Discussing the Climate Crisis With the Honorable Al Gore

October 31, 2019

The Honorable Al Gore sponsored the first hearings on climate change more than 40 years ago and continues to lead the fight against global devastation. Columbia Mailman School Dean Linda P. Fried, MD, MPH, asked him to answer some of the public health community’s most pressing questions.

Fried: Poverty is a factor in so many of the diseases we focus on here at Columbia Mailman School. How have you seen climate change making things worse for people living in poverty, here in the United States and globally?

Gore: The poor are the first and hardest hit victims of the climate crisis everywhere. The NGO I founded, the Climate Reality Project, recently partnered with Rev.William Barber II of Goldsboro, North Carolina, a longtime pastor and political activist, as well as the new Poor People’s Campaign, to visit several marginalized communities to learn just how they are disproportionately impacted by pollution and the climate crisis. We went to Belews Creek, North Carolina, where improper storage of coal ash exposes families to dangerous toxins leaching into groundwater supplies. We went to Union Hill, Virginia, where a planned compressor station for the Atlantic Coast natural gas pipeline project would emit dangerous amounts of methane, which is more than 86 times as potent as carbon dioxide in trapping heat in the atmosphere over a 20-year time frame. And we went to Lowndes County, Alabama, where increased precipitation strains an already weak infrastructure, causing residents’ backyards and streets to fill with raw sewage regularly. Those are just three examples. There are so many more.

Fried: You’ve talked about “environmental racism.” What does that look like right now in the United States and what does “climate equity” mean to you?

GoreEnvironmental racism often results from influential groups making decisions at the cost of the well-being of communities that don’t have access to the political and economic recourse necessary to keep polluting facilities out of their neighborhoods. So communities of color are disproportionately affected by environmental damages and are far more likely to have oil and gas production, coal-fired power plants, highways, and other sources of air pollution located near them.

Climate equity means putting an end to the disenfranchisement of minority communities, while simultaneously enlisting frontline communities in the effort to develop and deploy solutions to the climate crisis, ensuring the resulting economic benefits apply to everyone.

Fried: At the School’s commencement last May, you mentioned “climate refugees.” What kinds of things are causing people to become so desperate that they flee their homes?

Gore: The consequences of using our atmosphere as an open sewer are clear: stronger storms, deeper and longer droughts, crop failures, strengthening wildfires, spreading tropical diseases, melting ice, and sea level rise, to name a few. These impacts are already driving people from their homes.

For example, one of the driving forces behind the Syrian civil war, leading to the current migration of millions of Syrians into Europe, was the worst climate-related drought in the history of the Mediterranean, which destroyed 60 percent of the country’s farms, killed 80 percent of its livestock, and drove 1.5 million refugees into Syria’s already overcrowded cities, causing widespread unrest. Similarly, after experiencing more than a year without a harvest due to a climate-related drought, families throughout Central America are being forced to leave their homes and migrate north to the United States.

Fried: Your organization, the Climate Reality Project, is training a new generation of activists. What are a couple of key lessons those of us in the public health arena need to learn?

GoreThe first step for public health professionals wanting to become climate activists is acknowledging and communicating the serious threat the climate crisis poses to human health. The World Health Organization says that the climate crisis is among the greatest health risks of this century. Rising temperatures and pollution from the burning of fossil fuels affect everyone’s health and well-being.

The good news is that the solutions are available now. Public health professionals can effectively make the case for climate action that supports a healthier society, and can help advocate for the health benefits of a clean energy transition. I encourage public health professionals and students to apply for the Climate Reality Leadership Corps program, where they’ll learn more about the science of the climate crisis, today’s cutting-edge solutions, and how to strengthen climate action in their communities. You’ll come away with the skills, knowledge, and network to shape public opinion, influence public policy, and inspire your community to act at this critical time

Fried: What’s next for the Climate Reality Project?

Gore: This year, the Climate Reality Project will hold its first-ever training in Japan. Attendees will join our network of more than 20,000 climate activists from around the world who are committed to communicating the urgency of the climate crisis and catalyzing its solutions.

In November, we’ll also host our annual 24 Hours of Reality event. This year, we’re celebrating the power of our grassroots network with a global day of action and education called 24 Hours of Reality: Truth in Action. Climate Reality Leaders around the world will give educational presentations to bring the hopeful message about solutions to the climate crisis to their community.

Fried: You’ve spoken in favor of the Green New Deal. What needs to happen to truly push the conversation forward?

Gore: I think the Green New Deal has already made a tremendous impact in advancing the dialogue about the need to address the climate crisis. It’s imperative to take the time to understand this crisis, its impacts, and that we have the tools to solve it. With this knowledge we must win the conversation on climate with our friends, families, and in our workplaces and be persistent in not allowing climate denial to go unchallenged.

And vote! Call your representatives and let them know this issue is important, and depending on what they say or do, you will either support them or work to defeat them in the next election.

Fried: We are already grappling with the health effects of climate change. What aspects of the health fallout from climate change do you feel are most in need of attention?

Gore: The fact that the poor, refugees, migrants, and communities of color are most affected by the impacts is critically important. In the United States, more than 1 million African Americans live within half a mile of a natural gas facility and are far more likely than white communities to be located downwind from smoke plumes of coal-burning facilities or near hazardous waste sites. We’re seeing African American children suffering from asthma at a rate twice that of white children, but the rate of death from asthma for African Ameri- can children is ten times that of white children. We need health practitioners working to solve these problems, and we also need policies that target and end the systemic practices enabling them.