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Science & Environment

Al Gore: Climate Change Issue Will Be A 'Much Bigger Political Plus' For Democrats


The many people moved by the cancer diagnosis of Senator John McCain include one of his former colleagues. He's former Senator and Vice President Al Gore.


In a conversation yesterday, the Democrats sent hope for the Republican's recovery, and he recalled John McCain as an ally on Gore's signature issue.

AL GORE: You may disagree with his position on this or that, but he's a man of character and courage. And I admired his courage on the climate issue when he was a lonely voice in his party on that issue.

INSKEEP: Gore was thinking of the 2008 presidential campaign.

GORE: He as the Republican nominee had a very forceful and responsible position in favor of solving the climate crisis.

INSKEEP: Although much of McCain's party disagreed with him, it felt like a moment of some bipartisanship. This moment does not. President Obama signed off on the Paris climate accord. President Trump vowed to withdraw from the same accord. And Al Gore, who once starred in a hit climate documentary called "An Inconvenient Truth," knows he still has work to do. Next week, he returns to theaters in a film called "An Inconvenient Sequel" in which he describes feeling a mix of hope and despair.

GORE: The great recession gave an opportunity to the climate deniers and carbon polluters to launch a new campaign. The Koch brothers, large carbon polluters, financed the emergence of the so-called Tea Party movement and made climate one of their major causes.

INSKEEP: I want to ask about a set of facts, and tell me what you make of them, beginning with some maps that were published by The New York Times. People were asked questions - do you think climate change is going to harm the United States? Majorities of people in most counties believed that. Do you think climate change is going to harm you personally? In nearly every county, people did not believe that, majorities did not believe they would be personally harmed. And then the 2016 election - Hillary Clinton's campaign wanted to make an issue of climate change and as far as I can tell had no success whatsoever. What do you make of that?

GORE: Well, I know the events that I did for her in the 2016 election evoked a powerful response. I didn't see any other events that were devoted to climate, so maybe I missed that.

INSKEEP: You're saying that maybe they didn't do so much.

GORE: I think that a lot of national politicians are told by their pollsters and experts that they ought to focus on other issues, but I think that's changing quite a bit. And I think that the partisan divide is now fading on climate. I really do.

INSKEEP: There are a couple of ways that I suppose Democrats could look at last year's election. One is that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, should've gone better, there was Russian interference. Another analysis would be that Democrats have in some way lost their way. Do you think the Democratic Party has lost its way?

GORE: I don't consider myself a keen political analyst (laughter). I...

INSKEEP: But you have a political interest. You would like Democrats talk about climate a little more, for example.

GORE: Yes. To that extent, yes, I think that the Democratic Party should focus much more on it. And I believe that's beginning to happen. If you look at Jerry Brown in California, Jay Inslee in the state of Washington, Andrew Cuomo in the state of New York and many others, we're now beginning to see a surge of interest in people who want to get away from the fossil fuel utilities. They want energy freedom. They want energy choice. And I think it will be a much bigger political plus in the years to come.

INSKEEP: I'm remembering your campaign in 2000. You're running for president, and one of your slogans was the people versus the powerful. And I think about the politics of now and the fact that President Trump could pick up that slogan and use it. He might mean something different, but there's something about his rhetoric that goes in the same direction. Is there a resonance there?

GORE: Absolutely. There is a growing concern out in the country that there's something about the pattern of economic growth we've been following that's not distributing the benefits evenly and in an equitable way. So I felt in 2000 that that slogan, the people versus the powerful, was apt for the times then.

INSKEEP: There were even some Democrats who said, oh, he's doing class warfare...

GORE: Yeah, no, believe me...

INSKEEP: ...This is going the wrong way.

GORE: I heard their comments. And you asked earlier whether or not the Democratic Party has lost its way. I think its regaining its bearings. But certainly the influence of big campaign contributions is felt in the Democratic Party as well as the Republican Party. It's a false equivalence to say it's the same. I may be biased as a Democrat, but I've seen how big money has hacked our democratic system. When I first went into the Congress in the mid-'70s, I never had a single fundraiser. And yet today the average member of Congress has to spend four or five hours every single day begging rich people in special interests for money.

INSKEEP: How'd you raise money in the '70s? I'm now curious. Not any fundraisers at all?

GORE: No, I did not. Others helped me, but it was - the races weren't nearly as expensive back then. And human nature being what it is, if you're spending the majority of your time every day begging special interests for money, it's inevitable that you'll start thinking about how the next day's telephone calls are going to go and less about what the impact of legislation on your constituents is.

INSKEEP: Well, that maybe leads to my question here, which is granting that you, on issues, would disagree with President Trump I'm sure on virtually everything, is there some part of you that agrees with the sentiment that the political system that we have needs to be cracked apart?

GORE: I think it's only a matter of time before a great many of those who supported President Trump realize that what he's doing in office is directly contrary in so many ways to what he promised. I remember when he promised that he would not have any campaign contributions, that he would finance his campaign with his own resources. And that was appealing to a lot of people. But he almost immediately broke that promise. I just have enough faith in the American people to believe that it's only a matter of time before people realize what he's doing.

INSKEEP: Former Vice President Al Gore. "An Inconvenient Sequel" will be in some theaters a week from today, and our conversation continues on Monday when we talk about that film. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.