Where Does the Climate Movement Go Next?


The year was 1989. Al Gore was writing about countries that now no longer exist and world leaders who are no longer alive. But his message was the same: “Earth’s fate is the No. 1 national security issue.”

In an op-ed for The Washington Post, Mr. Gore wrote about America’s tense geopolitical standoff with the Soviet Union, invoking Margaret Thatcher and Mikhail Gorbachev in the present tense.

Still, his article seems eerily familiar. More than three decades later, the United States is again contending with many of the same national security issues Mr. Gore identified: nuclear threats, a struggle between democracy and authoritarianism and, to an even greater extent, the climate crisis.

Mr. Gore, a former vice president, has dedicated much of his life to climate activism (he held the first House hearings on climate change after he was elected to Congress in 1976). He has witnessed, and at times facilitated, federal progress on fighting the ravages of a warming planet — and he has seen federal failures.

This week, in one of the most important environmental rulings ever, the Supreme Court made it more difficult for America to meet its climate goals. Yesterday’s decision limits the Environmental Protection Agency’s ability to regulate carbon emissions from power plants — which, as we covered on The Daily, is a blow to the Biden administration’s commitments to reduce emissions by 2030.

So, we wanted to ask Mr. Gore: Where does the climate movement go next?

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

The Supreme Court just ruled against the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulatory power, making it harder for the U.S. to meet its climate commitments by 2030. What should be done now to ensure federal progress on emissions reduction?

While this ruling curtails some of the E.P.A.’s authority, it does not mean we are out of options to address the climate crisis. There is more we can — and must — do. It is more important than ever for Congress to take action on this issue.

But the climate crisis is not a challenge that only the federal government must work to address. West Virginia v. Environmental Protection Agency was a case brought against the federal government by states in which the fossil fuel lobby still maintains significant power. The climate movement has important work to do at the federal level, but we can’t ignore how important states and local governments are in driving and blocking climate progress.

In light of the ruling, where should the energy of the climate movement be focused next?

We need to encourage state and local governments to redouble their efforts to reduce emissions, and we also need to see the private sector step up and match their climate pledges with action. They played a critical role in advancing progress on the climate crisis when action was stalled under the previous administration.

This decade is critical for climate action and we need all hands on deck to address this crisis. That means calling on Congress to pass ambitious climate legislation this summer. It also means we need to make sure that anyone who is frustrated with the slow pace of climate action gets out to vote in this year’s midterm election.

You’ve written, “To address the climate crisis, we must address the democracy crisis.” Is American democracy in crisis? How do you propose we surmount congressional gridlock that obstructs climate action?

We are facing a crisis of American democracy, one that stretches far beyond our ability to confront the climate crisis. The balance of power in our country has been distorted and has shifted away from the people and toward corporations and special interests. Fossil fuel companies and their allies have undermined progress on the climate crisis for decades. In recent years, we’ve seen the same kind of influence-peddling stall progress on everything from gun violence prevention to civil rights.

In order to address this crisis, we must not only prioritize reforms that will place power back in the hands of the people, but we must also reconcile the distortion of our media landscape caused by a similar imbalance in power.

What is your theory of change when it comes to climate activism?

A crisis of this magnitude and scope requires swift action at all levels and must include voices from all backgrounds. The climate crisis is an issue that lies at the intersection of the major challenges that we face today — inequality and injustice, public health, food availability, immigration and so much more.

As with all of the morally based movements that have come before it — from the abolition of slavery to women’s rights to the civil rights movement to the L.G.B.T.Q. movement — change cannot only come from the top down. It must come from the bottom up.

You have to make decisions daily about where to focus your work. Which tactics for mobilizing climate action have been most successful? And which would you say are your top priorities right now?

The most effective catalyst for climate action has been Mother Nature. As the impacts of the climate crisis have grown more severe in recent years, we’ve seen a significant shift in public opinion and an upswing in climate activism. A report released just last week found that 77 percent of those who have experienced climate-related extreme weather events view global warming as either “a crisis” or a “major problem” and are far more likely to call for action. As a result, businesses and governments alike are pledging bolder action than ever before. About 74 percent of global emissions come from countries with net-zero pledges. Thousands of companies have committed to net zero.

But we know that words do not equal action. That’s why our priority now must be to drive accountability around these pledges and bring radical transparency to greenhouse gas emissions.

The escalating climate crisis will force Americans to ask difficult questions like “Which towns are worth saving?” What are the most significant sacrifices you anticipate citizens will have to make in the coming years?

Unfortunately, our most significant sacrifices will not be choices we make, but consequences we must deal with because of our failure to act in time to avoid the impacts of the climate crisis. Communities will continue to be displaced by rising sea levels, extreme weather events, wildfires and more.

However, action to solve the climate crisis needn’t be a matter of sacrifice. On the contrary, climate action can benefit our communities. Smart investments in energy efficiency, for example, can create jobs (that by their very nature can’t be outsourced) and greatly reduce energy costs.

The war in Ukraine has led President Biden to retreat on his ambitious climate commitments. How significant has the war been for global climate action?

The United States and every other country around the world has reached a critical inflection point on the climate crisis, which certainly raises the risk of backsliding, though I believe history will view this as an accelerant on our transition away from fossil fuels.

This is a war enabled by our continued dependence on fossil fuels. The unfortunate reality of the market for these global commodities is that despite embargoes on Russian oil and gas (which I strongly support), Putin will continue to profit from our global addiction to these sources of energy. It is only by reducing the market for these products that we will be able to undermine his power. We need more solar and wind and electric vehicles and everything else that will enable us to get off fossil fuels for good.

This should be a moment of global epiphany, not moral cowardice. It is clear that our reliance on fossil fuels poses a significant and ongoing threat to democracy around the world. We must embrace the shift away from fossil fuels and refuse to allow democracy to be held hostage by petrostates like Russia.

Your investment firm is betting that strategic investments can expedite the green transition. How would you respond to those who say capitalism in its current form isn’t compatible with climate justice?

It has been clear for quite some time that capitalism as we know it is in significant need of reform. We have a lot of work to do to harness capitalism as a vehicle for a just transition. This is true here in America, where systemic racism has fueled environmental injustice and economic inequality for generations. It’s also true internationally, with developing nations that have contributed the least to the climate crisis suffering its worst impacts.

We need mechanisms to facilitate the flow of capital to countries and communities that are on the front lines of the climate crisis. Likewise, we need safeguards to ensure that investments in climate solutions factor in environmental justice. After all, if a company claims to offset the emissions of a coal-fired power plant in one community by planting trees halfway around the world, the residents of the community near that coal plant will still suffer from polluted air and contaminated water.

The climate crisis can feel sprawling and intractable. How do you make the crisis feel accessible — and actionable — to the general public?

This is such an important question because more and more people are feeling a sense of climate despair and anxiety as the crisis worsens. Despair can be just as powerful a force against climate action as denial has been.

The most important way to empower people on this issue is to give them hope. The climate crisis may feel intractable, but it is not impossible to solve.

From renewable energy to electric vehicles to advances in agriculture and efficiency, we have solutions to this crisis that we can implement today. That might mean starting small and improving the energy efficiency of your home, but it doesn’t need to stop there. I’ve often said that while it’s important to change the light bulbs, it’s even more important to change the laws.

That means voting in every election for which you are eligible. It means speaking up at City Hall to encourage action at a local level, or running for local office yourself. It means becoming involved in your company’s sustainability programs or starting them if they don’t exist. While your personal efforts may start small, you’ll notice that when you start taking action, your network will quickly grow, giving you a much larger impact than you could have initially envisioned.



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