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Climate change detrimental to Midwest, says Al Gore

Watching the new Al Gore documentary, "An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power," and knowing the trajectory of U.S. policy on climate change — spoiler alert: we don't believe in it anymore — is like sitting through a soul-affirming story about the capacity for human ingenuity in the face of challenge, only to be handed a gym sock full of trash at the theater exit. No, wait: Perhaps it's more like the "Empire Strikes Back" of climate change films, the tale of a few minor victories framed through major loss.

The point is, Donald Trump.

The 2006 film "An Inconvenient Truth," for which Gore and director David Guggenheim won an Oscar for best documentary, was an urgent, intellectually unnerving bit of pedagogy, a slideshow on rising ocean temperatures, shrinking glaciers, the spike in superstorms like Hurricane Katrina and the potential for lower Manhattan to become one with the Atlantic Ocean. And then Hurricane Sandy turned lower Manhattan into an aquarium. In "An Inconvenient Sequel," Gore says the daily news has become a "hike through the Book of Revelation." And the film is something of a travelogue, visiting glaciers turning to puddles, Miami streets becoming rivers. Gore also lectures, talks green solutions with world leaders and helps negotiate the Paris climate conference.

Then, an extinction-level event, so to speak.

Trump rolls back Obama-era climate change regulations and appoints Scott Pruitt, a critic of climate change science, to lead the Environmental Protection Agency; on June 1, he pulled the United States out of the Paris agreement. If "Inconvenient Truth" was a warning, "Inconvenient Sequel" is a real-time struggle to piece together a workable response, the patching of a leaky roof even as its foundation is being dynamited. The first film found an existential villainy in the lack of political will and bipartisanship needed for action. The new film, once the Paris accord is undermined, gives the villain a name.

"When Donald Trump pulled the United States out of the accord a couple of months ago we knew we had to address that in the film," co-director Bonni Cohen said. "But the truth is that the Trump administration being in place has (created) more urgency. Most likely the government will not be moving much on the climate crisis during the next four years, but as a result of that we need to move on a civic, local and state level, and we are seeing more of that."

Gore himself, 69 now, a decade after winning his Oscar, is a different person. He and wife Tipper separated after 40 years; the sale of his Current TV cable channel to Al Jazeera for $500 million made him a very comfortable retired former vice president. In the decade since "Inconvenient Truth," there are even some environmentalists who feel the movement has outgrown the usefulness of brand-name proselytizers like Gore. We spoke recently by phone from San Francisco, about the movie, the climate and the president of the United States. Still, some things never change: Gore was his famously thorough, cheerfully wonky self. The following is an edited version of a far longer chat.

Q: You spend a lot of time in the new film in threatened places on the Eastern Seaboard like Miami. But what do you think the main climate change issues are for the Midwest now?

A: Chicago had the famous deadly heat wave, of course. In 1995. The preparation for events like that vastly improved, but heat stress throughout the Midwest has manifested in repeatedly deep droughts — even now in Nebraska and the Dakotas. In the southern Plains, we have terrible wildfires. One was called the Katrina of the Plains. The prediction for more persistent droughts in the breadbasket states is severe. On the other hand, the Midwest has been a leader for the country in the deployment of wind power in places likes Iowa. Now solar power is catching up and will soon surpass wind. But one other thing about the Midwest: All these food crops we depend upon were patiently selected by Stone Age women, many generations ago. Even crops that are genetically modified now are based on a pattern of plants selected 10,000 years ago. They were optimized for the climate conditions that emerged after the last Ice Age and dominated the centuries when agriculture began. Now that temperatures are increasing, the stress on those crops is reducing yields. There are multiple studies of wheat and corn and soybean and rice that show significant decreases. Genetics is trying to find traits that can head off these new conditions, but they have had at best limited success.

Q: What about your home state, Tennessee?

A: Historic downpours. You've had them in the Chicago area. Not many years ago we had a once-in-a-thousand-year event in Nashville. Thousands of my neighbors lost homes and businesses and didn't have flood insurance because never in living memory had those areas flooded. A few blocks from my house, water rescues of people in cars.

Q: In the film there is footage of a "rain bomb" — like a gigantic burst water balloon.

A: That's what people use for these incredible downpours. With all the evaporation off the oceans, the global average humidity is increasing by 5 percent, so scientists have predicted the disruption of the water cycle. So you get these atmospheric rivers carrying enormous amounts of water. Which means much more precipitation falls at one time, both rain and snow. Then there are the longer periods between downpours, during which the same heat energy sucks the moisture out of the first centimeters of topsoil.

Q: Having said all that, you doubted the need for a sequel?

A: Well, my judgment on the first movie was off, too. I didn't see how a slideshow can be a movie. I underestimated the skill of storytellers in Hollywood. This time, the first movie was so successful I worried about trying to follow it up. But there were two dramatic changes in the decade since the first movie came out: No. 1, climate-related extreme events became more common, and No. 2, solutions are here now. Ten years ago, they were visible on the horizon, but you had to rely on experts to assure you. Now we're seeing renewable electricity (from) solar at rates, in some places, less than half the cost of electricity (derived) from burning fossil fuels. Same for wind, batteries, electric vehicles — and hundreds of efficiency improvements without the sex appeal.

Q: You ever worry you're just speaking to people who already agree with you — considering how political polarization has only increased in the past 10 years?

A: Well, no. Not really. There are persistent levels of denial, mostly following leaders in parts of the Republican Party. But we have an old saying in Tennessee: If you see a turtle on top of a fence post, you can be sure it didn't get there by itself. And when you see high levels of denial, you can be sure they didn't get there by themselves either.

Q: Do you think climate change deniers even actually believe what they say? Trump's own golf course in Ireland cited global warming to obtain permits to build a sea wall.

A: I think some of them do believe. And I think some of them can be described by the great journalist Upton Sinclair, who said 100 years ago that "It's difficult to get a man to understand something if his paycheck depends on him not understanding it." Substitute campaign contributions and lobbying gifts for paychecks. But there are also a growing number of Republicans who do understand the reality and are searching for ways to get off the end of this long limb they climbed out on. There is a Noah's Ark caucus in Congress now. You can only join in twos — one Democrat and one Republican per pair.

Q: You met with Trump at Trump Tower in December.

A: I feel like I owe it to him to protect the privacy of the conversations I have had with him. The one in Trump Tower was not the only one. I did think there was a chance he would come to his senses. I was wrong. I wanted to convince him to stay in the Paris agreement. I was concerned other countries might use his decision as an excuse to pull out themselves. I was gratified when the rest of the world doubled its efforts. Then governors and mayors and business leaders (in the U.S.) stepped up to fill the gap.

Q: Is it more difficult to get anything done that way?

A: We would move faster with presidential leadership.

Q: How did Obama do on climate?

A: In the first six months of his presidency, he came out of the box with a bunch of excellent proposals. His green stimulus deserves more credit than it gets for helping jump-start some of the technology developments and investments in solar and wind. Nancy Pelosi led the House in passing (Obama's) cap-and-trade proposals, then it went to the Senate, where good ideas go to die. By that time (Obama) was up to his elbows in health care. Also in his first term, he made a big improvement in the miles standards for automobiles. But his first term, as a whole, was less than desired. His second term, he (discussed climate change) on election night, his inaugural, his State of the Union. He reached an agreement with China that led the way for the agreement in Paris.

Q: You became a vegan a few years ago?

A: I don't advertise that. I decided to try it out for a month to see what it was like. And I felt different. It might not be for everybody, but I have been a vegan five years now.

Q: Would you start a vegan cooking show before you ran for president again?

A: Well, that's a really novel twist on a question I get asked a lot! You know my answer to the second half: I'm a recovering politician. And I do not plan to do a cooking show.

Chicago Tribune's Erin Ben-Moche contributed.

cborrelli@chicagotribune.com

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