Al Gore has been visiting Australia this week – partly because he has a new film to promote, but also because he and Australian climate policy have had a surprisingly long entanglement. Given that this year is likely to be a bloody one as far as climate policy goes, don’t be surprised if he’s back again before 2017 is out.
Gore has a long and honourable record on climate change, although ironically his weakest period on climate coincided with the peak of his political power, as US Vice President.
As he says in his 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, he was first alerted to climate change by Roger Revelle, who can justly be called the (American) father of climate science. On becoming a Congressman, Gore was part of the move by Democrats to sustain momentum on climate policy that had stalled with the arrival of Ronald Reagan as President.
Even back then, the familiar political narrative around climate change had already formed, as journalism academic David Sachsman recalls:
The CBS Evening News for March 25, 1982, included a two minute and 50 second story by David Culhane on the greenhouse effect. Chemist Melvin Calvin raised the threat of global warming, Representative Al Gore called for further research, and James Kane of the Energy Department said there was no need for haste.
This report from the following year tells a similar tale, noting the political difficulty of solving the climate problem:
By the time of the seminal Villach conference of October 1985, Gore was a Senator, and helped to organise the first Senate hearings since 1979. Gore’s colleague, Republican Senator David Durenberger remarked that “grappling with this problem [of climate change] is going to be just about as easy as nailing Jello to the wall”.
The following year, as Joshua Howe notes in his excellent book on the politics and science of climate change, Behind the Curve (2014), the then Senator Joe Biden introduced an initiative mandating that the president commission an executive-level task force to devise a strategy for responding to global warming – a strategy the president was meant to deliver to Congress within one year.
Gore scored another political victory on May 8, 1989, when Hansen testified that George H. W. Bush’s administration had ordered him to change the conclusions in written testimony regarding the seriousness of global warming
From Vice President to movie star
However, as Vice President to Bill Clinton, Gore disappointed environmentalists. An energy tax was defeated by industry lobbyists in 1993, and the Clinton administration (perhaps wisely) opted not to try and pass the Kyoto Protocol through a defiant Senate.
After leaving the West Wing he embraced Hollywood, where his budding movie career attracted derision in some quarters, despite the hefty policy achievements earlier in Gore’s career.
Besides an Inconvenient Truth (see here for an account of its impact in Australia), Gore “starred” in another movie, the 1990 philosophy-based talkie Mindwalk, starring Sam Waterston as Senator Jack Edwards, a thinly veiled version of Gore.
Former Australian industry minister Ian Macfarlane certainly considered Gore more entertainer than policymaker when speculating on his reasons for visiting in 2006:
Well, Al Gore’s here to sell tickets to a movie, and no one can begrudge him that. It’s just entertainment, and really that’s all it is.
Gore and Australia
Gore has been on these shores many times. During his May 2003 visit Gore urged the then Prime Minister John Howard to ratify the Kyoto Protocol. He met with the then New South Wales Premier Bob Carr, and also with former Liberal leader and current climate hawk John Hewson. He spoke at an event co-hosted by the Business Council of Australia to advocate sustainable development.
After a controversial visit in 2005, Gore visited twice in 2006. As Joan Staples notes in her PhD, he teamed up with the Australian Conservation Foundation to launch his Climate Project:
Having reached out to the wider NGO sector, to doctors, unions, and the corporate sector, this initiative then moved ACF’s efforts towards influencing individual citizens. Gore’s organisation aimed to harness the power of mass mobilisation by expanding the message of his film An Inconvenient Truth.
Gore returned in 2007 and spoke at a A$1,000-a-plate event on the Sustainability and Cleantech Investment Market, with Carr introducing him while clutching a copy of Gore’s 1992 book Earth in the Balance.
He had his share of Australian critics too. On a frosty morning in July 2009 Gore’s launch speech of the Safe Climate Australia initiative attracted around 30 members of the newly formed Climate Sceptics Party, who handed out leaflets and wore t-shirts bearing their slogan: “Carbon Really Ain’t Pollution – CRAP”.
Gore also offered an opinion on Kevin Rudd’s proposed climate legislation:
It’s not what I would have written, I would have written it as a stronger bill, but I’m realistic about what can be accomplished in the political system as it is.
Gore seems to have (wisely) eschewed direct involvement during the tumultuous Julia Gillard years, but pitched in in October 2013 when the new Prime Minister Tony Abbott refused to link bushfires with climate change.
The Palmer moment
Perhaps the most bizarre, rub-my-eyes-did-that-just-happen moment came in June 2014, when Gore stood alongside Clive Palmer in a deal to save some of Gillard’s carbon policy package from Tony Abbott’s axe.
In July 2015, with the Paris climate conference approaching, Gore visited on a whistlestop tour that included meetings with senior business figures (BHP, National Australia Bank, Qantas, and Victorian state government ministers) to try and build momentum ahead of the crucial summit.
Looking into the crystal ball
Despite his Nobel Prize shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, not everyone is a fan, with Canadian journalism academic Chris Russill arguing that Gore’s approach “narrows our understanding of climate change discourse”.
Ultimately, we all need to find new and better ways of exerting more sustained pressure, not only on policymakers but also other institutions and norm-makers in our society, to change the trajectory we’re currently on.
Gore will keep banging on about climate change. He will turn up to give speeches, and will be both praised and derided. What matters is not what he does the same, but what we all do differently.
One of China’s foremost environmental analysts recently explained to me that while for many years climate change was characterized as a western conspiracy to hold China back, it all changed around 2012. Overcoming China’s testiness about western imperialist designs and bringing China into the international climate tent may in future be seen as one of President Obama’s lasting legacies.
When President Xi Jinping took charge in late 2012 he soon launched an ‘energy revolution’. He took up the call for an ‘ecological civilization’ and sent a message that coal would no longer be favoured.
Provincial governments, which had resisted Beijing’s dictats to reduce coal use, began to be brought into line. As Xi accumulated more power, by marginalizing his enemies or having them arrested for corruption, it became increasingly risky to mess with Beijing. But the provinces too are shifting away from their GDP obsession to a greater emphasis on quality of life.
The first phase of China’s national carbon market is expected to get under way this year. The Paris agreement and Xi’s constructive role in it greatly enhanced the influence of China’s environment ministry in bureaucratic tussles. Paris is now a powerful card to play, and incorporating environmental governance into policy has become the ‘new normal’.
Coal use has now topped out in China, and total emissions are expected to peak around 2022-23, well ahead of the committed date of 2030 under the Paris Agreement. Unlike the United States, China takes its Intended Nationally Determined Contribution under the Paris accord very seriously.
China’s carbon cuts
Beijing has a number of motives for taking an aggressive approach to carbon emissions. The headline one is social discontent due to appalling air pollution in the cities. Instead of closing coal-fired power stations, pollution levels could have been cut sharply by fitting scrubbers to them (as is done in the west), leaving carbon emissions untouched. But there are other reasons for cutting coal consumption.
One is to undermine the power base of some of the most corrupt officials in the country, the bosses of the coal and electricity sectors. Unlike most of China’s leaders, Xi is no a technocrat, which helps.
Beyond these domestic goals, the Party’s leadership can see a larger global dimension. Hastening China’s transition to low-carbon energy promises to give China ascendancy in the emerging renewable energy industries, industries set for massive expansion over the next decades as coal and oil combustion declines. Vast opportunities are available for the nation that manages to take the lead, and China is well on the way to doing so.
This is why Trump’s decision is not just a serious set-back to global efforts to limit emissions but also damages US economic prospects. When US companies find they must go to China to buy their energy generation equipment they will understand that ‘America first’ means America loses. Some of them can see it already.
A new world leader
At the highest level of strategy, Trump’s decision to ditch the Paris agreement presents Beijing with a golden opportunity to take on the mantle of global leadership. China has been slowly and systematically pursuing that role over some years by, for example, expanding its role in UN peace-keeping efforts.
And it has been presenting itself as the new champion of global economic integration. President Xi’s speech at Davos in January, where he condemned protectionism and lauded the benefits of free trade and investment flows, was timed to contrast with the Trumpian retreat.
The United States abandonment of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which through more trade and investment would have strengthened US ties to East and Southeast Asia, left a hole for China to step into. The grand One Belt, One Road initiative is a pitch for global economic leadership that will grow as the United States shrinks into itself.
Climate change presents China with the opportunity to acquire new legitimacy and respect as a world leader, offsetting the damage from its aggression in the South China Sea and escalating repression at home.
Some analysts say that China is not yet ready to become the global leader, and displays a certain reluctance to seize the mantle. But faced with indecision and disorder in the west the Party leadership has often had to decide to grab a chance while it is there, or bide its time and take the risk that it will be much harder later.
US withdrawal from global climate change leadership may be too good an opportunity to let pass. And there could be no better way for Beijing to demonstrate its claimed commitment to a peaceful and prosperous world than by directing the billions of dollars promised under the One Belt, One Road Initiative into low-carbon energy systems in developing countries. Developed countries too may find the lure of Chinese lucre too strong to resist and end up with energy infrastructures stamped ‘Made in China’.
In the early 15th century the Ming Dynasty in China undertook a series of expensive oceangoing expeditions called the Treasure Voyages. Despite the voyages’ success, elements of the elite opposed them. “These voyages are bad, very bad,” we can imagine them tweeting. “They are a bad deal for China.” Eventually these inward-looking, isolationist leaders gained enough power to prevent future voyages.
But this was an own goal. The parochial elites who killed off the Treasure Voyages could stop Chinese maritime innovation, but they could do nothing to prevent it elsewhere. Decades later, European sailors mastered the art of sailing vast distances across the ocean, and created fortunes and empires on the back of that technology (for better or worse). It is hard to see how China’s strategic interests were served by abandoning a field in which they led.
There are some striking parallels in the Trump administration’s decision to renege on the Paris climate agreement. It has been cast as a move to protect America, but in the long run it won’t derail the world’s transition to a low-carbon economy, and instead the US will find itself lagging, not leading.
Trump’s repudiation of the Paris deal is regrettable for at least three reasons. First, because the US is a technological leader whose entrepreneurs are extremely well placed to lead the global low-carbon transition; second, because America’s abdication of climate leadership weakens the global order and sends a wink and a nod to other fossil-fuelled recalcitrants like Saudi Arabia and Russia; and finally because having the world’s second-highest emitter outside the agreement is a clear negative.
That said, US flip-flopping on climate is nothing new. The nation played a strong role in shaping the Kyoto Protocol, only to fail to ratify it. And while that did not help matters, it did not derail international efforts to combat climate change. In fact, the momentum behind climate-friendly initiatives has grown several-fold since the early 2000s.
Viewed in the long run, the latest US defection changes little. Any conceivable future Democrat administration will rejoin the Paris Agreement. But more importantly, the transition to a low-carbon future is not dependent on the actions of a single player.
The criteria for successful climate change policy are hard to achieve but easy to describe: success will come when non-emitting technologies economically outcompete fossil fuels, pretty much everywhere in the world, in the main half-dozen or so sectors that matter.
Beating the ‘free-rider’ issue
A stable climate is what we call a “public good”, similar to fresh air or clean water. The US political scientist Scott Barrett has pointed out that climate change is an “aggregate efforts public good”, in the sense that everybody has to chip in to solve the problem of safeguarding the climate for everyone.
“Aggregate efforts” public goods are especially hard to preserve, because there is a strong incentive to free-ride on the efforts of others, as the US now seeks to do.
But technology can transform this situation, turning an aggregate efforts public good into a “best-shot public good”. This is a situation in which one player playing well can determine the whole outcome, and as such is a much easier problem to solve.
We have seen technology play this role before, in other global environmental issues. The ozone hole looked like a hard problem, but became an easy one once an inexpensive, effective technological fix became available in the form of other gases to use in place of ozone-harming CFCs (ironically, however, the solution exacerbated global warming).
Something similar happened with acid rain, caused by a handful of industrial pollutants. Dealing with carbon dioxide emissions is harder in view of the number of sources, but breakthroughs in five or six sectors could make a massive dent in emissions.
Technology trumps politics
This suggests that solving climate change relies far more heavily on technological innovation and successful entrepreneurship than it does on any single government. Policies in specific jurisdictions can speed climate policy up or slow it down, but as long as no single government can kill the spirit of entrepreneurship, then no country’s actions can alter the long-run outcome.
This is why German climatologist John Schellnhuber is right to say that “if the US really chooses to leave the Paris agreement, the world will move on with building a clean and secure future”.
The low-carbon race is still on, and the main effect of Trump’s decision is to put US innovators at a disadvantage relative to their international competitors.
We have seen these technological races before, and we have seen what recalcitrance and isolationism can do. Just ask the Ming Dynasty, who ceded their maritime leadership and in doing so let Europe reap the spoils of colonialism for half a millennium.
Similarly, the Trump administration can ignore basic physics if it likes, although this is electorally unsustainable – young Americans can see that it is in their own interest to support climate policy. Democracies are imperfect, but over time they have the ability to self-correct.
Developing polices that regulate the release of environmentally damaging gases is important. Pricing carbon is important. But government policy is not everything. Ultimately, this problem will be solved mainly by technology, because the way out of the jam is by finding new, inexpensive ways for humans to flourish without harming the planet.