Al Gore is back. A dozen years after he was denied the U.S. presidency and turned his attention to the warming atmosphere (and won the Nobel Peace Prize, an Academy Award and a Grammy), he is opening his lens wider.The result is The Future, a 500-page examination of the six major forces that he believes are producing dramatic change in the world: an increase in economic globalization; an expansion of digital communications; a balance of power moving away from the United States; an economic system that produces inequality and overconsumption; a set of revolutions in biotechnology and the life sciences and, of course, the world’s warming atmosphere and damaged ecosystems.
In this conversation, Mr. Gore offers a preview of his latest thinking, which he will discuss in detail on May 7 with Globe and Mail editor-in-chief John Stackhouse at Ryerson Theatre in Toronto.
You’ve spent the past dozen years fighting climate change. How do you feel about Canada’s role?
As an elected official and as someone following international affairs, my respect and admiration for Canada has deepened over the years. The enlightened approach to policy in general, the welcoming approach to immigration, the decision to uphold human values that I believe are central to humanity’s future, all these things are handled by Canada with grace and aplomb and skill.
The outlier in recent years, of course, has been the climate issue and particularly as addressed by the present government.
It’s not hard to understand how the economic prospects in Alberta and Western Canada have tempted political leaders to compromise what would otherwise seem to be core principles of safeguarding the human future. It’s also easy to understand, given the policy failures of my own country … all that’s easy to understand. But I confess that I was still surprised at the decisions that have been made, and I found them inconsistent with the view of Canadian governance that I grew up admiring and respecting. It doesn’t change the admiration and respect for all of the other good things Canada is doing.
Have the oil-sands boom and pipeline debates affected Canadian-U.S. relations?
Yes, and I think that ultimately it hurts Canada. The so-called resource curse is most often understood in the context of small nations whose revenue streams are dominated by the exploitation of a single resource. It’s a bit more complex than that with Canada, but the resource curse has multiple dimensions and [that includes] damage to some extremely beautiful landscapes, not to mention the core issue of adding to the reckless spewing of pollution into the Earth’s atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer.
We will come to our senses, but I had hoped that Canada, like Australia, would point us in the right direction and added to the chances for the world as a whole to make a moral and courageous decision sooner rather than later.
Your six challenges sound daunting, yet you remain optimistic. Is this not naive?
If you had asked me a few short years ago how likely I thought it would be that the United States and most of the world would endorse gay marriage in a short period of time, I might have failed to see the non-linear shift that has just occurred. When our consciousness changes and we focus on the fundamental choice between right and wrong, and see it and understand it clearly, then policies can change with dizzying speed. I saw it as a young boy in the South with the civil-rights movement. I’ve seen it with gay rights, I saw it on apartheid, I saw it when the Berlin Wall came down in a single day. I saw it in Montreal when Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and other world leaders adopted the Montreal protocol on climate barely two years after the alarm bells were sounded by the British Antarctic Survey and then confirmed by U.S. and Canadian scientists. There is a bubble of illusion on carbon fuels, and the dawn of realization that we are destroying the climate envelope within which human civilization has flourished will change everything. The dramatic advances in both the cost reduction and widespread deployment of renewable resources is going to make that transition much easier than it seems right now.
You see the developing world moving fast out of poverty, but call for sustainable use of resources. How can these be reconciled?
It won’t be easy, but the path is laid out clearly before us. Aggregate investments in renewables by developing countries now exceed investments in renewables in the developed world. Just as mobile telephones spread far more quickly and far more extensively than anyone predicted, and most of all in the developing countries – they’re doing the same thing with solar and wind in country after country.
But that growth that has been so stunning in developing and emerging economies in the last few decades is threatened by a continuation of our present course on energy. Subsistence agriculture is at risk, the disruptive consequences of these larger and more destructive storms are slicing percentage points off the growth potential for lots of countries that suffer these disasters more and more frequently. The consequences of pollution are multiple, people moving out of Beijing and Shanghai because they don’t want to condemn their children to lung diseases. These are very real threats.
They simply can’t go in that direction. Growth would come to a halt. By contrast, there are many more jobs now in the U.S. in wind than in coal. There is a boom in e-commerce in developing countries as these nearly ubiquitous mobile phones become smarter. You look at the way Kenya has used even non-smart mobile phones to empower electronic commerce, it is quite amazing. So the growth in the future is going to be, more likely than not, according to this new sustainable model.
Climate change is last in your list. Still a challenge above all?
Well, yes, in my view it certainly is, simply because it is an existential threat to the future of civilization. I wanted to put the climate issue in the broader context of the sweeping global change that we are now trying to deal with. And, let me also say that the biologists, almost to a person, will tell you that the extinction crisis is the most serious one we face. I see it as yet another challenge that is all wrapped up in the climate crisis.
When you look at a catastrophe like the collapsed factory in Bangladesh, do you lose hope?
Look at the outpouring from developed-country consumers for Bangladesh factories to enforce standards that protect those who are working there. We’ve seen that previously with the employees at Foxconn in China and the employees making Nike shoes. There are literally hundreds of other examples. A growing awareness of our connection to the people who make these low-priced goods is turning into a stronger demand for the goods to be made in ways that are consistent with our deepest human values. I think that’s inevitable. I think that tension will be with us for some time and, of course, some of these issues look different in the developing countries.
These are low-wage jobs that are nevertheless some of the highest-wage jobs available there, and yet there is a coming together because the voices in Bangladesh are now growing under- standably more strident and saying this is injustice, this is unacceptable. I think there is a shared consciousness in advanced countries and the developing countries about the need for better standards within “Earth Inc.” to protect labour and to protect the environment. I think that’s an unstoppable trend.
You’re skeptical about the White House on climate change.
I have great respect for President Barack Obama and his team, and I understand the extremely daunting obstacles they have to navigate. I’m under no illusion that more ambition on President Obama’s part would, by itself, correct the problems. But I think it is necessary. We are still in the early months of his second term and I still hear the words he used in his inaugural address and the words he used in his Union speech. I was encouraged last week by his Organizing For Action organization – they put out a pretty pointed video on climate. [The video was aimed at climate skeptics] I think he has yet to decide how a big priority climate will actually play, but I am continuing to encourage him to give it the priority it deserves and I hope that he’ll do something.
Technology: threat or salvation?
Well, it’s both, but which of those possibilities will dominate? It depends upon our ability to accelerate the emergence of sufficient new wisdom to make choices in how we use these technologies. Look at the connection between new technology and structural unemployment. One of the surprises I had in researching this book was the weight of evidence now supporting those economists who are questioning the Luddite fallacy now that technology is extending not only our physical capacities but also our cognitive functions. But it is no longer as clear as it’s been for the last 300 years that new technologies always create more new jobs than they displace, at least it’s not clear they will do so in the market sector. And the dividing line between private goods and public goods that has shifted since 1989 and the triumphalism with which democratic capitalism reacted to the disappearance of communism as a serious alternative. That has shifted the line by pulling more and more functions and decisions into the market sphere but for all its efficiency, power and magic, the market sphere can’t make some decisions as well as the democracy sphere: how we educate children, how we deal with mental health, how we build communities.
Do you believe the United States is still relevant?
There’s a lot of evidence that, at least in relative terms, U.S. power has been declining. In part that it is inevitable consequence of the structural changes in the global economy. China and India were the dominant economic powers for most of the last two millennia and then the Industrial Revolution led to a quarter-millennium breakout by the West during which the United States became the unquestioned world leader. But we are seeing a reversion to the mean, a reversion to the traditional role that China played in the global economy for the last two millennia. And the United States unfortunately accelerated the potential for losing relative power by a series of uncharacteristically bad decisions: the invasion of Iraq, the decision to undermine its moral authority by employing widespread torture, the decision to agree with the large banks that no regulation of derivatives is necessary. These and other unfortunate decisions led to a crisis of confidence in U.S. leadership both in the democracy sphere and in the market sphere.
But it is still true that there is absolutely no alternative to U.S. leadership. Maybe over time one will emerge, but it has to be values-based and it has to be connected to economic and political and military power, and the United States has been unique in possessing all those characteristics.
I am an optimist in predicting that the United States will recover its balance. I do think that this large structural shift from television and radio to Internet-based communications that’s inviting the participation of individuals will find its beneficial effect in the United States – but it’s far from assured so we have a struggle in the years ahead.
This interview has been edited and condensed.