Alonso Nichols/Tufts University
Former vice president Al Gore was in town Wednesday for a talk at Tufts University. He took time to speak to Globe environmental reporter David Abel about the challenges of addressing climate change in the Trump era.
Q: Now that we know that climate change is a hoax (said with tongue firmly in cheek), what does that mean for your life’s work?
A: Well, we’re only a little over one year into this experiment with Trump, and in science and medicine, some experiments are terminated early for medical reasons. I don’t have any inside knowledge to allow me to predict whether that might occur in this case. But I’ll say this more directly. In physics, for every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction. And that law sometimes operates in politics, and it does certainly seem to be operating now in reaction to many of Trump’s efforts. What Massachusetts, California, New York, and Washington, and a dozen other states have done, and hundreds of cities and thousands of businesses, are guaranteeing that the US will meet and exceed its commitments under the Paris agreement, regardless of what Trump does, says, or tweets. And, as I’m sure you’re aware, under US and international law, the first day the US could really legally withdraw from the Paris agreement is the day after the next presidential election.
Q: Did you have any hand in that decision?
A: I don’t want to claim any such thing because it might weaken the force of the provision. But there was considerable thought given to insurance policies to protect the continued viability of the Paris agreement, including the deliberate speed with which it was approved by enough nations to bring it into force. A new president could simply give 30 days’ notice, and the US would be back in. I was worried that when Trump pulled out of the Paris agreement that other countries might use it as an excuse to follow that course. But quite the opposite happened. Nations around the world reacted, many of them by doubling down.
Q: There has been a lot of rosy talk about cities and states making up for the lack of federal effort to comply with the Paris accord [which requires that the United States cut its emissions between 26 and 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025], but what’s the loss of not having a robust federal effort?
A: Well, there is a significant loss, for sure. Because the Paris agreement, as historic and inspiring an agreement as it was, still falls short of the minimum necessary to satisfy the laws of physics and really bend the curves downward in time to avoid an unacceptably high risk of crossing some points of no return, not for civilization as a whole but for important load-bearing elements of the global ecological system.
Q: A year ago, shortly after winning the election, Trump invited you to his office in New York. Why’d you go?
A: I seize any and every opportunity available to try to move the world toward solutions to the climate crisis, and I’ve kept the details of those conversations confidential, partly as a force of habit . . . but also because I think it’s good form to respect the privacy of communications with a president-elect. Those conversations continued after he went into the White House.
Q: Have you spoken to him directly since then?
A: Yes. I have not been to the White House, but I have spoken to him by phone and communicated in writing, at his request.
Q: With Ivanka [Trump] as well?
A: Yes. And without violating the confidentiality of those communications, I’ll simply say that I had reason to believe that there was a real chance that he would modify his campaign position, as he did with respect to China and with a few other important positions he took during the campaign. But I was wrong . . . I no longer believe there’s a chance he will change. At least, I don’t think I can bring him to a different position.
Q: What led you to believe that he might have a change of heart?
A: The conversations I had with him.
Q: The discourse from this president is obviously very different than what we’re accustomed to. You’ve been criticized for speaking in language that was considered perhaps, maybe, too measured. Do you think there’s any merit to the way he has commandeered the national conversation, with sometimes-truculent language, by capturing the narrative of nearly every single day with a tweet?
A: I think he’s a destructive force, where American democracy is concerned. I think he’s done and is doing serious damage to important norms that undergird American democracy. I think he has captured and expressed the anger felt by a great many people who have been really hurt by the stagnation in middle-income wages . . . when people become fearful economically, they’re more vulnerable to some of the demagogic appeals to the kind that Trump has used. But, overall, I think he’s a destructive force in our democracy. I think we’ll survive it. But I think he’s dangerous to the spirit of America.
Q: In light of the major changes in the country and in light of how Mitt Romney is now running for office again, are you considering any future political campaign?
A: I’ve given the answer on previous occasions, I’m a recovering politician. The longer I go without a relapse, the less likely one becomes.
Q: Given the lack of federal effort on climate change and the likelihood that we’re headed toward the so-called high emissions models that show major consequences from climate change, such as sea levels that could rise by some 7 feet by the end of the century, how do you maintain optimism? It seems like we’ll soon be crossing a Rubicon.
A: Regrettably, some damage has been done that won’t be recoverable. Regrettably, more damage will occur because of the momentum that we have loaded into the climate system. But the scientists whom I most respect are nearly unanimous in believing that we still have the ability to avoid the truly catastrophic consequences that we must avoid. But the next few decades are going to be a test of humanity’s character, resilience, and courage — because it will get worse before it starts to get better.
Q: What more should Massachusetts be doing, and are we doing enough?
A: Looking at states around the country, it’s impossible not to feel impressed by what Massachusetts is doing, on a bipartisan basis. Of course, transportation is an outlier, and the percentage of emissions from transportation is higher here than the country as a whole.
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