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Markkula Center for Applied Ethics

Environmental Activists, Heroes, and Martyrs

Al Gore

America's First Political Climate Action Hero

Nathaniel Bradford was a 2016-2017 Environmental Ethics Fellow at the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics.

Since the beginning of his political career, Al Gore has shown an admirable commitment to combatting climate change and has been widely recognized for his success in communicating its implications. The journey all started for Gore as a college student, was challenged numerous times during his political career, and was highlighted by his blockbuster documentary An Inconvenient Truth. Today, Gore continues to find ways to be a force for positive change by spreading the word about climate change and revolutionizing the investment landscape to favor sustainable businesses.

As a verification of the important role that teacher’s play in the lives of their students, it was a professor during Gore’s senior year at Harvard University that sparked his passion to be an environmental activist. Roger Revelle, an oceanographer and the first scientist to measure CO2 levels in the atmosphere, mentored a young and spirited Gore. Revelle’s data showed that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere was increasing at a dangerous rate. This anomaly, he concluded, was due to increased human caused emissions. Six years later, as a Representative of Tennessee at just 28 years old, Gore held the first congressional hearing on climate change, or as it was called then, global warming. The year was 1976.

Gore continued to make his way up the rungs of government, becoming a senator in 1984 and running for president in 1988. After failing to obtain the democratic nomination, he began to write a book on environmental conservation titled Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. It became a New York Times Bestseller and was the first book written by a senator to be given the award since John F. Kennedy’s Profiles in Courage.

1992 saw Gore reach a new height in his political career as he ran for office with Bill Clinton and became Vice President. Throughout his time as Clinton’s right hand man, Gore pushed for the implementation of a carbon tax but was never able to gain enough support for its enactment. In 1997, he brokered the first international global warming treaty called the Kyoto protocol. Everything seemed to be leading up to the 2000 election for Gore, who would no doubt be able to influence better climate change policy as the President of the United States. In one of the most controversial elections in US history, where the popular vote and electoral college favored different candidates, Gore was defeated by George W. Bush, marking an end to his political career. However, Gore was not down and out as an activist for the environment. He set out to create a message with evidence so strong that the sentiment of climate change as a hoax would no longer be respected.

Since his days as a junior congressman, Gore had regularly given a slideshow on climate change, constantly updating it to account for arising scientific data. When producer Laurie David witnessed this slideshow for the first time in 2004, Gore had already given the presentation at least a thousand times. It wasn’t until David, director Davis Guggenheim, and Gore released a documentary based on the slideshow two years later that Gore would finally get his message across to the world.

An Inconvenient Truth was no ordinary environmental documentary. The film was the third highest grossing documentary ever and won two Academy Awards. To capitalize on the film’s success, Gore published a book shortly after called The Assault on Reason targeting US politicians for ignoring facts when making policy decisions about the environment. Gore’s film and book proved powerful domestically and internationally, leading him to be honored with a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for “efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change” [1]. In his acceptance speech, Gore called for society to overcome the dangerous illusion that climate change is a hoax, calling countries to act on climate change as if they were mobilizing for a war, and pushing a sense of urgency on the subject by comparing the impending “carbon summer” to a nuclear winter. “For now, we still have the power to choose our fate,” Gore appealed to his audience. “The only question is this: have we the will to act, vigorously and in time, or will we remain imprisoned by a dangerous illusion?” [2].

Today, Gore remains active in the fight against climate change. In addition to his efforts to disseminate a message built on scientific facts that show humans must take action, Gore has taken a business approach to the issue as well. His firm, Generation Investment Management, has seen unprecedented growth over the last ten years. Unprecedented, because their strategy for investment strays substantially from almost every other investment firm. GIM only invests in sustainable businesses that offer long term economic gains. While financial analysis these days typically leans heavily on a few standard metrics and factors, GIM sees the most critical factor for success in companies as their ability to adapt to a changing world that will rely more and more on environmentally sustainable practices. Gore hopes to prove through the success of his firm that companies “can make more money if they change their practices in a way that will, at the same time, also reduce the environmental and social damage modern capitalism can do” [3].    

Gore has also built on the success of An Inconvenient Truth, continuing to give presentations and campaign for increased climate change awareness. In early 2016 he gave a TED Talk in Vancouver that rattled the cage of the modern world once again. Titled “The Case for Optimism on Climate Change”, Gore began the talk by detailing the increasingly obvious and detrimental effects of a changing climate like increases in pandemics and diseases around the world and streets flooding in coastal areas. Just as Gore had seemed to strike a cord of utter hopelessness in the crowd, he flipped the script and became impassioned with optimism. He detailed the vast increases in clean energy usage and investment, the sharp decline of coal plants in America, and the solar energy infrastructure being developed in quickly growing countries like India and Africa. He quoted renowned American poet Wallace Stevens, “After the final no, there comes a yes, and on that yes, the future of the world depends,” citing landing on the moon and civil rights as movements by humanity that were initially rejected. Then, an invigorated and fired up Gore ended on an inspiring note, “Some doubt that we still have the will to act, but I say that the will to act itself is a renewable energy resource” [4].


[1] "The Nobel Peace Prize 2007". Nobel Media AB 2014. Web. 6 Feb 2017.

[2] “Al Gore’s Nobel Acceptance Speech”. CasinoBeach. YouTube. May 17, 2012.

[3] “The Planet-Saving, Capitalism-Subverting, Surprisingly Lucrative Investment Secrets of Al Gore”. Fallows, James. The Atlantic. The Atlantic Monthly Group. November 2015.

[4] “The Case for Optimism on Climate Change”. Climate Reality. YouTube. February 25, 2016.