“A challenge to our moral imagination”

Former US vice president Al Gore is still campaigning – for urgent action to reverse the effects of global warming. chinadialogue editor Isabel Hilton interviews the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

[This article was first published on September 29, 2006]

Isabel Hilton: In your film, you say that climate change is not a political but a moral issue. What do you mean?

Al Gore: It’s a moral issue because it affects the survival of human civilisation. It’s a challenge to our moral imagination to understand that we could actually be affecting the entire planet. The planet will survive, of course, but its habitability for us is what we are now putting into question, and since it is the present generation delivering consequences suffered by those generations yet to come, that raises a profoundly moral challenge: do we have the right? And, of course, we do not.

We’re capable of being sufficiently entranced by the present, and by a focus on short-term gratification, to ignore our responsibility to those who come after us. If there’s one reason why people are beginning to change, it may be because the consequences are now beginning to be felt in our lifetime. 

IH: You have obviously held very powerful positions. You were vice president of the United States, a senator, and yet you say in your political career you were unable to get this message across. Why?

AG: Well, I’m sure some of it has to do with a lack of skill. I’ve gained more skills as I’ve gotten older. It has not been for lack of trying. A lot of it has to do with the unusual strength of the resistance to this message. CO² is the exhaling breath of industrial civilisation, interwoven with all aspects of our lives. Large and powerful polluters have been spending millions of dollars to confuse people intentionally and [to] try to interfere with the delivery of this message. Of course, in our modern lives there are all manner of distractions that fractionate our attention to everything else, and holding this crisis in mind for a long period of time is just inherently difficult, it’s complex.

But it is by far the most serious challenge we have ever faced. It is now beginning to capture the attention of people. I have an ally in this effort – reality. Mother Nature is delivering very powerful messages in heat waves and killer hurricanes and other consequences that have long been predicted. I think every day we get closer to a critical mass of public opinion that will require politicians in all parties to act.

IH: Part of the moral case around Kyoto is that those who have most benefited from emissions should pay the most towards the mitigation, or the addressing of the issue.  Is that a case with which you agree, and does it extend to a kind of indemnity for those who are suffering now, and who will suffer immediately on the frontline of climate change?

AG: Well, every international agreement since the end of World War Two has had the same basic architecture. The wealthier industrial countries have taken upon themselves the first obligations because they can. They’re best positioned to lead and to begin making the changes. And then the poorer nations, with less wherewithal and less of an ability to make the changes, are obligated to join in after the wealthier nations have begun the task. That’s been true of trade; it’s been true of every agreement. The Kyoto agreement is no exception and, yes, I support that architecture. It’s a practical necessity.

Now, on the question of indemnity, I think that’s more than the political traffic will bear. And the industrial countries. There are moral questions raised concerning our responsibility for what we do, now that we are on notice and have constructive knowledge of what the consequences are. But those are questions we can’t afford to entertain. We need to focus on putting together a practical solution.

IH: There are people, of course, who say, “What’s the point of acting, as long as China and India are not constrained to act?”

AG: Well, the truth is that China and India will have to be a part of the solution. But the way to get them to join in solving the crisis is for us to go first and to take the actions that the UK is beginning to take and that I hope the United States will begin to take. Secondly, China and India are sometimes stereotyped unfairly. The truth is they know, or many of their leaders and scientists know full well, how much they have to lose if this climate crisis is not checked.

Twenty million people around Beijing would have to relocate, 40 million people around Shanghai, 60 million people around Calcutta, millions more in other coastal cities. The Yellow River is now sometimes without water, partly because the source of the Yellow — and the Yangtze and the other great rivers of Asia — is in the ice fields of the Tibetan plateau. And they’re melting, more rapidly than the rest of the glaciers. These and other consequences have caught their attention. They have their own equities involved here. So I don’t think it’s right to just assume that they’re not going to care about solving this crisis.

IH: If it is a moral question, and as president of the United States you would be in a better position than any man on the planet to address it, is it not a moral obligation to run again next time?

AG: Well, I appreciate the question. I don’t think I have to apologise for devoting my time to trying to rally a response worldwide to this crisis. I am under no illusion that there is any position with as much influence as that of president of the United States. I ran for president twice. I did not get the office. I haven’t ruled out possibly getting into politics again at some point. But frankly I don’t expect to, and I have no intention of doing it, because I find the whole process rather toxic.

I also found during my years as vice president how important it is to have enough receptivity in the Congress and among the people to the bold changes that are necessary. Boldness and vision from leaders is one thing, but the body politic has to be prepared to change and to act. It may be that the highest and best use of whatever talents and experiences I’ve had along the way is used in trying to change the minds of the people in the United States and elsewhere. I’m certainly trying to.


Isabel Hilton is the editor of chinadialogue.

Al Gore served as the 45th vice president of the United States in the Clinton administration from 1993 to 2001.

Homepage photo by Steve Jurvetson