SPIEGEL Interview with Al Gore 'I Am Optimistic'

In a SPIEGEL interview, former US vice president and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore, 61, discusses Barack Obama's environmental policies, the endless push by lobbyists to derail reforms and his hopes for a global deal at the climate change summit in Copenhagen next month.

SPIEGEL: Mr. Vice President, you write in your new book, "Our Choice," (to be published in German translation on Nov. 23 as "Wir Haben Die Wahl") that we have at our fingertips all of the tools that we need to solve the climate crisis. The only missing ingredient would be collective will. What makes it so hard for governments to implement change even though most people know what needs to be done?

Gore: As human beings, we are vulnerable to confusing the unprecedented with the improbable. In our everyday experience, if something has never happened before, we are generally safe in assuming it is not going to happen in the future, but the exceptions can kill you and climate change is one of those exceptions. Neuroscientists point out that we are inherently better able to respond quickly to the kinds of threats that our evolutionary ancestors survived -- like other humans with weapons, snakes and spiders or fire. Also, there is a real-time lag between the causes of the climate crisis and its full manifestation. That makes it seem less urgent to many people.

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SPIEGEL: But America always took pride in being faster and more flexible than other nations. Does that no longer apply?

Gore: America 's political system has evolved over the last 50 years in ways that have enhanced the power of business lobbies. The power of television and of money has grown exponentially. Eighty percent of the campaign contributions that candidates and officials running for re-election raise and spend go to TV ads, so they are required to raise enormous amounts of money, mainly from business lobbies. In a way, that has "re-feudalized" the political power and it gave much more power to established interests. When Obama was elected, I said: "What an exciting moment in our history." But his election did not cure all of the problems in the American system.

SPIEGEL: Seventeen years ago you, a young Senator from Tennessee, and Bill Clinton, a young governor from Arkansas, moved into the White House on the promise of change. Clinton played the saxophone and there was a feeling of spring in the air. Why has it been so much tougher for Barack Obama?

Gore: It was hard for us, too. Just remember the resistance to our health care reform bill. Obama's progress on health care has already surpassed what we were able to do on health care. He will get a climate change bill adopted. So I am optimistic. These are still the early days of the Obama presidency. He had a bad summer, but he is having a good fall.

SPIEGEL: Isn't it getting harder and harder to remain an optimist?

Gore: I think there is a realistic basis for optimism. The Internet empowers individuals to play a more active role in the political process, as Obama's campaign has manifested. They felt shut out of the conversation of democracy during the television age, but they are coming back. It is not an accident that virtually every progressive reform movement in the world is now based on the internet. There are more than 1 million, perhaps as many as 2 million grass-roots organizations that have been established worldwide on the issue of the climate crisis, most of them on the Internet.

SPIEGEL: Obama's political opponents also rely on the Internet, though. Could the reason for the resistance to his government be his skin color? Former US President Jimmy Carter said many Americans still have a problem with a black man in the White House.

Gore: There is no doubt that the issue of race is always present in American politics and in the politics of any multiracial society. There is also no doubt that for some people it is an element in the manifested hostility to Obama. But I don't think it is the major theme at all. Obama is right when he reminds people: By the way, I was black before the election.

SPIEGEL: Perhaps the aggressive reactions can be explained by the fact that he, you and large parts of the Democratic Party misinterpreted the will of voters. Perhaps the last election had less to do with a desire among voters to implement transformational change than just getting rid of Bush.

Gore: Isn't that all related? The Bush-Cheney administration had betrayed some basic American values. So there was hunger for change. The difficulties the new government has encountered are in the Congress, and they are connected to the growing influence of business lobbies and people who are simply afraid of government.

SPIEGEL: Is that a new phenomenon?

Gore: People in Congress listen less to each other. The Senate chamber, for example, is now commonly empty when speeches are made. That was different in the past and I know why it has changed. The chamber is empty now because the senators have to be at cocktail parties and fundraisers to raise money. They feel as if they have to spend virtually all their time raising money.


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