Wise Leadership Interview Series: Al Gore Puts Sustainability in the Spotlight
Al Gore talks about making An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power: “When discussions about a sequel began several years ago… when it came to the 10-year anniversary that seemed like a good marker to say, Okay, here’s what’s new.”
In each of these series of interviews, we spend 7 minutes (or more, in this case!) talking with vital voices on leadership. In October 2017, we joined Al Gore in conversation, whose film An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power featured at this year’s Zurich Film Festival. The following words are all Al’s; the headlines are our questions and themes.
Does the existence of a sequel mean that the critical climate change message of the first film (An Inconvenient Truth) wasn’t received, and the film didn’t achieve its purpose?
I don’t agree with that assessment. Public opinion has changed all around the world. More than 2/3 of the American people now understand that this is a crisis, it’s man-made, we have to address it, and we are now making progress. And the Paris Agreement was a truly historic breakthrough! Here you have virtually every nation in the entire world agreeing to go to net zero greenhouse gas emissions by mid-century or as soon thereafter as possible. That is quite a breakthrough, far exceeding what many thought could ever be possible.
Since the Paris Agreement, India, for example, has done a complete u-turn. They’ve closed 37 coal mines this year… they are going all-out to build solar installations. India just announced that, within only 13 years, 100% of all their new cars and trucks must be electric vehicles. And we are seeing that same commitment made by Norway and Denmark, even more quickly.
It’s Electric. How are leaders’ approaches to energy changing?
The largest U.S. manufacturer, General Electric announced it’s going all electric by 2023. This is the death of the internal combustion and diesel engine technology. So, we’re really seeing… 2/3 of all the new electricity-generating capacity in the world last year was solar. So, this is really a dramatic change. It is still not fast enough, because these consequences are growing in severity and frequency.
“It’s like a race between the development of political will and the onrushing crisis that we have caused with this heat-trapping pollution.” — Al Gore
In the film, Gore says, “We’re not talking about a climate crisis, we’re talking about a democracy crisis.”
We have seen in many countries, unfortunately the phenomena is most pronounced in the U.S., “policy capture” by special interests and lobbyists who have found ways to use the legacy wealth and power built up over the past century and a half, in which we’ve become so dependent on fossil fuels, to manipulate the political system. This is much less pronounced in Switzerland — you have very good policies under development here — but at the national level in my country, we have still the appointment of people who run the Environmental Protection Agency who are completely opposed to the Environmental Protection Agency.
How is there hope in the midst of a leadership crisis?
Even in the US, we are seeing our largest states moving forward without the federal government. Individual cities are making a commitment to go to 100% renewable energy. This is discussed in the movie and it’s a very heartening trend. We are seeing most of our largest businesses making a commitment to go to 100% renewable energy and to make the other changes that bring solutions to the climate crisis. Why? because they hear this from their consumers, their customers, their employees. They hear it from their executive teams and their families.
How is the new generation different, and looking for new answers?
When they go out to try to hire new employees, you know this younger generation is not only different from my generation, they’re WAY different from my generation. They want to work for a company that pays them a good salary, yes, of course, but they do not want to work for a company that doesn’t share their values and make them feel as if they are part of something larger than just the profit motive.
What about the Future of Jobs?
There’s an opportunity built into the response to this crisis. Again, I use my own country as an example. Jobs in the solar industry in the U.S. are growing 17 times faster than other jobs in the economy. The single fastest growing job is wind turbine technician. The number of jobs in the solar industry is already twice as large as the coal and oil industry. And, investing in these solutions creates more jobs still.
On the Subject of the Paris Agreement & Denial
Psychologists refer to “system justification”, which basically means that we as humans have an inherent need to feel that the large systems within which we live our lives are basically okay, and if someone comes into the room with his hair on fire and says Everything has to change! then the natural human tendency is to say Calm down! Calm down. Things are basically all right. One of the consequences of the Paris Agreement is that all of the systems in which we live our lives now have already committed themselves to this change. So, if you are one of the diminishing number of climate (change) deniers, you are the one with hair on fire. You are the one challenging the consensus. You are the challenging what humanity as a whole has decided is in our best interest. We are moving. We are going to solve this crisis.
“We are moving. We are going to solve this crisis.” — Al Gore
A Matter of Timing
The question is, will we solve it quickly enough to avoid crossing some of the tripwires, sometimes called tipping points, that run the risk of setting in motion changes that could spin out of our control? I’m very confident that we are still well within the timeframe that we can do this in time.
“I don’t even play a scientist on television. I just channel the knowledge that (the experts) very patiently put in simple enough terms for me to understand.” — Al Gore
And so, when I tell you I think that we are still definitely able to avoid these tipping points, it comes from the overwhelming consensus of the scientific community.
“Ours can be the first generation to end poverty — and the last generation to address climate change before it is too late.” — Ban-Ki Moon, UN Secretary-General 2007–2016, at the announcement of the Sustainable Development Goals
We’re the first to feel the consequences, and the last to be able to solve the crisis… This is also a burden that some people would like to push away, of course. When you ask the generation of people alive today to maintain an awareness of the consequences of their present actions for generations to come, that is asking a lot. Human nature is so complex, and all of us are capable of a wide range of actions and reactions. But we do have the capacity to rise above our limitations.
There have been those times in history when humanity has risen to the challenge of creating a better future.
“Now is the time for us to steer by the stars and not by the lights of each passing ship.” — General George Marshall
After WWII, General George Marshall, who became Secretary of State, author of the Marshall Plan, he said, “Now is the time for us to steer by the stars and not by the lights of each passing ship.” This is, again, such a time, because the consequences of what we do now in these next few years are unbelievably consequential, not only for the rest of our lives, not only for our children, but for all of the generations to come. Again, that’s a big thought, one that’s uncomfortable to hold in one’s awareness, but again, we’re capable of doing that.
And, why put out another movie, well that’s the reason, to try to refresh that awareness of just how important these decisions that lie immediately before us really are.
On Calmness & Reason
I sometimes get angry, of course, but anger should be used very sparingly I think. It’s very seldomly the most appropriate response.
There are some things that I miss about being in public service… I have hope that positive change is underway… In the presidential election last year, one of the least remarked-upon developments was one of the other Democratic Candidates, Bernie Sanders, regardless of how you feel about his proposals or policies, he demonstrated that it is now possible with the internet to finance a very robust and potentially successful campaign without taking any money from lobbyists or big wealthy contributors, but relying solely on small contributions over the internet. I think that is a very positive development…
You know, another reason for the climate denial, a great German philosopher Jürgen Habermas wrote in the early 1960s about the structural transformation of the public sphere and how the Enlightenment (began here in Switzerland and in Germany with Gutenberg’s printing press and Immanuel Kant’s philosophy and all of the movements surrounding the Reformation) really came out of this new communications technology and information ecosystem that was developed at that time, where logic and reason and the best available evidence came to occupy a really important place in collective decision-making.
On Truth and Power
Habermas and his colleagues in the Frankfurt school (some of them) wrote about how the introduction of mass media and the development of culture machines actually served to diminish the role of reason in politics in many countries. One of his teachers, Theodor Adorno wrote “The conversion of all questions of Truth to questions of Power attacks the very distinction between Truth and Falsehood.”
And sometimes the climate deniers, and sometimes other parts of the political dialogue in my country seem to be bringing those prophecies into being.
Internet Revolution & Collective Decision-making
Just as the electronic mass media changed the information ecosystem in ways that suppressed the role of reason, now the third revolution, the internet revolution, for all of its problems, with social media, fake news and the problems we’ve seen, nonetheless the underlying impulse is to re-empower individuals to easily enter a public conversation in ways that give us as humans, once again, a new opportunity to once again elevate reason and the best available evidence as the basis for collective decision-making.
We are on the verge of a potentially very positive restoration of the role of reason.
We are on the verge of a potentially very positive restoration of the role of reason. It certainly doesn’t feel that way right now, but if you stop and think of the robust reform movements that are alive and thriving on the internet now… very positive social movements, more manifested at the city-level and the regional level now, but it’s really beginning to pick up steam, and so I’m optimistic about it.
Each individual can be the change, be the leader.
About the Author: Caitlin E. Krause works in interdisciplinary arenas linking technology, learning, leadership, writing and immersive storytelling. Caitlin founded the company MindWise® in 2016; her upcoming book Mindful by Design (Corwin Press, 2018) addresses mindfulness, neuroscience, creativity and innovative learning. Caitlin is a co-founder of The Center of Wise Leadership in Switzerland. She and fellow CoWLs core members are currently conducting a series of interviews with global leaders about their approaches to positive change and social impact.