Former Vice President Al Gore was in a metaphorical state of mind during a brief respite from MC’ing a marathon climate change event Tuesday.
Asked to characterize the state of the global conversation on carbon pollution, Gore told Takepart it’s “too frequently like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage every time alcohol is mentioned.” So the family learns to keep the peace by “never mentioning the elephant in the room.” But for Gore, who has devoted his life post-public office to spreading the word on climate change, staying mum on the “problem to end all problems” is simply not an option. And speaking up will ultimately win out, he insisted.
“Anytime an issue can be broken down into a fundamental question between what’s right and what’s wrong, the side that’s right is going to win,” said Gore, who was quick to cite apartheid in South Africa and desegregation in the U.S. as moments in history when “people found the courage to win conversations that eventually led to changed laws.”
Billed as the world’s largest ever conversation on carbon pollution, The Climate Reality Project’s third annual 24 Hours of Reality: The Cost of Carbon, began on Tuesday morning and featured Gore, six hosts, and 25 panelists of divergent backgrounds, from singer-songwriter-surfer Jack Johnson to World Bank Group President Jim Yong Kim.
Each hour, a different effect of climate change was highlighted: Infrastructure loss in Europe, rising food insecurity in Africa, or refugees in Asia among them.
During the event’s opening segment, which centered on extreme weather events in North America, both Gore and host Philippe Cousteau Jr., an environmental activist and explorer, sat captivated by the story of Samantha Langello, a 31-year-old New Yorker and mom.
On October 29, 2012, the storm surge caused by Hurricane Sandy, which many scientists argue was enhanced by climate change, destroyed Langello’s Staten Island home. Though she and her two young children had evacuated early in the day, her husband stayed behind, barely escaping the rising floodwaters that consumed their neighborhood that night. The Langellos’ home was reduced to a frame and a few pieces of siding.
Off camera later, Langello, who calls herself a “climate change refugee,” said she cannot understand how some members of Congress can in good conscience continue to “turn a blind eye” to climate change. “They’re absolutely foolish—climate change is fact, ” she said. “I would like for one of them to experience what I went through.”
This year’s 24-hour event came at a critical crossroads in the fight against global warming.
In September, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) unveiled its fifth assessment report, upping to “extremely likely” its assessment that human activity is the "dominant cause of climate change observed since the 1950s.” In the same report, the IPCC established a target level at which humanity must stop spewing greenhouse gases into the atmosphere or face irrevocable climatic changes.
Around the world, the cost of carbon pollution is already being felt, both in terms of lives lost and dollars wasted. In the U.S. last year, extreme weather events killed 377 people and caused up to $110 billion in damages, according to the National Climatic Data Center. And the floods that ran roughshod over much of Europe in 2013 killed 25 people and caused more than $16 billion in economic losses, according to insurance giant Munich Re. Opponents of climate change mitigation frequently cite cost as a reason to continue business as usual.
Conversations about solutions at 24 Hours of Reality mostly came around to putting a price on carbon—making emissions costly through either a tax or a cap-and-trade emissions trading scheme. Though the U.S. Senate in 2010 abandoned attempts to pass a House cap-and-trade bill, regional markets exist in California and nine states in the Northeast.
A hopeful Maggie Fox, the CEO of the Climate Reality Project, told me during hour six of the event that the particulars of any carbon-pricing scheme were less of a concern for her than first and foremost “getting a majority of global leaders to understand” that we’re already paying for climate change. Whatever economic cost incurred by putting a market-based price on carbon would most likely be “less expensive than what we’re paying now in terms of damage cleanup,” she said.
“As important as it is to win the conversation and change the light bulbs, it’s even more important to change the laws and that means winning the national, and ultimately the international conversation,” Gore said at the Hollywood soundstage.
And Gore and Fox were equally adamant in their belief pressure on deniers and fossil fuel companies must never stop. That’s why climate change victims, like Langello, are essential.
“Most of us only get so far in terms of logic and reason and abstract analysis,” said Gore. “But [Langello’s] story is easy to understand with your heart, not just your head.”
“I’m absolutely going to try to raise as much of a stink about climate change as a mother of two from Staten Island possibly can,” Langello told me with a smile. “As many people that will listen to me, that’s as many as I’m going to share my story with.”