In the Hot Seat
Q&A with Al Gore—the Entire Interview
Annie Wagner spoke with Al Gore on the occasion of the release of his new global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.
ANNIE WAGNER: First I want to get an idea of what your input into the movie was and how much was the director in terms of the content and structure.
AL GORE: Well, the movie is Davis Guggenheim’s movie. As the director, he shaped it and provided the creative vision for how the different elements would be pieced together. Now, that said, the core of it is the slide show. It was a collaborative process but the important creative judgments were all his.
So in terms of bringing up episodes from your life—
That was completely his idea and I would not have suggested that—would not have felt comfortable with it— except for two things. First, by the time he started that discussion he had gained my complete trust and we had become very close friends, and I knew that whatever he did he would do in a very careful and sensitive way, and secondly, he explained to me something about the difference between a live stage presentation and a movie, which I sort of knew but didn’t know how to describe. [Theater on film] just doesn’t work. It’s so flat on the screen. Actually I was skeptical about the whole idea of making this movie in the first place, partly because of this, but he explained that if you have a live human being on stage in front of you, even if it’s me—
That’s a stab at false humility. But in any case, whoever is there standing live in front of you, there’s a dramatic tension that comes from personal presence. And in a movie you have to supply that. [Guggenheim] said, “You’re it.” So I was persuaded. His interview technique was different from any that I’ve ever experienced, partly because it just took so long—hours and hours and hours for each one of those interviews, and he only used a little bit of each one—but I began to suspect that his basic technique was to get me completely exhausted so that I didn’t care what I was saying.
So the discussion of your sister and your father... that wasn’t in the original slide show at all?
No. No, I had described that briefly in Earth in the Balance 15 years ago, but no, that’s never been in the slide show, no.
Does the slide show contain more specific policy proposals or directions to go after you present the compelling evidence?
Yes, but the slide show is a living, breathing thing. I have a slide show genome that’s five times larger than the slideshow I actually give. And depending on the audience—if the audience is made up of people who are still in [profound] denial, then it’s way heavy on the evidence of the reality of [global warming]. If it’s an audience that already knows all that and they want to talk much more about how we can get moving more quickly on solutions then it’s heavy on that. But for the country as a whole, America’s still in a bubble of unreality. Along with Australia, it’s one of only two nations on Earth in the advanced nation category that has not ratified Kyoto and doesn’t accept the reality of this crisis. So the mix in the movie is more toward, okay, here’s the reality of this. And at the end of the movie we direct people to the website, we give them 10 specific things to do, and before that I give a presentation, both in the slide show and in the movie, illustrating the policy options that are most important to today. The website also gives you a highly detailed roadmap for how you can become carbon-neutral. And it gives you a carbon calculator. And incidentally, there’s a book coming out the same day as the movie—
An Inconvenient Truth, published by Rodale, and it has a lot more extensive solution material. You have ninety some odd minutes... but people do sit at the end and carefully look at those specific things, and a lot of people, I notice, make note of the website, and the Melissa Etheridge song is playing while they’re doing that. She was a sweetheart to do that.
Did you see the White House officially acknowledged some human influence on climate change this morning [May 3, 2006]?
Yeah, it wasn’t really the White House.
It was the Commerce Department, technically.
And [the White House] said well, the jury is still out because this is the first of 21 reports that we have to do. We really have to wait and do more investigation. Yes, yes. I hope he finds the real killer.
Given the fact that probably there’s not going to be a whole lot of national movement on this issue immediately, there are possibly local steps that could be taken. And obviously we’re in Seattle...
Greg Nickels has really provided great leadership in rallying some 230 cities around the country to join this movement the people of Seattle started, to have local cities ratify Kyoto. And Ron Sims is doing a great job; Governor Chris Gregoire was at the screening last night and has done really a great job in pushing legislation, so if every state were like the State of Washington we would be way down the road toward solving this. But instead we still face denial—and yet it’s beginning to give way. There were 85 conservative evangelical ministers who just broke with the Busy-Cheney administration and declared an all-out initiative on this crisis, there are lots of grass-roots movements springing up, and big corporations like General Electric, Dupont, Duke Energy are now switching sides and doing some really meaningful things.
Regarding gas prices: Do you think that this is purely a supply-and-demand question or do you suspect price gouging?
Well the profits seem to be awfully high, don’t they? I think it’s a mixture of the supply and demand and a very sophisticated market-management effort that includes OPEC and has gone on for years and years. One of these most insidious parts of it is not only that the prices go up for people who are really hit hard by it, but just when the country gets to the point where we’re willing to go whole hog on alternative energy, they manage to bring the price back down again, just below the level where people are outraged enough to go full blast on cellulosic ethanol [an alternative fuel manufactured from biomass] and the other substitutes. I think this time their ability to do that is limited by the rising demand for oil in China and India and the declining production numbers in many of the large oil fields around the world. It’s a new era for oil. And my guess is that this time, we’re not gonna fall for the same trick, and I think this time I do believe that even with the Bush administration in power, you’re going see the U.S. approach this differently. I hear the voices of Republicans as well as Democrats who’ve been skeptical in the past now all of a sudden say, this is it, we’ve got to break free of this. And I’m optimistic about it. But it’s all part of the same dysfunctional pattern; we go deeply into debt with China in order to buy oil from the Middle East and Venezuela, and get embroiled in an unstable region that contributes to the need for wars over there, and then we bring all the oil here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. This is not a good system.
So when you say that the public is pushed to going whole hog toward alternative energy initiatives, do you think that high gas prices have a positive impact in that way?
Well I’ve never felt that the burden ought to be put on those who can least bear it. And for many years, dating back to when I published Earth in the Balance, I have always felt there should be a shift in the tax system, by having a swap-off from payroll taxes toward carbon taxes.
Carbon-emissions taxes on companies.
Yeah. But I think that it should be offset. I’ve always felt that. And there are ways to do it. Unfortunately, the minute you get into a discussion on taxes everything else is put on the back burner because the way the information marketplace works now, it works in a kind of an artificial way.
Well, conglomerate ownership, and the dominant medium is television and it’s one-way—people can’t join the conversation. Our whole political dialogue is based on 30-second TV commercials.
Do you think the internet is changing that?
I do, I think that it’s a source of great hope. But the internet still is missing one key element that television has: the full-motion video, vivid color, that produce a quasi-hypnotic state that partly accounts for the fact that Americans on average this past year watched television four hours and 39 minutes a day. And you and I didn’t watch that much, so somebody else is making up for that, and watching more. And the internet, because it’s based on the architecture of packet-switching—which is the feature that breaks everything up and sends it over multiple packets—it cannot support mass distribution in real time of full motion video.
Of course, I watched Stephen Colbert on…
The Colbert Report? Oh, the White House Correspondents Dinner, wasn’t that brilliant?
Everybody I know watched it on the internet.
Sure. But that’s different, you can store it, and take the time to download something. But most people who are using the internet have the television on at the same time. And that average of 4 hours and 39 minutes went up 4 minutes from last year. In any case, back to your main line of questioning, I think that the gasoline price crisis that people are feeling right now is simply another symptom of the damage that is done to the country by continuing our dependence on carbon-based fuels that are destroying the Earth’s climate. We have to stop.
In the movie and in your recent Wired interview you emphasize the fact that we already have the technology to combat these problems. So is there any question of sacrifice or using less, or is it a question of putting the money where it needs to go to develop those new technologies?
It’s mainly a question of getting the market signals to accurately reflect the full spectrum of value of the choices that we’re making. And if we do that, then we will be able to improve the quality of life while simultaneously solving the environmental crisis. Pollution is waste. By definition. And just as the information revolution was based on the more precise tracking and channeling of bits of data, our whole economy is on the verge of becoming much more granular in the precision with which is tracks atoms and molecules and electrons and protons. How is it that we waste 90% of the energy that we think we’re using? It’s crazy. But that’s the reality today. And as we eliminate that waste, we save money that can be used more rationally for other things. I think of it as having two waves. The first wave is made up of all the technologies that we presently have available: hybrids, conservation efficiency, carbon capture and sequestration—all those things that are in those wedges at the end of the movie. We already know how to do those things, and we need to get started right away. But the second wave involves the new and more advanced technologies that are ten or twelve years away but with increased and accelerated R&D can be five to seven years away.
Nano manufacturing, positional manufacturing technologies that use carbon fiber and these new cutting-edge materials that don’t require the massive energy for processing ore and digging into the ground and generating these huge waste strains but rather, the very precise use, molecule by molecule, of exactly what’s needed for what purpose. And that sounds futuristic, and it is in that second wave, but it’s coming, and it’s coming quickly. Also, the building of an infrastructure for cellulosic ethanol, where you don’t need petroleum for the processing of it so the energy balance is completely positive. Then you can have truly renewable transportation fuels. And we’re not far off from a new generation of fuel cells that can also burn cellulosic ethanol, so you can grow your own electricity.
But that expends energy as well.
It depends. If it’s material like switchgrass and sawgrass [native North American crops], you can have no-till agriculture without the chemically intensive techniques that are used commonly for corn and wheat now. Corn may play a role in this, but it’s not the way to go. In Oakridge National Laboratory, near my home in Tennessee, they have the nation’s top research center on alcohol fuels, and they have these detailed maps of soil types and climate conditions everywhere in the country that can be used to decide exactly which kind of plant in which region gives the most efficient yield, and how you can use the waste product from that plant as a source of energy for the processing. So a lot has happened since the old gasohol debates of the ’70s and ’80s.
Let’s talk a little bit about the relationship of science and scientists to government. What do you think the duty the government has to those scientists and to science research and vice versa?
I think that this is at the heart of the problem. I think that it’s just wrong for government officials to censor scientists and to order then to change their scientific conclusions in order to please some official agenda, or some corporate supporter’s policy desires. And that’s happened, and it’s shocking. It led to the title of the movie. During one of those interviews with Davis Guggenheim I talk about how scientists produce inconvenient truths and they’re censored as a result. And that has to stop.
And in terms of what scientists should be doing?
They should feel free to pursue the truth as vigorously as they possibly can.
Do they have a duty to speak out when—
Absolutely, absolutely, absolutely. And a lot of friends of mine in the scientific community are now almost beside themselves in their concern about how the country is failing to act. I frequently hear, “I don’t want to leave my lab, I don’t want to stop my research but I feel like I have to go out on the street corner and start buttonholing people, and I don’t think I’m good at that. What can we do?” That’s the position they’ve been put in, because the powers that be don’t want to hear the truth. They think they can manufacture their own reality. But in the end, reality has its day.
Is that just global warming you’re talking about now?
What other issues?
Mercury, water pollution, air pollution, the drug-approval process, the research showing what’s happening in the oceans. Did you see the Mother Jones report on the fate of the oceans? It’s worth looking at, it’s a special issue. And it talked about how the scientific reports on the impact of drift nets and these highly destructive fishing techniques were being suppressed. Because the industry doesn’t want to know. Routinely, the public interest, the health and safety of the public and the integrity of the environment, are all being subordinated to corporate agendas—driven, incidentally by the least responsible companies. There are a lot of great business leaders who understand that this is not working the right way. But this administration listens to the least responsible in each industry, and they put their agendas first. And they put the public last.
Looks like I’m running out of time. Are you running for president in 2008?
No. [Pause.] I do not have any plans or intentions to be a candidate again.