Al Gore is still trying to save us, one graph at a time
Al Gore still loves his graphs. He’s lost weight since going vegan and his hair has turned gray, which suits him. But watching him host the 24 Hours of Reality event this week was like stepping into a time machine.
The Climate Reality Project, which Gore founded and chairs, put on the live marathon webcast from Tuesday noon to Wednesday noon EST. Everything about Gore’s presentation was the same as it ever was: the earnestly wonkish caveats, the pedantically drawn-out speech patterns, the educator’s mien. And those graphs, always those graphs.
Gore had a graph for everything and a laser pointer in his hand to draw lines on them. In a typical riff, he pointed to a graph showing that California’s commitment to energy efficiency has caused its energy use to flatline even while energy use has risen in the U.S. as a whole. California, he reflexively noted, “has had the same GDP growth as the rest of the United States,” lest anyone suggest efficiency comes at an economic cost. This is someone who clearly has a lot of experience talking to economics-obsessed Americans, and who can anticipate the right-wing objection to anything.
This was the webcast’s fourth year. Last year, according to the Climate Reality Project, it drew 20 million page views worldwide over the course of the 24 hours. This year’s numbers are not yet available, but as of 6 p.m. Tuesday they were at 4 million, suggesting a similar trajectory, as there’s usually a spike toward the end. The numbers are impressive — especially given that, despite high production values, the aura was undeniably one of an infomercial, with Gore’s cohosts reading stiffly from teleprompters and conducting humorless interviews with assorted experts on the set.
This year’s theme was “24 Reasons for Hope.” The reasons are the ones you would expect: the price of solar power is dropping, China is investing in clean energy, lending institutions are shifting away from investments in fossil fuels. “It’s important for people to understand we can succeed, because [climate change] can seem overwhelming,” says Ken Berlin, the Climate Reality Project’s CEO. While these bright spots are by no means illegitimate, organizing them into this theme implicitly admits that the climate movement fights a constant battle against hopelessness.
Gore, as the movement’s unofficial leader, must struggle with those feelings of being overwhelmed by the massiveness of the problem and the political impediments to solving it. But he would never say so in public. A career in politics, where you never admit that you might lose a campaign, has prepared him well for being in perpetual rallying-the-troops mode.
The webcast was broadcast from a stage in the Brooklyn Navy Yard in front of a huge window. Facing north, it captured a sliver of the Manhattan skyline, the Williamsburg Bridge, and a few new apartment towers on the Brooklyn waterfront. The vista was quite real, and in person it was striking, but on one’s computer screen it somehow looked fake, so it had the oddly diminishing effect of a failed attempt at glamour.
The Climate Reality Project promised “a variety of international celebrities, musicians, advocates, and other special guests” at the event, and highlighted these names: Vanessa Black, Colbie Caillat, Rodne Galicha, Wanjira Mathai, Jason Mraz, Patrick Ngowi, Bunker Roy, Mark Ruffalo, Ian Somerhalder, Johan van der Berg, Daniela Velasco. It’s OK if you don’t know who most of those people are. No one does.
It must be humbling to someone who not only was vice president, but who won the popular vote for the presidency. Bill Clinton has the Clinton Global Initiative, with its assembled heads of state, CEOs of the world’s largest corporations, philanthropists making massive pledges, and Earth-bestriding movie stars bringing out the paparazzi. Gore has this webcast.
For the first six hours, the cohost who assisted in introducing segments was Ashlan Gorse Cousteau, a striking former anchor of E! News Now. She would introduce Gore, who would lecture on the topic of the hour’s video segments. The insights Gore shared — “We need to stop subsidizing coal and support wind and solar,” leakage of methane wipes out the advantage of natural gas over coal, energy efficiency saves money as well as emissions, President Obama has gotten serious about climate change in his second term — would not come as revelations to regular readers of Grist. And still, Gore chooses to stay up for 24 hours, on his feet and on camera for most of it, reiterating these points that must be even more unremarkable to him.
Gore is as cautious and measured off-camera as he is on-camera. “I have mixed feelings” about natural gas, he tells me. “I think we need much tighter regulations of all the environmental problems caused by fracking in particular. A very short-term substitution of gas for coal, as a short-term transition, with the methane leakage fixed, and with tough regulations of the environmental damages, that’s another matter. We don’t have that right now.” He praises Obama for “providing important leadership for solving the climate crisis,” while criticizing the administration’s ongoing “below-market leasing of coal and oil and gas reserves.”
On Sunday, Gore will join the People’s Climate March. Its organizers, in an effort to emphasize the economic and social-justice components of the climate movement, are not giving a special position to any of the VIPs, not even the former vice president.
Listening to Gore speak, it is remarkable not that Americans didn’t choose him over the simple-minded cheerleader he ran against, but that they actually sort of did. This is not an insult; it’s a compliment. Gore will stand on his feet for 24 hours, he will talk at length with a former host of E! News, he will repeat ad nauseum the merits and drawbacks of natural gas, all to show humanity how to save itself. If only it were clear that humanity even wants to be saved.
Correction: This post originally stated that last year’s “24 Hours of Reality” cast drew 20 million viewers. In fact, it drew 20 million page views.