x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

People of the decade: Al Gore

The fact we all know what we are doing to our planet is largely due to one man.

Illustration by Beto Alvarez
Illustration by Beto Alvarez

The fact we all know what we are doing to our planet is largely due to one man. He failed to become US president, but now Al Gore is the world's unlikeliest eco-warror. Peter Gorrie reports. Al Gore strides on stage and cracks his trademark joke about how he used to be the next president of the United States. After more homespun tales delivered in his Virginia drawl, a giant screen glows with depictions of Earth from space, melting glaciers, dessicated farmland, flooded cities and all manner of graphs and charts, accompanied by Gore's darkly impassioned narration. This is the Inconvenient Truth slide show, and as he performs, Gore looks like he, too, is "feeling fine", an outcome that would have seemed impossible at the start of the decade.

That was when, politically speaking, he wounded himself in a bumbling presidential election campaign and George W Bush appeared to have finished him off. After eight bland years as vice-president under Bill Clinton and blowing what was considered a sure victory, he personified failure. He was mocked as wooden and insincere. At the same time, environmentalists were struggling to raise the profile of climate change. The Kyoto Protocol had been signed in 1997, committing the world's richest nations to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions. But concern over the warming atmosphere engaged mainly a small bubble of scientists, activists, lobbyists and politicians. To most, it was as dull and inaccessible as Gore.

Now look: Gore and his slide show are an iconic image of climate change, the world's key environmental concern. The show was a skilful, constantly evolving stream of warnings about the consequences if humans kept pumping too much carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gas into the atmosphere. Gore performed it thousands of times, taught it to hundreds to present in his stead, turned it into a book and award-winning film and became the face of advocacy for a low-carbon economy.

Climate change, too, has become a global phenomenon. As evidence of its impacts grew during the decade - recently declared the warmest on record - it sparked shifts in industry practices, government policies and personal behaviour. One result is Abu Dhabi's carbon-neutral city, Masdar. It also provoked intense debate and international negotiations, which culminated this month in Copenhagen at the massive UN conference.

Gore embraced climate change as a Harvard University student in the 1960s. Within a few years, he had produced a rudimentary version of the slide show, which he continued to develop after entering the US House of Representatives in 1977 and the Senate eight years later. As vice-president, he lobbied unsuccessfully for US ratification of Kyoto. Reinventing himself after his devastating presidential defeat, he returned to a cause he cared deeply about and escaped the shackles that made him cautious and calculating. "When running for president, he wasn't being true to himself," says David Meerman Scott, author of The New Rules Of Marketing And PR. Gore, he argues, "allowed his advisers to try to mould him into something he's not, so he came across as very inauthentic. When the brake was lifted, he came out and said, 'This is what I am.' He became authentic and honest."

Timing helped. The film was released in 2006, soon after Hurricane Katrina had pummelled New Orleans and fuelled fears of climate change. It won an Academy Award, boosted by Hollywood's antipathy towards Bush. In 2007, Gore and the 2,500 scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change received the Nobel Peace Prize. As the face of climate change, Gore represents the contradictions and limitations in the world's response. He believes technology can solve climate change, allowing those in rich nations to live as comfortably as ever and the rest of the world to catch up. His own life reflects his philosophy. He and wife Tipper live in a 930 square metre house in Nashville, Tennesseee. Though jet travel is a potent cause of the greenhouse effect, he flies hundreds of thousands of kilometres each year.

He has earned millions of dollars from his speeches, books and the film, and from his Generation Investment Management LLP, which backs companies developing carbon-free technology and renewable energy. Some receive subsidies from the US government. Deniers call him a hypocrite, accusing him of campaigning to boost his net worth to an estimated $200 million (Dh735 million). He replies that his house has solar panels, efficient appliances and lighting, ground-source heating and other gadgets to reduce fossil-fuel consumption. The greenhouse gases it does produce, and those from his travels, are offset by contributions to emissions-reducing projects in developing countries. Revenue from his advocacy work, he says, goes back into the crusade, and his investment success shows that reducing emissions is good business.

There are, however, more difficult questions about Gore's work. The essential one: do the warnings and prescriptions he offers make enough, or any, difference to how the world responds to the climate change threat? The response to date has been inadequate. Over the decade, global emissions have increased, although more slowly than they would have without the steps taken towards renewable energy and efficiency.

If Gore is correct in believing technology will save the day, and that most of the methods are available, can we afford the transition? The cost isn't the main barrier, though it seems massive. A recent report from the International Energy Agency puts it at $10 trillion over the next 20 years, just to achieve emissions cuts that scientists contend are inadequate. But $500 billion a year is a fraction of global economic activity, and new industries are expected to create jobs and profits.

The impediment is that to tackle climate change effectively requires huge transfers of wealth and economic activity from some nations to others and from some industries to others. Copenhagen saw strong resistance. Many environmentalists and scientists say the focus on technology and growth will doom the effort to cut greenhouse gas emissions. They say the only hope is for humans to curb their addiction to consumption and economic growth. The British writer and environmental activist George Monbiot says this generation is the first that must aspire to less than those who went before.

Either approach would involve the sort of "big ticket" changes politicians won't attempt without strong public pressure, says David Ropeik, a risk management analyst based in Boston. "You won't have public pressure until people feel personally concerned, and that step isn't happening yet." Opinion polls in industrialised countries suggest strong concern about climate change, but nowhere do people appear ready for substantial changes to their lives, as witnessed at the recent summit in Copenhagen.

Gore and other advocates miss a key part of human behaviour, Ropeik says. People are motivated by emotions far more than facts and reason. They respond to a threat only if it's in their face. Hurricane Katrina and the lethal European summer of 2005 are receding and, for most, climate change is too remote in space and time to inspire action. They shrug off warnings of melting icecaps and ravaged rainforests.

Also, those labelled deniers are skilfully - although erroneously - claiming the science is uncertain or fraudulent, sowing confusion and doubt. Discussion of climate change has become a political and public relations battle in which impressions far outweigh facts. In this arena, Gore has, to his detriment, become a polarising figure, basically preaching to the converted. "If somebody famous but more neutral had done The Inconvenient Truth it probably would have done more good," Ropeik says.

Where does that leave Gore as he enters a new decade of advocacy? In his new book, Our Choice, he briefly suggests he and others should consider revised messaging. Tellingly, the book - an earnest catalogue of solutions - has created relatively little buzz. He "seems to realise that our inability to act is based on our inability to be purely rational on climate change", Ropeik says. "He says he's observed the phenomenon. But he hasn't yet said what needs to happen to encourage perceptions to change."

That might be the next stage for this once unlikely climate superstar.