Al Gore: The new urgency of climate change

Recorded atJune 23, 2020
Duration (min:sec)56:32
Video TypeTED Stage Talk
Words per minute161.09 slow
Readability (FK)48.41 difficult
SpeakerAl Gore
CountryUnited States of America
Occupationpolitician, financier, businessperson, journalist, environmentalist, writer, orator, blogger
Descriptionvice president of the United States from 1993 to 2001

Official TED page for this talk


The coronavirus brought much of the world to a standstill, dropping carbon emissions by five percent. Al Gore says keeping those rates down is now up to us. In this illuminating interview, he discusses how the steadily declining cost of wind and solar energy will transform manufacturing, transportation and agriculture, offer a cheaper alternative to fossil fuels and nuclear energy and create millions of new jobs. Stay tuned for a lively debate about geoengineering and hear Gore's thoughts about how humanity can create a clean, prosperous future through a focused global effort and a generation of young people committed to change. (This virtual conversation, hosted by head of TED Chris Anderson, was recorded June 23, 2020.)

Text Highlight (experimental)
100:12 Chris Anderson: Al, welcome.
200:13 So look, just six months ago -- it seems a lifetime ago, but it really was just six months ago -- climate seemed to be on the lips of every thinking person on the planet.
300:26 Recent events seem to have swept it all away from our attention.
400:30 How worried are you about that?
500:34 Al Gore: Well, first of all Chris, thank you so much for inviting me to have this conversation.
600:39 People are reacting differently to the climate crisis in the midst of these other great challenges that have taken over our awareness, appropriately.
700:52 One reason is something that you mentioned.
800:55 People get the fact that when scientists are warning us in ever more dire terms and setting their hair on fire, so to speak, it's best to listen to what they're saying, and I think that lesson has begun to sink in in a new way.
901:11 Another similarity, by the way, is that the climate crisis, like the COVID-19 pandemic, has revealed in a new way the shocking injustices and inequalities and disparities that affect communities of color and low-income communities.
1001:32 There are differences.
1101:34 The climate crisis has effects that are not measured in years, as the pandemic is, but consequences that are measured in centuries and even longer.
1201:46 And the other difference is that instead of depressing economic activity to deal with the climate crisis, as nations around the world have had to do with COVID-19, we have the opportunity to create tens of millions of new jobs.
1302:03 That sounds like a political phrasing, but it's literally true.
1402:08 For the last five years, the fastest-growing job in the US has been solar installer.
1502:13 The second-fastest has been wind turbine technician.
1602:17 And the "Oxford Review of Economics," just a few weeks ago, pointed the way to a very jobs-rich recovery if we emphasize renewable energy and sustainability technology.
1702:32 So I think we are crossing a tipping point, and you need only look at the recovery plans that are being presented in nations around the world to see that they're very much focused on a green recovery.
1802:47 CA: I mean, one obvious impact of the pandemic is that it's brought the world's economy to a shuddering halt, thereby reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
1902:57 I mean, how big an effect has that been, and is it unambiguously good news?
2003:04 AG: Well, it's a little bit of an illusion, Chris, and you need only look back to the Great Recession in 2008 and '09, when there was a one percent decline in emissions, but then in 2010, they came roaring back during the recovery with a four percent increase.
2103:25 The latest estimates are that emissions will go down by at least five percent during this induced coma, as the economist Paul Krugman perceptively described it, but whether it goes back the way it did after the Great Recession is in part up to us, and if these green recovery plans are actually implemented, and I know many countries are determined to implement them, then we need not repeat that pattern.
2203:57 After all, this whole process is occurring during a period when the cost of renewable energy and electric vehicles, batteries and a range of other sustainability approaches are continuing to fall in price, and they're becoming much more competitive.
2304:20 Just a quick reference to how fast this is: five years ago, electricity from solar and wind was cheaper than electricity from fossil fuels in only one percent of the world.
2404:32 This year, it's cheaper in two-thirds of the world, and five years from now, it will be cheaper in virtually 100 percent of the world.
2504:42 EVs will be cost-competitive within two years, and then will continue falling in price.
2604:50 And so there are changes underway that could interrupt the pattern we saw after the Great Recession.
2704:58 CA: The reason those pricing differentials happen in different parts of the world is obviously because there's different amounts of sunshine and wind there and different building costs and so forth.
2805:08 AG: Well, yes, and government policies also account for a lot.
2905:13 The world is continuing to subsidize fossil fuels at a ridiculous amount, more so in many developing countries than in the US and developed countries, but it's subsidized here as well.
3005:27 But everywhere in the world, wind and solar will be cheaper as a source of electricity than fossil fuels, within a few years.
3105:39 CA: I think I've heard it said that the fall in emissions caused by the pandemic isn't that much more than, actually, the fall that we will need every single year if we're to meet emissions targets.
3205:52 Is that true, and, if so, doesn't that seem impossibly daunting?
3305:57 AG: It does seem daunting, but first look at the number.
3406:00 That number came from a study a little over a year ago released by the IPCC as to what it would take to keep the Earth's temperatures from increasing more than 1.5 degrees Celsius.
3506:14 And yes, the annual reductions would be significant, on the order of what we've seen with the pandemic.
3606:22 And yes, that does seem daunting.
3706:24 However, we do have the opportunity to make some fairly dramatic changes, and the plan is not a mystery.
3806:34 You start with the two sectors that are closest to an effective transition -- electricity generation, as I mentioned -- and last year, 2019, if you look at all of the new electricity generation built all around the world, 72 percent of it was from solar and wind.
3906:55 And already, without the continuing subsidies for fossil fuels, we would see many more of these plants being shut down.
4007:03 There are some new fossil plants being built, but many more are being shut down.
4107:09 And where transportation is concerned, the second sector ready to go, in addition to the cheaper prices for EVs that I made reference to before, there are some 45 jurisdictions around the world -- national, regional and municipal -- where laws have been passed beginning a phaseout of internal combustion engines.
4207:33 Even India said that by 2030, less than 10 years from now, it will be illegal to sell any new internal combustion engines in India.
4307:44 There are many other examples.
4407:46 So the past small reductions may not be an accurate guide to the kind we can achieve with serious national plans and a focused global effort.
4508:01 CA: So help us understand just the big picture here, Al.
4608:05 I think before the pandemic, the world was emitting about 55 gigatons of what they call "CO2 equivalent," so that includes other greenhouse gases like methane dialed up to be the equivalent of CO2.
4708:21 And am I right in saying that the IPCC, which is the global organization of scientists, is recommending that the only way to fix this crisis is to get that number from 55 to zero by 2050 at the very latest, and that even then, there's a chance that we will end up with temperature rises more like two degrees Celsius rather than 1.5?
4808:46 I mean, is that approximately the big picture of what the IPCC is recommending?
4908:52 AG: That's correct.
5008:54 The global goal established in the Paris Conference is to get to net zero on a global basis by 2050, and many people quickly add that that really means a 45 to 50 percent reduction by 2030 to make that pathway to net zero feasible.
5109:15 CA: And that kind of timeline is the kind of timeline where people couldn't even imagine it.
5209:20 It's just hard to think of policy over 30 years.
5309:22 So that's actually a very good shorthand, that humanity's task is to cut emissions in half by 2030, approximately speaking, which I think boils down to about a seven or eight percent reduction a year, something like that, if I'm not wrong.
5409:38 AG: Not quite. Not quite that large but close, yes.
5509:43 CA: So it is something like the effect that we've experienced this year may be necessary.
5609:51 This year, we've done it by basically shutting down the economy.
5709:54 You're talking about a way of doing it over the coming years that actually gives some economic growth and new jobs.
5810:01 So talk more about that.
5910:02 You've referred to changing our energy sources, changing how we transport.
6010:07 If we did those things, how much of the problem does that solve?
6110:13 AG: Well, we can get to -- well, in addition to doing the two sectors that I mentioned, we also have to deal with manufacturing and all the use cases that require temperatures of a thousand degrees Celsius, and there are solutions there as well.
6210:28 I'll come back and mention an exciting one that Germany has just embarked upon.
6310:34 We also have to tackle regenerative agriculture.
6410:38 There is the opportunity to sequester a great deal of carbon in topsoils around the world by changing the agricultural techniques.
6510:49 There is a farmer-led movement to do that.
6610:53 We need to also retrofit buildings.
6710:56 We need to change our management of forests and the ocean.
6811:02 But let me just mention two things briefly.
6911:05 First of all, the high temperature use cases.
7011:09 Angela Merkel, just 10 days ago, with the leadership of her minister Peter Altmaier, who is a good friend and a great public servant, have just embarked on a green hydrogen strategy to make hydrogen with zero marginal cost renewable energy.
7111:29 And just a word on that, Chris: you've heard about the intermittency of wind and solar -- solar doesn't produce electricity when the sun's not shining, and wind doesn't when the wind's not blowing -- but batteries are getting better, and these technologies are becoming much more efficient and powerful, so that for an increasing number of hours of each day, they're producing often way more electricity than can be used.
7211:58 So what to do with it?
7312:00 The marginal cost for the next kilowatt-hour is zero.
7412:04 So all of a sudden, the very energy-intensive process of cracking hydrogen from water becomes economically feasible, and it can be substituted for coal and gas, and that's already being done.
7512:20 There's a Swedish company already making steel with green hydrogen, and, as I say, Germany has just embarked on a major new initiative to do that.
7612:30 I think they're pointing the way for the rest of the world.
7712:33 Now, where building retrofits are concerned, just a moment on this, because about 20 to 25 percent of the global warming pollution in the world and in the US comes from inefficient buildings that were constructed by companies and individuals who were trying to be competitive in the marketplace and keep their margins acceptably high and thereby skimping on insulation and the right windows and LEDs and the rest.
7813:02 And yet the person or company that buys that building or leases that building, they want their monthly utility bills much lower.
7913:10 So there are now ways to close that so-called agent-principal divide, the differing incentives for the builder and occupier, and we can retrofit buildings with a program that literally pays for itself over three to five years, and we could put tens of millions of people to work in jobs that by definition cannot be outsourced because they exist in every single community.
8013:36 And we really ought to get serious about doing this, because we're going to need all those jobs to get sustainable prosperity in the aftermath of this pandemic.
8113:49 CA: Just going back to the hydrogen economy that you referred to there, when some people hear that, they think, "Oh, are you talking about hydrogen-fueled cars?"
8213:57 And they've heard that that probably won't be a winning strategy.
8314:00 But you're thinking much more broadly than that, I think, that it's not just hydrogen as a kind of storage mechanism to act as a buffer for renewable energy, but also hydrogen could be essential for some of the other processes in the economy like making steel, making cement, that are fundamentally carbon-intensive processes right now but could be transformed if we had much cheaper sources of hydrogen.
8414:26 Is that right?
8514:28 AG: Yes, I was always skeptical about hydrogen, Chris, principally because it's been so expensive to make it, to "crack it out of water," as they say.
8614:39 But the game-changer has been the incredible abundance of solar and wind electricity in volumes and amounts that people didn't expect, and all of a sudden, it's cheap enough to use for these very energy-intensive processes like creating green hydrogen.
8715:00 I'm still a bit skeptical about using it in vehicles.
8815:03 Toyota's been betting on that for 25 years and it hasn't really worked for them.
8915:10 Never say never, maybe it will, but I think it's most useful for these high-temperature industrial processes, and we already have a pathway for decarbonizing transportation with electricity that's working extremely well.
9015:26 Tesla's going to be soon the most valuable automobile company in the world, already in the US, and they're about to overtake Toyota.
9115:35 There is now a semitruck company that's been stood up by Tesla and another that is going to be a hybrid with electricity and green hydrogen, so we'll see whether or not they can make it work in that application.
9215:51 But I think electricity is preferable for cars and trucks.
9315:56 CA: We're coming to some community questions in a minute.
9415:59 Let me ask you, though, about nuclear.
9516:01 Some environmentalists believe that nuclear, or maybe new generation nuclear power is an essential part of the equation if we're to get to a truly clean future, a clean energy future.
9616:15 Are you still pretty skeptical on nuclear, Al? AG: Well, the market's skeptical about it, Chris.
9716:23 It's been a crushing disappointment for me and for so many.
9816:28 I used to represent Oak Ridge, where nuclear energy began, and when I was a young congressman, I was a booster.
9916:35 I was very enthusiastic about it.
10016:38 But the cost overruns and the problems in building these plants have become so severe that utilities just don't have an appetite for them.
10116:50 It's become the most expensive source of electricity.
10216:55 Now, let me hasten to add that there are some older nuclear reactors that have more useful time that could be added onto their lifetimes.
10317:07 And like a lot of environmentalists, I've come to the view that if they can be determined to be safe, they should be allowed to continue operating for a time.
10417:21 But where new nuclear power plants are concerned, here's a way to look at it.
10517:25 If you are -- you've been a CEO, Chris.
10617:28 If you were the CEO of -- I guess you still are.
10717:32 If you were the CEO of an electric utility, and you told your executive team, "I want to build a nuclear power plant," two of the first questions you would ask are, number one: How much will it cost?
10817:46 And there's not a single engineering consulting firm that I've been able to find anywhere in the world that will put their name on an opinion giving you a cost estimate.
10917:57 They just don't know.
11017:58 A second question you would ask is: How long will it take to build it, so we can start selling the electricity?
11118:05 And again, the answer you will get is, "We have no idea."
11218:08 So if you don't know how much it's going to cost, and you don't know when it's going to be finished, and you already know that the electricity is more expensive than the alternate ways to produce it, that's going to be a little discouraging, and, in fact, that's been the case for utilities around the world.
11318:27 CA: OK.
11418:28 So there's definitely an interesting debate there, but we're going to come on to some community questions.
11518:34 Let's have the first of those questions up, please.
11618:38 From Prosanta Chakrabarty: "People who are skeptical of COVID and of climate change seem to be skeptical of science in general.
11718:45 It may be that the singular message from scientists gets diluted and convoluted.
11818:49 How do we fix that?"
11918:51 AG: Yeah, that's a great question, Prosanta.
12018:56 Boy, I'm trying to put this succinctly and shortly.
12119:01 I think that there has been a feeling that experts in general have kind of let the US down, and that feeling is much more pronounced in the US than in most other countries.
12219:19 And I think that the considered opinion of what we call experts has been diluted over the last few decades by the unhealthy dominance of big money in our political system, which has found ways to really twist economic policy to benefit elites.
12319:45 And this sounds a little radical, but it's actually what has happened.
12419:50 And we have gone for more than 40 years without any meaningful increase in middle-income pay, and where the injustice experienced by African Americans and other communities of color are concerned, the differential in pay between African Americans and majority Americans is the same as it was in 1968, and the family wealth, the net worth -- it takes 11 and a half so-called "typical" African American families to make up the net worth of one so-called "typical" White American family.
12520:28 And you look at the soaring incomes in the top one or the top one-tenth of one percent, and people say, "Wait a minute.
12620:37 Whoever the experts were that designed these policies, they haven't been doing a good job for me."
12720:45 A final point, Chris: there has been an assault on reason.
12820:51 There has been a war against truth.
12920:54 There has been a strategy, maybe it was best known as a strategy decades ago by the tobacco companies who hired actors and dressed them up as doctors to falsely reassure people that there were no health consequences from smoking cigarettes, and a hundred million people died as a result.
13021:14 That same strategy of diminishing the significance of truth, diminishing, as someone said, the authority of knowledge, I think that has made it kind of open season on any inconvenient truth -- forgive another buzz phrase, but it is apt.
13121:36 We cannot abandon our devotion to the best available evidence tested in reasoned discourse and used as the basis for the best policies we can form.
13221:51 CA: Is it possible, Al, that one consequence of the pandemic is actually a growing number of people have revisited their opinions on scientists?
13322:01 I mean, you've had a chance in the last few months to say, "Do I trust my political leader or do I trust this scientist in terms of what they're saying about this virus?"
13422:11 Maybe lessons from that could be carried forward?
13522:15 AG: Well, you know, I think if the polling is accurate, people do trust their doctors a lot more than some of the politicians who seem to have a vested interest in pretending the pandemic isn't real.
13622:30 And if you look at the incredible bust at President Trump's rally in Tulsa, a stadium of 19,000 people with less than one-third filled, according to the fire marshal, you saw all the empty seats if you saw the news clips, so even the most loyal Trump supporters must have decided to trust their doctors and the medical advice rather than Dr. Donald Trump.
13723:05 CA: With a little help from the TikTok generation, perchance.
13823:08 AG: Well, but that didn't affect the turnout.
13923:10 What they did, very cleverly, and I'm cheering them on, what they did was affect the Trump White House's expectations.
14023:21 They're the reason why he went out a couple days beforehand and said, "We've had a million people sign up."
14123:28 But they didn't prevent -- they didn't take seats that others could have otherwise taken.
14223:34 They didn't affect the turnout, just the expectations.
14323:37 CA: OK, let's have our next question here.
14423:42 "Are you concerned the world will rush back to the use of the private car out of fear of using shared public transportation?"
14523:50 AG: Well, that could actually be one of the consequences, absolutely.
14623:57 Now, the trends on mass transit were already inching in the wrong direction because of Uber and Lyft and the ridesharing services, and if autonomy ever reaches the goals that its advocates have hoped for then that may also have a similar effect.
14724:20 But there's no doubt that some people are going to be probably a little more reluctant to take mass transportation until the fear of this pandemic is well and truly gone.
14824:39 CA: Yeah. Might need a vaccine on that one.
14924:42 AG: (Laughs) Yeah.
15024:43 CA: Next question.
15124:48 Sonaar Luthra, thank you for this question from LA.
15224:50 "Given the temperature rise in the Arctic this past week, seems like the rate we are losing our carbon sinks like permafrost or forests is accelerating faster than we predicted.
15324:59 Are our models too focused on human emissions?"
15425:02 Interesting question.
15525:04 AG: Well, the models are focused on the factors that have led to these incredible temperature spikes in the north of the Arctic Circle.
15625:14 They were predicted, they have been predicted, and one of the reasons for it is that as the snow and ice cover melts, the sun's incoming rays are no longer reflected back into space at a 90 percent rate, and instead, when they fall on the dark tundra or the dark ocean, they're absorbed at a 90 percent rate.
15725:38 So that's a magnifier of the warming in the Arctic, and this has been predicted.
15825:45 There are a number of other consequences that are also in the models, but some of them may have to be recalibrated.
15925:53 The scientists are freshly concerned that the emissions of both CO2 and methane from the thawing tundra could be larger than they had hoped they would be.
16026:10 There's also just been a brand-new study.
16126:14 I won't spend time on this, because it deals with a kind of geeky term called "climate sensitivity," which has been a factor in the models with large error bars because it's so hard to pin down.
16226:27 But the latest evidence indicates, worryingly, that the sensitivity may be greater than they had thought, and we will have an even more daunting task.
16326:38 That shouldn't discourage us.
16426:40 I truly believe that once we cross this tipping point, and I do believe we're doing it now, as I've said, then I think we're going to find a lot of ways to speed up the emissions reductions.
16526:54 CA: We'll take one more question from the community.
16626:59 Haha. "Geoengineering is making extraordinary progress.
16727:02 Exxon is investing in technology from Global Thermostat that seems promising.
16827:08 What do you think of these air and water carbon capture technologies?"
16927:13 Stephen Petranek.
17027:15 AG: Yeah. Well, you and I have talked about this before, Chris.
17127:19 I've been strongly opposed to conducting an unplanned global experiment that could go wildly wrong, and most are really scared of that approach.
17227:37 However, the term "geoengineering" is a nuanced term that covers a lot.
17327:43 If you want to paint roofs white to reflect more energy from the cityscapes, that's not going to bring a danger of a runaway effect, and there are some other things that are loosely called "geoengineering" like that, which are fine.
17428:03 But the idea of blocking out the sun's rays -- that's insane in my opinion.
17528:11 Turns out plants need sunlight for photosynthesis and solar panels need sunlight for producing electricity from the sun's rays.
17628:23 And the consequences of changing everything we know and pretending that the consequences are going to precisely cancel out the unplanned experiment of global warming that we already have underway, you know, there are glitches in our thinking.
17728:42 One of them is called the "single solution bias," and there are people who just have a hunger to say, "Well, that one solution, we just need to latch on to that and do that, and damn the consequences."
17828:54 Well, it's nuts.
17928:55 CA: But let me push back on this just a little bit.
18028:58 So let's say that we agree that a single solution, all-or-nothing attempt at geoengineering is crazy.
18129:06 But there are scenarios where the world looks at emissions and just sees, in 10 years' time, let's say, that they are just not coming down fast enough and that we are at risk of several other liftoff events where this train will just get away from us, and we will see temperature rises of three, four, five, six, seven degrees, and all of civilization is at risk.
18229:31 Surely, there is an approach to geoengineering that could be modeled, in a way, on the way that we approach medicine.
18329:39 Like, for hundreds of years, we don't really understand the human body, people would try interventions, and some of them would work, and some of them wouldn't.
18429:49 No one says in medicine, "You know, go in and take an all-or-nothing decision on someone's life," but they do say, "Let's try some stuff."
18530:00 If an experiment can be reversible, if it's plausible in the first place, if there's reason to think that it might work, we actually owe it to the future health of humanity to try at least some types of tests to see what could work.
18630:16 So, small tests to see whether, for example, seeding of something in the ocean might create, in a nonthreatening way, carbon sinks.
18730:28 Or maybe, rather than filling the atmosphere with sulfur dioxide, a smaller experiment that was not that big a deal to see whether, cost-effectively, you could reduce the temperature a little bit.
18830:41 Surely, that isn't completely crazy and is at least something we should be thinking about in case these other measures don't work?
18930:49 AG: Well, there've already been such experiments to seed the ocean to see if that can increase the uptake of CO2.
19030:59 And the experiments were an unmitigated failure, as many predicted they would be.
19131:07 But that, again, is the kind of approach that's very different from putting tinfoil strips in the atmosphere orbiting the Earth.
19231:16 That was the way that solar geoengineering proposal started.
19331:22 Now they're focusing on chalk, so we have chalk dust all over everything.
19431:29 But more serious than that is the fact that it might not be reversible.
19531:36 CA: But, Al, that's the rhetoric response.
19631:38 The amount of dust that you need to drop by a degree or two wouldn't result in chalk dust over everything.
19731:47 It would be unbelievably -- like, it would be less than the dust that people experience every day, anyway.
19831:55 I mean, I just -- AG: First of all, I don't know how you do a small experiment in the atmosphere.
19932:04 And secondly, if we were to take that approach, we would have to steadily increase the amount of whatever substance they decided.
20032:15 We'd have to increase it every single year, and if we ever stopped, then there would be a sudden snapback, like "The Picture of Dorian Gray," that old book and movie, where suddenly all of the things caught up with you at once.
20132:37 The fact that anyone is even considering these approaches, Chris, is a measure of a feeling of desperation that some have begun to feel, which I understand, but I don't think it should drive us toward these reckless experiments.
20232:59 And by the way, using your analogy to experimental cancer treatments, for example, you usually get informed consent from the patient.
20333:08 Getting informed consent from 7.8 billion people who have no voice and no say, who are subject to the potentially catastrophic consequences of this wackadoodle proposal that somebody comes up with to try to rearrange the entire Earth's atmosphere and hope and pretend that it's going to cancel out, the fact that we're putting 152 million tons of heat-trapping, manmade global warming pollution into the sky every day.
20433:40 That's what's really insane.
20533:43 A scientist decades ago compared it this way.
20633:47 He said, if you had two people on a sinking boat and one of them says, "You know, we could probably use some mirrors to signal to shore to get them to build a sophisticated wave-generating machine that will cancel out the rocking of the boat by these guys in the back of the boat."
20734:08 Or you could get them to stop rocking the boat.
20834:11 And that's what we need to do. We need to stop what's causing the crisis.
20934:16 CA: Yeah, that's a great story, but if the effort to stop the people rocking in the back of the boat is as complex as the scientific proposal you just outlined, whereas the experiment to stop the waves is actually as simple as telling the people to stop rocking the boat, that story changes.
21034:33 And I think you're right that the issue of informed consent is a really challenging one, but, I mean, no one gave informed consent to do all of the other things we're doing to the atmosphere.
21134:46 And I agree that the moral hazard issue is worrying, that if we became dependent on geoengineering and took away our efforts to do the rest, that would be tragic.
21235:00 It just seems like, I wish it was possible to have a nuanced debate of people saying, you know what, there's multiple dials to a very complex problem.
21335:07 We're going to have to adjust several of them very, very carefully and keep talking to each other.
21435:14 Wouldn't that be a goal to just try and have a more nuanced debate about this, rather than all of that geoengineering can't work?
21535:22 AG: Well, I've said some of it, you know, the benign forms that I've mentioned, I'm not ruling those out.
21635:30 But blocking the Sun's rays from the Earth, not only do you affect 7.8 billion people, you affect the plants and the animals and the ocean currents and the wind currents and natural processes that we're in danger of disrupting even more.
21735:57 Techno-optimism is something I've engaged in in the past, but to latch on to some brand-new technological solution to rework the entire Earth's natural system because somebody thinks he's clever enough to do it in a way that precisely cancels out the consequences of using the atmosphere as an open sewer for heat-trapping manmade gases.
21836:28 It's much more important to stop using the atmosphere as an open sewer.
21936:32 That's what the problem is.
22036:34 CA: All right, well, we'll agree that that is the most important thing, for sure, and speaking of which, do you believe the world needs carbon pricing, and is there any prospect for getting there?
22136:47 AG: Yes. Yes to both questions.
22236:51 For decades, almost every economist who is asked about the climate crisis says, "Well, we just need to put a price on carbon."
22337:00 And I have certainly been in favor of that approach.
22437:05 But it is daunting.
22537:06 Nevertheless, there are 43 jurisdictions around the world that already have a price on carbon.
22637:14 We're seeing it in Europe.
22737:16 They finally straightened out their carbon pricing mechanism.
22837:19 It's an emissions trading version of it.
22937:22 We have places that have put a tax on carbon.
23037:25 That's the approach the economists prefer.
23137:29 China is beginning to implement its national emissions trading program.
23237:33 California and quite a few other states in the US are already doing it.
23337:39 It can be given back to people in a revenue-neutral way.
23437:44 But the opposition to it, Chris, which you've noted, is impressive enough that we do have to take other approaches, and I would say most climate activists are now saying, look, let's don't make the best the enemy of the better.
23538:01 There are other ways to do this as well.
23638:03 We need every solution we can rationally employ, including by regulation.
23738:12 And often, when the political difficulty of a proposal becomes too difficult in a market-oriented approach, the fallback is with regulation, and it's been given a bad name, regulation, but many places are doing it.
23838:31 I mentioned phasing out internal combustion engines.
23938:34 That's an example.
24038:36 There are 160 cities in the US that have already by regulation ordered that within a date certain, 100 percent of all their electricity will have to come from renewable sources.
24138:50 And again, the market forces that are driving the cost of renewable energy and sustainability solutions ever downward, that gives us the wind at our back.
24239:02 This is working in our favor.
24339:05 CA: I mean, the pushback on carbon pricing often goes further from parts of the environmental movement, which is to a pushback on the role of business in general.
24439:14 Business is actually -- well, capitalism -- is blamed for the climate crisis because of unrelenting growth, to the point where many people don't trust business to be part of the solution.
24539:31 The only way to go forward is to regulate, to force businesses to do the right thing.
24639:36 Do you think that business has to be part of the solution?
24739:42 AG: Well, definitely, because the allocation of capital needed to solve this crisis is greater than what governments can handle.
24839:53 And businesses are beginning, many businesses are beginning to play a very constructive role.
24940:01 They're getting a demand that they do so from their customers, from their investors, from their boards, from their executive teams, from their families.
25040:12 And by the way, the rising generation is demanding a brighter future, and when CEOs interview potential new hires, they find that the new hires are interviewing them.
25140:25 They want to make a nice income, but they want to be able to tell their family and friends and peers that they're doing something more than just making money.
25240:36 One illustration of how this new generation is changing, Chris: there are 65 colleges in the US right now where the College Young Republican Clubs have joined together to jointly demand that the Republican National Committee change its policy on climate, lest they lose that entire generation.
25340:58 This is a global phenomenon.
25441:00 The Greta Generation is now leading this in so many ways, and if you look at the polling, again, the vast majority of young Republicans are demanding a change on climate policy.
25541:17 This is really a movement that is building still.
25641:24 CA: I was going to ask you about that, because one of the most painful things over the last 20 years has just been how climate has been politicized, certainly in the US.
25741:34 You've probably felt yourself at the heart of that a lot of the time, with people attacking you personally in the most merciless, and unfair ways, often.
25841:44 Do you really see signs that that might be changing, led by the next generation?
25941:51 AG: Yeah, there's no question about it.
26041:54 I don't want to rely on polls too much.
26141:56 I've mentioned them already.
26241:57 But there was a new one that came out that looked at the wavering Trump supporters, those who supported him strongly in the past and want to do so again.
26342:07 The number one issue, surprisingly to some, that is giving them pause, is the craziness of President Trump and his administration on climate.
26442:18 We're seeing big majorities of the Republican Party overall saying that they're ready to start exploring some real solutions to the climate crisis.
26542:29 I think that we're really getting there, no question about it.
26642:32 CA: I mean, you've been the figurehead for raising this issue, and you happen to be a Democrat.
26742:39 Is there anything that you can personally do to -- I don't know -- to open the tent, to welcome people, to try and say, "This is beyond politics, dear friends"?
26842:50 AG: Yeah. Well, I've tried all of those things, and maybe it's made a little positive difference.
26942:59 I've worked with the Republicans extensively.
27043:02 And, you know, well after I left the White House, I had Newt Gingrich and Pat Robertson and other prominent Republicans appear on national TV ads with me saying we've got to solve the climate crisis.
27143:18 But the petroleum industry has really doubled down enforcing discipline within the Republican Party.
27243:30 I mean, look at the attacks they've launched against the Pope when he came out with his encyclical and was demonized, not by all for sure, but there were hawks in the anti-climate movement who immediately started training their guns on Pope Francis, and there are many other examples.
27343:54 They enforce discipline and try to make it a partisan issue, even as Democrats reach out to try to make it bipartisan.
27444:03 I totally agree with you that it should not be a partisan issue.
27544:07 It didn't use to be, but it's been artificially weaponized as an issue.
27644:13 CA: I mean, the CEOs of oil companies also have kids who are talking to them.
27744:18 It feels like some of them are moving and are trying to invest and trying to find ways of being part of the future.
27844:26 Do you see signs of that?
27944:28 AG: Yeah.
28044:30 I think that business leaders, including in the oil and gas companies, are hearing from their families.
28144:38 They're hearing from their friends.
28244:40 They're hearing from their employees.
28344:43 And, by the way, we've seen in the tech industry some mass walkouts by employees who are demanding that some of the tech companies do more and get serious.
28444:56 I'm so proud of Apple.
28544:58 Forgive me for parenthetically praising Apple.
28645:01 You know, I'm on the board, but I'm such a big fan of Tim Cook and my colleagues at Apple.
28745:06 It's an example of a tech company that's really doing fantastic things.
28845:11 And there's some others as well.
28945:13 There are others in many industries.
29045:16 But the pressures on the oil and gas companies are quite extraordinary.
29145:22 You know, BP just wrote down 12 and a half billion dollars' worth of oil and gas assets and said that they're never going to see the light of day.
29245:35 Two-thirds of the fossil fuels that have already been discovered cannot be burned and will not be burned.
29345:44 And so that's a big economic risk to the global economy, like the subprime mortgage crisis.
29445:52 We've got 22 trillion dollars of subprime carbon assets, and just yesterday, there was a major report that the fracking industry in the US is seeing now a wave of bankruptcies because the price of the fracked gas and oil has fallen below levels that make them economic.
29546:15 CA: Is the shorthand of what's happened there that electric cars and electric technologies and solar and so forth have helped drive down the price of oil to the point where huge amounts of the reserves just can't be developed profitably?
29646:31 AG: Yes, that's it.
29746:33 That's mainly it.
29846:35 The projections for energy sources in the next several years uniformly predict that electricity from wind and solar is going to continue to plummet in price, and therefore using gas or coal to make steam to turn the turbines is just not going to be economical.
29947:01 Similarly, the electrification of the transportation sector is having the same effect.
30047:08 Some are also looking at the trend in national, regional and local governance.
30147:16 I mentioned this before, but they're predicting a very different energy future.
30247:22 But let me come back, Chris, because we talked about business leaders.
30347:26 I think you were getting in a question a moment ago about capitalism itself, and I do want to say a word on that, because there are a lot of people who say maybe capitalism is the basic problem.
30447:37 I think the current form of capitalism we have is desperately in need of reform.
30547:44 The short-term outlook is often mentioned, but the way we measure what is of value to us is also at the heart of the crisis of modern capitalism.
30647:57 Now, capitalism is at the base of every successful economy, and it balances supply and demand, unlocks a higher fraction of the human potential, and it's not going anywhere, but it needs to be reformed, because the way we measure what's valuable now ignores so-called negative externalities like pollution.
30748:18 It also ignores positive externalities like investments in education and health care, mental health care, family services.
30848:26 It ignores the depletion of resources like groundwater and topsoil and the web of living species.
30948:35 And it ignores the distribution of incomes and net worths, so when GDP goes up, people cheer, two percent, three percent -- wow! -- four percent, and they think, "Great!"
31048:49 But it's accompanied by vast increases in pollution, chronic underinvestment in public goods, the depletion of irreplaceable natural resources, and the worst inequality crisis we've seen in more than a hundred years that is threatening the future of both capitalism and democracy.
31149:10 So we have to change it. We have to reform it.
31249:13 CA: So reform capitalism, but don't throw it out.
31349:16 We're going to need it as a tool as we go forward if we're to solve this.
31449:21 AG: Yeah, I think that's right, and just one other point: the worst environmental abuses in the last hundred years have been in jurisdictions that experimented during the 20th century with the alternatives to capitalism on the left and right.
31549:36 CA: Interesting. All right.
31649:38 Two last community questions quickly.
31749:44 Chadburn Blomquist: "As you are reading the tea leaves of the impact of the current pandemic, what do you think in regard to our response to combatting climate change will be the most impactful lesson learned?"
31849:55 AG: Boy, that's a very thoughtful question, and I wish my answer could rise to the same level on short notice.
31950:02 I would say first, don't ignore the scientists.
32050:07 When there is virtual unanimity among the scientific and medical experts, pay attention.
32150:14 Don't let some politician dissuade you.
32250:17 I think President Trump is slowly learning that's it's kind of difficult to gaslight a virus.
32350:24 He tried to gaslight the virus in Tulsa.
32450:26 It didn't come off very well, and tragically, he decided to recklessly roll the dice a month ago and ignore the recommendations for people to wear masks and to socially distance and to do the other things, and I think that lesson is beginning to take hold in a much stronger way.
32550:47 But beyond that, Chris, I think that this period of time has been characterized by one of the most profound opportunities for people to rethink the patterns of their lives and to consider whether or not we can't do a lot of things better and differently.
32651:10 And I think that this rising generation I mentioned before has been even more profoundly affected by this interlude, which I hope ends soon, but I hope the lessons endure.
32751:22 I expect they will.
32851:24 CA: Yeah, it's amazing how many things you can do without emitting carbon, that we've been forced to do.
32951:29 Let's have one more question here.
33051:35 Frank Hennessy: "Are you encouraged by the ability of people to quickly adapt to the new normal due to COVID-19 as evidence that people can and will change their habits to respond to climate change?"
33151:47 AG: Yes, but I think we have to keep in mind that there is a crisis within this crisis.
33251:57 The impact on the African American community, which I mentioned before, on the Latinx community, Indigenous peoples.
33352:08 The highest infection rate is in the Navajo Nation right now.
33452:11 So some of these questions appear differently to those who are really getting the brunt of this crisis, and it is unacceptable that we allow this to continue.
33552:29 It feels one way to you and me and perhaps to many in our audience today, but for low-income communities of color, it's an entirely different crisis, and we owe it to them and to all of us to get busy and to start using the best science and solve this pandemic.
33652:52 You know the phrase "pandemic economics."
33752:55 Somebody said, the first principle of pandemic economics is take care of the pandemic, and we're not doing that yet.
33853:02 We're seeing the president try to goose the economy for his reelection, never mind the prediction of tens of thousands of additional American deaths, and that is just unforgivable in my opinion.
33953:15 CA: Thank you, Frank.
34053:18 So Al, you, along with others in the community played a key role in encouraging TED to launch this initiative called "Countdown."
34153:28 Thank you for that, and I guess this conversation is continuing among many of us.
34253:34 If you're interested in climate, watching this, check out the Countdown website,, and be part of 10/10/2020, when we are trying to put out an alert to the world that climate can't wait, that it really matters, and there's going to be some amazing content free to the world on that day.
34354:00 Thank you, Al, for your inspiration and support in doing that.
34454:04 I wonder whether you could end today's session just by painting us a picture, like how might things roll out over the next decade or so?
34554:14 Just tell us whether there is still a story of hope here.
34654:19 AG: I'd be glad to.
34754:20 I've got to get one plug in. I'll make it brief.
34854:23 July 18 through July 26, The Climate Reality Project is having a global training.
34954:31 We've already had 8,000 people register.
35054:34 You can go to
35154:37 Now, a bright future.
35254:39 It begins with all of the kinds of efforts that you've thrown yourself into in organizing Countdown.
35354:46 Chris, you and your team have been amazing to work with, and I'm so excited about the Countdown project.
35454:56 TED has an unparalleled ability to spread ideas that are worth spreading, to raise consciousness, to enlighten people around the world, and it's needed for climate and the solutions to the climate crisis like it's never been needed before, and I just want to thank you for what you personally are doing to organize this fantastic Countdown program.
35555:23 CA: Thank you.
35655:24 And the world? Are we going to do this?
35755:26 Do you think that humanity is going to pull this off and that our grandchildren are going to have beautiful lives where they can celebrate nature and not spend every day in fear of the next tornado or tsunami?
35855:41 AG: I am optimistic that we will do it, but the answer is in our hands.
35955:48 We have seen dark times in periods of the past, and we have risen to meet the challenge.
36055:56 We have limitations of our long evolutionary heritage and elements of our culture, but we also have the ability to transcend our limitations, and when the chips are down, and when survival is at stake and when our children and future generations are at stake, we're capable of more than we sometimes allow ourselves to think we can do.
36156:19 This is such a time.
36256:21 I believe we will rise to the occasion, and we will create a bright, clean, prosperous, just and fair future.
36356:31 I believe it with all my heart.
36456:34 CA: Al Gore, thank you for your life of work, for all you've done to elevate this issue and for spending this time with us now.
36556:42 Thank you.
36656:43 AG: Back at you. Thank you.