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“I’m grateful to have found other ways to serve,” says Al Gore, the politician turned climate-change crusader, as we sit down at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter‘s ‘Awards Chatter’ podcast. Gore, who was the 45th vice president of the United States and, many would argue, its duly elected 43rd president, was in town to try to call renewed attention to An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, Bonni Cohen and Jon Shenk‘s documentary about his tireless efforts to raise the alarm about climate change during the past 11 years since Davis Guggenheim‘s doc An Inconvenient Truth first chronicled them. The earlier film was awarded Oscars for best documentary feature and best original song (Melissa Etheridge‘s “I Need to Wake Up”); the new one has been shortlisted for the documentary feature award and has a contending song, “Truth to Power,” which was written by Ryan Tedder and T Bone Burnett and performed by One Republic, and might well be nominated in both categories on Jan. 23. Gore would be thrilled to see it receive that sort of recognition, not only because he now considers Cohen and Shenk to be close friends, but because he thinks it would help to highlight what he describes as “the most serious threat that our civilization has ever faced.”
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LISTEN: You can hear the entire interview below.
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Gore, who is now 69, is a Tennessean who, like his father before him, served for many years in the U.S. House of Representatives and then in the U.S. Senate. He shot to national prominence after he was asked by then-Arkansas governor Bill Clinton to serve as his running mate in the 1992 presidential election, and accepted; they ultimately defeated incumbent George. H.W. Bush and his running mate, Dan Quayle, and Gore spent the next eight years — most of the 1990s, a time of great peace and prosperity — serving alongside Clinton. In 2000, he ran against George W. Bush to succeed Clinton in the Oval Office, but contested ballots in Florida led to numerous recounts and ultimately the intervention of a politicized U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled in favor of Bush. (Gore’s concession speech is a master class in dignity and graciousness of a sort that no longer exists in presidential politics.) It was a turning point in American history, and also, of course, in Gore’s own life. Over the 17-plus years since, he has devoted himself, body and soul, to the cause of raising awareness about the threat of climate change and promoting ways of combating it before it’s too late for our planet.
The menacing reality of climate change first crossed Gore’s radar back when he was a senior at Harvard in the 1960s and took a course taught by the legendary scientist Roger Revelle, the first person to measure CO2 in the earth’s atmosphere. “He was way, way ahead of his time,” Gore asserts, “and he really opened my mind to this.” Seven years later, Gore was elected to the U.S. House and held the first congressional hearing on global warming, inviting Revelle to testify — but it quickly became apparent to Gore that the power of what he learned over the course of a semester could not be condensed into 20 minutes of testimony. He says, “That’s really the first time I began to think to myself, ‘Is there a better way to reproduce for other people the a-ha moment that I had listening to him?'” For a number of years thereafter, Gore tried different methods of presenting his urgent message to others — fold-up charts, Kodak Carousel slide projectors and even three different Kodak Carousel slide projects side-by-side. It was only after the 2000 presidential election, when he joined the board of Apple, that he arrived at the most effective mechanism: a PowerPoint — or, rather, KeyNote, Apple’s version of PowerPoint — presentation. “[Steve Jobs] actually helped me translate all this into computer graphics,” notes Gore.
Laurie David, an environmental activist (and the ex-wife of comedian Larry David), caught one of Gore’s presentations of his slideshow, and was adamant that it ought to be turned into a documentary. “I thought that was a silly idea, really,” Gore confesses, but David recruited Participant Media’s Jeff Skoll and Participant’s doc division chief Guggenheim to see the slideshow for themselves, and they agreed. The result was An Inconvenient Truth. None of them could have imagined the impact that the film would have: It grossed $50 million at the box office and was awarded two Oscars, it exploded interest in Gore’s real-world slideshow presentations (“I had a lot more people who were willing to listen and watch, and my audiences got bigger on the whole,” he says) and, just months after its release, Gore was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize. Gore, for his part, contributed 100 percent of his proceeds from An Inconvenient Truth to the Climate Reality Project, a nonprofit that he founded to train people all over the world to give their own versions of his slideshow presentation.
Paradoxically, though, over the 11 years since An Inconvenient Truth won its Oscars, there seems to have been an explosion in the number of climate-change deniers in America. Gore says this is no accident: “In Tennessee, there’s an old saying: ‘If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you can be pretty sure that it didn’t get there by itself.’ And when you see — uniquely in the United States, among all nations in the world — this persistent climate denial, it didn’t happen by itself. The Koch brothers [Charles G. Koch and David H. Koch], Exxon-Mobil, a number of other fossil fuel polluters and some of their ideological allies — one of whom said they wanted to get government so small they could drown it in a bathtub — have put hundreds of millions of dollars into creating this false narrative.” He continues, “They went and took the playbook from the tobacco companies.” Russia, a petro-state, has also often been a bad actor when it comes to climate change, but Gore says that country has taken some constructive steps, as well. (He notes that he first met Vladimir Putin in the 1990s, when Putin was the deputy mayor of St. Petersburg and was tasked with making sure that cables were connected ahead of a town hall meeting in which Gore participated. “I would not have predicted that he would become president of Russia and such a powerful figure in the world,” Gore admits with a chuckle.)
The idea for An Inconvenient Sequel was gestating for years before the film came to fruition. “We [Skoll and I] have had an ongoing conversation about it ever since the first movie finished its run,” Gore volunteers. “And lots of people have encouraged him and me to consider making another one. I was always reluctant to do that.” The 10-year anniversary of An Inconvenient Truth, and the many climate-related developments since that film’s release, made Gore reconsider. “There are a couple of big changes,” he says. “Number one, it [climate change] has gotten worse — worse than the scientists predicted, faster than they thought it would get worse. But the other big change is we’ve got the solutions now.” He elaborates, “We are now in the early stages of what some are calling the Sustainability Revolution — efficiency, renewable energy, electric cars — and it’s as big as the Industrial Revolution, but as fast as the Digital Revolution, and it’s sweeping the world.” Indeed, the biggest impediment to climate-related progress is no longer foreign powers but America’s own president, Donald Trump, who was elected after the first cut of An Inconvenient Sequel was locked and who was sworn in to office on the day after the pic premiered at last January’s Sundance Film Festival.
Whereas An Inconvenient Truth centered around a slideshow, An Inconvenient Sequel is much more about Gore’s globe-trotting efforts to combat climate change, most notably by helping to broker the landmark Paris Agreement that was signed in April 2016. During the subsequent election season, Trump threatened to withdraw the U.S. from the deal if elected, so, after Trump won, Gore held his nose and did what he felt he had to do. “I went to see him, talked with him, continued my dialogue with him after he went into the White House and I actually thought there was a chance he might stay in the Paris Agreement,” Gore explains. “But I was very disappointed [when Trump nevertheless announced America’s intention to withdraw from the deal at the earliest possible date, in 2021] and worried, actually, that other countries might use his decision as an excuse to pull out themselves.” Instead, other countries around the world, and many states within America, reaffirmed their commitment to the deal, and, Gore notes, America can only actually withdraw from deal after another presidential election occurs, making it all the more important to defeat Trump in 2020.
Gore has stopped communicating with Trump, but knows what he would want Trump to hear if he was listening to this podcast: “I’d urge him to resign. I’m serious. He won’t, of course. But that’s the only advice I would have for him. I don’t mean to be impertinent or disrespectful, but it’s a dangerous situation for our country right now. … He has put climate deniers throughout the government.”
Gore also weighed in on a host of other assorted topics, including Veep (“Yes, I have watched that a lot, and I think that Julia Louis-Dreyfus is absolutely brilliant … she’s a comedic genius”); the word “lockbox,” for which he was sent up by Saturday Night Live back in 2000 (“I hear it more than you might imagine, mostly from friends joking with me, ‘Hey, have you got that lockbox?’ By the way, I have to say we’d be in better shape if we had done that”); how his presidential campaign responded, unlike Trump’s, when approached with dirt on its opponent (“We immediately closed the box back up and called the FBI”); and how he feels about the Electoral College, as one of only two candidates in the last 130 years who have won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College, the other being Hillary Clinton (“Even after the 2000 election, I continued to support the Electoral College, but I’ve changed my mind on it — about five or six years ago, I took a good long look at it and said, ‘No, it’s just an anachronism and we need to get rid of it”). Asked if he would ever consider running for president again if, in 2020, it looked like only he could stop Trump — or whoever the Republican incumbent is — from withdrawing America from the Paris Agreement, he sighed and then cracked: “I am a recovering politician and the longer I go without a relapse, the less likely one becomes.”
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