A chat with Al Gore on carbon taxes, natural gas, and the ‘morally wrong’ Keystone pipeline
On Nov. 14-15, the Climate Reality Project held its second annual “24 Hours of Reality” marathon, spending an entire day and night live-streaming events and panels around the globe to highlight various aspects of the climate crisis. (This year’s theme was “dirty weather.”) More than 100 people — elected leaders, scientists, business people, and activists — appeared on panels and millions tuned in to watch.
I caught up with Climate Reality founder Al Gore around hour 18 of his all-nighter and asked him about current U.S. climate politics, carbon taxes, and natural gas.
Q. Did you see Obama’s press conference the other day?
A. I heard the excerpts on climate, and [laughs] … oh …
Q. Go ahead!
A. No, I’m not going to go ahead! We have conflicting interests here! [laughs]
Well, I think it’s too early to put a definitive interpretation on where he left it with that comment. I was genuinely encouraged that he said, in the first half of his answer, that he was going to conduct a wide-ranging conversation with scientists, engineers, etc. Many urged him to do it in the first term and I’m glad that he’s pledging to do that now. That could take on a life of its own and have an impact how he thinks about it. And … as I say, I really do believe it’s premature to put a definitive interpretation on what it means about his intentions.
Q. Did you hear [White House press secretary] Jay Carney this morning?
A. No, God help us, what’d he say?
Q. He said, “We would never propose a carbon tax, and have no intention of proposing one.”
A. I don’t think that comes as a big surprise to anyone. Those of us that hold out some hope that we will find a way to get a price on carbon, and know there are multiple ways to do it, have felt that the convergence of the fiscal cliff and the climate cliff could produce some surprising results. And there have been some private comments by some Republicans to that effect. But certainly that’s something you wouldn’t wanna bet money on in Vegas.
Q. What do you think of this idea of a revenue-neutral carbon tax?
A. I have proposed a revenue-neutral carbon tax for a long time, 30 years. I proposed it in my first book, Earth in the Balance.
I supported cap-and-trade because a lot of folks felt that it offered the opportunity for bipartisan consensus. And by the way, it may yet gain altitude globally — China, as you know, is implementing it in five provinces and two cities. They have indicated that they intend to use these pilots as a model for the nationwide program. Many are skeptical, but they often do follow through with what they say they’re going to do. And [cap-and-trade] just started in California yesterday. Australia is now linking theirs to the E.U. system. South Korea’s moving, British Columbia, Quebec — there are a lot of parallel developments that could converge, particularly if China does follow through. It’s premature to write [cap-and-trade] off, even thought it’s has been demonized and so many people are afraid to talk about it.
But from the very beginning, I preferred a carbon tax. (And by the way, I’d be in favor of both; I don’t think they’re inconsistent at all.) And yet, the political environment in the U.S. has not changed to the point where it’s something you’d wanna bet on. But look, we’ve got to solve this. It’s an irresistible force meeting an immovable object, and something’s gotta give. I have enough faith in humanity to believe, against a lot of evidence, that we’re going to solve this.
Q. Does this idea of a carbon/income tax swap make you nervous? The income tax is one of the only places we have progressivity in the U.S. tax code.
A. I have not proposed doing it on the income tax, I have proposed doing it on the payroll tax. I am also friendly to the notion of a rebate scheme, though I doubt they’ll do that. It needs to be progressive — the rising inequality in the country is too serious to run the risk of worsening that.
Q. Do you worry that you getting out in front of this might brand it in a certain way —
A. Well, they come after anybody who speaks up in favor of doing something on climate. It’s not going to surprise any of them that I’m in favor of it. I’ve said it on practically a daily basis for years and years.
Q. One thing that pops up every time you enter this debate is this notion that you’ve made a bunch of money off your green investments. I remember you saying to Congress that you’ve donated that money to your climate group.
A. I have. The question was about Kleiner Perkins [a venture-capital firm in which Gore is an investment partner]. I have given, and do give, every year, 100 percent of my salary and 100 percent of distributions from Kleiner Perkins to the Climate Reality Project. There is absolutely no income of any sort from Kleiner Perkins that I do not give completely and totally to the Climate Reality Project.
Q. The political climate in the U.S. seems stuck [on the climate issue]. What’s your take on how it’s developing in other countries?
A. First of all, I don’t agree that it is stuck in the U.S. I really don’t. I think there is a great deal of movement beneath the surface. I run into people all the time who are former deniers, former opponents of doing anything on climate who are saying, “Look, this is just getting too weird. It’s clear that this is going on, we’ve got to do something.” Now, we’re not at the tipping point, but we’re much closer than we have been.
I’ve said this before and I really do believe it’s true: Changes like this don’t occur in a linear way. The potential for change builds up, unmanifested, until it reaches a critical mass. You don’t always see it coming. There are plenty of examples of that. I believe we’re seeing just that kind of movement just beneath the surface here in the U.S.
States are moving. Local governments are moving. Business is moving thanks to the happy discovery by so many businesses that initiated sustainability changes for branding reasons that it makes them money. It’s not a cost, but a benefit. By now, that’s pretty widely known in the business community. News Corp, for goodness sakes, is CO2 neutral. They don’t brag about it. They do it because it saves them money.
I’m not saying we’re right on the tipping point. I know better than that. But neither do I think it’s accurate to say that we’re stuck in neutral. I don’t think we are.
But to get to your real question, I think that what happened in Australia was hugely significant. What’s going on in China is quite significant. The fact that the E.U. is hanging tough and some member states are actually torquing up their commitment is very significant. I think Mexico is significant; we’ll see what [Mexican President-elect Enrique] Peña Nieto does when he takes over in a couple of weeks, but they’ve made a commitment for 75 percent reduction and they’ve got a broad societal consensus. I think what Hawaii is doing is enormously significant. You know, a lot of countries around the world are looking at their hold cards, they’re looking at the damage, and it is now translating into a set of commitments that are meaningful and will continue.
Q. The federal level is blocked up, but there’s this movement underneath the surface. What’s the right way to take advantage of that movement?
A. The sooner we can increase the scale of renewable installations, the steeper the cost down-curve is going to be. We’ve kind of got a Moore’s Law Jr. underway on [solar] PV. Wind is not as steep as PV. Efficiency is probably steeper than both, or comparable to PV. So there are a lot of trends moving in the right direction. Any policies that accelerate the movement to scale will help.
In many areas, renewables, particularly solar and wind, are competitive. Not everywhere by a long shot, but in a growing number of areas. That in itself drives a certain tipping point, because when utilities are confronted with a better bargain, even with all the regulatory morass, they do make changes. We’ve seen 166 coal plants close. Yes, [natural] gas is a big part of it, but so is the impact of renewables on the margin. And that margin’s getting wider and wider all the time.
Q. What’s your take on the natural gas revolution that’s happening?
A. I’m concerned about methane leakage — the fact that it’s a valuable commodity and they have an incentive to capture it hasn’t stopped the leakage. Particularly in the fracking process, when they pull the fluids out, there’s just a huge outgassing. There are still leaks throughout the production and distribution chain, and the magnitude may well be sufficient to outweigh any CO2 advantage that you would otherwise gain.
The fact that [then-Vice President Dick] Cheney exempted [fracking] from [the Safe Drinking Water Act] really put the whole industry in such a privileged position, it disadvantages the advocates of the public interest, which was the intention. But it does mean that there are a lot of legitimate questions that need to be run to ground, no pun intended.
If you assume for the moment that those questions can be answered, then I think it’s responsible — only in that circumstance — to view gas as a short- to medium-term bridge fuel, substituting for coal, to buy some time for getting to scale and riding the cost down-curve on renewables.
I do worry that we could make such a legacy investment in gas infrastructure that the nation’s appetite for making a second conversion would be severely diminished. But I weigh that against the inherent market power of the cost down-curve for solar and wind reaching the point where utilities — and homeowners, and business owners — simply can’t say no to it, even if we’re in the middle of the bridge substitution strategy.
Q. Right now the activist community is taking on two big fights — one is against the Keystone pipeline, the other against coal export terminals in the Northwest. Where do you stand on those? Is it possible to keep some of the coal in the ground?
A. I know the realpolitik and business perspective is to say, “It’s gonna come out no matter what,” but I don’t buy that. We have a planetary emergency. I know it drives some people nuts when I say that, but dammit, that’s what we face. We have to take that reality on board.
I’m going to support [Washington] governor-elect Jay Inslee. He is my close friend and I think he is going to handle this extremely well. The folks around the Northwest ports have their own reasons for being concerned about what’s planned. I’m going to support those who are skeptical about this giant export strategy of coal.
And let me answer the first part of that question — you’re probably not in as much suspense about that one. I am strongly opposed to that tar-sands pipeline. I think it’s crazy. Again, you have the realpolitik/business logic, but I just think it is morally wrong for us to open a brand new source of even dirtier carbon-based energy when we are desperately trying to bend down the curves.
I understand why a lot of people think it’s unrealistic in the extreme for one of these things to be slowed down or stopped. But you know, if you take that position, then you are inherently saying, “Well, it’s not that unrealistic to destroy the future of human civilization.”