Natural disasters, voting and environmental justice: Catching up with Al Gore
Three years ago, former vice president Al Gore visited Rice and sat down with the Thresher to discuss a future marked by the climate crisis. Gore came back to Houston this week to speak at a rally organized by the Climate Reality Action Fund at Texas Southern University on Feb. 19. The Thresher and other local news organizations sat down with Gore before the rally to talk about our rapidly changing world.
The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity and relevance.
Rice Thresher: To what degree is environmental justice a part of [your] goal?
Al Gore: I have felt for a long time that environmental justice should be much more central to the environmental agenda. Way back when I was in the United States Senate, before I went into the [vice presidential] gig, I introduced legislation that was introduced in the House of Representatives by Congressman John Lewis called the Environmental Justice Act. We were not able to pass that legislation, but when I became vice president not that long afterwards, I persuaded President [Bill] Clinton to issue an executive order that implemented many of the provisions of that proposed legislation. It hasn't been repealed yet, I guess because President [Donald] Trump [hasn’t] found it yet.
The first victims of environmental degradation are almost always communities of color, low-income communities, families that have been denied the legacy of political influence and economic influence and power to protect their communities against the dumping of hazardous waste or the smoke plumes originating just upwind from them. Just one stark example that has jumped out at me over the years: Asthma rates among African American children are significantly higher than among white children. And deaths from asthma among African American children are 10 times higher than among Caucasian children. How can a nation dedicated to justice for all and the rule of law tolerate a situation like that?
There is also a practical reason that has caused me to place so much emphasis on environmental justice for a long time: I think that the moral imperative that is still so alive in the civil rights movement is akin to the moral imperative in the climate movement. Joining these forces together I think increases the chances for success for both movements.
Houston Public Media: Why are you focusing on youth voter turnout right now?
AG: Well, youth voters — and college-aged voters in particular — share two statistical profiles. Number one, they are way more concerned about the climate crisis than voters in other age groups, and number two, they are traditionally less likely to vote in the same percentages as older voters. So focusing the push there seems like a strategic way to increase the number of climate-aware voters who are also interested in environmental justice and fighting inequality. What we saw in the 2018 elections is that a big increase in youth voters — particularly on college campuses — appears to have made a significant impact on outcome across the country. Given that the stakes in this election are unusually high, maybe higher than ever — we hear that phrase at election time often, but this time it may actually apply — I wanted to make sure that I personally did everything I could and that I am doing everything I can to try to contribute to a favorable outcome.
RT: What do you say to young people who are feeling disillusioned and defeated in the face of this crisis?
AG: Hang in there. We need you. Despair is just another form of denial. We don't have the luxury of giving in to despair and the lethargy that so frequently accompanies despair. We need you very much. Remember that almost every morally based movement in the history of humanity that has succeeded has begun to succeed at the precise moment when young people made it their cause. The old cliche, ‘It's always darkest just before dawn’ is overused, but I feel like there is a shift in momentum now, and we very much need the shoulder of the young people to the wheel.
Houston Chronicle: When you say a shift in momentum, what's different about today's youth and their engagement on the climate issue as opposed to 20 years’ ago youth and their engagement with the climate issue?
AG: If you listen to Greta Thunberg and the millions of others who've joined her Fridays for Future movement, it's obvious there's a difference. When you have a 16-year-old speaking to the United Nations and saying, ‘You tell me you understand the science, but I don't believe you. Because if you did and you continued acting as you do, that would mean you are evil. And I don't believe that,’ — I just think that's some powerful medicine. She's been able to speak truth to power very effectively and millions of others around the world are joining this movement. So it does seem to me there's a big shift. When, on more than 55 college campuses around America, the College Young Republicans petition the Republican National Committee to change its position on climate and warn them that they're going to lose an entire generation of voters, that too is evidence of a big shift.
Houston Forward Times: Do you believe that people of color, particularly African Americans, have really caught on to the issue of global climate change as an issue? Do you think that those who are activists have done enough to really cater a message to resonate with the African American voters? When you talk about local issues such as Flint, Michigan and the water crisis, and right here in our backyard, the Environmental Protection Agency just found that there [were] cancer clusters in certain parts of our city — Acres Homes, Fifth Ward, Kashmere Gardens — because of creosote. When you have all these types of issues going on, do you think that it's difficult for African Americans [and] people of color to focus on global climate change?
AG: The overburden of cancer cases, again concentrated on communities of color, African American, Hispanic, Native American — this is a pattern. The number one predictor of the location of a hazardous chemical waste site is race. And it's no mystery why this is the case. Congressman Lewis and I talked about it all those years ago and have continued to — if we had paid more attention in the past to what was being inflicted on low-income communities of color with these environmental insults, we would have understood earlier what's being inflicted on the human race. Yesterday, the United Nations issued a report that said every child in the world stands to be a victim of the climate crisis right now. So, yes I think that there is a growing awareness of how these crises are intertwined and connected.
Now the second part of what you put into your question had to do with some of the specific problems in the Houston area. More than two-thirds of all the waterborne infectious disease outbreaks in America come in the direct aftermath of these rain bombs that are connected to the climate crisis. And of course, people have vivid, painful memories of Hurricane Harvey and what happened when five feet of rain fell. Since Harvey, there have been these continued rain bombs. Geography has a lot to do with it. But there's more to geography. You're located just north of the Gulf of Mexico, which is heating up dramatically and is putting way more water evaporation into the air, so you get these persistent atmospheric rivers coming north right over Houston and Lake Charles and the other communities in this general area. When that combines with the atmospheric rivers coming from the west across the southern part of the U.S., you get these rain bombs. And they're coming one right after another. When you have the source of toxic chemicals located adjacent to low-income communities of color, and when those areas are more likely to flood than other areas, and you add that to the smoke plumes that come through the air— you get these outrageous increases in cancer rates, and other disease consequences. We've got to do something about it.
HC: Do you view natural gas as a transition fuel? How do you see energy corporations playing a role in the climate crises?
AG: Some of the energy companies, including the refiners and processors, have actually now spoken out against the elimination of some of these regulations that we were talking about in the last exchange. I used to believe, as some still do, that natural gas can serve as a so-called bridge between the age of coal and oil to the age of solar and wind. But we're now facing such a dire emergency that it's increasingly obvious we need to get off all fossil fuels as quickly as we possibly can. Most of the increases in greenhouse gas emissions in this country in recent years have come from gas. You hear people say well, is the glass half full, or is the glass half empty, if gas emits 50 percent less CO2. The problem is, the atmosphere into which those glasses are poured is already overfilled. We're putting 152 million tons of manmade heat-trapping greenhouse gas pollution and global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day. [Each molecule] stays there on average 100 years. The cumulative amount now traps as much extra heat every day as would be released by 500,000 Hiroshima-class bombs exploding in the atmosphere every day. Kind of hard for me to wrap my head around a statistic that big. So we need to transition away from all fossil fuels, including natural gas, as quickly as we can.
HC: How do you see the energy companies playing a role in that transition? Do you see them playing a role, or do you see them just not being part of the climate solution?
AG: Well, some are demonstrating more good faith than others. I would say that the typical energy company approach — take for example ExxonMobil or Chevron — they will spend 90 percent of their advertising budget telling the American public that ‘We've got your back. Don't worry. We're all committed to renewable energy and we're gonna reduce CO2, and we gon' take care of this for you.’ But then when you look at their budget for energy — for exploration, for building, for infrastructure, for production — 99 percent is for oil and gas, tar sands and coal. That is deceptive and hypocritical. Now, some other energy companies appear to me to be trying much harder. Shell, for example, has now tied the compensation of the two thousand top executives in the company to how much reduction in CO2 they can come up with. I've learned in the business world that often people will do what you pay them to do. And if they're paying them to reduce CO2, you're likely to get some results.
Overall, to take another cut at answering your question — when I was a kid, there was a famous Walt Disney cartoon called ‘Fantasia.’ One of the scenes in that cartoon movie was a hippopotamus wearing a ballerina's tutu and dancing ballet. It was funny because a hippopotamus can't dance ballet. I think of that image sometimes when I hear these oil companies saying, 'We're gonna change ourselves into renewable energy companies.' Maybe they can do it, but it's not something they're accustomed to. It's not something where they have natural skills, and it goes against the core interests of the companies themselves because they have such large reserves of fossil fuels. They have to tell a story to the stock market that emphasizes their future prospects for continued growth and expansion. If they can't tell a story about continued growth and expansion, then their stock prices don't go up.
Actually, the stock market has begun to pay attention because over the last several years, the stock prices for these fossil fuel companies have been going down, [and] there's been a tremendous boom in the value of these companies that focus on solar and wind. By the way, Texas is No. 1 in wind by a long shot and No. 4 in solar, and has prospects for creating millions of jobs in renewable energy. But, the legacy political and financial power of these companies that developed their wealth in the last century can't be ignored. They often find ways to bend the political system to do their will. We've seen that over and over again, and it's time to break up that political monopoly.
KTSU2: I'd like to go back to youth voters. One roadblock is that some youth voters believe that their vote doesn't count. How do you address the apathy that young Americans feel that their vote doesn't matter?
AG: From the very beginning of the modern form of democracy, there were skeptics that it could work. But for the most part it has. If you think about the terrible problems we have remaining, it can get you down. But if you think about — here in Black History Month — the remarkable progress that has been made, it's a source of hope. It's a demonstration that change is possible in democracies. In addition to Black history, look at the history of progress for women. I remember when I was a little boy, my mother was a hero to me. My mother was one of the first women to graduate from Vanderbilt [University] Law School. I remember vividly as a boy learning that when she was a girl, women weren't allowed to vote. And I remember being struck — looking at her the way I did as being real smart and having such great values — at how ridiculous it was for this country to not allow women to vote. How ridiculous it was to not allow African Americans to vote. How ridiculous it still is to have these systemic voter suppression laws and practices all over the country. And yet, when you look at the fact that women did get the vote, we did pass the Voting Rights Act, we have seen all this progress, we have had an African American president elected twice, you don't have to look too far to find examples of how voting participation can in fact make a big difference. I'll repeat something I said earlier: I don't think we have the luxury of apathy — here's too much at stake. Where climate is concerned, what's at stake is not just at stake for this generation and those of us alive today, but all future human generations.
Houston Defender: What's the most effective argument you've found to change the minds [of climate change deniers]?
AG: The most effective arguments have been the ones posed by Mother Nature. Anybody who lived through Hurricane Harvey here in Houston has to [realize], hold on here, this is for real. Every night on the television news is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelation. Just a few days ago they reported it reached 70 degrees in Antarctica. You look at maps of where the sea level will be in Houston, if we hit an increase of two degrees Celsius, and then you look at what it would be if we reached four degrees Celsius — which we could be headed for unless we get people registered, unless they vote, unless we change policies — then you know that this is all very real. This is in the lifetimes of people sitting at this table right now. It's already occurred. All of the rhetoric and logic has its place, but just listening to what mother nature is telling us should be, and I have found to be, the most persuasive argument.
RT: A lot of students at Rice are interested in careers in the oil and gas industry. What do you say to them? How should the climate crisis factor into these decisions?
AG: Well as I said, some of these companies appear to be trying to make this adjustment. I would say that if you have your heart set on a career in that industry, I'd urge you to gravitate toward one of the companies that's trying to be a part of the solution instead of one that's trying to hold back the solutions. By the way, employers out there are becoming quite familiar with the fact that they cannot hire the best and brightest coming out of colleges and universities unless they tell them that they share their values. So that would be my advice to them.
More from The Rice Thresher
The Rice community is eagerly anticipating a return to some kind of normal in the fall semester. Still, it’s clear that not everything will be the same as before the pandemic — but maybe for good reason. While the past year has been undeniably difficult, the Rice community can leave it with important takeaways. We asked administrators, faculty and student leaders what they have learned and what they envision for Rice when distancing, masking and virtual interactions are not the default procedures of the campus experience.