Energy and Environment Reporting for Texas

New World, New Problems: A Conversation With Al Gore on ‘The Future’

Photo courtesy of Al Gore

The former Vice President's new book goes beyond climate change to look at how current trends will shape a future he believes will be radically different from today.

We’re sitting on the edge of a massive global transformation, where robots, globalization, consumption and pollution will all intersect to create a world that’s unlike anything humanity has every known, Former Vice President Al Gore argues in his new book, the aptly-titled ‘The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change.’

We spoke with the former Vice President Tuesday by phone to get his thoughts on the oil and gas fracking boom, the ticking clock of climate change, and some of the positive developments that may await us.

Q: We are both enjoying, and in part stressing about, a domestic drilling boom that we have right now, especially here in Texas. And we’re seeing a lot more natural gas and oil coming from our own shores, which is already having an effect on power plant emissions. Just the other week in Texas we saw one of the last remaining coal plants in the works for the state get suspended because the company went out of business. Right after that, a different company announced a new natural-gas-fired plant. But in your book, you argue there’s a downside to the fracking boom that’s allowing us to move from coal to natural gas.

A: Yes, so there are benefits because natural gas has approximately half of the Co2 content produced, compared to coal. So, in theory, it can be a bridge to a future dominated by renewable energy, but there are several problems. First of all, there are parts of Texas that are short on water, and each new fracking well, on average, needs about six million gallons of water. There have been, unfortunately, examples of underground water aquifers being poisoned in the process; the industry says that it’s safe, and minimizes those problems, but George P. Mitchell of Texas, who really invented the whole technology over decades, has called for very strict regulation.

I agree with him, but here is the other problem. When methane leaks during the fracking process, each molecule of methane is more than 70 times as powerful as Co2 in trapping heat, and that means you wouldn’t have to have that much of the methane leak into the atmosphere, before you completely wipe out the advantages of having less Co2. So these challenges are real, they have to be addressed, and I think that we need more regulation, as George Mitchell says.

Q: It also seems at the same time, that because of that move to natural gas, we’ve been able to cut our emissions in the U.S. I know there are some other factors that go into that. How long is the jury out, on whether or not this new, cheap source of natural gas is an overall positive or a negative?

A: Well, a lot of work’s being done on it right now, but I would repeat that when the Co2 emissions go down, that that’s a great thing. But we need to also find out how much of an increase there is in the methane emissions, because again, that can wipe out any advantage from the reduction in Co2.

Q: It’s been six years since ‘An Inconvenient Truth’ came out, and it seems like in the meantime, climate change almost became a bad word. It wasn’t really mentioned in the presidential campaign, and in your new book, you seem to say we really haven’t made much progress in dealing with climate change, and that it’s actually likely to get worse before it gets better. 

A: Well just look at the drought that hit Texas, and sixty percent of the country this past year. And it’s still going on. We’ve had $110 Billion of climate-related disaster damages. The last year, 2012, was the hottest in American history. We had the fires in the west, and super-storm Sandy devastating Manhattan and New Jersey — this is happening all around the world. This past week, Queensland, in Australia, had two and a half feet of rain! These disasters are becoming larger and more frequent, and that’s exactly what the scientists have predicted.

You mentioned “An Inconvenient Truth”; one of the most common criticisms of that movie was from those who said it was ridiculous for me to speculate that the ocean water would go into the World Trade Center memorial site. Well it happened last October [during Superstorm Sandy]. So, we have seen some progress, and I was very heartened by President Obama’s bold commitment in his inaugural address, and I’m optimistic that we’re going to see more progress.

Q: I’ve been hearing more and more, this idea that with how climate change is going, it’s becoming inevitable, that we’re going to have to engineer the climate to somehow prevent the Earth from becoming any hotter. Your book actually talks about that, and you say that it’s “utterly insane.” So tell me why you came to that conclusion.

A: Well, just by studying it carefully. You know, we have a giant, unplanned experiment [of manmade climate change] underway with the only planet that we can call home. And the idea that we would start a second unplanned experiment with the planet, in the hope that it would somehow magically cancel out the effects of the first unplanned experiment, I think genuinely, an insane idea.

Just to take one example, they propose putting up tin foil strips, orbiting the Earth to reflect more incoming light from the sun. Well, it turns out plants need light to produce photosynthesis and to grow. Nothing of that sort would stop the acidification of the oceans from Co2. And no one would have any idea how to measure the unintended consequences of blocking out a lot of the sunlight that the Earth needs for its healthy functioning. Instead we need to stop putting all this global warming pollution into the atmosphere as if it’s an open sewer!

Q: You say in your book that one of the reasons that we’re in the situation we’re in with resource depletion and climate change, it isn’t just habits, and it isn’t just the market. But it’s also politics and rhetoric.

A: Well I think our democracy has been hacked! The influence of special interests, anonymous billionaire donors giving unlimited amounts without disclosing it. The designation of corporations as persons. These changes have really degraded the integrity of our democracy, and it’s pretty obvious that special interests are able to paralyze any reform movements now. And the mechanism is pretty simple. Senators and representatives now have to spend so much time begging rich people and special interests for money that they think less about their own constituents and they think more about how to please these donors. ‘Cause they need their money to buy the television commercials that represent the key to their election and reelection. And we need to reduce the influence of that money in our politics.

Q: What trends do you see coming down the pipeline in the future that are actually a net positive?

A: Just to take two examples from the drivers of change that I describe in the book. The internet revolution is making it possible for individuals and businesses to become far more efficient and for many of them to become more productive and profitable. And secondly, the revolution in genetic engineering is bringing out the promise of very effective cures for diseases and health conditions that have bedeviled humankind since the birth of our species. These are very positive trends.

Luke Quinton of KUT News provided transcription. This interview has been edited for clarity and content. 


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