Al Gore Interview

GEORGE NEGUS: When you were here five or six weeks ago the Prime Minister wouldn't see you and the movie was written off by one of his ministers as just entertainment.

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He's not going to take advice from what he described as a failed US presidential candidate. In that time the Prime Minister has seen it. And now climate change and what you call the “climate crisis” is the political flavour of the month in this country. How do you explain that?

AL GORE, FORMER US VICE PRESIDENT: First all I would like to publicly thank the Prime Minister for watching my movie. I genuinely appreciate that.

GEORGE NEGUS: Even though he wasn't overly impressed?

AL GORE: I didn't say he had to like it, but I do sincerely appreciate him watching it. And I am also extremely grateful to Australians from every walk of life, who are among the group that have embraced the issue and who have seen through the camouflage that has been hiding it for so long. And they have committed the dots. And you look at the drought and you look at the extreme weather events, the water shortages, and all of the things the scientists have long predicted and people are saying to the politicians in every party, “We have to act on this.”

GEORGE NEGUS: Let's talk about what John Howard did say in fact. He said that, when he was asked about the film, he said it was “alright”.

AL GORE: That's progress.

GEORGE NEGUS: Damned with faint praise, I would have thought. He said he didn't need to be persuaded by you. You sounded a bit like a peeved politician fighting old battles.

AL GORE: In the eye of the beholder, perhaps.

GEORGE NEGUS: Indeed, and he went further and said the earth didn't move for him. That can hardly be described as a resounding endorsement. Why do you think he is splitting hairs? Why do you think John Howard, and George Bush for that matter, have been so reluctant to come to the party on the whole issue?

AL GORE: Well, I think there is a distinction – John Howard did see the movie, I'm grateful to him. George Bush still has refused to see the movie. Sometimes politicians – I say this as a recovering politician myself – sometimes politicians change in stages and they change the rhetoric before they change the substance.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is that what we're hearing at the moment from John Howard, do you think?

AL GORE: I can't see into his heart. I have a lot of respect for him. I do like him as a person and I know he has immense capacities.

GEORGE NEGUS: You called it “legendary skill”.

AL GORE: Political skills, yes, indeed.

GEORGE NEGUS: Of playing wedge politics on most issues.

AL GORE: I don't know about that but I think that he is capable of perceiving a rather significant change in public opinion. That is obvious. I'm not saying that's all it is. I do not know. But I do know that no-one can evaluate the substance of this change without seeing more and without seeing the actual proposals for action. And one other thing, this notion that Australia could write its own global treaty that's separate and apart from what the rest of the world has agreed upon and then sit alone waiting for the rest of the world to come to it – probably unrealistic. On the other hand…

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it a face-saving exercise?

AL GORE: See, I can't look into his heart and see his motivations.

GEORGE NEGUS: He would need to save face on this issue, having resisted ratifying Kyoto for so long. To suddenly come up with a new Kyoto idea looks, looks – by the way, I am a journalist and therefore we're looking at these things sceptically – it looks like it is a face-saving exercise. He's looking for a way of getting on board without retreating from his position.

AL GORE: Well, you are a more experienced John Howard watcher than I am but from my perspective, having seen this play out in a lot of different countries around the world, I can tell you there is one factor more important than any other – the grassroots opinion here in Australia has been extraordinary, especially in the last couple of months. If that continues Australians will hold his feet to the fire and he will have an opportunity to prove to them that the apparent shift in rhetoric is going to be followed by a real shift in policy, not offer to become some little cul-de-sac that one or two countries live in, separate from the rest of the world, but to really rejoin the world community on this.

GEORGE NEGUS: You described at your press conference the US and Australia as Bonnie and Clyde. I don't know which one we were.

AL GORE: Australia's always Bonnie, don't you think?

GEORGE NEGUS: My recollection of that movie is we're talking about criminals here. You put bandits in there.

AL GORE: You are putting much too harsh a spin on it.

GEORGE NEGUS: It was an interesting analogy. Do you think what they are doing amounts to – if not breaking the law – certainly being totally out of step?

AL GORE: Every nation has a moral obligation to address the… to safeguard the future. Look at what is happening in Australia right now look at this drought, the water shortages the extreme weather events. Look at what is happening to the farmers. These are not random events. The scientists have long predicted consequences just like these and they are now saying “Let's be clear with one another that this is just the beginning”. That is what they are telling us. Let me just drive home the point. The reality of what is going on right now carries with it a moral obligation to get past the political game-playing and really deal with the substance. Now, it is not impossible to conclude that Prime Minister Howard has begun a process with this rhetoric and will eventually get there. But the key will be whether or not the grassroots opinion here continues to be forcefully expressed. That is going to determine what happens.

GEORGE NEGUS: You agree with him when he says we have to be sensible about it, we have to look for solutions, including clean coal and solar and nuclear? But you have to agree with him that we're not gonna get washed away in the next few weeks of our lives.

AL GORE: Of course, that's a straw man.

GEORGE NEGUS: You've also said the test for Australia and the US is to actually join Kyoto, not to come up with some new faddish idea for a nuclear. Did you believe that the US will join Kyoto? Because if the US joins Kyoto then we're really left out.

AL GORE: I think the US will. One of President Bush's strongest business supporters said 15 minutes after he leaves office, we will have a new policy. I think it may actually happen before then. California, our largest state, is effectively joining Kyoto on its own, nine other states are moving swiftly in that direction. 319 US cities have now embraced Kyoto and many are meeting the targets and prospering economically. A lot of large businesses in the US are complying with Kyoto now and prospering as they do so. So yes, Australia could be left behind. But more importantly, if Australia actually does change substantively and rejoin the Kyoto process, that will put so much pressure on the US that it would make it impossible for Bush to remain outside it.

GEORGE NEGUS: I hate to bring politics into politics but do you think John Howard would find it easier to go along with your approach – which he says is wrong, it would cost Australia jobs, etc, destroy industries – if you were a Republican, not a Democrat?

AL GORE: I do not know, maybe. But, you know, the relationship between the climate crisis and jobs is exactly the opposite.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you do not agree with him that this would be so costly for Australia it's not be worth the risk?

AL GORE: Nor does the prestigious Stern Report from the UK. A year's worth of detailed economic studies says that actually the economic devastation would come from not joining Kyoto, not confronting the climate crisis.

GEORGE NEGUS: What about his suggestion that the nuclear solution is the way to go. Knowing John Howard the way we do, “OK, I will come reluctantly to the table where climate change is concerned, but the solution is nuclear,” which he knows a lot of his opponents would not like.

AL GORE: And Bush does the same thing. I personally am not uniformly opposed to nuclear but I am sceptical that it is going to play more than marginal role because of the economics of it in most of the world are just quite unattractive, and the utilities

GEORGE NEGUS: And the security and the waste problem.

AL GORE: There are a lot of problems. The long-term storage of waste, the possibility of reactor error and terrorists attack, the linkage to weapons proliferation is very real both Iran and North Korea have got their weapons programs going in connection with the reactor program, but the real stopper is the economics of it, that is why utilities in the US.. there hasn’t been a new order since 1973 because they are so expensive, they take so long to build and they only come in one size, extra large. And with rising energy prices there is more uncertainty about predicting the future of electricity demand. Now will it play some role, in many countries it play a limited role. I am not dogmatic in opposing it.

GEORGE NEGUS: John Howard says that we can remain…we can keep exploiting if you like, our major resources, coal, which means a lot to this country economically, exporting coal and therefore wacking carbon into the air. And also go along with a sensible carbon energy policy and even contribute to the technology involved, get involved in carbon trading…. Do you believe that the two can go hand in hand? That we can remain a heavy user and exporter of coal and also be part of the battle against climate change?

AL GORE: I think the burden of proof is on those who advocate such a position. There is the possibility of developing an approach that is called carbon capture and sequestration. The cost has been an obstacle so far. But it is technically possible that new technologies will be developed. But they have to be proven, they have to be cost effective and the burying or sequestration has to be real, not just a pretend sequestration. If that can be worked out, then yes, clean coal can be a part of our energy future. It probably will be if this is worked out, but it has not yet been proven out. It may be.

GEORGE NEGUS: We have heard reports that even George Bush could make a dramatic pronouncement in his state of the Union address early next year. Could that be the crunch? Could that be what we’re looking at here, Australia and America between them, trying to prepare the ground if you like, for actually joining Kyoto?

AL GORE: I do not see the evidence to support that yet. I will tell you that 10 minutes after Secretary of Defence, Rumsfeld resigned, the New Democratic chairman of the US Senate Environment Committee got a call from the White House saying, “we want to work with you on the climate crisis”. Now, words alone? Perhaps, some would say probably, but I do think that they are going to be tested in the White House with this collision with reality, the new control in the Congress will bring an assertion of facts – and truths that have been an inconvenience thus far but will have to be reckoned with in a new way. Will that bring them to change their policy? It could.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me ask you about that because we can’t have you here without asking you about the shift of power in America. Given your Presidential system, how significant is that on issues like Iraq, which is occupying people’s minds, exit policy and an issue you are also passionate about, climate crisis? Will the Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate make any scrap of difference in the long run if George Bush does not want to change?

AL GORE: I think there will definitely be a difference, remember we have had six years in a row that had been extremely unusual in at least one respect – there have been no hearings in the Congress. There has been no effort by the Legislative branch of government, which in our system is supposed to be co-equal and independent. For the first time in American history the Congress of the United States has given a complete blank cheque, operated as a complete a rubber-stamp.

GEORGE NEGUS: Let me ask you to look into a crystal ball. If we were talking in say12 months time, do you think America and therefore Australia and the other members of the coalition of the willing, will be out of Iraq and do you think that everyone will have signed up to Kyoto?

AL GORE: I think that it is more likely than not that in 12 months time, you will see a major redeployment of US forces and allied forces into areas further out of harm's way and far fewer numbers inside the country. That is just a guess. Where Kyoto is concerned I think that too little attention has been paid to this negotiation going on this week in Nairobi, where the nation of the world already signed up to Kyoto, are actively negotiating the next step that will be tougher, that will have some modifications. I would hope that John Howard and George Bush would participate meaningfully in pursuing whatever changes they would like to see within the context that the rest of the world has already adopted. Will that happen within the next 12 months? It depends on the amount of grassroots pressure from Australians and citizens of my country.

GEORGE NEGUS: And people like yourself kicking up a storm.

AL GORE: I am going to be doing my part I can assure you.

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you sometimes think you might be more influential at the moment than you ever were as vice-president?

AL GORE: I have no illusions about the amount of influence that can be wielded from the White House, it’s unprecedented and unparalleled, but that was not all from me so I am doing my best as a private citizen.

GEORGE NEGUS: Nice to meet you and thank you for your time.

AL GORE: Thank you very much.

GEORGE NEGUS: The man who used to be Al Gore, vice-president of the United States. Earlier this evening at the Nairobi meeting, UN chief Coffi Anan demanded world leaders give climate change the same priority as they do to wars and to curbing the spread of weapons of mass destruction. If you go to our website, by the way, you'll find our programs on the environment – the alcohol car from Brazil, the death of the electric car in the US, the success of solar and wind power in Germany, and our interviews with Al Gore and David Suzuki.