus-builder in a polarized age; a believer in markets and American politics when both are under intense suspicion; an inescapably elite figure at a time when the climate movement craves bottom-up action, front-line fights, and diverse representation.
For his entire career, Gore has bridled at the idea that he’s over-cautious. And there is some degree of projection in the criticisms directed at him — there always has been, from both sides of the aisle. If anything, he has moved left over the years. “They say you get more conservative as you get older,” he says, “but it’s been the opposite for me.”
He’s become “hawkish on protecting anybody’s right to be who they are” and is “embarrassed to think back at the kind of viewpoints I had on gay people when I was in my 20s and 30s.” He recently spoke out in favor of single-payer health care. The Energy Transitions Commission on which he sits recommended “carbon pricing and phase-out of fossil fuels subsidies” alongside “R&D, industrial policies, market design, performance standards and infrastructure investments.” He is all but predicting that Trump will be removed from office.
He’s not neglecting the political fight. This week, CRP coordinated with the left activist group Indivisible to host screenings of the movie in 14 cities across the country, as a springboard to political organizing. It is one of many CRP efforts to use the film to spur action.
But Gore is not going to stop making his argument on climate change, the way he knows to make it, the way it makes sense to him. He has not grown weary of it yet.
When I asked if being the point person on this issue ever got to be a burden, he insisted the contrary, that it is a privilege. It’s a “corny way to put it,” he admitted, but he often thinks of a line from one of the runners in the movie Chariots of Fire: “when I run, I feel God’s pleasure.”
Gore’s old-fashioned faith in reasoned persuasion as a tool of democratic change may put him at odds with the prevailing mood; it may bump up against the evidence of recent events; it could well prove inadequate to the task of shifting politics.
But when Al Gore is explaining climate change, he feels God’s pleasure. That is no small thing in this perilous age.