Onstage, in a basement ballroom of the Colorado Convention Centre, in the United States, Al Gore is getting fired up. He’s grey-haired now, a bit thicker around the middle, but the capacity crowd hangs on his every utterance. “Our democracy has been hacked!” the former vice-president declares. “The polluters have found ways to take control of the policy-making process – but the ultimate power still lies with the people!”
At a table in the back of the ballroom, John Cubelic sits forward and nods. He’s travelled from Alabama for this. A 29-year-old former American football player at Auburn University, Cubelic is tan and ripped, with a shaved head and a crisp white shirt. Back home in Birmingham, he’s starting a craft-whiskey distillery – hardly the stereotype of an environmental activist.
But neither are many of the 972 others packed into the Denver ballroom for the kick-off of Gore’s Climate Reality Leadership Corps training – a three-day boot camp for the next generation of warriors in the battle against climate change. Cubelic, like nearly everyone here, believes climate change is the most important issue of his lifetime. His plan is to make the distillery a showcase of sustainability, with recycled water and solar panels, as well as a community hub and engine for green growth in the deeply conservative South. “The conversation where I live,” he says, “is climate change is caused by gay marriage. Or, at best, you’re talking about saving polar bears.”
Back on stage, Gore urges the crowd to channel their passion. “Don’t let it dissipate!” he says. “Remember how much is at stake. Remember how great the opportunities for change really and truly are.”
Gore has been holding events like this for a decade, training more than 11,000 people from 136 countries in how to spread the word about climate change, spar with sceptics, lobby their elected officials and push businesses to become more climate-friendly. His Climate Reality project (motto: “Ordinary people face challenges. Climate Reality Leaders embrace them”) now has branches in Africa, Australia, Brazil, Canada, Europe, India, Indonesia and Mexico. This weekend’s training, the 34th session, is the first since the 2016 election and the second-largest one yet. The events are free; attendees just need to cover their travel and lodging.
The first was an intimate affair: just 50 people who gathered 10 years ago at Gore’s farm in Tennessee to watch his slide show on the climate crisis and learn about ways to take action. That slide show became the basis for the documentary An Inconvenient Truth (2006), which won an Oscar and made Gore’s name synonymous with global warming. Now, Gore has a follow-up, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, which was released in US cinemas in July. It’s a heartbreaking, frustrating, maddening, inspiring look at the current reality of climate change and its growing impact around the globe. The film chronicles Gore’s dogged, often thwarted efforts to make headway on the issue – culminating, like a sucker punch, with the election of Donald Trump.
Yet much like Gore himself, the sequel manages to be energetic and optimistic, showcasing the solutions at hand and the slow but mounting progress that’s being made despite the opposition. “The solutions,” he says, “are in full view.”
The son of a three-term US senator, Gore, 69, won his first congressional election just seven years after graduating from Harvard University and long had an eye on the White House. But his 25-year political career ended in 2000, when his presidential hopes were dashed by some hanging chads in Florida.
Gore had learned about global warming as an undergraduate in the late 1960s, in a course taught by Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to sound the alarm about rising CO2 levels in the atmosphere. As a junior congressman from Tennessee in 1977, “one of the first questions I asked was, ‘What is being done about global warming?’” Gore recalls. “The answer was basically, ‘Nothing.’” So he organised a hearing, bringing in his professor to testify, “naively” expecting that his colleagues would be moved to act.
More than four decades later, he’s still pressing for action. “It never occurred to me that I would end up devoting most of my life to this mission,” says Gore. “But I could not lay this task down or set it aside even if I wanted to.”
The timing of the sequel could not have been better, says Ken Berlin, a Washington DC lawyer and longtime Democratic donor who is president and chief executive of the Climate Reality project. Trump’s election, he says, “completely changes the game and raises the level of activism we all have to be involved in.” The environmentalist community, Berlin says, “does well when it has its back up to the wall. I’d rather have a Democratic administration. But the public support for climate change will evolve more quickly in a Trump era.”
Over a vegetarian lunch of tofu-noodle wraps and barbecued-seitan sandwiches – the event is meatless, and composting bins abound – the activists-in-training get to know one another. Sitting next to Cubelic is Zachary Edwards, a soft-spoken AT&T account manager from Atlanta who tells his comrades that he is tired of being “the person who wanted to speak but didn’t want to draw attention to myself”. Across from him, Jill Myers, a software entrepreneur, also from Atlanta, says she’s here in part to “soak up the good energy” from fellow activists and expects to return home with new tactics and arguments. “We don’t progress by looking to politicians,” she says. “It happens over coffee and meals, through seemingly unimportant conversations with people.”
At a nearby table, Haven Coleman, an 11-year-old from Colorado Springs, is chatting with Niki Joshi, a 15-year-old from Overland Park, Kansas. Both girls came with their mothers and plan to deliver Gore’s slide show at their schools. “I want to influence the kindergarten group,” fifth-grader Haven tells me. “They’re big sponges.”
After lunch, Gore takes the stage again. A core mission of the training is still to teach people to deliver his slide show. There’s also advice on how to commit “acts of leadership,” ranging from contacting community and business leaders to writing op-eds to organising rallies. “Call your senator, mayor, governor,” says Gore. “Wear it out. Confront elected officials and let them know this is important for you and you will either support them or work like hell to defeat them.” Once the training is completed, the slides – which are updated regularly – can be accessed via an online platform called Reality Hub.
But first you have to learn from the master. And this afternoon, Gore delivers the long version, a full two hours of charts, graphs and a whole lot of what might be called “extreme weather porn” – scenes of devastating floods, storms, tsunamis, and rising seas in city after city after city. “Every night on the evening news,” Gore is fond of saying, “is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.”
An hour and a half in, Gore hasn’t so much as taken a sip of water. Wearing a blue suit and tie with a jumper, a green Climate Reality badge affixed to his lapel, he paces the stage and ploughs through the data: sixteen of the hottest years on record have occurred this century; last year was the 40th in a row with global temperatures above last century’s average; extremely hot temperatures are more frequent now than extremely cold ones. Of course, he jokes, “we still have days when someone can throw a snowball on the floor of the US Senate”.
Barely pausing for air, he takes a tour through recent heat waves – 54 degrees Celsius in Iraq and Kuwait, 51 degrees in India, with the pavement melting and more than 2,300 dead. He connects the dots from global warming to crop failures and water scarcity. He highlights public health issues: filthy air, hopped-up allergies, tropical diseases spreading north. He shows startling aerial footage of Greenland’s glaciers disintegrating.
As the two-hour mark approaches, Gore grows more urgent, pumping life back into the flagging crowd. He soars from problem to solution, racing through game-changing renewable-energy success stories from around the globe. “The will to change,” he intones, “is itself a renewable resource.”
Outside the convention centre, as it happens, the temperature is well above the historic average. In the day’s news, Trump is proposing to slash the budget of the Environmental Protection Agency by a third and its staff by 25 per cent, drastically limit the Clean Water Act, kill fuel-efficiency mandates for cars, and overturn Obama-era regulations aimed at limiting emissions from coal-fired power plants.
When he’s not exhorting the faithful in hotel ballrooms, Gore spends his days manoeuvring behind the scenes to counter that kind of news. In addition to having helped broker deals at the 2015 United Nations Climate Change Conference, in Paris, he works with Silicon Valley executives to spur the deployment of clean-energy technologies and lobbies municipalities and businesses about going carbon neutral. He also keeps close tabs on congressional Republicans who are at odds with their party on the issues. On that front, he may be making some progress. When I talk to Gore a few weeks after the conference, he says, “Just since Denver, there are now 30 Republican members of the House who have switched sides and are in favour of solving the climate crisis.”
Still, a major focus of the training is to get activists busy at the state and local level. “We can still make a difference even though the federal government is in our way,” says Udo Wahn, a 63-year-old children’s book author, semi-retired obstetrician-gynaecologist, and surfer, from Del Mar, California, who is attending the seminar with a contingent from the Surfrider Foundation. Wearing a brown leather vest over a mock turtleneck, Wahn is burly and effusive. “Screw the feds,” he says. “We’ll do the work-around.”
After three days of presentations and workshops, the newly minted climate leaders are sent off into the unseasonably warm world, circular green pins adorning their shirts and jackets. A few weeks later, I check in with some of them. Wahn has already done 15 acts of leadership, including contacting federal and state officials, writing a letter to his local paper and scheduling a presentation on the coastal impact of climate change for the city of Encinitas, California.
Cubelic says he’s talked to his solar panel provider in Birmingham and set up a meeting with the mayor’s office about creating a programme to offer advice and incentives to green entrepreneurs. “I’m going to probably cite some of the info about the economics of this from the training,” he tells me: “Hey, guys, here’s how you can save money doing this.” He’s also lobbying to deliver a slide show at the mayor’s office.
And in Georgia, Edwards, the AT&T account manager, tells me he’s signed on to help organise the March for Science in Atlanta. He’s also working to set up Climate Reality “campus corps” at local universities and says he plans to deliver the slide show later in the year.
“There’s healing in purposeful action,” Gore tells me later. “When you have a chance to really do something to solve the crisis, that’s hopeful in and of itself.” I mention Zachary Edwards and how surprised I was to meet someone like him at the event. It’s clear that Gore, too, is surprised – and thrilled. “The very fact that somebody in a job that doesn’t bring him into direct contact with this crisis would take three days and come and learn how to be an effective advocate – that fills me with hope.”
An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power will be released in Hong Kong on September 14.