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24 Hours With Al Gore at His Climate Change Variety Show

I spent 24 hours straight with the world's most famous climate crusader in a greenhouse in Brooklyn.

by Brian Merchant
Sep 25 2014, 1:00pm

Image: The Climate Reality Project

It's 6:30 am, and former Vice President Al Gore is talking about his early days in Congress, which sound like some of the happiest of his life. Neither of us has slept for nearly 24 hours, and the dawning sun is just beginning to warm the giant, frigid greenhouse in the Brooklyn Navy Yard that we haven't left since noon the day before. Behind me, a production team, also running on no sleep at all, scrambles to keep Gore's program moving smoothly into its 19th consecutive hour.

This is 24 Hours of Reality, Gore's annual global warming variety show, which, as its moniker suggests, unfolds over the course of an entire day. It's a marathon stretch of green TV that reaches millions of viewers worldwide. This year, each hour-long episode offered a "reason for hope" that humanity may yet rally to avert the worst of climate change—say, that clean energy industries are booming, or student movements are raising their voices.

Celebrities drop by to do interviews, prerecorded documentaries and concert footage air throughout, and Al Gore himself introduces each segment with a ten-minute talk. Since it's live, that means Gore, who is now 66, doesn't sleep. At all.

So, I figured, neither would I. At some point, it dawned on me that I'd be interviewing the iconic Nobel laureate while I was a sleep-deprived husk, at an hour usually reserved for deep REM or insomniac Seinfeld binging.

When I showed up at the Duggal Greenhouse at noon, Gore had just taken the stage. The place was abuzz; the parking lot was packed with decked-out trailers, a catering truck was pumping out appetizers, and production staff were everywhere. Upstairs in a sort of staff lounge, I unloaded four Red Bulls and plugged in my laptop.

The first segment was about renewable energy—the reason for hope was that worldwide, solar and wind are getting cheaper and cheaper.

"The amount of energy that comes to the earth from the sun every single hour exceeds the entire world's energy consumption for an entire year," Gore said in his preamble. Soon after, he waltzed through the staff lounge; with a firm handshake, he said hello and thanked me for coming.

Onstage, the Weather Channel's star meteorologist Sam Champion was interviewing Mark Ruffalo, the actor who recently played the Hulk in the Avengers. Ruffalo, who is a lifelong activist and a vehement supporter of clean energy, was electric onstage. He stuck around for two segments. "If you find yourself losing hope, get out and do something," he told former E! host Ashlan Gorse Cousteau. "There's a lot of community. You'll meet a lot of pretty girls."

A camera swiveled around the studio on a massive crane, occasionally obscuring the impressive backdrop, a glass window looking out on downtown Manhattan across the East River. A semicircle of folding chairs sat a dozen or so onlookers. Gore could typically be found just off stage left, where he amiably chats with guests and patiently awaits his cue.

After the first segment, I ran into Champion and Ruffalo chatting in the hall; the actor was telling a story about drinking with some buddies at a bar when they realized they were next to a conference of the World Meteorologists Organization. "...And I thought, now these are the people who can help get the word out about climate change," Ruffalo said. That's how punch lines to barroom yarns land at an Al Gore joint.

Champion told me he appreciated Gore's message—like Gore, he has strong words for climate change deniers. "We'll all agree that maybe there's more active storm patterns, we'll all agree that there's certainly more heat, we'll all agree that there's more drought, so if you want to spend time debating on why, I don't have time for you," he said. "I got people in harm's way and I want to make sure they're OK."

So that's Champion; why was Ruffalo here?

"My kids, man! I could live my life rather comfortably and I could do a lot to stem off climate change," he said. "I don't give a goddamn how much money you've got, it's coming to your door. There's no area you're going to move to that's going to be less affected, this is a global issue." On the word 'money,' he feigned dipping his hands into my coat pockets. His was jovial and animated and he gave one hell of an interview.

The afternoon slid by; Gore gave keynotes on the improvements in battery storage, on the growth of microgrids. Linkin Park and Boyz II Men concert footage flickered on flat screens throughout the Greenhouse. The Lost actress Maggie Grace and pop singer Jason Mraz clocked in; I learned that Mraz plants a tree for every domestic flight he takes, five for every international flight, and that he runs his tours on biofuels. When asked about music that inspired him environmentally, he sang a few bars of Mr. Rogers' 'It's a Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood.'

In the ninth hour or so, Gore stopped by my seat in the audience.

"How are you holding up?" he asked.

"We're just getting started," I said.

"That we are," Gore said with a laugh. 

24 Hours of Reality debuted in 2011. The original idea was to tailor the nonstop programming to each time zone around the world—the theme was extreme weather, which had emerged as a leading narrative in the climate change discussion; there would be segments about flooding in Bangladesh, on drought in Australia, on wildfires in California.

It proved difficult to coordinate the region-specific coverage live, but Gore enjoyed the format, and deemed it successful enough to turn 24 Hours into an annual occurrence. It airs every fall—this time, it took place a week before Climate Week and the UN General Assembly in New York City, when more world leaders convene to discuss global warming than any other time of the year.  

This year, pre-recorded content plays during the wee hours, and a handful of documentaries about fossil fuels repeat throughout. There are intermittent calls for viewers to pledge a 'day of action'. Gore's top-of-the-hour slideshows offer the most substantive material—it's often downright wonkish—and hones in on topics like modular solar adaptation or the declining rate of carbon emissions in China. 

When the program passes ten million views—it's running on Ustream.tv, which clocks a running tally—cheers ripple through the audience.

I never imagined undertaking this fight in the first place, much less devoting most of my life to it.

Throughout it all, Gore is laser-focused. He awaits his turn at the podium, and sweeps onstage with the undiminished aura of a dignitary when it comes. And it comes, again and again and again, every year; this repetitive marathon of climate education, this test of will, seems to fairly perfectly reflect Gore's work ethic over the last decades, and the psychology of his crusade to stop climate change.

After he delivers a slideshow about the turning tide of public opinion on the climate, I'm summoned to sit down with Gore in his subarctic hold—his aides tell me he prefers it cool, and the entire greenhouse was definitely that. It's midnight.

"Midnight thirty," Gore corrects me, chuckling. "I'm feeling fine. I feel like I'm gaining energy. That may be delirium setting in. No, just kidding. I'm fired up and ready to go."

And he was—and has been for the last nine years, since the release of An Inconvenient Truth, and probably for long before that. Ultimately, he believes the solution, still so elusive in the US, is still relatively straightforward.

"Put a price on carbon," Gore said. "The main policy answer's been obvious for at least three decades. Longer, I guess, to some people. But I first proposed it thirty years ago. At an adequate level, a revenue-neutral carbon tax would solve almost all of this."

But the fact that he is still having to devise new ways to tell the story of climate change, so many years after winning the Nobel Prize for illuminating the issue, still trying to convince citizens that it urgently needs to be tackled, isn't lost on Gore. So does he get discouraged? 

"No. I don't feel like I can afford to do that. It's certainly within the range of possibilities, but I don't ever go there. What I'm feeling is, no, I don't, or at least I don't let myself feel that way. And why I don't is not any form of pretend heroism, it's really a genuine commitment to try to give this everything I've got."

Gore is relaxed, even playful—when I ask him about geoengineering he contorts his face in mock-disgust and laughs as if I'd just suggested we invite the Bushes over for a barbecue. He's looser than I've ever seen him. He laughs easily, while still carefully considering each of his responses. I ask him about this year's theme, the reasons for hope, and wonder if there's one in particular that keeps him from despair.

Technology, he says. "Technology revolutions often produce clusters of advances that each have synergies each with each other," Gore said, noting the explosion of advancements that followed the steam engine to drive the Industrial Revolution. Along with his climate activism, Gore is a board member of Apple and a partner of the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Kleiner Perkins, where he helps guide investment in clean technology. 

In terms of climate change-abating technology, he thinks solar is today's clean energy steam engine: "If I had to pick one, I'd pick photovoltaics, because of the breadth of distribution," he said.

"Are you optimistic that we're moving fast enough?" I ask.

"No, I wouldn't put it exactly that way," he says, in a typically measured reply. "I'm optimistic that we are increasing our rate of acceleration, at a pace that holds the promise that we will soon be moving fast enough."

His staff interrupted, and Gore was escorted out of the room. It was 1am. The Greenhouse was mostly empty at this point, besides Climate Reality and production staff. I had a brief chat with some UN Development folks about their big data venture, then wandered out into the empty parking lot. Two smokestacks loomed overhead with flickering red lights; the plant itself looks to have been out of commission for some time. Gore was back on stage.

In addition to the 24 slideshows, each of which lasts about ten minutes, Gore also participates in three of the interview segments, each of which comprises the bulk of the hour. So he is essentially performing, mostly on his feet, for six hours in a single 24-hour period. His staff was certainly in awe of his endurance; most snuck off for brief power naps in those late hours, but the Boss, as they call him, never did.

My eyes began to glaze over as the prerecorded programs played on; there was a nice piece about a solar technical school in India, one on military veterans who rallied for clean power under the banner Operation Free, one on the corrupting influence of dark money, and more Linkin Park. I lost track of how many times I'd heard those first few notes of 'What I've Done' before developing a Pavlovian reflex to zone it out entirely.

In those late hours, I meet Aaron Grosky, the affable, bleary-eyed executive producer of the show. Of the herculean production feat, he says, "It really takes some amazing people—that whole concept of 'it takes a village' is more than evident here. Everyone here goes above and beyond." He noticed my eyes drifting to the bottle of Jack below his desk. "That's part of what keeps me going, by the way," he says with a laugh. 

"It is a monumental fucking challenge," he adds. "We had one hour of rehearsal yesterday. That's it. To come in and hit it, to do this, is mind-blowing." 

In those hours, I was often the only non-staff member in the audience, Gore would pass me by in the space, and nod or offer an encouraging remark. There was something uniquely humanizing about this process; this towering figure who, love him or hate him, has left a massive mark on the last two decades of history—here he was, rubbing his eyes, walking to the bathroom, telling me to hang in there.

Our final sit-down chat was at 6:15am. I'd recovered a bit from the depths of the bleary-eyed chaos of the previous few hours, and was at least able to construct a comprehensive sentence, or so I thought. This time, there was a touch of weariness to the Boss, even though it was hard to discern from his appearance on stage.

"I get energized not only by the challenge of standing up 24 times in a row, and making a different slide presentation—I always learn by doing," he said. "And in my slideshow that was the basis for the movie almost nine years ago, that slideshow was the result of constant repetition." I ask him if he could ever imagine slowing down; if there was a goal he could plausibly achieve that would satisfy him.

"Well, I never imagined undertaking this fight in the first place, much less devoting most of my life to it," Gore said. "I never imagined that would be what I ended up doing. My ability to foresee the future on that is not something that impresses me."

"I have in the past defined the goal as reaching a point where the majority of elected leaders, regardless of party, are genuinely competing with one another to offer truly meaningful solutions to this process," he added. "That may be an unrealistic goalpost to imagine, but I don't know."

It's so late, I can feel my mind and body sputtering out, and I'm looking at Gore and I'm doing my best to put myself in his shoes; this man who keeps showing up, keeps talking, keeps slideshowing, keeps hitting walls, keeps running into a powerful barrage of some of the most hateful and dismissive criticism from his political opponents worldwide, and for what? For why?

The gay rights movement—I so admire the strategists who came up with the successful formula there, and I keep looking for it on climate.

At about 6:35am, I got what may be the clearest articulation of the answer to that question anyone will ever get. Gore's tone had dipped into wistfulness, and suddenly, we were talking about his upbringing.

"I was raised as a child by a father and a mother who were both extremely idealistic New Deal-vintage Democrats," Gore said. "Both had an unshakeable belief in our ability as human beings, or more specifically as Americans, to solve any problem. Get the facts, sort it out, put the best available evidence on the table, engage in civil discourse, sort through the disagreements, identify what's the best thing to do to promote the greatest good for the greatest number. To lift the public interest. And to keep a special attention on the poor, to the people who most needed representation." 

"Their whole ideology, their whole theory about what American representative democracy was all about thrilled me. And when I had the unbelievable privilege of getting elected to the House of Representatives, oh my gosh, if my career had ended right there, I would have felt, this was just the most wonderful thing in the world. I loooved it. Really loved it, down in the marrow in my bones."

I've covered Gore for much of my career as a climate reporter, and I have never heard him talk like this. And on he talked, nostalgic passion infusing his crackling late-night voice.

"…And going to my district, and having these open meetings as I called them, town hall meetings, getting their ideas, taking them back to Washington, learning where the common views were a little bit at odds with what the real situation was, and then coming back to my district and saying 'hey, here is what I learned, how does that change your view?' then taking what they think needs to be changed and going back and advocating for it. I was so thrilled by that. Probably sounds a little corny, but it was just the most amazing privilege. I loved that."

Gore, in his Congressional years. Image: Spirit of America

It was late, traces of the show flickered around us, and I was zoning out everything but this story, and an image of a 30-year-old Gore, the same age as me, delighting in the fact that he had just gone to Washington to move the government to solve a serious problem for his peers. Delighted that democracy worked, that it responded to the will of the people—and was wielded in favor of those people, even when they didn't wholly understand each of the issues at stake.

This relentless, climate-educating engine is fueled, ultimately, by his deep-seated sense that the world is a rational place—Gore heard the concerns of scientists, of farmers, of students, of citizens, and he took the problem to Washington, and they did nothing. Then he took those concerns to a global cinema audience, who responded with fear and compassion. Still Washington did nothing. Here we are, years later, with no law on the books to price carbon, no federal mandate for clean energy, and no shortage of climate deniers in Congress.

"This is what is called in the famous phrase, a wicked problem. It's really difficult. I've now written several books about it, devoted so many years to it, I feel as if I really understand it very clearly, even if though I'm constantly learning new things about it that force me to admit that I have vast areas of ignorance, and that causes me to go to work to try to fill that in," Gore says. "I'm always searching for a formula, a way of presenting the facts, a way of defining the issue and proposing solutions that catch the imagination of people who have been ignoring it."

He repeats a familiar mantra; that the only way that the climate crisis is going to be solved is if the public is moved enough to overcome the powerful special interests that "drive the decision-making process of virtually everything."

"Every reform initiative in every sector is paralyzed in American democracy today," he says. "There are exceptions; the gay rights movement—I so admire the strategists who came up with the successful formula there, and I keep looking for it on climate."

It could not come sooner. A new spate of particularly apocalyptic studies have shown that we're in dire climate straits: Melting Antarctic ice sheets appear to have already consigned us to 10 feet of sea level rise at the very least. New calculations show that unless we cease building coal plants and gas-fueled cars by 2018, we will have committed to a world where temperatures are guaranteed to rise above 2˚C, a threshold scientists and policymakers have identified as potentially catastrophic to human civilization.

In the cold light of this new day, I am a wreck. MSNBC's Chris Hayes shows up, and so does Bradley Whitford from West Wing, and I can hardly concentrate on a live conversation with Barack Obama counselor John Podesta. People are eating breakfast, and milling around in fresh-pressed suits, and talking about what they did last night. A production coordinator tells me I should maybe find some gum.

The final reason for hope is, as Gore says in the last slideshow, the UN is "convening nations toward a strong climate reality." He was right about that. More nations than ever would send leaders to discuss climate action at the UN this year, and they delivered their speeches on the heels of the largest climate march in history. Gore would join it, and walk arm-in-arm with Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

Yet Washington is still paralyzed, packed with conservatives who deny that climate change is occurring at all, so legislative action is nearly out of the question. But Al Gore is optimistic—he points to tobacco laws enacted in the 90s, which fell into place like dominos, suddenly and swiftly, and to the Montreal Protocol, which healed the ozone layer more effectively than any of the world leaders who signed it—or the business chiefs who protested it—could have imagined. He talks about tipping points, and believes we are about to reach one when it comes to fighting climate change.

After the show wraps, the studio, packed once again, bursts into applause. By the end, 16 million views have been registered worldwide, according to Ustream. That's about the same number that watched the record-breaking season finale of Walking Dead. Some 200,000 people pledged 'a day of action' on the Climate Reality website. Now, Gore works the room, shaking hands and posing for pictures. He looks remarkably fresh-faced and composed; nearly identical to how he appeared when he delivered that first slideshow what now seems like ages ago. "You made it," he said, finding me still standing. "I think you and Aaron and I are the only ones who stayed up all night." I tell him I'm a bit glad that it's over, and we do a selfie.

If Al Gore is right, and humanity has its back up against the wall, and that the stakes are nothing less than the end of civilization as we know it—but that we can still save our skin with more education, some proper democracy, a little ingenuity, and an iron man work ethic—well, it would explain the program to which I just bore witness.

"I learn a tremendous amount myself, in doing this," he'd told me, a few hours back. "Because there's a certain extra burst in energy that comes from a deadline, and knowing that you have an opportunity to make it better."