BERLIN — Al Gore spent a year in divinity school as a young man, but he was well into middle age by the time he found his calling as a climate preacher.
Now 70, and both grayer and portlier than when he was a full-time politician, America’s almost-president travels the world to raise awareness about climate change and what mankind can do to keep it from destroying the planet.
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Standing center stage in a cavernous auditorium in Berlin this summer, the former U.S. vice president slowly wound an audience of 700 into a frenzy with a two-hour-plus sermon, buttressed by hundreds of slides on the coming climate apocalypse.
“Manmade global warming pollution traps as much heat energy as would be created by 400,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding every day,” Gore said almost matter-of-factly, noting that humans release an average of 110 million tons of CO2 pollution per day, a record.
With parts of Germany enduring the warmest summer on record, not to mention what has turned out to be a devastating drought, Gore’s presentation was full of “Oh My God” moments for his audience of aspiring climate activists.
“It’s important to distinguish between Donald J. Trump on the one hand and the United States of America on the other” — Al Gore
The slideshow was the high point of a three-day program put on by Gore’s Climate Reality Project, which promises to equip participants with “the tools to change the world.” Since 2006, Gore’s climate initiative has offered such training to nearly 15,000 people around the world.
“The purpose is to build a global grassroots force made up of activists who speak with their peers and communities, professions and businesses … in order to accelerate solutions to the climate crisis,” Gore said in an interview on the sidelines of the Berlin event. “Some of them have gone on to become environment ministers in their countries or in their regional governments or mayors leading their communities or business leaders shifting their businesses and trade associations.”
The son of a U.S. senator, Gore was born into politics, serving in both houses of Congress before spending eight years as Bill Clinton’s vice president. After a perfect storm of “hanging chads” and a divided U.S. Supreme Court pushed the Oval Office out of his grasp in 2000, Gore reinvented himself. Nearly two decades later, his political life seems more like a traineeship for a career as the world’s most prominent environmental activist.
Anyone who has experienced Gore the politician would immediately recognize his slight Southern drawl, his precise syntax and his wry humor. He also still looks the part of a standard-issue American politician, right down to his stiff white shirt and boxy suit.
What’s different is Gore’s quiet confidence. In contrast to Bill Clinton, who even with the passage of time remains as cagey as ever, Gore has a grandfatherly air about him. After decades spent warning that manmade climate change could have catastrophic consequences (and being mocked for it in some quarters), Gore speaks with the self-assurance of the vindicated.
When the 2006 documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which is based on Gore’s slideshow presentation and narrated by him, first appeared, many people still questioned the validity of the scientific community’s dire warnings. No more. With the notable exception of President Donald Trump, climate deniers have been relegated to the political fringe.
“The overall challenge seems at times like sci-fi, but unfortunately, it’s quite true,” Gore said in the interview.
Gore’s audiences outside the U.S. need little convincing. He says he spends a lot of time when he’s abroad trying to calm people down over Trump’s climate course.
“It’s important to distinguish between Donald J. Trump on the one hand and the United States of America on the other,” he said, adding that a number of U.S. state governments have made even stronger commitments to reducing carbon emissions since the president took office. “Analysts in the U.S. now confidently predict the U.S. will exceed the commitments it made in Paris, in spite of Trump,” he said.
Gore said he still believes in the power of U.S. regulators and courts to withstand the excesses of a Trump environmental policy he characterized as “a mix of malevolence and incompetence.”
“Sometimes those two forces push in the same direction, but often the incompetence tempers the malevolence,” he said.
What’s most interesting about Gore’s climate appeal is its optimism. After witnessing the torrent of apocalyptic events and statistics Gore chronicles in his slideshow, it can be difficult to believe the world will escape environmental Armageddon. Despite the enthusiasm about renewable energy, 80 percent of the world’s energy still comes from fossil fuels.
“There are moments when there’s a struggle between hope and despair. But I always end up on the side of hope … ” — Al Gore
Still, Gore, who started an investment fundfocused on climate-friendly companies, is convinced that the world is in the early stages of “a sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the industrial revolution but the speed of the digital revolution.”
To make his case, Gore quotes American economist Rudi Dornbusch, who posited that changes often take longer to happen than one thinks but then unfold much faster than expected.
“There are moments when there’s a struggle between hope and despair,” Gore acknowledged. “But I always end up on the side of hope, not in a Pollyanna-ish way at all but because I think the evidence does justify it.”