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Al Gore: ‘Fossil fuel companies are better at capturing politicians than capturing emissions’

The former vice president of the United States and Nobel laureate talks to EL PAÍS about the effectiveness of climate summits, the problem of greenwashing and why people should ignore the far right’s ‘easy solutions’

Al Gore
Former vice president Al Gore during an interview in April on NBC.NBC (Getty Images)
Manuel Planelles

In 2007, Albert Arnold Gore Jr., 76, better known as Al Gore, was already a climate change activist (albeit in a jacket and tie). And for his work in raising awareness about the phenomenon — the term climate crisis was not yet widespread and denialism was rampant — he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize that year. He was the vice president of the United States between 1992 and 2001, and the Democratic presidential candidate in the 2000 elections. He ran for the White House, but a controversial vote recount in Florida gave victory to George Bush Jr. Gore has been warning about the impact of climate change for two decades and teaching others how to take part in this battle. At the end of June, he has organized training sessions in Rome with The Climate Reality Project, which he founded. It is the 56th session that he has taken part in. In this videoconference interview with EL PAÍS, he pulls no punches about the fossil fuel sector being the main actor responsible for the climate crisis.

Question. What are these training courses for?

Answer. To solve the climate crisis, we have to have people at the grassroots level in every country speak up and say to their elected officials, “we see this happening. We understand it. We demand that we take steps to safeguard the future for ourselves and our children and grandchildren.” In many countries, my own country included, oil and gas companies and other institutions that have long benefited from the current pattern of extracting fossil fuels are reluctant to see this pattern change. It’s just basic human nature, but the average families are being hit very hard. Our training gives all community members the opportunity to learn the facts, to learn communications and networking skills, and to learn about the solutions that are readily available.

Q. Are you worried about the results of the European elections?

A. I am not a citizen of the EU. I am an observer, but I have a great deal of confidence in the people of Europe. The European Union has become a center of conscience in the world. Of course, there are always struggles internally, not least in my country. But the majority of people understand that this is an important moment in the history of humanity. We are pressing against the limits of what the ecological systems of the Earth can tolerate without breaking. And I’m optimistic that voters in every region of the world are becoming more aware of why we have to change quickly. Extreme, climate-related events have been changing people’s minds and waking them up to the reality that we cannot continue to use the sky as an open sewer, in ways that are trapping so much heat in the Earth system every day. That’s what’s heating up the oceans and making the storms bigger and stronger and the floods more devastating. And the droughts, which give rise to the fires that we’ve seen in Italy and the United States and Canada and Australia and all over southern Europe. Refugees that are crossing borders to escape the intolerable living conditions imposed by the climate crisis now far outnumber the refugees escaping the violence of war and civil war.

Q. And what do you think of the rise of the far right? Are you worried about the impact it may have on the fight against climate change?

A. Well, I think that the process of globalization, which has been enhanced by technological developments, has unsettled longstanding patterns in many countries. We have seen jobs move from industrialized countries to lower-wage venues. And we have seen technological changes that have an unsettling effect politically. People worry about the future. And so, as is often the case, if some demagogic, far-right movement promises an easy solution to the problems of life, it’s natural that in times of stress, more people say, ‘oh, let’s try that.’ But of course, in my view, it’s a terrible mistake. But I think that we have seen developments now beginning to come in the opposite direction, with the people who used to be a part of the far-right movement changing their minds, somewhat. I have faith in humanity, I think we’re close to a moment of realization with the climate crisis, where these petty divisions of politics and ideology will be set aside as we come to realize the common interest of humanity. We can’t destroy our home, we only have one and we have to protect it. We’re not going to get rocket ships and go to Mars.

Q. If Donald Trump wins the elections in November, do you think he will pull the United States out of the Paris Agreement again?

A. I don’t feel comfortable accepting that hypothetical. I don’t believe that Trump is going to win the election. And, if I’m wrong about that, we will have to deal with it at the time. But I strongly believe that the United States is going to continue its effort to help lead this sustainability revolution. The legislation passed by President Biden, known as the Inflation Reduction Act, the IRA, is the biggest and best designed climate legislation in history. It will not be repealed. No matter the election outcome. And it is already changing political realities on the ground, with the building of new factories for building solar panels and windmills and electric vehicles and batteries and the other exciting, new technologies that give us the prospect of transforming our society to make it no longer dependent on heavily polluting and dirty fossil fuels.

Q. During the last climate summit, held in Dubai in December, you were very critical of the event. Do you think climate summits are still useful?

A. Even though the climate summits have been captured to an unhealthy degree by the fossil fuel polluters, they still can serve a useful purpose. COP 29, coming up in Azerbaijan is, once again, hosted by a petro state, one that, indeed, has a larger share of its national income from fossil fuels than the last two petro states that organized the last two summits: United Arab Emirates and Egypt.

We should reform this process so that nations like Russia don’t have a veto power over who hosts the summit, so that the secretary general of the United Nations has the power to participate in the selection of a host. It’s not fair to the people of this world to present such an obvious conflict of interest as the one that defined last year’s climate conference in Dubai. The people of the world deserve better than the conflict of interest involved in putting the head of one of the biggest and dirtiest oil and gas companies on the planet in charge of the summit. It’s a ridiculous idea.

Fossil fuel companies are better at capturing politicians than they are at capturing emissions. They pretend that there’s some magic solution where we don’t have to cut back on fossil fuels, just capture the emissions. It’s a preposterous notion. In some rare circumstances and hard to abate sectors, we will spend the money to try to capture those emissions. But for the bulk of them, it’s ridiculous, especially when we have the alternatives that are cheaper and healthier and better and create three times as many jobs, per euro spent, compared to euros spent on the old dirty fossil fuel system.

Q. What do you think is more useful: climate litigation or climate diplomacy?

A. Both tools can be useful. I was particularly interested in the victory of the more than 2,000 grandmothers of Switzerland. And the victory before that in the Netherlands. There have been others as well. But at the same time, diplomacy is also essential, even if it is frustrating.

Q. Are you worried about the rise of greenwashing?

A. It is simply dishonest: giving people the impression that a business or a political entity is doing something that is really only for show, and avoiding their responsibilities. It should be called out. It’s not a new tactic, but it seems to be used more by large consumer-facing organizations, whether in business or governance, that feel the pressure from people. So it should be called out wherever it occurs so that we can keep the pressure on to engineer real changes. Not imaginary changes.

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