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Interview

Q&A with Al Gore: Grassroots push key to solving climate crisis

Former US vice president warns about growing risk of fossil fuel investments

Gore says Japan, China and South Korea are the only countries in the world that are using taxpayer money to "subsidize serious [climate] damage to the future of civilization." (Photo by Kazutoshi Murata)

TOKYO -- With governments reluctant to take on powerful business interests over climate change, it is up to grassroots activists to lead the fight, says former U.S. Vice President Al Gore, who visited Japan in October to attend Climate Reality Leadership Corps training sessions. Gore founded the organization that runs the training programs, which spread awareness of the climate crisis in an attempt to find solutions.

Here is an edited transcript of the interview:

Q: Thirteen years have passed since you founded the Climate Reality Project. Has the world made progress in tackling climate change since then?

A: I think that public awareness has increased quite dramatically. At the same time, however, the world's dependence on fossil fuels has continued to increase because the economy and population has grown. We still use fossil fuels for 80% of all of our energy in the global economy. So we are getting closer to the point where this increased awareness of the danger -- and the opportunity -- will result in decisions to change the policies that have kept us dependent on fossil fuels.

I see big changes imminent because the cost of electricity from solar and wind continues to come down every year dramatically. The danger of what economists call "stranded assets" in the form of coal plants that will be obsolete in a few years and unable to compete [will resemble] the subprime mortgages [that] became stranded assets.

Also, the world is becoming more aware of the climate crisis. And the world is asking many questions about why some countries are using taxpayers' money to subsidize more dependence on coal in places like Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and Africa.

There are only three countries that are using taxpayers' money to actively subsidize serious damage to the future of civilization: Japan, China and South Korea ... but I'm hoping that the Japanese people will join in asking questions about the wisdom in continuing this policy.

Q: Do you foresee a budding economic crisis?

A: [The U.S.] had a financial crisis that hurt the entire world [stemming] from the millions of subprime mortgages given to people who couldn't make payments on those mortgages. But the banks earned fees by lumping millions of [mortgages] together and selling them in global markets. And several years passed before people belatedly realized that these mortgages were worthless. And that's what created the financial crisis of 2007 and 2008.

We now have something very similar at a much larger scale. Because the price of renewable electricity is declining so quickly, present day investments in coal plants and gas plants are creating the same risk of becoming stranded assets just a few years from now. In fact, 42% of the coal investments worldwide are already stranded assets.

Another message that I received from the scientists in Japan is that these heat waves that sent 71,000 people to the hospital last year -- and more were sent this year -- were caused by global warming.

Also, typhoons are getting stronger and more destructive because this extra heat being trapped by global warming pollution is mostly going into the ocean, which makes the storms more destructive.

The melting of the ice in Greenland and Antarctica is raising sea levels at a much faster rate now, and the rate itself is increasing every year. Here in Tokyo, there's $1 trillion in assets that are at risk from sea level increases associated with a two-degree increase.

Tropical diseases are spreading to areas in the northern hemisphere like Japan and the U.S. Dengue fever showed up in one of the parks here in Tokyo.

So these consequences are ones that were predicted by scientists. And because the scientists were right in what they said 20 years ago, we should, in my opinion, pay more careful attention to what they are saying today about what will happen if we do not address the causes of the climate crisis.

Japan, along with the U.S., China and Europe, are the countries that the world looks to for leadership. But it is difficult to overcome the objections of the coal companies and the industries that still profit from putting more pollution into the air, yet we must do so.

The burning of coal not only produces global warming, it also produces the particulate pollution that kills nine million people worldwide every year. So these are changes that we should make for health reasons, for economic reasons, for competitiveness reasons and for reasons of morality, because we should be able to tell young people we're not going to destroy your future.

Coal-fired power plants like this one in China will become obsolete as the world transitions to other energy sources such as solar and wind, according to Gore.   © AP

Q: The Climate Reality Leadership Corps held its first training session in Japan in October, and it is the 43rd time you have staged the event. Is Japan rather low on your priority list?

A: I've had an impression for a long time because I was here during the Kyoto conference [in 1997] that Japan was already on the right path and it was not urgent. But I have revised my opinion. In any case, I'm very happy and honored to be here. I'm looking forward to this session. And we had twice as many people apply as we can accommodate. We have more than ... almost 900 people but we had twice that many who wanted to come. But maybe I will have to come back and have training in Japan.

Q: You call each session a "training" rather than "conference" or "lecture." Right?

A: I have spent a great deal of time over the last 14 years putting together a slideshow that illustrates the causes of the climate crisis and the solutions to it. And I personally purchase these images myself. And I don't let anyone else have them until and unless they go through a session where they are given the information about what these images mean, because I don't want anyone to mistake the scientific facts.

The people who I give these images to are then asked to show them to others. And while they are together, we offer them the best knowledge available on how to be persuasive in presenting the best science so that people will best be able to understand what the scientists are trying to communicate to those of us who are not scientists.

I believe very strongly that this is the most serious crisis that humanity has ever faced. And because many governments around the world have been reluctant to antagonize powerful business interests, because they are, in many places, reluctant to move as boldly as necessary to solve this crisis, I have concentrated on trying to empower people at the grassroots level to speak up respectfully in their communities and to say, "We as the community believe this is important."

Q: Who do you think is your best Japanese partner for tackling climate change?

A: I would answer your question in another way: I think my strongest ally in Japan is the younger generation, who as a group understand and are respectfully asking that these big changes be made quickly.

Q: Japanese companies in various sectors such as automobile, pharmaceutical and chemical have technological expertise that could be effective in tackling environmental issues. Do you think their potential could be realized in the future?

A: The stunning success of Japanese technology companies has long impressed the world. I think that, just as in my country, sometimes the political power and influence of older industries that have long depended on coal, gas and oil sometimes create a situation ... where government policy is based on lessons of the past and not [on] a clear vision of the future.

The cost of electricity from solar and wind is continuing to come down every year; the cost of batteries, electric vehicles, efficiency and improvements of every kind. These technologies are obviously cornerstones of the future. But again, in my country -- and I think maybe the same is true in Japan -- the political power of the older industries is sometimes overemphasized to the disadvantage of what is good for the future.

Q: Many in Japan, especially young people, are well aware of the importance of climate change. Some are launching startups in such fields as electric vehicles or renewable energy. Do you think the presence of those innovative businesses could change Japan's political agenda and direction?

A: Yes, I hope so. But there are also policy changes that are needed both in Japan and in my country. It is sometimes too difficult for solar companies to connect to the grid and to have a fair opportunity to sell the cheaper electricity that they produce. And when the government subsidizes the fossil fuel companies and forces taxpayers to tilt the scale and give the old dirty fuels of the past a big advantage with taxpayer subsidies, then that's not fair to the new companies that are using Japanese technological know-how to create the energy sources of the future.

Q: In August, the Business Roundtable -- a major American business group chaired by JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon -- said that corporate America needs to focus on economic benefits to all, not just maximizing shareholder value. Any comment?

A: I think that around the world in many locations, business leaders are ahead of government leaders. Sometimes government leaders are under the influence of a few in the business community that are still linked to coal and the old ways of the past. But the majority in the business community, both in Japan and in the U.S., see the future and understand that they have to move more quickly.

The business roundtable made its decision to redefine the purpose of a corporation and to say, as you noted, that corporations should no longer be focused only on increasing the value of the shareholders' interests. Now it is imperative that business take into account the interests of the communities where they're located, their employees and the families of their employees, and the environment and society as a whole.

This is a very important shift in the philosophy of business and it will take some time for some businesses to make this transition in their outlook. But their customers are demanding it and the younger employees in the business world are demanding it as well.

Gore was at the United Nations when young Swedish activist Greta Thunberg delivered an impassioned speech on the dangers of climate change in September.   © Reuters

Q: Swedish teenage activist Greta Thunberg in September caused a stir at the United Nations with her blistering criticism of world leaders' inaction on climate change.

A: I think that young Greta Thunberg has a very clear voice and she speaks for the younger generation that is wondering whether or not we care about their future or not. I think her statement at the United Nations was very powerful. I was there listening to her in the chamber. I thought it was very powerful.

Q: Tell us about your view of President Donald Trump. What can be done to change his mind about pulling out of the Paris climate agreement?

A: I have tried to speak with Donald Trump personally about the climate crisis. I thought that I would be able to change his mind. But I was wrong. And I now believe that he will not change his mind on climate because he is so close to the coal companies that are the worst polluters in the U.S. that he will not listen to anyone except them on the climate issue.

So we will have an election [next year] and I am hoping that there will be a change that will once again enable the U.S. to speak the truth to the rest of the world about the situation we face.

Interviewed by Koichi Sakai, Nikkei ESG Publisher.

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