Why you should care

The Earth keeps getting warmer, but technologies to fix this are also getting hot.

Sure, it might have been his second choice in jobs, but being a climate activist is actually working out pretty well for former Vice President Al Gore. Not just because of the award-winning documentary nearly a decade ago, and not just because of the Nobel Peace Prize, but because 2014 is suddenly a great year for climate rabble-rousers.

Eight years after An Inconvenient Truth, the pace of change is still slow — only 34 percent of Americans say they really give a sh*t about climate change — but this year, a few powerful and loud voices have begun to make global warming everyone’s problem. Billionaire Tom Steyer is dropping big money on campaigns throughout the country to swing voters on the issue of climate; hundreds of thousands of people attended a rally to call for action in New York in September.

We are witnessing the beginning of a new era of clean, renewable energy.

— Al Gore

When OZY reached him over email, Gore was in his hometown of Nashville, Tennessee; he’s still focused on climate, but he also sits on Apple’s board and works with various investors. When it comes to politics, the $200 million man is quiet, despite the predictions of a few commentators that the former vice president will challenge Hillary Clinton in 2016.

Gore spoke to OZY about the shifting perception of climate change in the U.S., some of the surprising places he’s looking to for the big fixes and his college days of yore.

OZY:

Almost a decade after An Inconvenient Truth, climate change hasn’t slowed. What’s the outlook?

Gore:

I am hopeful because I know we can solve the climate crisis. We have a long road ahead, but we are making extraordinary progress, and there is hope on the horizon. Consider solar energy: Over the last decade we have seen both a rapid decrease in the price of solar systems and a simultaneous rapid spread in its use by consumers big and small. Today, in 79 countries around the world, solar energy is cheaper than or equal to the price of fossil fuel-based energy. By 2020, more than 80 percent of the world’s population will have access to solar energy that will be cost-competitive with fossil fuels. We are witnessing the beginning of a new era of clean, renewable energy.

… businesses and financial institutions are leading the way to solve the climate crisis.

— Al Gore

OZY:

What has surprised you in the last 10 years?

Gore:

The slow response by governments has been disappointing. Even when faced with undeniable evidence, the political systems of many major countries have failed to rise to the challenge. But we are beginning to see a concentrated effort by global leaders to take on this generational challenge. Over the course of the last few years, many nations — including Mexico, South Africa, the European Union, China and the United States — have begun to implement programs to reduce their national emissions. We still have a long way to go, but the tides are shifting.

Cities are leading the way on climate action.

— Al Gore

At the same time, the responses of the corporate and financial worlds have been impressive. From increasing their use of renewable energy to power their facilities, to incorporating sustainability principles in their business plans, to supporting major clean energy programs, businesses and financial institutions are leading the way to solve the climate crisis.

OZY:

Polling consistently shows Americans are not concerned about climate change. How does get it on the radar?

Gore:

In 2006, I founded the Climate Reality Project, an organization whose mission it is to drive the cultural conversation on the climate crisis and move our world toward a more sustainable future. Together with the Climate Reality Project, I have relied upon a twofold strategy to discuss global warming. First, it’s critical to help people understand that the consequences of the climate crisis are not confined to scholarly journals or scientific debate. They are here today and they are going to get worse unless we commit to change. Second, it’s important to show people that there is a way forward for our civilization that is both sustainable and prosperous. We have the tools we need to solve this crisis, and momentum is building for change.

The results are clear. People’s views are changing, they are attributing the increase in extreme weather to man-made global warming emissions, and they are demanding action from their leaders.

Former US vice president Al Gore, speaks at the UN Climate Summit 2014 in New York, United States on September 23, 2014.

Al Gore, former U.S. vice president and the chairman of The Climate Reality Project, speaks at the U.N. Climate Summit 2014 in New York on Sept. 23.

Source Cem Ozdel/Getty

OZY:

Which countries, regions, cities are doing the best work?

Gore:

Cities are leading the way on climate action. Just last year, I stood with Los Angeles’ [then-mayor], Antonio Villaraigosa, as he announced that the city would be coal-free by 2025. The province of Ontario just became coal-free. Copenhagen will be the world’s first carbon-neutral capital by 2025. Sydney plans to get 100 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. The list goes on and on and on.

National governments and regional authorities are catching up by implementing carbon-reduction schemes, renewable energy systems and climate-adaptation measures, but there is still a ways to go.

OZY:

Who are your personal heroes of climate change?

Gore:

When I was an undergraduate at Harvard, I was fortunate enough to take a class from Roger Revelle. He was the first person to introduce me to the idea of global warming and the rise of carbon dioxide emissions driven by the burning of fossil fuels. Ever since then, I have always looked back to Dr. Revelle and his partner, David Keeling, as heroes. They were some of the first scientists who pieced together the evidence of rising emissions and raised the alarm bells on the issue.

OZY:

Are you disappointed by the inaction of the Obama administration?

Gore:

During the president’s first term in office, I was concerned that the issue was not being prioritized enough. Moreover, he was faced with an obstinate Congress that refused to consider the issue. In his second term, however, President Obama has shown historic leadership on this critical issue: new efficiency standards for automobiles, support for renewable energy programs, and major regulations on both new and existing coal-fired power plants that will eventually end our dependence on dirty coal energy. We still need a national price on carbon, but we are making progress. Now, more than ever, it’s important that President Obama focus on the creation of a new international climate agreement in Paris next year to guide us to a sustainable future.

OZY:

What are the most interesting technologies out there today for combating climate change?

Gore:

The improvements in wind and solar technology are truly remarkable. Wind turbines with blades as tall as buildings, solar panels that are as thin as a sheet of paper — new advances seem to arrive every day.

For consumers, the power of rooftop solar systems to reduce their energy bills and their dependence on fossil fuels is groundbreaking, and people are taking notice. Now, in the U.S., a solar system is installed every four minutes. In the first half of 2014, solar energy made up more than 50 percent of the new energy-generating capacity in our country. As Citigroup recently said, the “age of renewables” has begun.

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