Climate: Al Gore Wants Business to Step Up

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I’m still at the B4E Summit in Mexico City (though it’s not so much Mexico City as the business district of Santa Fe, which is less than walkable—my hotel and the gargantuan convention center are next to each other, but getting from one to the other is a 15-minute walk around streets designed for cars, not people). Al Gore—former Vice President, Nobel Peace Prize winner, 30 Rock guest star—gave the keynote address at lunch. (I was there to introduce him—I didn’t include the 30 Rock bit, but maybe I should have.)

It’s been a while since I’ve heard Gore speak—I believe the last time was his address to the 2009 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science—but his message was still the same: the climate crisis was mounting, thanks to growing population and fossil fuel-fuelled growth, but there was time to come together and halt a coming catastrophe. He had a few digs at the undemocratic nature of the U.S. Senate, where the need for a 60 vote filibuster-proof majority made passing climate legislation all but impossible. (Gore: “I happen to believe that the person with the most votes should win, but that’s just me.”) And he argued that controlling population growth—and slowing carbon emissions—could go hand in hand with reducing global poverty, by empowering women and girls, expanding access to contraception and reducing child mortality.

But this is a meeting of businesses, and I found Gore’s words on the role that corporations could play particularly striking. During most of his remarks, Gore gave the usual spiel about the changes in the business community globally, the growing comprehension of the impact climate change will have on business and the need to grow more sustainably. Stuff we’ve all heard before—and several times here at the B4E Summit. (Yes, smart corporations from GE to Siemens to Nike to HP are looking to cut waste and improve energy efficiency, and they see business opportunities in the move toward renewable energy—but that’s a long way from the sort of carbon emission cuts science demands.)

Then Gore went further, responding to a question from the audience about why climate legislation failed in the Senate this spring. He pointed to some of the arguments he’s made in the past—including in his underrated book The Assault on Reasonabout how the shift from a print-focused media to the primacy of television, with its all-powerful 30-second campaign spots, made politicians more beholden to moneyed interests who could keep their campaign coffers well fed.

That might seem like a strange message to bring to a business meeting—where many of the attendees are no doubt well-monied—but that was the point. In the U.S. this year a group of rich individuals like the Koch brothers have channeled millions of dollars into advertising and candidates opposing climate action. (See Jane Mayer’s investigative piece on the Kochs in the New Yorker.) Mainstream green groups like the Environmental Defense Fund tout the major corporate players on their side, yet the anti-climate legislation forces seem to be winning the lobbying battle.

Business leaders who really care about climate change, Gore argued, have to step it up. “This is all the more reason why the business community that sees what needs to be done has to be more vocal,” he said in his speech. “Otherwise it’s the voice of those who want to preserve the right to pollute that will prevail.” In other words, clean energy needs to get with the lobbying, and fast. It’s going to be an uphill battle—the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, recently estimated that oil and gas companies have spent half a billion dollars opposing climate legislation and other environmental regulations. That’s their constitutional right—thanks to the Roberts Supreme Court. It would be fairer to try to take money out of politics, but until that happens, those who care about climate change need to fight dirty money with clean money. Al Gore is asking.