Al Gore and Greta Thunberg met in December 2018 at the COP24 held in Poland, in Katowice. There the young activist made her first public intervention outside Sweden. They met and a photograph was taken that was spread on social media.

greta and al

Thunberg then said Al Gore was «a true pioneer» and claimed that «few people have done more» than him. It was an image that brought together two of the world’s leading symbols in the fight against climate change, and which at the same time embody two opposite ways of dealing with it.

Activist since adolescence

Until the advent of Thunberg, the former U.S. vice president has been possibly the most well-known activist in the world against climate change. Al Gore is best known for his book and documentary entitled «An Inconvenient Truth» and also for receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007, along with the IPCC.

If we pay attention to what he himself has explained, his interest in the environment was aroused at least in adolescence, when his mother read him Rachel Carson’s classic «Silent Spring.»

Al Gore with wife and daughter
Al Gore with wife Tipper and daughter in 1992.

Climate change, in the US Congress in 1976

The truth is that at the age of 28, when he became a representative for Tennessee, he was responsible for talking about climate change as an issue for the first time in the United States Congress.

This happened in 1976, and Gore invited there Roger Revelle, his Harvard professor and one of the first scientists to begin studying climate change and global warming. Revelle was the promoter of the now famous Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, where CO2 data in the atmosphere have been collected for more than 60 years.

Al Gore later became a senator, without abandoning his interest in the environment: for example, in 1990 he promoted a kind of Marshall Plan for sustainable development in the world, with climate change very much present. Continuing with this idea, Al Gore published the book «Earth in the Balance» which became a bestseller, the first by an active senator.

Vice President of the United States

al vice

Bill Clinton chose him as a vice presidential candidate, and in 1993 they both became the political leaders of the world’s leading power. From the post of vice president, Al Gore continued to preach, and in the late 1990s he was the top advocate for the U.S. to adhere to the Kyoto Protocol, the first serious international attempt to curb climate change.

In 2000 he was on the verge of becoming president, but in one of the most contested elections in decades, George W. Bush finally won it.

Exclusive activist

After that failure and some doubts, Gore chose to devote himself almost exclusively to environmental and climate activism, and “An Inconvenient Truth” and the Nobel Peace Prize were the most visible results.

Gore has never given up environmental activism, but nonetheless the fruits of these more than 15 years have been relatively meager.

Especially if we compare them with those of Greta Thunberg: the Swedish teenager began his school strike in August 2018, and in less than 2 years has had an impact on the public debate that pales the one that has had Al Gore throughout his career.

Decades of chopping stone

Raised in this way, however, it may seem unfair, and it certainly is: the American has gone against the flow when there was not yet as clear scientific evidence as there is now.

Thunberg, on the other hand, began to become famous in the fall of 2018, coinciding with the release of the UN report that places 2030 as the point of no return if emissions are not drastically reduced.

But apart from these considerations, the truth is that the two styles of activism that embody each other are very different and may have to do with the different incidence.

Activism from power

In order to thrive as an elite politician in Washington, Gore had to craft a possibilistic discourse that did not clash excessively with the major dogmas and consensus of American politics.

This allowed him to introduce climate change into the political debate, but in a friendly, non-disruptive and therefore unincisive way. It can be added that, in these cases, efforts like his can help to whitewash the situation, to spread the feeling that things are being done, because they are being talked about, but without doing them.

Once engaged in activism from outside politics, his style did not differ much from the previous stage: while launching «An Inconvenient Truth», he created the Alliance for Climate Protection, an NGO dedicated to warn against climate change.

al inconvenient

Later turned into The Climate Reality Project, this organization has continued to be active until now, dedicated to training what it calls Climate Reality Leaders from more than 100 countries.

Al Gore has not limited himself to activism: in 2004 he founded Generation IM, an investment fund that finances projects considered sustainable, and also became a partner in venture capital firm Kleiner, Perkins, Caufield & Byer. In parallel, he joined the board of advisors of Apple and Google.

On the other hand, he has been criticized for leading a lifestyle that clashes directly with his discourse on combating climate change: among other things, he owns several houses that have a lot of energy expenditure, and has voyaged around the globe by private jet.

Activism from the sidelines

16-year-old Swedish Climate activist Greta Thunberg speaks at the 2019 United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. headquarters in New York City, New York, U.S.
Greta Thunberg during her speech at the United Nations Climate Action Summit at U.N. in New York, September 23, 2019

Thunberg has taken the opposite pole: although his family may be considered privileged, she has established from the outset a radical discourse accusing governments and corporations of having ignored – and continue to ignore – climate change.

And she has done it with a radical defense of the scientific conclusions drawn from the work of the IPCC and also of the literalness of the Paris agreement to limit the rise in temperature to 1.5 degrees in 2100.

And all this with the tool she alone invented: the school strike for the climate, which began without any support and which, thanks to social media, have become a global movement under the name Fridays for Future.

Among other things, if the public debate is now focused on the concept of climate crisis, and not on climate change, it is due to the pressure exerted by Thunberg and her followers.

Speech and example

Aside from the speech, the well-known facts of Thunberg’s daily life correspond to this radicalism: she does not eat animal products, refuses to travel by plane, wants the minimum of clothes and objects to live on, and so on.

In addition, she has managed to make her family vegan, also stop flying, with the extreme case of her mother, who has given up her international career as an opera singer for this reason. Always with her father, she traveled by train and electric car through Europe and the United States, and to cross the Atlantic without having to catch a plane, she sailed, this becoming a major issue of the news and discussion about her.

This radicalism of speech and example, together with her youth and determination, have made her the symbol that concentrates all expectations of change.

Both at the COP25 in Madrid

The contrast between the two styles of activism they embody was evident at the Madrid Climate Summit, as well as the incidence of both.

While everyone heard about Thunberg’s arrival by boat and train via Lisbon, and it was the focus of attention every day, almost no one noticed Gore’s presence. In addition to participating in other events, the former US Vice President met with the President of the Spanish Government, Pedro Sánchez. After the meeting Gore praised the Spanish Energy Plan and also the intention to achieve neutrality in coal by 2050.

Greta Thunberg, on the other hand, participated in COP25 almost every day, practically monopolizing media attention. In her speech to the plenary of the summit, she reiterated precisely that the real problem is the appearance of action:

«I still think the biggest danger is not inaction, the real danger is that politicians and business people show that there really is action, but in fact, almost nothing is done, apart from playing with the numbers and the creative public relations ”.

Segundo día de negociaciones de alto nivel

Governments and companies, and everyone else

In her speeches, Thunberg focuses criticism on political and business leaders, but the changes she calls for adaptation to the climate crisis will necessarily lead to changes in the daily lives of virtually everyone.

In this regard, it remains to be seen whether Thunberg’s radicalism is generalizable, that is, whether those added to Friday’s school strikes also are willing to make personal changes and sacrifices to significantly reduce environmental impact.

Because what is to be seen is whether humans in general, and the wealthier in particular, are willing to give up some of the comforts and luxuries that technological progress has provided us.

For it is now clear that much of these comforts and luxuries cannot be maintained, because they depend on continuing to burn fossil fuels at the same rate as before the Covid pandemic.

Josep Maria Camps Collet

First published in catalan at 324cat:

Teenage climate change activist Greta Thunberg gives speech at the House of Commons

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