There's been a lot of momentum building on climate change lately thanks in no small part to you.
It's really picking up. I've had an ally in reality. It doesn't always work, but sometime it does
Have you finished your Nobel speech?
Yes, the committee takes its deadline seriously. So I've completed my speech.
In a lifetime of writing speeches, this has to be the most significant one you've ever completed.
That's in the ears of the listeners. If I had the ability to determine that I would hope the answer to that question would be yes. And I would do my best to use my words to good effect. But the occasion itself gives an opportunity to deliver a message that is heartfelt, and contains the best that I can do in words. I wish I had more eloquence than I have. I'll do the best I can.
What do you want your audience to leave with? What more can you tell them at the moment when the whole world will be watching you?
My purpose in the speech is to do as much as any speech can, to energize those who care to read it, to take action. It's not complicated-it's fairly simple. We face a planetary emergency. We have been procrastinating and delaying action, and now is the time to come together at last for this purpose, as one human civilization turn the corner towards a sharp reduction in CO2 emissions. This is the most unusual and dangerous world crisis that civilization has ever confronted. CO2 is invisible, so it makes the climate crisis much easier to put out of sight and out of mind. The damage it causes is unprecedented and we often confuse the unprecedented with the improbable. And though we can't see the global warming pollution in the true sense, we can see its impact beginning to get harsher all around us, everywhere. It's happening before us, it's beginning to overtake us. We still have time to act but the time is short. I am an optimist. I do believe that the signs you see all around the world represent the early stages of a galvanizing moment for humankind. I fully understand the kind of response we need is also unprecedented, but neither is it improbable. We can do it, but now is the time
Take me back to the moment when you found out that you won the Nobel Peace Prize. What did it feel like to receive that call?
I didn't get a call, actually. We had learned somehow, I don't even know who told us, but we were informed that in the event the committee had selected me, I would receive a telephone call 15 minutes before the global press conference. Actually, I did not expect it, in spite of the fact that there were some predictions before it. I really thought that the spin cycle of the modern world media is particularly disconnected to the deliberations of the committee in Oslo. Whatever speculation naming me was more likely than not irrelevant to what they were actually deciding. Nevertheless, my wife Tipper and I happened to be in California at the time of the announcement. We stayed up until 1:45 AM. I have to admit I looked at the telephone when it didn't ring. After about seven or eight minutes, I told Tipper that as I expected, this was not going to happen. So we turned on the TV for the press conference to see who did win. The chairman was speaking Norwegian for an extended period of time, and my wife whether because of her Swedish heritage or whatever reason heard something I didn't in the Norwegian presentation and turned to me and said, "You won!" A minute later the graphic went on, and that's how I got the news.
Did you ever figure out why they didn't call?
They told me why. The next day, when I got a call, they said that in previous years they had had some difficulties with leaks that had caused them to change their procedure. It suited me fine; it was a nice way to find out about it. Not that there's any bad way to find out.
The citation recognizes your importance and that of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) in bringing this to the world's attention, but on a personal level do you see this as a vindication, especially in light of some of the criticism in your past?
I have honestly not put it into that context at all, because we are so far from where we need to be. My focus is ever on continuing to galvanize a global response. That's what it's all about. And the recognition of the Nobel committee, it is the greatest honor that I could ever have, but it's only a step. It's a great honor but like everything else in the struggle it's a means to an end. If it helps focus more attention on this message, that's what's happened. As a person I am deeply moved by what they have said. But it's hard to celebrate recognition of an effort that has thus far failed, and I'm not finished yet, but thus far, I have failed. And those along with me, some for longer than me, we have all failed. But thus far the momentum is building, and this ceremony is an opportunity to deliver that message to more people.
Why use the word "failed"?
Today we're dumping 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the world's environment, and tomorrow we'll dump a little more, and there's been no effective worldwide response. And until we turn the corner and start sharply reducing global warming pollution, until that moment comes, I will feel that I have failed. I do think that the political system has one feature in common with the climate system. It's non-linear. The slow progress toward a solution can be frustrating, but even slow progress can take us closer to a tipping point, beyond which the pace of change will accelerate beyond all imagining. There is no precedent for the kinds of mobilization now required. The closest examples are the nations that have mobilized in wartime, and we can look at what happened in the US in early December 1941. The following four or five years was quite extraordinary. There are plenty of other examples, but none on a global level, and this has to be a global level.
So you would argue that this crisis is on par with World War II, the Great Depression, and that it requires that sort of all-encompassing national effort.
All other priorities must be looked at in the context of achieving this, absolutely. We use examples from our own history when we try to imagine a sudden galvanizing effort. World War II is one, the Apollo Program is another, the Manhattan Project is another. The early New Deal is another. The Montreal Protocol was a great example of global success. Its still being achieved but it's a success in the making. The effort to cure polio, the deadly form of smallpox-there are enough examples to justify a realistic hope that we can achieve a solution to the climate crisis. Forgive me for using words that you know so well, but the North Polar ice cap, according to the best scientists in the world, fell off a cliff this fall. The signs that our world is spinning out of kilter are increasingly difficult to misinterpret. The question is how to convince enough people to join a critical mass of urgent opinion, so that the US and the rest of the world shift to a new way of thinking about the crucial importance of solving this crisis.
Why hasn't that message been fully received yet?
I spend a lot of time asking myself that question, and one dimension of my failure is that I don't yet know all the answers to that question. I think we are making progress and the recent shift in Australia is a dramatic example of what can happen. We have had 150 major business leaders in the US demand action. We have had 700 cities in the US have independently embraced the Kyoto Protocol. Many states, including our largest California have had as well. I don't want to give you the impression that we haven't had a lot of movement. It's just that nothing has yet matched the scale of the response that is truly needed. Why has it taken so long for this message to sink in? Number one, the unprecedented nature of this crisis does make it difficult to communicate. We naturally tend to conflate the unprecedented with the improbable, and nothing in our prior history or cultures prepares us for the reality of this radically new relationship between human civilization and the Earth. In just the last one hundred yeas, we have become the bull in the china shop, capable of doing catastrophic damage with intending to do it. We've quadrupled population in less than a century, and amplified the power of technology many thousands of time's over and haven't matched those changes with a shift in our thinking that allows us to take into account the long-term consequences of our actions. Number two, the garden variety denial that psychologist tell us we all fall prey to. It's hard to sustain the focus of a global community on a challenge that is difficult and sometimes painful to think about. Number three, it's difficult to imagine engineering the scale of the changes that are now necessary on a global basis. We always take refuge in the familiar and the comfortable. Fourth, there has been a well funded, sophisticated effort to intentionally slow down the progress of this message. There is a great divide between the culture of science and the culture of politics. Science cherishes uncertainty and politics can be paralyzed by it. The scientists though have long since been more than sufficiently convinced that this is an emergency. Nevertheless, because they're scientists they continue to parse every unknown, as they should, but sometimes that translates in the political dialogues as a longer collection of uncertainties, and if politicians want to put off action, they can often direct their constituents to focus on some unresolved question that resets the clock for them. So they ask to be allotted more time. Well, we don't have a lot more time. And the final cause would be, those of us trying to communicate haven't yet found sufficiently effective ways to get the message across. But we will and I come back to the encouraging signs we are making progress.
How do you see yourself going forward, raising the alarm, as we near this tipping point?
I've always emphasized the availability of solutions, and I'm keenly aware that the moment the alarm is heard, people will be looking for solutions that we must implement. And I proposed my own best ideas of what the solution out to be. A CO2 tax is by far the most important way to enlist the energy of our markets to help solve this crisis. A global treaty that helps cap emissions and steadily lowers emissions, and allows trading within those caps, officially allocating resources in the market to get the steepest reductions. Also, I'd suggest a moratorium on the construction of any coal-fired generation that doesn't have the capacity of safely trapping and storing those CO2 emissions. But your question is a philosophical one. Before people are ready to implement solutions such as these, they have to recognize there is a problem justifying an unusually large response. They have to be at the crucial second part of that. They have to feel a proportionate sense of urgency about it. One can arrive at an intellectual [understanding] and not accept the urgency. That is where the US is now. There has been a considerable shift in opinion, but the feeling of urgency has only grown a little, compared to what is needed.
The Warner-Lieberman climate bill just passed out of committee last night. How close is that bill to what you think needs to be done?
Of course it's not sufficient. But the old clichˇ applies-you have to walk before you can run. This is a good faith beginning. There is some bipartisan support. When we make those first steps, we shift the momentum and open up new possibilities for moving much, much more quickly when the adjustments are made to accommodate these shifts. If this were to be the only legislative response, of course it would be woefully inadequate. But it's the first step, and I congratulate Sen. Boxer and the leadership and Sens. Warner and Lieberman and all those who played a key role in this. Of course, it still has to pass, and the Congress has to survive a possible veto. But it's an important first step.
The argument against global warming has shifted from outright denial to the argument that taking action against climate change will be too expansive; that it would be better to spend what's possible on adaptation and accept those changes, rather than try to alter the way we use energy, that it's too later to make a dent in this problem. How do you answer this?
The army of denial has many battalions. They have actually made a cluster of arguments all along, and in recent years, they have slowly retreated from one row of battlements to another. At first, they said it wasn't great. Than they said it wasn't real, but only caused by nature itself. Then they said it could come from human beings, but the balance of the responsibility lay with nature. They are actually defending the battlement, but they have others. One such argument is that the cost of change will be prohibitive, that the changes of the climate crisis will be ones we can adapt to, so we should focus on adaptation. Well the reason that doesn't work is that the scientists tell us that unless we stop the worst consequences, it will be impossible to adapt. We have a real obligation to prevent these consequences from unfolding. The relationship between adaptation and prevention is one I've always felt must be handled with some care. When the Bush-Cheney Administration says adaptation is the answer, that's a powerful illustration of why we have to be careful not to siphon off political will from job one, prevention, and dissipate it with adaptation. However, that's not to say that we don't have an obligation to pursue a sensible program aimed at adaptation. Some of these changes are already occurring, others are already reprogramming the climate system. Even in the best of worlds, some adaptation is going to be necessary. As the UN reported, those who will suffer the harshest impacts are those who are least able to deal with it, so in the complex relationship between developed and developing nations, alongside technology transfers and emissions trading and comprehensive development assistance, there has to be assistance for adaptation, but not at the expense of the overriding challenge: to stop adding to much carbon pollution and make this crisis worth.
What are your hopes and plans for the UN climate change conference in Bali?
15 years ago I spoke to the delegates of the Earth Summit at Rio. 10 years ago I spoke to the delegates at Kyoto. I know the rhythm of these conferences and I know the real decisions are made in the last 48 hours sometimes in the last 12 hours. When I speak on the 13th of December, Bali time, I will urge the delegates to move up the effective date of the treaty two years. We can't wait until 2012. If the scientists tell us we have less than 10 years to implement major changes, we can't take five of those years to simply talk and debate, while the two largest emitters are not a party and therefore are not implementing any reductions as a result of the Kyoto treaty. We should move up the effective date. I'd argue for a very strong mandate that gives this process the best change of concluding a treaty in 2009, so it can be implemented by 2012.
Is that overly optimistic, given that it seems extremely unlikely that anything will happen whole the Bush Administration is in power?
It does, but the new President will take office in little more than a year from now, in January 2009. That will occur at the crucial moment for these negotiations. The mandate being designed at Bali will provide a road map for the negotiations and that can be accomplished even during the Bush-Cheney Administration. The substance of the treaty will be negotiated by the next President.
The person in the world who has the most power to shape the response to climate change is the President of the US. Given the fact that you've emerged as a global spokesperson on this issue, don't you have a responsibility to put yourself forward?
I appreciate the question, and I agree with you that there is no position on Earth with anything like the potential influence over events as the office of President of the U.S. But I have seen during eight years as the Vice President, the other prerequisites that are necessary for the kind of galvanizing response that is needed. When I left Kyoto, I was feeling very positive about the breakthrough we had there. When I tried to convince the Senate to ratify the treaty, I could only convince 1 senator out of 100 to vote for it. When I was talking to the others, I saw behind their eyes, the calculations of what this controversy might mean to their reelection campaign. I don't want to diminish them. I saw the lack of support behind them for the boldness I was urging them to demonstrate, and I do believe that this is the rate crisis that requires a fundamental shift of public opinion at the grass roots level, to embolden members of the legislative branch in this country, and in other countries, to take the kind of action that is needed. If I felt the best use of my talents was to pursue these solutions by becoming a candidate for President, I would do that. I have not completely ruled out the possibility at some point in the future I might reenter the political system. But I don't expect to do that, and I don't think that's likely to happen. What feels right to me is to wage this different kind of campaign. To try to convince a majority of our fellow citizens and people in the rest of the world that we must make the solution of the climate crisis our top priority.
Would you consider a position in another Administration?
Take me back to 1997. Should the Administration have done more to provide political support to Kyoto, to make global warming a more substantial issue? Should you have spent more political capital on this?
First of all, I did everything I could, and yet it was obviously not enough. Should the Administration have made this a higher priority? Sure. But political leadership always involves a kind of dance between leaders and voters, and there are limitations on both sides of that equation. Even leaders who are personally convinced of the need for action will nevertheless be vulnerable to moving too slow if there is not a receptivity among the people. That is why I have concentrated on changing the political thinking process in the US, to elevate this. We did a lot in the Clinton-Gore years, and President Clinton was generous in accepting my advice often, and any President has to deal with the full range of issues that the American people want to see him deal with. Inevitably, a President's time is going to be spread thinly as a full range of priorities. I do think it's possible to make this not only priority number one, but also a lenses through which all other priorities are seen and addresses. Winston Churchill, when he was Prime Minister, once said to Parliament, with the opposition foremost in his mind, 'let our principle be, everything for the war, nothing that is not for the war.' I think that kind of approach to leadership in the White House could be applied to this issue. Is this country ready for that now? I don't see that enough of a shift has yet taken place. I hope that will take place during this campaign. I'm talking to several of the candidates as they call and talk about this issue, and because of events in the world, because of increasing evidence of the severity of this crisis, by the time the voters go to the polls in November, this could be the number one priority issue in the US election, as it was in the Australian election.
For all the momentum we're seeing, climate change hasn't really emerged as a top issue on the campaign trail.
I agree, so what does that tell me? That tells me that the highest and best use of whatever talent and experience I've gained along the way is best applied to the task of changing public opinion. These candidates, if they walk down the street in Manchester, NH, and every other person they encounter buttonholes them about climate change, you would hear very different stump speeches. When their pollsters go out and ask people what they think, what issues are most important to them, what do you feel passionate about, it's only when climate change moves to the top of that list that the political dialogue will really change. I'm doing everything I know to bring about that change. Why not jump into the race as a candidate and make it an issue? I've run for national office four times twice for President, twice for Vice President. I've learned a great deal about how to do that, and what the limitations are of that strategy. When you take a look at candidates from both parties and what they are discussing, it shows how much work needs to be done to bring about that change.
Isn't that a Catch 22 of sorts?
It's a push pull process. I think that again I will say that rather than trying to analyze it logically, and wrestle it to the ground, intuitively, I feel very strongly that what I am doing is the right thing to do. And if you break it down logically, you can come up with reasons to make a different choice. But when you have all those factors out together, there is no doubt in my mind that this is the right thing for me to be doing right now. Might there come a time when the future of the balance shifts, and the opportunity to make more headway and bring about more progress as a candidate seems like the right thing to do? Maybe. I doubt it but maybe. I'm open to the possibility emerging.
How do you pitch climate change in such a way that it can appeal to people who might not be that into environmentalism?
I think the climate crisis is connected to several other challenges that urgently need to be addressed. Our dependence on foreign oil for example, is part and parcel of this crisis. It's a carbon crisis. We are putting too much carbon into the atmosphere, buying too much from a fragile, unreliable source, too much money for it. Now it's threatening our economy and the world appears to be crossing a peak in its ability to find carbon based fuels within the traditional price range. Will we redouble our efforts to get even more expensive, even dirtier carbon fuels? Or will we shift to low carbon economy that helps the balance of payments. That helps security and it helps the global environment. There are many other problematic challenges that are also connected to it: sending all this money to the Persian Gulf, contributing to the geopolitical dangers we are facing in that region. There are people who would like to avoid sitting in traffic jams 2, 3, 4 hours a day. Shifting to a much more rational and humane transportation system in the US would help solve the environmental crisis and help solve those problems. The cost to our economy of not solving this crisis would be unbearable. The cost of solving it is relatively trivial, certainly manageable, unleashing the creativity and energy when we turn to renewable sources and much higher levels of efficiency. The redesign of a whole system to create patterns that allow us to continue developing a sustainable basis without destroying the global environment.
Sketch out for me what you expect to be doing over the next six months to a year?
Everything I do is within the context of priority number one: how can I help contribute to a solution to the climate crisis. I've enjoyed my business activity, as founder and co-chairman of Generation Investment, which is entering into strategic alliance with [venture capital firm] Kleiner Perkins. And co-founder and chairman of Current TV, which is aimed at democratizing the dominant medium of communication, opening it up to more genuinely egalitarian format which wrestles with issues like the climate crisis responsibly. When I was in the Snow and Ice Data Center, receiving a full briefing on the polar ice caps, afterwards I would turn on my TV and there were two networks with bulletins: Britney Spears loses custody of her children. We're living in a madhouse if our priorities focus on the embalming of Anna Nicole Smith, or the trial of OJ Simpson, while we ignore the greatest crisis this national has ever faced.
How long did it take you to write the Nobel speech?
30 years (laughs). I started thinking about it right away when the notification came in, and I started collecting my thoughts, making notes.
How long can you keep this pace up?
I don't know the answer to that question. I have learned to focus a little better on the priority items, and just cancel a lot of other things. I've been turning down a lot of things on the calendar this coming year so I can keep up the pace.
Is this more fun than politics?
At this stage in my life it is. Politics was a lot of fun for me, especially when I first got into it. I was just really filled with a feeling of exhilaration at being able to take part in American democracy. I was raised in a political family, and saw that as a kid. It was really fun for me. At this stage in my life, though, it's hard to answer the context of what's fun and what's not. What feels right-what feels right is fun.
John Doerr, your new partner at the venture-capital firm Kleiner Perkins, has said of climate change: "Sometimes panic is an appropriate response." How do you remain optimistic?
Partly because of something I said earlier, that I do genuinely believe the political system is not linear. When it reaches a tipping point fashioned by a critical mass of opinion, the slow pace of change we're used to will no longer be the norm. I see a lot of signs every day that we're moving closer and closer to that tipping point.
You make a pretty persuasive point that our political system is essentially broken, and that it is harder and harder for even mass public opinion to penetrate the wall of money. Do there need to be changes first in the system?
It needs to change concurrently, and I think it is beginning to do so, if you look at the new impact of Internet-based media on the political system that we have in this cycle, you're already beginning to see healthy changes. If we kept the Internet free freely accessible, then that is going to build up momentum.
A lot of Americans feel that their individual actions don't add up to the sheer size of the global warming problem. What's the first and most important thing they should do?
Become politically active. We should abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve the crisis. They are important, and if enough people shift then we'll solve the problem, but at this stage they are mainly important because those who make such change in their own life become far more likely to join a growing political consensus. That's what our policies have to shift. This is a challenge that has to lead to new laws, new treaties, a CO2 tax, and the kind of changes that will actually be effective. Here [at his home] we changed all our light bulbs, and we have 33 solar panels on the roof. And for all that, what we really need is a different set of rules of the road so that the economy routinely takes CO2 into account in every transaction. That's really what is needed.