Al Gore Is Still Optimistic

(Bloomberg Businessweek) -- BLOOMBERG BUSINESSWEEK: What are the most ambitious goals you’d like us to see accomplish within your lifetime?

AL GORE: I’d like to see us solve the climate crisis and build a healthier, more prosperous, fairer, more just society and economy in the process. There are only three questions remaining about the climate process: Must we change? Can we change? Will we change?

We’re still treating the atmosphere as an open sewer. We’re putting 110 million tons every day of man-made, heat-trapping pollution into the sky. And it lingers there for a long time. The cumulative amount now traps as much extra heat as would be released by 400,000 Hiroshima-class bombs exploding every day.

It’s a big planet, but that’s a lot of energy, and that’s why it gets hotter every year. That’s why the oceans are getting so hot. That’s why Hurricane Florence intensified so rapidly. That’s why this supertyphoon that’s even larger was headed toward southeast China. That’s why the worst fire in the history of California was one month ago in Mendocino and why the fire season here in the West is 105 days per year longer than it used to be. That’s why the drought in the Southwest is as intense as it is. That’s why there are fish from the ocean swimming in the streets of Miami at high tide—because of the melting ice and sea level rise.

Al Gore Is Still Optimistic

The scientists were spot on in warning us about all of those consequences. Now the evening news every night is like a nature hike through the Book of Revelations. We should pay more attention to what the scientific community is telling us will happen in the future if we continue using the sky as an open sewer.

I don’t want to have to explain to my grandchildren why my generation sat around and failed to deal with this. I would much rather tell them how our generation actually rose to the moral challenge and found a way to do it.

This is a really critical choice that we have to make. We must change. The second question: Can we change? We have the ability and the technologies to do it.

The most important is the third question: Will we change? What we’re seeing these days is great evidence that we will. The Paris Agreement is equally significant evidence that we will change. I was worried when President Trump made his announcement that the U.S. was going to pull out of the agreement. But no other country in the world followed his lead. Some doubt that we have the political will, but it’s worth remembering that political will is itself a renewable resource.

Speaking of the Paris Agreement, what’s the Plan B for the worst-case scenario?

There’s no Planet B, so there’s no Plan B. But we are still a nation under law and will remain so. Under the law, the first day the U.S. could actually withdraw from the Paris Agreement happens to be Day One after the next presidential election. If there’s a new president—excuse me for a moment (he prays)—then a new president could simply give 30 days’ notice, and the U.S. would be right back in the agreement.

But it’s easy to feel disheartened and overwhelmed and even apathetic. What’s the optimist part of this that we have to keep in mind?

Some people go straight from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually addressing and solving the problem. The sustainability revolution is the largest investing and the largest set of business opportunities in all of history. Many companies are becoming aware of the risks of continuing with the fossil fuel economy, with the exploitative business models that ignore waste, ignore pollution, ignore the exploitation of communities and workforces.

When companies get with the program and adopt sustainability goals, all kinds of benefits come to them, including recruitment and retention. The brightest and best young men and women want to work for companies that give them a good income but also give them an opportunity to say to their family and friends that they’re part of something larger than just making money, that they’re helping to make the world a better place.

You’ve become a financial success story because of Generation Investment Management, which you co-founded in 2004 with David Blood. You now manage $18 billion?

A little bit more—$20 billion, $21 billion. But what’s $3 billion among friends?

Using this sustainable finance lens, what do you—as an investor—look for in business strategies?

We look for companies that don’t borrow from the future, that help to create a more sustainable and healthier present without doing so at the expense of the opportunities that should be available down the road. We find that companies that really focus on that model are far more likely to be successful than their competitors in almost every sector of the marketplace. There’s now voluminous academic research tending to prove this.

In the investor marketplace, there used to be this outdated view that fiduciary responsibility somehow prevented asset managers from taking the environment and social and governance factors into account. Now that’s been turned on its head.

Best practice now tells us that asset managers who do not take these factors fully into account are themselves violating their fiduciary responsibility. That’s kind of an earthquake in the investing marketplace.

But if there’s so much money to be made in sustainable finance, why haven’t we seen more investors really flock to it?

Anytime there is a significant change, inertia is an obstacle. It’s just human nature. You know, the QWERTY keyboard makes no sense anymore. But the transition to a new design has frustrated all of the keyboard and software companies. Its the same thing when you ask people or businesses to make a systemic change to an approach that has been used for a long time and that people are comfortable with. Change can be difficult. But once change is embraced, you feel the wind at your back and you begin to think, “Well, why haven’t we done this before?”

Talk a little bit more about the results of some of your investments. Do you have a case study in your portfolio that you point to as an example that can make a believer out of a climate skeptic?

We invested in a terrific company called Proterra run by Ryan Popple. He was an infantry captain in Iraq and then in the financial operations of Tesla before ending up as CEO of Proterra. The company makes the best electric bus in the entire world. I’m a little biased, but you’ll understand that. But it really is. Zero emissions. No diesel fumes inside the bus. Wi-Fi. Bespoke design from the get-go. And the company just completed a test run of their bus—1,000 miles on a single charge. They’re winning most every contract they compete for. They haven’t been able to build them fast enough. Now they have a factory in South Carolina, one in California. They’re gearing up to build more.

I’m inspired by a lot of these entrepreneurs. Another one is Horace Luke, CEO of Gogoro, a company we invested in that makes electric scooters in Taipei. There are many more people who travel on two wheels than four. In Asia, with its air pollution and climate emissions, scooters and motorbikes are a nontrivial factor. Luke’s company has a system where you can swap batteries out of a network of Gogoro battery charging stations. All it takes is six seconds, and you get another day or day-and-a-half of use out of the scooter.

Luke used to run Xbox for Microsoft years ago. He came to this scooter idea because he wanted to be part of solving the climate crisis. He was offered CEO positions in high-tech digital companies, but he wanted to take this on. He’s another example of an up-and-coming star.

How much more opportunity do you still see for businesses both to make a difference and to make a profit?

It’s limitless. Our No. 1 goal is to get the highest return for our clients, but to do so in a way that invests according to this sustainability model. And so there’s M-Kopa, an East African company that installs solar cells on huts and homes located in areas that mostly have no electricity grids. The payments are made by a telephone-based payment system called M-Pesa. Now, they’ve been selling tens of thousands of direct-current, solar-powered television sets. It’s a great model for zero-carbon electrification.

I’ll give you another example. We’ve invested in a company called Toast that takes on food waste. There’s an enormity of food waste in the global economy. I can’t remember the statistics, but waste would be the equivalent of the third- or fourth-largest consumer of food in the world. Toast has created an incredibly efficient, easy-to-use, highly productive digital system to manage restaurants, to connect the kitchen to the server, and to eliminate all of the food waste.

You’re no longer an elected official. What do you know now that you wish you would’ve known then?

We all learn as we age and as we have more experience. I have really enjoyed the business world and Generation Investment Management. It’s been an absolutely thrilling experience. The relationship we have with our clients and with the executive teams and the CEOs that we invest with … I absolutely love it. And I’ve learned a lot about the business world. I’ve still got a lot to learn, but it’s been really fascinating and really fun.

What are you most excited about?

I’m excited that we are beginning to achieve the moment we need in this world to solve the climate crisis. It’s almost unimaginably difficult to make the transition that’s now under way, because we still rely on fossil fuel for 80 percent of the world’s energy use. But I’m excited because I see people taking it on every day and succeeding. We are going to win this.

The remaining question is whether we win it in time to avoid crossing some dangerous threshold that would throw the climate balance out of kilter. We’ve melted so much ice in the Arctic that the temperature’s going up much faster there, changing the differential of temperature at the North Pole to the equator. And that’s one of the things that defines the pattern of wind currents and ocean currents to redistribute that heat. So you get these storms that are just locked in place for days at a time. That’s one example of dangerous thresholds we should not risk crossing.

The oceans are another. Acidifying the oceans, making them boil and the temperatures go up so much, puts at risk the food chain. I could give you other examples: Coral reefs are now in really grave danger. So it matters how quickly we win this. But I’m excited that we’re gaining enough momentum. That the hope is legitimate and real.

A few things haven’t gone according to plan. The Trump administration has chipped away ceaselessly at environmental protection. He seems to love coal. And Scott Pruitt took the Environmental Protection Agency in a different direction. He’s gone, but the acting administrator has continued that agenda.

Since President Trump took office, the cancellation and retirement of coal-generating plants has actually accelerated. As for the EPA, somebody said they’ve made it into the CPA—the Coal Production Agency. The new guy was a coal lobbyist and accompanied coal CEOs in to lobby the new administration. As administrator, he’s enacted measures he was lobbying to get adopted. This is deeply unfortunate.

But we have to keep on moving. Many state governments are now filling the role that the federal government used to play. Furthermore, this process of transformation is being driven by business, by technology, by investors. We could make the process faster if we had a federal government in the U.S. that was actually helping to lead this. But California is doing a lot—and the other states, too.

Governor Jerry Brown of California has made this incredible pledge, signing into law a bill that by 2045 would make his state use 100 percent zero-carbon electricity. What can we learn from California?

What other states have learned is that California’s economy has grown faster than the national economy even as its emissions reductions have been much larger at the same time. There is a jobs intensity to the sustainability revolution.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics recently reported that the single fastest-growing job in the United States is solar photovoltaic installer. Those jobs are growing nine times faster than the average job growth in the economy. The No. 2 fastest-growing job is wind turbine technician.

We can also create tens of millions of new jobs retrofitting buildings with better insulation, better windows, LED lights, reducing the utility bills of the buildings’ occupiers and owners, cleaning up the environment.

The jobs can’t be outsourced, because they’re needed in every community. This is the greatest opportunity for increasing secular demand for renewable energy by creating more jobs, and this challenge is one that California undertook before the rest of the country. The results that California has achieved—and is achieving—present an object lesson for all the states.

So what should everyone at this Global Climate Action Summit do when they leave the room today?

If you have a pension or savings and you’re investing it, I would urge you to divest from coal and begin to divest from all fossil fuel stocks. We have a $22 trillion subprime carbon asset bubble that poses a great financial risk to savings and to pension funds. I would urge you to be a climate-conscious, environmentally aware consumer. And when you pick more responsible products, that sends a signal through the marketplace. It helps you be a part of the solution.

You say I’m no longer an elected politician. I’m a recovering politician now. But if you’re not registered to vote, don’t even talk to me about our future. If you’re not, go register to vote. At one level, this comes down to a question of political power. Our democracy was hacked by lobbyists long before the Russians hacked it. But the remedy is for more people to get more actively involved. And this election on Nov. 6 is the most consequential off-year vote I’ve ever seen in my lifetime. We all have a tendency to say every election is the most important, but this one really is.

If there’s ever been a time to make the checks and balances in America’s Constitution work, Lord God, this is the time to have some checks and balances. And everybody can help to make that difference. I’m serious. In order to solve the climate crisis, we’ve got to deal with the democracy crisis.

Dealing with it means participating, not just voting. Speak up. Don’t be intimidated by some climate denier who threatens to go into tantrums if you mention climate. It’s a little like a dysfunctional family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if the word “alcohol” is mentioned, so everyone tiptoes around what needs to be discussed. We can’t allow climate to be like that in our democracy. We have a moral and spiritual obligation to discharge the duties that our generation of Americans and human beings has before us right now.

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Howard Chua-Eoan at hchuaeoan@bloomberg.net

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