Al Gore is near the end of his quest to save the Earth. Nina Barrett just got started.
By Dan Zak April 1
ATLANTA — The man in the pulpit had the posture of a preacher who had not tired of tribulation.
“Half of all the living species on this planet will disappear on our watch when we’re assigned responsibility,” the man said, voice starting to thunder. “How do we take on board the meaning of that?”
The church was hot. The choir members fanned themselves with their programs, which read “A Moral Call to Action on the Climate Crisis.” The man in the pulpit was listed as “Former Vice President,” but the title felt wrong. There in Ebenezer Baptist Church, in his eighth decade of life, Al Gore was something other, something more, especially as he summoned the voice of a future generation to chastise his own.
“You could describe with your scientific instruments — all the digital devices and computers and artificial intelligence and consumer goods — but you couldn’t understand the time you were living in?” Gore growled, face flushed with rage, fist pounding the pulpit. “You could not discern the CENTRAL FACT OF YOUR LIFE? Which is that it was YOUR responsibility during YOUR lifetime to prevent the worst TRAGEDY in all of human history?”
A young woman from Raleigh, N.C., squeezed in the eighth row of pews, stopped taking notes to applaud. Nina Simone Barrett was 6 when Gore ran for president. She vaguely recalls the disappointment of her grandfather, who grew up in segregated Alabama, as he watched a fellow Southerner, a good man, win a plurality of votes but lose the office. Now, a whole generation later, Barrett had arrived in Atlanta for Gore’s climate leadership training, a three-day barrage of hope and fright and boredom and motivation. This was the 40th time Gore had captained a training but the first in which he had included an interfaith service, where spiritual leaders would cast climate change as a matter of morals and justice.
It’s only the first day + I truly feel empowered!!! Barrett wrote, sitting in her pew. Like the other 600 students at the training, she had a lifetime left on this troubled planet, and the man in the pulpit, a baby boomer creeping toward his life expectancy, was drafting her to save the world after he leaves it.
At Ebenezer Baptist Church, former vice president Al Gore preaches about the morality of addressing climate change; he is flanked by spiritual leaders, including the Rev. William Barber II, seated far right. (Elijah Nouvelage/For The Washington Post)
Albert Gore Jr. was 20 years old when he learned that the Earth was warming. One of his professors at Harvard had been monitoring carbon dioxide from the top of a volcano in Hawaii, and his data showed an acceleration of the greenhouse effect. Gore was shocked to realize that environmental peril was not limited to local incidents of pollution. It was a planetary problem. After he became a congressman, Gore invited his old professor to testify on Capitol Hill with other scientists, to help one generation educate another.
In his 40s, as a senator, Gore dove into the Caribbean to touch dead coral, and peered through a submarine periscope at the translucent underside of the Arctic. The struggle to save the planet, he wrote in 1992, must be “the central organizing principle of world civilization.” In 2006 he startled the world with “An Inconvenient Truth” and then launched a $300 million education campaign to turn alarm into action.
People would approach him on airplanes, on the street, to tell him how he changed their lives. But had he changed the world?
“If I said there weren’t times when I felt this was a personal failure on my part, I’d be lying,” he lamented a year and a half ago in “An Inconvenient Sequel,” which you probably didn’t watch or even hear about because you’ve already seen the Al Gore show, starring an ex-politician who flattens doomsday into charts and graphs.
[‘Everything is not going to be okay’: How to live with constant reminders that the Earth is in trouble]
But lately something’s happened to Al Gore, or at least the public persona of Al Gore. It’s like he’s reawakened his inner Baptist and drawn on the protest movements of his youth. Last spring, at the urging of his daughter Karenna Gore, he met the Rev. William Barber II, a board member of the NAACP who helped resurrect the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign.
It was supposed to be a quick hello at the dedication of the lynching memorial in Montgomery, Ala., but it turned into a partnership: Gore, the clairvoyant of Davos, fluent in techspeak and Scripture, who can summon the forces of venture capital and diplomatic clout, and Barber, leader of a moral revival, who condemns ecological devastation as a sin against the poor and won a MacArthur “genius” grant for fusing divergent coalitions into a united front.
This year the two men visited central Virginia to rally against a pipeline station and rural Alabama to decry shoddy sanitation. Both locations were home to poor minority communities, worlds away from the nearest glacier. Those experiences had now translated to programming at Gore’s training in Atlanta, where a majority of panelists and many attendees were people of color.
“There would be no need for us to battle climate change if we had not closed our eyes when communities of color, and low-income communities, were being poisoned,” said the Rev. Leo Woodberry, a pastor from South Carolina, during a panel titled “Ensuring Climate Equity.”
The ballroom, crowded with 2,000 trainees from 48 states, murmured with approval.
“Absolutely,” said Barrett, all the way back at Table 129, carefully taking notes.