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Al Gore’s Stupendous Wealth Complicates His Climate Message. That Can Change.

Right-wing critics say the former vice president’s wealth is hypocritical. By making his fortune a talking point, he could beef up his climate gospel.

19/08/2017 12:09 AM IST | Updated 03/10/2017 8:38 PM IST
Michael Tran via Getty Images
Michael Tran via Getty Images

Al Gore has long been a knight of the movement to combat climate change. But when he returned to the national spotlight last month with his latest documentary, “An Inconvenient Sequel,” he did so in gilded armor.

The former vice president ― who boasted a relatively modest net worth of $1.7 million, held mostly in family farm assets, when he ran for president in 2000 ― has become a media mogul and financial titan over the past decade, with a personal fortune valued at upward of $200 million. His big comeback comes months after a populist wave swept President Donald Trump to a surprise election victory, setting the stage for the most aggressive rollback of environmental and climate policies in history.

If Trump’s billionaire status bolstered his appeal to voters, Gore’s business acumen might amplify his warnings at this moment.

“The world faces an extremely serious financial risk due to the $22 trillion in subprime carbon assets that are going to lose value at some point precipitously, just as the subprime mortgages did,” Gore told HuffPost in a 14-minute phone interview from London last week. “Of course, that’s what triggered the credit crisis and the Great Recession.”

But for some people, the best person to imbue climate change with the urgency it needs may not be a rich, banker-friendly liberal who rode shotgun in a White House that brought about trade deals so vilified that Trump won over traditionally Democratic Rust Belt workers by vowing to renegotiate them.

“He is a flawed character,” Stephen Lacey, editor-in-chief of the magazine GreenTechMedia, said on his podcast “The Energy Gang” last month. “We’re in an era of backlash against elites, so Gore, a guy who bought a 6,500-square-foot seafront home in California for $8.8 million, and who hangs around with other celebrities who talk big on climate but who live lavish lifestyles, is the perfect target at this point in time.”

The critique hits at a pressure point in mainstream climate change messaging. The causes of climate change are clear: burning fossil fuels, industrialized farms and destruction of the forests that capture carbon and store carbon. But the solutions, and who should be responsible for them, are far less clear.

With other environmental causes, such as recycling or animal welfare, it’s easy to call on individuals to change their behavior ― carry a reusable water bottle, or buy cage-free eggs and free-range beef. As a result, there’s a tendency to apply the same formula to climate change, as though the crisis can be averted by enough ordinary people putting solar panels on their homes, buying electric cars or forgoing distant travel to save the jet fuel. In that framing, the wealthy, jet-setting class ― with their warm, palatial homes and intercontinental trips ― bear the most responsibility for adopting a climate-conscious lifestyle.

That’s a fair critique, though one Gore’s right-wing critics have exploited to the point of exhaustion. The same outlets that frequently air the opinions of pseudoscience-hawking skeptics who flout the evidence that climate change is real, serious and preventable also pillory Gore for the size of his carbon footprint.

Anthony Harvey via Getty Images

The appearance of hypocrisy is not lost on Gore. Gore admitted he talks to his wealthy friends about the sacrifices dealing with climate change may require.

“Yes, of course,” he told HuffPost when asked. He noted that airline tycoon Richard Branson, whom he called a friend, was working to make jet fuel greener, though his efforts drew criticism in 2014 for being underfunded.

“It’s a tough one,” Gore said with a sigh. “But I’m hopeful.”

There’s an argument to be made that it doesn’t matter, that Gore’s efforts to push for systemic and policy change are all that count. That may prove true. But as long as his films elevate him as a spokesman for the climate message, it’s impossible to ignore his merits as a messenger.

Gore has long been a political punching bag on the right, and his efforts as an environmentalist have attracted mockery and rebuke from the political campaigns funded by the fossil fuel billionaires Charles and David Koch. Part of the problem is that Gore carries heavy political baggage.

“Many people out there simply cannot compartmentalize and say, ‘I loathe and detest Al Gore the politician because of his liberal politics, but when he talks about climate change, he’s got a real point,’” Anthony Leiserowitz, director of the Yale Project on Climate Change Communication, told HuffPost. “As a messenger, he makes it too easy for conservatives to reject the entire concept of climate change, let alone the policies that might address it.”

But by not addressing his wealth head-on, Gore does little to assuage critics who may not be partisan but read mendacious motives into his climate gospel.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Gore ― the white, straight son of a landowning Tennessee congressman ― may be someone who “came from historical privilege,” said Elizabeth Yeampierre, a New York-born Puerto Rican attorney and environmental justice leader, but “he can own that.”

“People respect that kind of honesty and authenticity when you say, ‘This is how I came into this,’” said Yeampierre.

Contrary to the claims of right-wing critics, the profits generated from Gore’s best-selling climate books and film ― 2006’s blockbuster “An Inconvenient Truth” grossed $24 million at the box office ― were directed to the Climate Reality Project, his foundation focused on battling global warming.

Gore made most of his money off things that have nothing to do with his climate activism. In 2000, his nest egg took the form of an inherited family farm and royalties from a zinc mine, according to Bloomberg. In 2004, he founded Generation Investment Management, a sustainability-focused fund. The firm got a major boost in 2007 when it partnered with Silicon Valley-based venture capital giant Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield and Byers to “find, fund and accelerate green business, technology and policy solutions with the greatest potential to help solve the current climate crisis.”

He would be way more influential if he admitted to everyone he’s been putting his money where his mouth is. He is still in this politician mentality. Jigar Shah, renewable energy investor

The firm lost money on some early investments, such as the now-defunct Chicago Climate Exchange and First Solar LLC, a solar panel maker crushed by competition from cheap Chinese imports in the early 2010s. But the company bounced back, and its $1.2 billion Luxembourg-based fund now vastly outperforms the S&P 500. In March, the financial magazine Barron’s declared: “Al Gore is winning at investing.”

But Gore made the bulk of his money as a media mogul and an Apple board member. In January 2013, he pocketed about $70 million after taxes from selling the Current TV network he co-founded in 2004 to Qatari broadcaster Al Jazeera. He’s earned tens of millions more in recent years by selling off Apple stock awarded when he joined the tech giant’s board of directors in 2003.  

“He would be way more influential if he admitted to everyone he’s been putting his money where his mouth is,” Jigar Shah, a top clean energy investor, told HuffPost. “He is still in this politician mentality.”

To his credit, Gore is making a push to influence investors, particularly with this latest movie. “An Inconvenient Truth” grew out of a seminar series Gore was giving at the time. For “An Inconvenient Sequel,” Gore crafted a three-hour presentation on clean energy investment, and scheduled roughly a dozen screenings in Geneva, London, New York, Palo Alto, Sao Paulo, Paris and India for top executives at firms such as BlackRock, Capricorn Investment Group and Citigroup to encourage aggressive shifts away from fossil fuel ventures and toward solar and wind infrastructure.

“We absolutely talked about exactly what Mr. Gore is advocating, and obviously has real experience in,” Participant Media CEO David Linde, whose social-good-focused production company produced both of Gore’s movies, told HuffPost by phone. “If you added up all the assets under management by the 400 or so people who went to these, it’s $19.6 trillion.”

Where Gore’s wealth damages his credibility as an activist, it bolsters his influence as a pitchman. He’s a natural for a role that requires fluency in the sorts of buzzwords and phrases heard at events like the annual World Economic Forum confab in Davos, Switzerland.

“The opportunities for renewable energy and electric vehicles and battery technology and hundreds of new efficiency technologies are collectively the biggest business opportunity in the history of the world,” Gore said. “We are in the early stages of a global sustainability revolution that has the magnitude of the Industrial Revolution but the speed of the digital revolution.”

That kind of rhetoric is key, Shah said. At this point, the only people with a stake in actively denying climate change are those with money on the line, and partisan diehards. The latter may never be convinced, and the former need to see more opportunities in burgeoning industries such as solar or wind energy. Solar alone created 1 in every 50 new U.S. jobs last year, employing 260,077 in 2016, an increase of more than 51,000 jobs over the previous year.

“We have more people wanting to join our tribe,” Shah said. “We need to stop kowtowing to the people in their [pro-fossil fuels] tribe. We need to focus on deploying more stuff, and Al Gore is key to deploying more stuff.”

Gore seems to recognize this. In a recent interview, he quoted Upton Sinclair, whose 1906 classic The Jungle exposed the horrors of the meatpacking industry in Chicago and ultimately fueled reform efforts: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.”

“Rather than hide from his wealth, he should talk about it more, and talk about the opportunities in solar power,” said John Cook, a research assistant professor at George Mason University’s Center for Climate Change Communication. “It’s only polarizing in the sense that it gets criticized by opponents of climate action because it’s effective. You have to recognize the fact that the forces of the status quo will come after anything that’s effective.”

“Regardless of whether you like or dislike him, the net effect that he’s had has been overwhelmingly positive by mobilizing so many people who reach people Al Gore would never reach,” he added. “You can’t dismiss his contributions just [because] he makes conservatives cranky.”

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