The Green Agenda
Al Gore was vice president of the United States under Bill Clinton and conceded a narrow loss when he ran for president against George W. Bush in 2000. He has since returned to his focus on environmental issues, making waves this year with his documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth. He was interviewed for NPQ by the editors of the Brazilian newsweekly Veja.
NPQ | In your documentary about global warming, you draw a scary picture of the planet’s environmental situation. At the end, you change the tone and say that all it takes to reverse everything is a change in our lifestyle. Isn’t this too optimistic?
Al Gore | It is certainly not that easy. The recommendations shown at the end of the movie about what each individual can do to improve life on earth are important, but by themselves they do not solve the crisis. People must organize themselves to pressure for changes in public policies. Each person who adopts an ecological style of life is encouraging the government to make decisions on behalf of environmental preservation. This happens in California and in other American states that are going in the opposite direction from Washington’s environmental policy, which rejected the Kyoto Protocol.
NPQ | Many scientists think that it is already too late to avoid disaster. James Lovelock, the creator of the Gaia hypothesis, claims that climatic changes will eliminate 80 percent of the world’s population by the end of the century.
Gore | Lovelock, for whom I have a great respect, is very pessimistic and is wrong in presuming that human beings are incapable of changing their behavior. Politicians are in general too slow, and this is reflected in the conduct of the government and in the making of decisions.
On the other hand, they can act very quickly if they are pressured by voters. This happened when the US made the decision of sending a man to the moon, and it did this in less than 10 years. The same happened when the Allies reacted to fascism. In 1940, the idea of assembling 1,000 war airplanes was considered insane. In 1943, this number was far below the industrial capability.
NPQ | Ten years is not a short time for changes capable of affecting the climate on a global scale.
Gore | We do not need to do everything in 10 years. Anyway, it would be impossible. The question is not this. According to many scientists, if nothing is done, in 10 years we will no longer be able to reverse the process of degradation of the earth. Studies show that it is necessary to immediately start a strong reduction in the emission of polluting gases. The first objective would be to stabilize the amount of pollutants in the atmosphere. And then, who knows, after five years, start reducing the amount of CO2 in the planet.
NPQ | Have you already started changing your own lifestyle?
Gore | Two years ago, I decided to live a carbon-free life. Everything my family and I do aims at emitting the least-possible amount of carbon dioxide. We have hybrid cars, we use green energy, we avoid hot water and we turn off our electrical appliances when they are not being used. Of course, I still catch commercial airplanes. But my personal carbon-dioxide emission in trips is compensated by the promotion I do of the subject.
NPQ | What is currently the greatest threat to the planet?
Gore | I do not see a single threat, but a combination of factors. Overpopulation is one of them. That is why we need technologies that avoid the use of food as a source of energy. The world cannot bear for much longer the increase of consumption at the current rhythm. The number of people quadrupled in the last 100 years. This is a lot of people. The good news is that the size of the families in countries where there is education for the people—precisely the ones that consume the most—is decreasing in a way that was never imagined. The important thing is to avoid what Jared Diamond showed in his book Collapse. That is, civilizations that destroy themselves on behalf of progress.
NPQ | What is the importance of the Amazon in the prevention of global warming?
Gore | There are two main items to consider in relation to the Amazon. First, human action was responsible for turning forests, which are natural aspirators of carbon dioxide, into large emitters of this pollutant. Each year, 10 trillion tons of CO2 are thrown into the atmosphere and, of this total, 2.5 trillion tons are produced by burned-over lands. I cannot specify exactly how much deforesting the Amazon contributes to all this pollution.
Brazilians need to act urgently in order to slow down the rhythm of burned-over lands. We are going through a global crisis, and everybody needs to participate in the effort to reduce the emission of carbon-dioxide gas.
The second point is that, when we devastate tropical forests, not only do we affect the climate and the biodiversity, but also the natural riches contained in these woods. I believe that, in the Brazilian point of view, it makes sense to preserve the forest for the benefit—including the economic one—of Brazil. Vegetal species, most of them still unknown to science, are worth hundreds of thousands more than the subsistence agriculture or the soy crops that are replacing the forest.
NPQ | The scarcity of potable water is an increasingly serious problem. Shall water be someday worth more than oil?
Gore | In a few years, water shall be a serious problem in many countries. This is due as much to the increase of the population as to the ignorant strategies of some countries in relation to this asset. I have no doubt that water will be a precious commodity. In my opinion, it is already worth more than oil. Notice that a bottle of mineral water is more expensive than the equivalent in gasoline. And I am not talking about famous brands, such as San Pellegrino.
NPQ | Do you consider nuclear energy to be a good alternative to the consumption of fossil fuels?
Gore | I do not believe in this option. It is possible that there will be an increase in the use of nuclear energy, but I believe that it shall be a minimum use. This is a complicated option for two reasons. The first one is the high cost. This is still a very expensive technology.
The second, and most important, one is that nuclear energy is always a risk. When permitting its use, we are increasing a lot the risk of proliferation of nuclear weapons. The eight years I spent in the White House showed me the dimensions of this challenge. Some countries have announced the intention of obtaining nuclear technology to produce energy, and they were actually interested in making nuclear weapons. Today, we have the threats of North Korea and Iran. Anyway, if a new generation of safer reactors is developed, we could tolerate the moderate use of this energy.
NPQ | Do you think that the Brazilian experience in the use of combustible alcohol, such as ethanol, can be reproduced on a global scale?
Gore | Alcohol is the most important substitute that we have today for fossil fuels. I believe that this is a concrete solution to the threat of the warming of the earth. It is clear that there are limits for the production of alcohol in the huge scale necessary to completely replace gasoline, but techniques are already being developed to solve this problem.
These are technologies that, in the future, could produce alcohol for half the price of oil. The most important thing is that they allow the production of this fuel with roots, bagasse and plant leaves, preventing the use of food for this purpose. If we manage to go forward in this point, the competition of food versus fuel shall no longer exist.
NPQ | Is it already possible to imagine a world that does not depend on oil?
Gore | Brazil has not only innovated in the development of this alternative fuel, but it has also become a world leader in this industry. The country can teach the rest of the world to have a better understanding in the solution of problems related to fossil fuels. A proof of this is the success of flex-fuel cars. These vehicles show other countries that viable alternatives do exist, and that it is not necessary to beg for the mercy of Middle East countries or Venezuela.
NPQ | According to what you say, ecology can be a great business.
Gore | It is an excellent business, both for the economy and for the environment. Toyota has boosted profits with its hybrid car. General Electric has recently decided to become a company engaged in environmental preservation and is making a lot of money in this process. The same with DuPont, the chemical industry giant. Giant companies do not start businesses to lose money.
NPQ | President George W. Bush rejected the Kyoto Protocol to reduce carbon-dioxide emissions and took other measures that displeased environmentalists. What is your evaluation of the American president’s environmental policy?
Gore | I have already lost objectivity concerning Bush. All of his policies scare me. Actually, in this field, his actions are extremely dangerous for the entire world. He censored most of the scientific works about the environment. Fourteen senators have just started an investigation on this issue. I hope that Congress manages to punish the president for this.
NPQ | Do you believe that a platform based on the defense of the environment helps or hurts in American politics?
Gore | It helps, no doubt. Politicians are starting to realize this. See the case of (Arnold) Schwarzenegger in California. The governor is gaining strength and popularity thanks to his actions on behalf of the environment. Of course, terrorism is also an important issue. Politicians have to treat both things in an intelligent way. The war in Iraq converted terrorism into an even greater threat than it already was. But global warming is the worst crisis we have ever faced.