Gore: Florida climate crisis mired in politics

Former Vice President Al Gore opens a three-day summit on climate change at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami on Monday.
Former Vice President Al Gore opens a three-day summit on climate change at the Hyatt Regency Hotel in downtown Miami on Monday. CMGuerrero@elNuevoHerald.com

Former vice president turned climate change campaigner Al Gore left the political stage more than a decade ago but he remains a vocal critic of how things are done in Washington. And he doesn’t like what he sees, with big money increasingly controlling big decisions.

In a one-on-one interview with the Miami Herald, the one-time Democratic presidential contender whose fate was sealed by hanging chads at a Palm Beach County courthouse aimed his harshest criticism at politicians — most of whom happen to be members of the opposing party — who ignore public will to carry out the wishes of powerful backers.

For instance, when asked about the fate of a constitutional amendment intended to buy and preserve land that Florida voters overwhelmingly supported last year, Gore chuckled.

“And the Legislature killed it,” he said.

Not exactly, but Florida lawmakers have strangled the intent of the amendment, raiding its funds to pay for a host of other things besides land purchases. Meanwhile, the threat of climate change hasn’t even been raised as a topic during two Republican presidential debates and most of the candidates are pushing for less regulation of industry, calling environmental constraints a brake on economic development. And the governor of Florida, a state that scientists agree is the most vulnerable to rising seas, expresses little interest in even discussing the threat.

Gore, during a break in a three-day climate science training session in Miami, didn’t go so far as to name names, but he described a political crisis in Florida and around the country.

“Our democracy has been hacked,” he said. “Large contributors call the shots and the politicians who are beholden to them respond to their instructions to jump by asking how high.”

Gore’s climate session, the 30th to be held and the first in Miami, was scheduled to rally support in advance of United Nations talks in Paris in November and timed to coincide with a seasonal king tide, which has triggered regional flooding in recent years that scientists say will only become worse as sea levels rise. The event, organized by his Climate Reality Project, is an effort to spur grassroots action on climate change by training a “climate corps” and drew a crowd of 1,200 from 80 different countries.

Topics covered the latest climate science, media coverage and solar energy. Among the speakers were University of California Irvine glaciologist Eric Rignot, one of the first scientists to report ice in Greenland and Antarctica melting faster than expected, and Debbie Dooley, founder of the Green Tea Party, which is helping organize solar efforts in Florida.

But the show belonged to Gore, who often took over the microphone to clarify scientifically dense discussions.

In black cowboy boots and a suit, Gore still bantered like a politician, even though he insisted he’s done running for office.

“I’ve used this line before, so forgive me but it’s the closest approximation to the truth. I am a recovering politician and the longer I go without a relapse the less likely one becomes,” he said.

Gore founded the Climate Reality Project in 2006 after An Inconvenient Truth, a documentary about his efforts to promote climate change with a slide show he assembled, won an Academy Award. He hopes to spur local efforts by drawing together activists, saying social media and grassroots efforts are beginning to chip away at entrenched politics.

“A new model is emerging that is not as dependent on big money,” he said, blaming television for helping consolidate power.

“All of a sudden gatekeepers began collecting rent from anyone who wanted to enter the public square and gain access to the public dialogue,” he said “And that’s what changed and made big money the dominant force in politics. But now the Internet is beginning to push television out of the center of the stage.”

The use of cellphones and social media to draw attention to police shootings involving black men show how powerful social media can be, he said.

“Pictures taken by cellphones and distributed on the Internet offering undeniable evidence of injustice rallies people to demand change,” he said.

While Gore spent much of the sessions trying to unpack the science, he took frequent jabs at the fossil fuel industry, comparing their efforts to Big Tobacco’s cover-up of health issues linked to smoking.

Offstage, he squarely blamed the industry for drawing political lines around the issue.

“The carbon polluters insured that. They give lots and lots of money in order to buy that polarization and they attack anyone who supports climate science. They vilify anyone who advocates limitations on using the atmosphere as an open sewer,” he said. “They get furious at anybody who tries to change things and make them more rational and sane. And so they’ve made it polarized.”

Even while he doled out criticism, Gore was careful to point out that he believes efforts are beginning to work.

“The new influence of social media and the Internet and people magnifying the impact of articles by journalists who really get to the heart of things, I think that’s beginning to have an impact,” he said. “So people shouldn’t feel discouraged about it. Change is coming. Change is on the way. We’re going to win this. But the route to victory goes through changes in the way our political system operates so that the public interest begins to count again.”

As for Gov. Rick Scott, who last year initially refused to meet with climate scientists in Tallahassee, Gore said he would willingly share his information on climate matters.

“I’m not sure he would be interested in hearing anything that I would have to say, honestly. I don’t know the man so I shouldn’t just jump to that conclusion. But that’s my impression. If he was genuinely interested in having a conversation about this, I would certainly do it.”