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4 October 2021

Is Al Gore really a hero of the climate movement?

The former US vice-president is a longstanding green advocate. But that doesn’t make him the boldest voice.

By Emily Tamkin

The investment fund set up by former US vice-president Al Gore announced on 27 September that it would pour $600m (£441m) into Octopus Energy, a UK renewable energy specialist. Octopus said it will use the money to move forwards with Kraken, “a globally scalable platform designed to drive the smart grid and greatly improve the efficiency and customer service of energy suppliers”.

The move encapsulates Gore’s journey as a climate crusader: simultaneously ahead of the curve and not quite on the same green path as others in the movement.

Gore is not new to the climate crisis struggle. He held the first House hearings on climate change after being elected as a congressman in 1976. In 1992, the year he was selected to be Bill Clinton’s running mate, he published the book Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. He championed environmentally conscious positions as vice-president, pushed for a carbon tax and launched a programme that used the internet to better educate students about the environment –all by 1994. He helped pull together the Kyoto Protocol, which called for a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions – although it was rendered non-binding when the Senate blocked the US from signing on.

After an unsuccessful presidential campaign against George W Bush, Gore made championing a greener Earth his life’s work. In 2004, he launched Generation Investment Management, merging equity research with issues of sustainability. Two years later, his film An Inconvenient Truth outlined what was happening to our world because of rising greenhouse gas. (In 2007, the day before it was announced that Gore had won a Nobel Peace Prize, a British High Court ruled that while the film was broadly accurate, it contained nine significant errors.) Gore has spoken at the UN; testified before the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations; founded the Climate Reality Project to “to move the conversation forward”; and made An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, a follow-up that documented his fight against the climate crisis.

Gore has proved his commitment to the climate crisis by trying to mobilise the private sector, addressing international forums, writing and filmmaking, and his voice is respected by the media, business leaders and international statesmen. He goes on NBC to talk about the climate crisis. In February, he sat down with John Kerry, Biden’s special envoy for climate, in a Ted-platformed discussion. In turning down an interview request with the New Statesman, a Gore spokesperson wrote, “It’s very difficult to decline invitations such as yours, but it’s an unfortunate inevitability of the growing influence of the climate crisis message and the demand on Mr Gore’s time.” He is a person many still turn to on climate change.

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Despite that history, Gore is, if not behind, then parallel to or distant from many of the US political voices pushing hardest for dramatic action against the climate crisis. The hour is later than it was in 2004, and speeches and summits are increasingly seen as insufficient to combat climate change. Acts of civil disobedience are being undertaken in the US – such as the hundreds arrested or given citations over protests against the Line 3 pipeline being built across Minnesota, or the students who marched to Congress to advocate for climate action on 22 September – and elsewhere because of the slow pace of change.

Although Gore supported the Green New Deal – the ambitious 2019 legislation introduced by Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Senator Edward Markey in Congress and the Senate, respectively – there is a chasm between what he has since applauded and what Green New Deal proponents are fighting for. In April, after President Joe Biden pledged to halve the US’s greenhouse gas emissions by 2030, Gore tweeted that the move was “a groundbreaking step for our country”.

After that announcement, Daniel Aldana Cohen, co-author of A Planet to Win: Why We Need a Green New Deal, told me that Biden’s pledge wasn’t enough to address America’s historical role as the number one greenhouse gas emitter (it is currently the number two annual emitter, behind China), and that the administration needed to direct money towards specific projects that would green America.

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I asked Aldana Cohen what he thought of Gore’s role in the fight against the climate crisis.

“This fall we’re probably going to get a big, albeit disappointing, investment in climate action. A lot of centrists will want to claim that this was the big win, and basically the culmination of the Green New Deal,” he replied. “In contrast, the more progressive elements in the climate movement are going to double down on the Green New Deal as a truly ambitious, transformative policy vision that still demands far more investment at every level of government. And Gore will have a choice to make.”

Gore can either, Aldana Cohen said, “declare a hollow victory”. Or, alternatively, he can “lend his prestige to a renewed Green New Deal push”.

Gore and those pushing the boldest visions in the US’s – and the world’s – fight against the climate crisis could still become realigned. But it will require more than an investment of hundreds of millions in Octopus, and more than a speech in the UN. It will require a willingness to say that coaxing and incrementalism isn’t working. That’s an inconvenient truth, but it wouldn’t be the first one Gore has delivered.

[See also: Why China and the US’s climate announcements are cause for hope]