OXFORD, England – On the opening day of the Skoll World Forum, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore took a new tack and presented the “good news” about climate change.
“There are only three questions remaining about climate change,” Gore said to this audience dedicated to all manner of efforts aimed at reducing poverty, inequity and suffering worldwide.
The questions are, Gore said: Do we have to change? Can we change? And if we have to and we can change, will we?
“Now, this necessarily involves dealing with a little bit of bad news,” said the man who helped turn the phrase ‘inconvenient truth’ into a meme.
In fact, Gore then spent perhaps half of his 45 minutes plenary lecture at the Skoll forum detailing the bad news as an answer to the first question – the record global high temperatures the last two years running, the resulting economic, environmental and health damages and so on.
At one point, after showing videos of flooding and other clips of the increasingly destructive storms and weather disasters that many scientists now say can be attributed to climate change, Gore half-jokingly referred to the Book of Revelations.
But, he emphasized, the answers to the second and third questions are the good news. We can change and there’s plenty of evidence to suggest such changes are already under way.
“This is the beginning of a new era,” Gore said. “I’m very optimistic.”
The first sign we have turned a corner is the so-called Paris Agreement of 2015, in which nearly every nation on Earth agreed to take steps necessary to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Sure it’s a bit squishy on the details and enforcement, Gore said, but it’s a step forward. That’s better than answering no to question three.
He noted that many countries have already demonstrated renewable forms of energy are economically viable replacements for fossil fuels. Even northern European countries like Germany have made solar work; Costa Rica, he said, is nearly 100 percent renewables. The International Energy Agency recently reported that 90 percent of all new energy sources are renewable.
Hundreds of coal plants across the U.S. have been closed or plans to open new ones scuttled, Gore said, because industry has recognized they don’t have a future.
“We know what’s right and we’ve seen what’s wrong,” he said. Citing the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage and ending apartheid are all examples that show that’s what’s right and good eventually wins out.
Quoting the poet Wallace Stevens, he said: “After the final no, there comes a yes. And on that yes the future world depends.”
Prior to Gore’s speech, the former president of Ireland and once U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson, also emphasized that the world appears to be at a tipping point when it comes to climate change.
“I, too, believe climate change is the biggest threat to humanity,” Robinson said. And alleviating that threat, she said, is a matter of social justice (Skoll Foundation’s primary cause). The Paris Agreement was forged as a matter of human rights and equity, Robinson said, and it is a sign that the world has come together for that purpose.
A young woman from the Marshall Islands, one of several nations threatened by rising seas, joined Robinson on the stage. Selina Leem, with what on the big screen looked at one point with tears in her eyes, pleaded with the Skoll audience to do what they can to save her country and her people.
“Our home is one of the most vulnerable to climate change,” Leem said. This would not be the first time her community has had to flee due to outsiders causing damage, she noted. Leem described the devastation to the Marshalls from nuclear bomb testing, specifically noting one radioactive waste dump that had a sign warning people from visiting for the next 25,000 years.
“That sign was washed away recently due to the rising ocean,” Leem said.