Al Gore on Big Oil, COP28, and the fight for climate action
The former US vice-president tells Simon Mundy, at the start of the FT's Moral Money Summit Americas, why he thinks this year's COP28 climate change talks in the United Arab Emirates look likely to fail, and what it will take for the world to halt the rise in global temperatures
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For COP28, are you holding out any hope for the event? I mean, you make a powerful case for the idea that it's a fatally flawed event given who's hosting it and who's acting as the president. Do you still have hopes for what can be achieved? And if so, what would it take to surprise you on the upside?
Well, yes. We have to keep hopeful, of course. I think the deck is stacked against a successful outcome. I will, along with many others, continue to work for as much progress as we can get. A successful COP outcome would commit the world to phasing out fossil fuels in line with the latest science so we can meet the goals of the Paris Agreement.
Of course, agreement on phasing out fossil fuels would, at this point, be a victory. The industry is against it. The petro states are against it. One of theirs has the gavel and is in charge of what happens. But phasing out fossil fuels, even if we can get that, is really only the bare minimum. This is something that we should have agreed to decades ago. The climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis.
In contrast, language that just says we should eventually decrease our fossil fuel consumption, and slowly phase down fossil fuels, that's woefully insufficient. We have a global emergency. Just look at the incredible catastrophes unfolding all over the world. Canada has been on fire. The storms are getting much more intense. The United Kingdom has another rain bomb alert just today.
We saw a third of Pakistan under water. The worst drought in all of human recorded history in China last year with temperatures reaching extremely dangerous levels, the ice melting accelerating, sea level rising, tropical diseases spreading. And the mobilisation of climate refugees crossing international borders in numbers that have already triggered xenophobia with the prediction from the Lancet Commission that one billion climate refugees could be moving across borders in this century if we continue to expand the areas that are physiologically uninhabitable for human beings, triggering a threat to our capacity for self-governance.
We have the solutions in our hands. We need to remove the political obstacles and opposition being put in place by the fossil fuel companies. They've used their legacy network of financial, and political ties, and lobbying, and campaign contributions, and the revolving door, and the demand for continued government subsidies for the destruction of humanity's future.
When are we going to wake up? The good news is people around the world are waking up. And they're recognising with the appointment of this COP presidency, it reveals the practise that's been underway for quite some time. By the time of the Glasgow COP, they already... fossil fuel companies already had a larger number of delegates than the largest national delegation. And by last year in Egypt, at COP27, the fossil fuel participants were more than those of the 10 most climate-affected countries all combined.
And now, they are in... formally in charge. It takes off the disguise. It reveals the reality that we've been wrestling with for quite some time. We need to change the rules so that one petro state or one fossil fuel company can't stand up and say, no. I won't permit that. You need unanimity. So I won't agree to it because I want to continue racing greedily for more and more profits while we continue filling the sky.
This image behind me, Simon, is a picture from the Space Station of how thin the troposphere - the blue is where the oxygen refracts the light. You could walk to the top of that blue line in an hour if you walked fast. That's what we're using as an open sewer. And the accumulated amount is now trapping as much extra heat as would be released by 750,000 Hiroshima-class atomic bombs exploding on the Earth every 24 hours.
That's why the oceans are getting so hot and putting all that water vapour into the sky. That's why the droughts are hitting more quickly. That's why the storms are getting stronger. That's why the ice is melting. That's why salt water is coming into the aquifers in coastal areas. That's why agriculture is threatened. That's why the IPCC has said we could face a global food crisis with a multi-breadbasket failure if we continue this reckless assault on the ecological systems that undergird the possibility for humanity to flourish.
We have developed the alternatives. We have the policies that work. We need to get the political resistance out of the way. And when Sultan Al-Jaber says the fossil fuel companies should collaborate with policymakers to advance progress, not impede progress, who is he kidding? Do they take us for fools?
Don't they realise we can see with our own eyes and hear with our own ears that they are impeding progress? Their job... they see their job as to prevent the implementation of any policies that would reduce the production and consumption of oil by a single barrel, by gas by a single cubic foot, of the coal by a single tonne.
They want to continue burning more, and more, and more. And it is a threat to our children, and our grandchildren, and to the present generation. We have to demand progress and get these lobbyists, and companies, and politicians that are in their pocket out of the way so that the will of the people around the world who want to save the future, who want to give people an opportunity to hope for a brighter future. If we get to true net zero, if we stop any net additions, the temperatures will stop going up in the world almost immediately.
A lag time of as little as three to five years. If we stay at true net zero half of all the human-caused greenhouse gas pollution will have fallen out of the atmosphere in as little as 25 to 30 years. We can start the healing process. It'll take time. But we can halt the temperature increase and start turning in the right direction if we can find the political will to overcome this greedy, immoral opposition from the fossil fuel companies who are making so much money from continuing the destruction of humanity's future.
But the good news is political will is itself a renewable resource. And we are seeing it renewed in countries all over the world, particularly by young people.
But on that question of political will, I mean, as you say there are reasons for optimism, for example, from the younger generation of politically active people. And yet in my country, the UK is, as you know, we've seen a rollback of momentum from the prime minister. It seems to me that it's not just the UK and other European countries. We're seeing similar pressure around climate commitments as some of these commitments start to really become actionable.
In the US, as you say, transformational legislation in the form of the Inflation Reduction Act last year. But who knows what's going to happen next year with the presidential election? And it's possible that momentum could go into reverse in this country as well. How do you feel about leaving aside the political activists, but in terms of the people who are actually running the governments of the world at the moment? Is that political will there?
Well, we see signs of it. And the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act was a historic achievement. And then we saw the change in government in Australia and in Brazil. And the continued commitment, for the most part, of the European Union. We are seeing some signs of legitimate progress. But we have to deal with the deception and the falsehoods of the large polluters.
For example, in your recent interview with the head of the Abu Dhabi company who heads the COP he said his company has decarbonised. What? Again, do you take us for fools? Oh, what he means is that they're using some more renewable power for their internal operations, ignoring the 80 per cent of the pollution that is not covered at all. That would be like a tobacco company saying that they're tobacco free because they've banned the smoking of cigarettes inside their office buildings by their employees, continuing to kill millions and millions of people with the product that's out there.
That's the same exact thing. And they're trying to pull the wool over our eyes and make us believe that they... that they're going to take responsibility for solving this. Well, they're incentivised to go in the opposite direction. But we have a right to demand that they stop blocking and fighting against the efforts of others to solve this crisis. We are now seeing in my country the building of all of these solar, and wind, and EV, and battery facilities, and some of the so-called red states, the conservative states. There is a political constituency being built up for the energy transition, Simon.
And that is a positive development. We have the direction of travel. The majority of companies, outside of the fossil fuel sector, are moving, for the most part, in a very determined way. And we're seeing the adoption of clean energy. Not only in the US, India last year, the most populous country in the world, people are surprised when they hear that of all the new electricity generation installed in India last year, 93 per cent was solar and wind. We are seeing progress.
But we have got to clear these obstacles out of the way. And we have got to reform the system for allocating capital globally so that the developing countries are not walled off from access to borrowing the money and capitalising this green energy revolution.