Al Gore Envisions 'The Future'

In his new book The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change, former vice president Al Gore takes a sweeping census of the variables affecting the future of life on Earth, including everything from robosourced labor and millisecond stock trading to genetic engineering and water shortages, and of course, climate change.

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IRA FLATOW, HOST:

My next guest really needs almost no introduction. He's former vice president of the United States. He's one of the most well-known communicators of the risks of climate change. He shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for those efforts. I'm guessing a lot of you have read his book, "An Inconvenient Truth," or you've seen the movie.

His latest book, "The Future," is, as the title suggests, a lot broader than that, a look at how everything from ultra-fast stock trading and genetic engineering, food shortages and Internet freedom, all these things, how will they shape the future. It's quite a tome. And don't worry. There's a chapter in there on climate change too.

Mr. Gore is also chairman of the Climate Reality Project, and he joins us here in our New York studios. Welcome to SCIENCE FRIDAY, Mr. Vice President.

VICE PRESIDENT AL GORE: Oh, thank you for having me.

FLATOW: You're welcome. We have an excerpt from your book, from the book, "The Future," at sciencefriday.com/algore, if you'd like to read it. This is a huge project that you tackle, "Six Drivers of the Global Change." And I read the drivers, and one of the things that strikes me is who is in the driver's seat on all of these things. How do we get the public to face these issues? Because it doesn't seem like we are in the mood to face anything big these days.

GORE: It does seem that way. And if you look at our situation, the situation of humanity on planet Earth, we have two large, powerful tools with which to shape the future: one is democracy, the other is capitalism. But both are in need of serious reforms. And here in the United States - the only country, in my view and in the view of many others, that is capable of providing the needed leadership in the world - we have a particular challenge because our democracy has been hacked. In order to put ourselves back in the driver's seat so that humankind can reclaim some control over our destiny, we really do have to remedy these problems with democracy and capitalism.

FLATOW: What do you mean democracy has been hacked? What do you mean by that?

GORE: Well, of course, it's a computer term that describes how a computer's operating system can be taken over and the computer forced to do things its owner doesn't want. Our operating system in the U.S. is our Constitution, and it's been hacked by big money, corporate influence, special interests, lobbying. Money plays an extremely unhealthy role in our democracy today. Its role has been growing ever since television replaced newsprint as the primary medium through which the conversation of democracy occurs.

And since television is dominant - it is a one-way medium - and access to it depends upon great wealth, politicians have been forced to raise ever larger sums of money, and the average senator or congressman today is forced to spend five hours a day begging special interests and wealthy people for money. And human nature being what it is, that twists and distorts the incentives our founders intended for them to respond to. Instead of thinking primarily about their constituents, too often they now think primarily about the sources of the cash they need in order to get re-elected.

FLATOW: Hmm. I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR, talking with Vice President Al Gore, author of "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change." We talk about gridlock here. We talk about science. We talk about how - you know, facts. It seems that part of the problem with a government, as you say, being hacked is that, in many cases, science has become a matter of opinion to just use and twist it the way that you would like to to make a point.

GORE: Well, that's another symptom of the problem I'm describing. It used to be that we would search for the best available evidence, discuss and debate it. But when we reached the point where a proverbial, reasonable person would say, well, this is as close as we're going to be able to get to the truth, then our discussions would shift to what should we do about these facts that we've established.

Now facts remain battlegrounds, and those who have big, powerful megaphones are tempted to believe that they can continue arguing facts long after a reasonable person would call it over and even tempt them to believe they can create their own artificial realities.

FLATOW: Right.

GORE: And the consequences are dangerous. Let me just give a couple of quick examples. When we - when the Senate voted to endorse the invasion of Iraq, 75 percent of the American people had been convinced by those with big megaphones that Saddam Hussein was primarily responsible for 9/11. The subprime mortgages were portrayed successfully as virtually risk-free, but that's what created the credit crisis, the global run on the banks and the Great Recession that followed because the truth had been obscured.

Another example, actually, comes out of the discussion I was listening to just before I came in. We are putting the future of antibiotic - our antibiotic arsenal at risk. And the livestock industry - factory farming - has enough influence, through their contributions and lobbying, to prevent the prohibition against feeding antibiotics in sub-therapeutic doses as a growth stimulant to livestock. The scientists last year proved that a bacteria that was responsive to antibiotics jumped from humans to pigs after the pigs were fed antibiotics for a long period of time. This bacteria became resistant and then jumped back to humans. And this is happening routinely.

In any functioning democracy, this practice which is utterly insane, reckless, dangerous, would be prohibited. But because our democracy has been hacked, we are incapable of getting any reform through the Congress in its present pathetic state.

FLATOW: All right. We need to take a break and get some more solutions that Al Gore might suggest to us. I'm talking with Vice President Al Gore, author of "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change." Our number is 1-800-989-8255. You can also tweet us @Scifri, @S-C-I-F-R-I. Go to our website and leave a message there. Just stay with us. We'll be right back after this break. I'm Ira Flatow and this is SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

FLATOW: I'm Ira Flatow. This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. We're taking with Vice President Al Gore. His new book, "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change." Our number: 1-800-989-8255. You've been writing all these books. You are the lightning rod for anything about the environment. You know, you get kicked when you're down. You get kicked when you're up like people who do I not believe. Has anybody been converted or do you care whether climate deniers, what they think?

GORE: Of course.

FLATOW: It's not important. Is this is not important anymore?

GORE: No. It is important because the conversation has to be one. And the forces of denial, which are lavishly funded by the large carbon polluters and some ideological groups, have intimidated many in the news media into remaining silent and not speaking out. Just an example, look at what happened last year. 2012 was the hottest year in American history. Sixty-one percent of our country was in extreme drought. It knocked a full percentage point off our GDP. The largest record fires in the west, the largest West Nile virus outbreak ever, $110 billion in climate-related disaster damage including, of course, Superstorm Sandy which devastated parts of this city and New Jersey and Long Island.

And yet, in spite of that, with more presidential campaign debates than ever in history, not a single journalist asked a single question that any of the candidates in any...

FLATOW: Yeah.

GORE: ...of the debates. It's almost like a family with an alcoholic father who flies into a rage if alcohol is mentioned. And so the rest of the family decides to keep the peace by never discussing the elephant in the middle of the room. And that is what the deniers have attempted to accomplish. Now, I think that Superstorm Sandy will be looked back upon something of a turning point. You saw President Obama's very inspiring statements in his inaugural address and the State of the Union Address. And I think that's symptomatic.

I just came from an event in Nassau County on Long Island. And I heard from a great many business leaders there, who said that the conversation has completely changed on Long Island. They were in the bulls-eye when Superstorm Sandy...

FLATOW: Right.

GORE: ...hit. And all over the country, these extreme weather events, that are getting worse, getting more frequent, are causing people to look at their hold cards.

FLATOW: Hmm-mm. Let's talk about some of the subjects in your book, "Six Drivers of Global Change." Let's talk about the Internet as a, you know, you have been credited with being one of the pioneers in the Internet, and rightly so, for defending its development. Did you ever imagine things like the social media being involved in like Arab Spring or those kinds of things that the Internet could influence?

GORE: Yes, yes. And of course, the jury is still out and will probably remain out for quite some time on what the results of Arab Spring were. It's not looking good in a lot of countries right now. But think for a moment about what's happened in Myanmar, Burma. The same pattern that has occurred in many places occurred there. There was an Internet inspired explosion of enthusiasm for democracy. Then it was snuffed out and it went back to stasis. But the embers kept burning. And a few years later, they flared up again. And now, there appears to be a process that includes movement toward genuine democratic reform there.

And yes, many did predict that it would have this impact because it puts individuals back into the conversation. Our country was founded during the era of the printing press when all the conversation in our democracy was in the printed word. And television starting in the last third of the 20th century really dampened that conversation and gave control to those who have large sums of money and a lot of power. The Internet has the clear potential to bring back the voices of individuals and a way of accessing the wisdom of crowds. That's what's made the United States the greatest country on Earth and what can restore our capacity to lead the world.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. Let's go to the phones. Let's go to Ryan in Houston. Hi, Ryan.

RYAN: Oh. Hey, thanks for taking my call. I was kind of getting a little worried there. But thanks so much for taking my call. Greetings to you, former vice president. I was wondering, what do you think are the biggest obstacles to businesses, large businesses, small businesses changing to an Internet-based business model since really Internet-based business models are kind of like more, like more cost-efficient, faster, people are able to collaborate in real time.

You know, you have great successes like TiVo, like Kickstarter and all these things. What do you think are the biggest obstacles to businesses changing to an Internet-based model? And I'll take my answer off the air.

FLATOW: OK.

GORE: Well, I think the main obstacle is inertia and the habit we all have of wanting to continue doing things the same old way. But actually I see so many businesses making that transition right now at warp speed. It's incredible. And of course it's creative destruction. You're seeing the fate of newspapers hang in the balance, and yet you see the explosion of new digital models. This is going to be a turbulent transition because we're still in the early stages.

FLATOW: And you write in your book about speed, especially about consuming data. You referred to a new transatlantic cable being built for $300 million to increase the speed of data that flows between New York and London, an increase of just 5.2 milliseconds.

GORE: Yeah. Yeah...

FLATOW: And that's important to them.

GORE: Well, yes. You know, 60 percent of the trades in both the New York exchanges and the London exchanges are now made by high-performance, high-speed, high-frequency supercomputers. After the flash crash a little over a year ago, it took them five months to figure out why the market suddenly dropped 1,000 points in 20 minutes and then worked its way back up. And my friend Joe Stiglitz, who was one of the forensic investigators, suggested a new rule to remedy the problem: to have a requirement that offers to buy and sell remain open for one second.

And that proposal was roundly rejected out of hand amidst warnings that the entire edifice might collapse. So yes, milliseconds are important now, and they will soon be in the nanosecond realm, which will introduce even more risks from harmonics and instabilities. But yes, this is something that has placed a prime value on speed. Now, that in itself is not new. You know, the Rothschild fortune was originally made by using carrier pigeons to get earlier warnings - earlier news of the outcome of the Battle of Waterloo so that French bonds could be shorted. So...

FLATOW: Well, the telegraph was invented to get stock quotes, that sort of thing, yeah. Everybody's always looking for speed.

GORE: Yes, that's right. And yet we are now in this realm where the transactions are occurring so swiftly. And the economy is so tightly coupled and so complex are the transactions that you don't have time for individuals to figure out what goes wrong when something goes wrong.

FLATOW: Let's talk a bit about - here's a - I want to get to a tweet that came in. Tina Marie says: As an unemployed environmental scientist, I ask where are the green jobs? Why are there not more green jobs around and how - what could you do to stimulate more green jobs?

GORE: Well, we need policy that gives us accurate economic signals in the marketplace. Right now the carbon pollution that is causing global warming doesn't show up on our national accounts, it doesn't show up on any business ledgers, of profit and loss. We need to take that so-called externality, give it a price, either directly or indirectly, and internalize it into our calculations. And that will drive a surge of investment in green energy, renewable energy, energy efficiency and open up a lot more jobs.

Now, that having been said, there actually are a lot of green jobs being produced. This past year, if you look at the extra electricity generation produced in 2012, 58 percent of it was from wind and solar. Wind was the single largest new source of energy last year in the U.S. In 2010 on a global basis, for the first time investments in renewable energy exceeded the investments in fossil fuel energy.

And the cost down curve for solar and to a lesser extent, also wind, is so impressive now that in many areas it's now cheaper than electricity from coal. Australia just announced that wind electricity is now cheaper than that from any new coal or gas plant. So it is coming. It's coming too slowly and we need the policy that I mentioned to put a price on carbon in order to accelerate it.

FLATOW: Why would you do? Give us your thumbnail sketch of how to get out of the delays we're in in terms of making the changes you talk about in your book?

GORE: Put a price on carbon.

FLATOW: That's one.

GORE: That's one. Restore our ability to communicate on the basis of facts, increase access to broadband. There has to be an act of will on the part of we the people.

FLATOW: But that's the real problem. And you know, and a lot of people will say, well, I'm hearing it from Al Gore - and I don't like Al Gore so I'm not going to listen to Al Gore because he represents this administration, you know? And that's why I've asked you before, can you ever win over the people who just don't like hearing it coming from a Democratic president or someone like yourself?

GORE: Well, there's...

FLATOW: Do you need to be won over or can you go out then?

GORE: There's a voice far more powerful than mine or even - more powerful even than the voice of the president. And that is Mother Nature. And the year's events - I described them just a few minutes ago - they did get people's attention and the polling indicates a fairly dramatic shift.

And by the way, not just in the U.S. - China just announced a CO2 tax. It is implementing a cap-and-trade program in two cities and five provinces as a pilot for a nationwide program. India's put a tax on coal. Australia, the largest coal exporter in the world, has now implemented both a CO2 tax and cap-and-trade. Ireland. California, as of January 1. Quebec, British Columbia - seventeen other nations. The European Union continues on its course. So if China does indeed implement a CO2 tax, it is likely to become the center of gravity for a very large carbon trading market.

FLATOW: This is SCIENCE FRIDAY. I'm Ira Flatow, SCIENCE FRIDAY from NPR. I'm talking with Al Gore, author of "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change."

Can you ever see yourself taking any sort of position in government again to try to become more active, to bring about some of these changes? Or are you happy to remain as private citizen?

GORE: Well, I would not take an appointed position and where running for president again is concerned, I write in this book that I'm a recovering politician on about step nine. And I've - I have been in recovery long enough to enhance my confidence that I won't ever relapse.

FLATOW: We have a tweet that's asking: What's on your turntable these days? What are you listening to in music - music-wise. What's your...

GORE: Well, I've been on this book tour for the last little bit and I haven't - I've been listening to some oldies but goodies. Jesse Winchester is one of my favorites.

FLATOW: Oh, yeah?

GORE: You ever listen to him?

FLATOW: Yeah, I've heard of him. You know, I'm still stuck in the '70s but I listen to...

GORE: Well, he is too.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Yeah. So I hear more - let's...

GORE: I'll tell you who is one of my real favorites. I was with him over the weekend is Jason Mraz. I think he's the real thing. He's - of course his "I'm Yours" was on the Billboard Top 100 for longer than any record ever in the 51-year history of that, and "I Won't Give Up On Us." I love his music.

FLATOW: None of the Dead still...

GORE: Yeah, I still listen to them. Absolutely.

FLATOW: 1-800-989-8255. I'm talking with Al Gore, author of "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change." Do you ever have a chance to just relax and sit back?

GORE: Sure.

FLATOW: And, you know, you seem to be so busy. This book - a huge book. It's got a great, you know, deal of information in it.

GORE: Yeah. Number four this week on The New York Times list.

FLATOW: Number four. Get a little SCIENCE FRIDAY boost when you leave here tonight I think also.

GORE: Yeah. Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

FLATOW: Do you think about - I mean do you think about technology as an answer to many of these problems or is it going to take more of a personal motivation by somebody to get involved?

GORE: Well, I think it will take both. It will take both. We have the technologies available now to start solving the climate crisis and many of the other big challenges that I describe in this book. We can benefit from further advances in technology and they are coming. We've never had a time when we were going through so many revolutionary changes simultaneously.

But, yes - in answer to your original question - there will have to be an assertion by us that the citizens of the U.S. and us - those of us who live on Earth to preserve human values by making choices about the future instead of just letting the invisible hand and the marketplace and technological determinism sweep us along willy-nilly.

FLATOW: Can individuals make a difference?

GORE: Absolutely.

FLATOW: Or it's going to take something from the top.

GORE: Absolutely. We spoke earlier about the transition from print to television and then to the Internet. I think that moving the institutions of democracy as quickly as possible into Internet-based forms is one of the real keys. And as that happens, you will see more individuals making a difference. Already we see individual bloggers affecting the course of important national debates. We see a lot of young people empowered by the Internet, getting more active in their communities than any previous generation. And we see the beginnings of exciting experiments to move that model into national decision-making, national politics and national governance.

FLATOW: Mm-hmm. Mr. Vice President, we've run out of time. I want to thank you for taking time to be with us today.

GORE: Thank you.

FLATOW: Al Gore, author of "The Future: Six Drivers of Global Change." A very interesting read. I highly recommend it. Take it with you when you're going on vacation this weekend.

That's about all the time we have for today. Greg Smith composed our theme music and we had help today from NPR librarian Kee Malesky. Missed any part of our program, you like to hear it again, you can subscribe to our podcast. We have audio and video, a video pick of the week is - you're going to love it. It's an old - it's an oldie but goodie up there on our website. And you can also go to iTunes and Android apps, and listen to our website at sciencefriday.com. Join our mailing list there. Also all week long active on Twitter @scifri and on our Facebook page, scifri also. Have a great weekend. We'll see you next week. I'm Ira Flatow in New York.

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