In Conversation With Al Gore
“We can’t just sit back and wait for change to come”
I recently undertook a nationwide listening tour as part of my new job as the Sierra Club's executive director. Along the way, I met with hundreds of Sierra Club members, our grassroots organizers, and the volunteer leaders who are at the forefront of our campaigns for sustainability and justice. I also got the chance to meet with longtime heroes of the climate movement—like veteran environmentalist Al Gore.
As a former vice president and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize for his work to ring the alarm bell about the threat of climate change, Gore needs no introduction. He’s been a champion for environmental protection virtually his entire adult life. So it was my pleasure to get to speak with him and hear his thoughts about where our movement for climate justice is at—and where it’s going.
Ben Jealous: While our movement has been around for decades, at no point can I remember so much positive momentum. You’ve certainly been one of the central figures in the movement since the 1980s. How would you characterize this moment and what’s changed?
Al Gore: There’s no question that we are in an unprecedented moment. Between last year’s election in Australia that ushered in a government that swiftly increased the country’s commitment to climate action, the election of President Lula in Brazil who has pledged to protect the Amazon, and the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) in the United States, we are finally seeing significant positive momentum to combat the climate crisis. I thought it would come much sooner than it has. But having seen this movement grow over many decades, I am filled with hope.
I genuinely believe that we are gaining momentum in multiple impressive ways, and we have all the tools and resources we need to turn the tide on this crisis. We are in the early stages of a “Sustainability Revolution” that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution coupled with the speed of the Digital Revolution. It is reshaping the world in many positive ways, transforming our relationship to businesses, to the environment, and to each other. The advances we are seeing in renewable energy, transforming transportation and mobility, the growing farmer-led movement for regenerative agriculture, and so much more are indicative of a fundamental shift.
But having said that, despite the wonderful progress that has been made, it is still undeniably true that the crisis is still getting worse faster than we have yet begun to deploy these available solutions. We are gaining momentum, but we need to be moving forward faster. I am optimistic, but we can’t just sit back and wait for change to come. We need to make it happen.
Any movement has people from all age groups, but throughout history, it’s been young people who have really driven momentum. What advice would you give to young climate activists who are just getting involved in this movement or may have interest in joining?
I am inspired every day by the work of young climate activists around the world. The groundswell of youth activism in recent years has raised public consciousness to new levels and is pushing political leaders to develop bold and ambitious ideas to confront this challenge. We wouldn’t have the IRA or the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law without young climate activists pushing elected officials to take meaningful action to confront the climate crisis.
But politics isn’t the only arena where young people can make a difference. Businesses of all kinds are looking to hire the best and brightest, and that gives young people entering or moving around in the workforce a lot of leverage. It’s clear that this generation isn’t willing to work for companies whose values don’t align with their own. Young people are leaving jobs or rejecting offers from polluting industries and businesses that aren’t committed to being part of the solution to the climate crisis. A recent study found that one in three 18-to-24-year-olds have turned down job offers from companies whose values don’t align with their own. And as a result, we’re seeing much more action from the private sector.
Young people can make change in big and small ways throughout their communities. But I think it’s important for everyone to remember that our ability to solve the climate crisis—and to solve it in time—will shape what future opportunities look like for today’s young people. They will have to live with the consequences of the decisions made today. So, while the climate movement benefits immensely from their moral conviction, the climate crisis is not and should not be the burden of young people alone.
We need everyone, particularly those who currently hold positions of power, to take action now.
Young climate activists made their presence known in the 2020 election and helped to drive two of the largest climate bills in American history: the Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. But, as you know especially well, passing legislation is only half the battle. Now, we need to make sure those funds reach the communities that need them. What’s the next step and how can these activists help?
This is a critical moment for climate action in the United States. We finally crossed the political tipping point in the United States that has led to the biggest investment in climate solutions in history—but as you mention, passage of these laws was just the beginning. Now, we need to do all that we can to ensure that these solutions are deployed quickly and equitably. This will take all of us: state and local officials working with businesses, grassroots leaders and advocates from coast to coast, centering equity and justice every step of the way.
That’s why the Climate Reality Project, the nonprofit I founded to catalyze a global solution to the climate crisis, is holding a virtual Power Up: From Acts to Action training from April 6 to 20. This training will provide local activists and community leaders with the information and tools they need to put these laws into action. We’re very excited that the Sierra Club is one of our partners for this training, along with several other climate organizations.
Tell us more about the Power Up: From Acts to Action training that you’re hosting in a few short weeks. What will participants learn, and how can this train the next generation of activists?
The Climate Reality Project’s Power Up training is a critical opportunity to help individuals and families, business owners, state and local policymakers, and community leaders understand the opportunities and incentives available through the IRA and BIL so that they can create change in their communities. During the training, participants will gain a practical understanding of how to access federal programs to electrify your home, workplace, or school and will gain the tools, knowledge, and networks they need to mobilize around the IRA and BIL to catalyze real climate solutions rooted in science and social, economic, and racial justice. The training will feature sessions with members of the Biden administration, elected officials, and climate advocates as well as interactive sessions to help foster community among participants.
After completing the training, participants will join our global network of nearly 50,000 Climate Reality Leaders working together for bold and just climate solutions.
How do people register and join? Is the training open to everyone, or do you need a certain background or qualifications to join?
The Power Up training is a free, online training open to anyone interested in driving climate solutions—and I encourage anyone who is interested in learning more about how to access the opportunities in these laws to visit the Climate Reality website and register before the March 22 deadline.
Whether you’re a business owner, a policymaker at the state or local level, a community leader, or just an individual looking to make a difference, we’re putting together a robust set of resources that will help you take tangible climate action. The training is fully virtual and available on demand to provide as much flexibility as possible, and most recorded training content will be offered with Spanish and English closed captioning, as well as ASL interpretation.
We cannot have climate action without environmental justice. From the Justice 40 Initiative to critical provisions in both the IRA and BIL, President Biden has centered environmental justice, but how can we ensure this effort continues through the implementation of both acts?
We must keep environmental justice at the forefront of our fight against the climate crisis. The IRA and BIL take direct aim at this, with up to $60 billion in the IRA alone dedicated to environmental-justice-specific projects for capacity building and tools and technologies to reduce air pollution and emissions. Now, we must involve the communities these programs are intended to serve early and often in the process of implementation. They must have a say to ensure these programs have no undue barriers to access that may prevent funds from going where they are most needed.
We must also make sure frontline communities are aware of the resources available and how best to access them. These programs will be rolled out across a variety of different agencies and levels of government—a process that can be cumbersome even for experienced lawmakers. Part of our goal with the Power Up: From Acts to Action training is to outline not only what is in these bills but also how to access and deploy these funds in communities bearing the brunt of the climate crisis.
Representation matters. As the IRA and BIL are implemented, how can we ensure that low-income and middle-class communities are an active part of solving the climate crisis?
We know many of the communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis that are experiencing its impacts first and worst are those with fewer resources to prepare for and deal with its impacts. From rising home energy costs to exposure to industrial pollution, these communities know firsthand the dire consequences of a failure to adequately respond to the climate crisis. As a result, these communities are also often best positioned to shape climate solutions. Elevating the voices of frontline and fenceline communities and empowering them to lead is essential for a strong and successful climate movement.
A key emphasis of our Power Up: From Acts to Action training is to show working families how to access the benefits in the IRA and BIL for their communities. From solar panels and heat pumps to electric vehicles, these laws can empower people of all income levels to be a part of the clean energy transition.
It can never be said enough: Solving the climate crisis is a job creator. Recently, there have been a few articles about how we may not have enough workers to fill the jobs created by the IRA and BIL. How do we connect employers and employees to build the clean energy workforce we need?
There’s no doubt that the IRA and BIL provide huge opportunities to build the workforce we need to support the clean energy transition. A recent report found that more than 100,000 new green jobs have been announced since the IRA was signed. Additionally, the IRA provides incentives for partnering with apprenticeship programs and for workforce development. We need to ensure that these funds are put to good use by employers, and that our colleges and universities are developing the workforce training programs of tomorrow.
This is what’s needed: a complete rethink of the relationships between business, investors, markets, governments, and all of us. Many people don’t realize or don’t believe that we can take action to deploy climate solutions without incredible costs. But the truth is we can, and these climate solutions actually save us money. They create good and green jobs, they make our environment cleaner, and they give us hope.