The former US vice-president and climate champion Al Gore has made a rare criticism of Barack Obama as Royal Dutch Shell prepares to drill an exploratory well in the Arctic Ocean, denouncing the venture as “insane” and calling for a ban on all oil and gas activity in the polar region.
With Shell planning to begin drilling in the oil-rich Chukchi Sea within days, Gore said in an interview with the Guardian that Obama was wrong to ever allow drilling in the Arctic.
It was the only real point of criticism from Gore of Obama’s efforts to fight climate change, at home and through a global deal to be negotiated in Paris at the end of the year.
“I think Arctic drilling is insane. I think that countries around the world would be very well advised to put restrictions on drilling for oil in the Arctic ocean,” Gore told the Guardian in Toronto, where he was passing on his techniques for talking about the climate crisis to 500 new recruits from his Climate Reality Project.
As conventional fields decline, the Arctic is the last frontier of the oil era, containing more than 20% of the world’s undiscovered, recoverable oil and gas. But after the BP oil disaster five years ago, the risks of offshore oil drilling are all too clear – and Arctic drilling should not go ahead, Gore said.
“I think the Deepwater Horizon spill was warning enough. The conditions are so hostile for human activity there. I think it’s a mistake to drill for oil in the Arctic. I think that ought to be banned,” Gore said.
It’s now nearly 10 years since Gore turned his old slideshow on climate change into the Oscar-winning Inconvenient Truth, nearly 15 years since he won the popular vote in the 2000 election only to lose the White House to George Bush.
What was once a somewhat lonely cause – at least among leaders of Gore’s stature – has been taken up by the current US president and, more recently, the pope.
Obama elevated climate change to the top of his second term agenda, and has announced a new event or initiative every week since January. Gore, who has tried very hard to stay out of Obama’s way, now gives him top marks – although he still says the White House has bent over too far to accommodate the oil and gas industry.
“I think he is doing essentially a very good job but on the fossil fuel side I would certainly be happier if he was not allowing so much activity like the Arctic drilling permit and the large amounts of coal extracted from public lands,” Gore said.
With the critical negotiating round at Paris only five months away, it is the president and the pope who are the most visible campaigners for climate action, not Gore.
The “recovering politician”, as Gore once called himself, is so divorced from politics he neglected to offer up the expected plug for a Democrat to win the White House in 2016, when asked about frontrunner Hillary Clinton’s chances.
“I think it’s too early to endorse a candidate or predict an outcome,” he said.
Instead, Gore remains focused on his two proposed fixes for climate change: raising up campaigners in eight key countries, and improving the business environment for wind and solar and other clean energy sources.
Unlike the pope – who used a pastoral letter on climate change to deliver a scathing indictment of the prevailing economic order – Gore believes that “reformed capitalism” will eventually solve the climate campaign.
“I think that some form of market capitalism is at the base of every successful economy in the world today,” he said. “I think that reforms including putting a price on pollution to discourage more pollution is definitely a part of the solution.”
Diverting paths with fire-beaten Canada
On one July day, the former vice-president spent the morning in downtown Toronto lauding the efforts of Canadian provincial leaders on climate change – in sharp contrast to the prime minister, Stephen Harper, who has pushed hard to expand oil and gas production.
The next day he planned to perform his slide show to the Climate Reality recruits again – only this time the 30-minute version, for those occasions when they only had time for a more abbreviated pitch.
After a couple of false starts – Gore disbanded an earlier group, the Alliance for Climate Protection – such training sessions have now morphed into a vast, global undertaking.
At the request of the UN secretary general, Ban Ki-Moon, Gore has taken his climate training on the road to eight countries seen as critical to a strong outcome at Paris: the big emitters US, India, Australia, Canada, China, and Brazil and those on the front lines such as South Africa and the Philippines.
The 50-person gatherings in Carthage, Tennessee, have given way to audiences of several hundred at a time – 1,200 were at the Chicago session.
In the last two years alone, Gore has trained more than 5,000 new Climate Reality recruits in 115 countries, according to the group’s own figures. Only a minority identified as dedicated environmental campaigners, the group said.
Really they are scouting for anyone with strong ties to a community – a church, a school – who can tell a convincing story.
Climate activism movement still steadily growing
Over three days, the trainees are inducted into the world of climate activism as described in Gore’s narrative arc: starting with the picture of earth as viewed from space, the latest science on drought and sea-level rise and other consequences of climate change, and then the multi-coloured grids of solar and wind installations.
This is where Gore’s excitement really lies. When he talks about, say, solar installations in Costa Rica, his speech gets increasingly folksy – like the clean energy Garrison Keillor – and there are whoops from the hundreds of activists in the ballroom.
The sessions are free, although activists have to make their own way to the venue. So far, only one known climate denier has managed to infiltrate one of the trainings.
The idea is for trained-up climate activists – directly schooled in the latest science by Gore and other trainers – to use their personal experience and contacts to spread the word.
Some may go on to use their connections to lobby in high places. Others may drop off the map, lured to the training by a chance to be in the room with Gore rather than actually do the work.
Ken Berlin, Climate Reality’s chief executive, said graduates put on a total of 2,500 speaking events last year. The group claims a Facebook following of 361,000, with about 35% in the US, followed by India, Pakistan and the Philippines.
Approaching the light at the end of the tunnel
As Paris approaches, and with the pope on his side, Gore said he is the most optimistic he has ever been about finding a solution to the climate crisis.
The time is ripe, he said. Like same-sex marriage, like civil rights, he believes public opinion is about to make the massive shift in favour of action.
“Climate is now on that matrix,” he said. “The change is inevitable because any great cause that becomes resolved into a binary choice between what’s right’s what and what’s wrong the outcome becomes inevitable.”
The question of course is time – how long will it take to mobilise to solve climate change. Gore sees Paris as a first step, but said he is under no illusions about the kind of deal like to emerge.
“We are going to see a Paris agreement. I think that’s assured at this point. I think it has been a near certainty since the US-China agreement” to cut emissions, which happened during Obama’s visit to Beijing last November, he said.
It’s an open secret of the climate negotiations that there is nothing compelling leaders to take strong climate action.
Countries are free to set their own targets for reducing greenhouse gas emissions which ensures that while there will certainly be a deal at Paris, it will not achieve the internationally agreed goal of limiting warming to 2 degrees celsius – even Ban has conceded that.
For Gore, however, that’s not the point of Paris. The agreement is just meant as a kind of cattle prod to get countries moving on the systemic transformation of their economies, away for coal, oil and gas and to energy sources that do not rely on fossil fuels.
“Even if it falls a little bit short of the 2-degree threshold it will definitely lend a tremendous amount of momentum to an historic transition that is now well underway, away from carbon based energy and towards renewables efficiency, battery storage and sustainable agriculture and forestry,” Gore said.
“My optimism is focused on primarily on the larger goal of making this transition and finding a solution for the climate crisis. Where the Paris agreement itself is concerned I think that it is likely to be a success. Whether it actually reaches the number of reductions that are necessary to hold temperature increases below 2 degree celsius, I don’t know.”
He went on: “The Paris agreement will be an important milestone but I think we are now seeing development in the marketplace.”
By Suzanne Goldenberg. Source: The Guardian