Al Gore’s Climate Chief On Biden’s Record, Nuclear, And What Happens If Trump Wins

Phyllis Cuttino spoke to us about Republicans’ acceptance of climate change, and what could happen after this election year.

In 2006, shortly after the release of his groundbreaking documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” former Vice President Al Gore invited 50 would-be climate activists to his Tennessee barn for a training session on how to raise awareness about the threat fossil fuel emissions pose to the planetary systems and weather conditions humans can withstand.

The Climate Reality Project, Gore’s advocate-training nonprofit, has spent the intermediate 18 years mustering what chief executive Phyllis Cuttino called “an army.” The organization has 100 chapters in 40 U.S. states and 11 countries.

Each of the training sessions so far has been distinct, with teaching materials tailored to the region. Recent events in the U.S., for example, have focused on the benefits of the Inflation Reduction Act, the landmark climate law President Joe Biden passed in 2022. The most recent training took place in Accra, Ghana, this past November, and trainees joined virtually from Nigeria as part of the organization’s biggest push in oil-rich, fast-growing and already brutally hot West Africa.

Next month, the Climate Reality Project will put on its 55th training event and make its New York City debut. Applications to join are due by March 24.

In her only media interview ahead of the event, HuffPost spoke to Cuttino about Republicans’ acceptance of climate change, Biden’s legacy, and the “terrible” reality that could be waiting for us after this year’s election. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Is climate denialism still the primary obstacle to decarbonization? If not, when did that change?

Certainly climate denial still happens. We always study misinformation and disinformation about climate that is focused on encouraging climate denial. But I think we all recognize the problem we’re facing is delay, rather than denial. So how do we speed up the deployment we need and the acceptance we need?

Our trainings really focus more so on how to overcome delays. We have a lot of breakout sessions where attendees learn not only the skills to do different things, whether it’s communications or advocacy or education, which was obviously how this was originally conceived. It’s also a chance for folks to get together and really network, make connections that make their climate advocacy more powerful. That’s something we’re always trying to create, whether it’s a large- or medium-size training on how to get people into community. Obviously we rely heavily on our partners in each location who are local in that area, and we encourage folks who attend these trainings to, of course, join in our efforts but also join with other organizations that are our partners on the ground. That’s very important to us, that people find a role in advocacy to overcome that delay.

An oil rig stands on July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas.
An oil rig stands on July 29, 2020, in Midland, Texas.
via Associated Press

There’s a decent amount of money in the Inflation Reduction Act for things like community engagement, consent-based siting, the jargon-y term for locating infrastructure in places where the neighbors approve. I’ve seen a lot of arguments about how things can be done better, particularly on some of the more controversial forms of climate infrastructure, like building a nuclear plant or a lithium processing plant.

I’ve tried to see the arguments on both sides, where some people argue there needs to be some amount of permitting reform to make it easier on legal level to speed up the deployment of this kind of infrastructure. There are other people who say we haven’t perfected this kind of community outreach and we don’t want to steamroll people in communities. Where do you fall between those two poles?

We are watching permitting policy that is being developed in Congress that would try to speed up permitting. We’re very firmly invested in protecting the rights of communities that are most impacted. We also know this is a priority of the administration to try to strike the right balance.

One of the things we’re all worried about is the increased use and demand for electricity, particularly moving forward given the charging infrastructure that we’re going to need, data centers and other things. It’s certainly a problem that needs to be addressed and fixed. We remain optimistic that there’s going to be a solution that can do both, speed up permitting and protect the rights and input from communities.

What letter grade would you give President Joe Biden’s climate record so far?

Oh, a letter grade?

There’s no argument with the fact that he has managed to advocate for, work with Congress and then sign into law — and of course Congress receives a lot of credit for that as well — the IRA and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. I’ve been working in climate for almost two decades now and I haven’t seen anything quite like it in terms of its scope and impact. Hats off to him for that monumental achievement, particularly in a polarized setting.

How do you square this administration presiding over record oil and gas drilling and exporting with the successful passage of the country’s first major climate law?

We think the fastest way to address the climate crisis — and we believe that the climate crisis is a fossil fuel crisis — is we have to do everything we can to make sure we are making the transition to clean energy technologies as fast as possible.

It’s very challenging. We’re working across the country to try to push back against pipelines and [petrochemical] cracker plants.

We’re focused on a few things with our global campaigns, one is financing that just transition — how do you get more money into those communities and countries that are most impacted so you can make that change? How do you reform the World Bank? Certainly steps have been made in that direction. The vice president was very critical of the World Bank under the prior administration and, in fact, the World Bank president, given his climate denial.

Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is the last of its kind in California, seen here on Oct. 25, 2022.
Diablo Canyon nuclear power plant is the last of its kind in California, seen here on Oct. 25, 2022.
San Luis Obispo Tribune via Getty Images

Nuclear energy appears to be on the verge of a comeback, with a lot of support at the past two U.N. climate conferences. But there was talk of a nuclear renaissance back when Climate Reality first started, and obviously that fizzled after Fukushima and the fracking boom made gas so cheap. Do you think what we’re seeing now is different? Should nuclear energy be a priority?

I will admit that I’m not a nuclear expert. But it seems as though the same challenges for nuclear power remain. Some of it is concern from the public, a lot is expense, and making it economic.

I’m always interested in looking back. Years I worked on something called the Pew Project on National Security, Energy and Climate Change. We worked very closely with the Department of Defense at that time and other four-star, three-star retired flag officers to look at a variety of things. It was pointed out to me then that even though the Navy has a lot of nuclear subs, they were not deploying nuclear power in either small modular reactors or larger ones.

So I think there remains a lot of concerns. But really, I’m no expert on nuclear power. It just seems like it has the same challenges it had in the past.

The reason I brought this up now is you mentioned the World Bank. I know part of the administration’s nuclear pledge that they rolled out at the COP was about pressuring the World Bank about lifting its prohibition on financing of reactor projects. I’m not necessarily asking you for a weigh whether they should be financing specific nuclear projects, but do you think they should lift that prohibition on financing?

To be honest, our work around World Bank reforms has largely been focused on no financing of fossil, adhering to the Paris Agreement, trying to push up financing for mitigation and adaptation to 50%. So we really haven’t taken a position on the ban on nuclear. That’s something I should take back and we should take a look at.

Early on, Vice President Gore opposed focusing on climate adaptation, fearing that those investments might sap the will to mitigate emissions. Later on, he changed his mind and supporters doing both at the same time. Now we have a debate over whether to even research technologies like solar radiation management — aka geoengineering. The big Harvard study on the technology was just canceled, yet there are entrepreneurs testing this stuff in the desert in an unregulated way. Do you see a parallel between these two things? Is the moral hazard argument against these new technologies similar to how it was used against adaptation in the mid-2000s?

“Obviously things change. We have to be willing to change with it.”

- Phyllis Cuttino on the emergence of new climate technologies

I don’t want to speak for the vice president.

Given what countries and communities are facing, we have to build more resilient communities and make sure there are funds for both mitigation and adaptation. Obviously we have to be focused on mitigation because, as he likes to say, if you want to get out of the hole, you’ve got to stop digging it. You have to first and foremost turn off the emissions tap. That’s the priority.

But for those countries that contribute very, very, very little and people who contribute very, very, very little to the climate crisis, we’ve just got to find a way to help those folks be more resilient and adapt.

As we know more and more about the climate crisis, attitudes are evolving. Certainly technologies are evolving. We are in favor of investing in and encouraging innovation of all types. Whether or not it’s innovation in technologies or innovation in science and how we’re looking at things.

Obviously things change. We have to be willing to change with it. But we all have to make decisions about what we can and can’t support and prioritize. We are always going to have mitigation as a key element of our work.

The popularity of Japanese writer Kohei Saito’s book, which just came out in English, advocating for degrowth communism has helped move that concept closer to the mainstream. What do you make of the surge of interest in this radical philosophy? Is there any benefit to those sorts of ideas being in the discourse? Is that a distraction or do they help shift the center so that policies that climate deniers might have pushed back on in the past become the moderate middle ground?

Things shift from being controversial to more mainstream. I don’t know. To be honest, I haven’t read the book so I don’t want to comment. This debate has changed so much over time. I think it’s important that we always continue to consider change and how we adapt and debate the policies that need to be put into place.

Phyllis Cuttino joined the Climate Reality Project as its chief executive two years ago.
Phyllis Cuttino joined the Climate Reality Project as its chief executive two years ago.
Climate Reality Project

Years ago, we were talking about renewable energy standards and mandates. Now we’re trying to encourage policy change through incentives. All parts of the debate are changing. When I began in the climate field a long time ago, education was really key. That’s originally what the Climate Reality Project was all about, education. Now we’re much more about education paired with advocacy so people have the tools to do something with what they’ve learned about.

All parts of the debate have been changing over time, and that’s good.

What ways would you say climate advocacy is different from environmentalism? Do you see a distinction?

It’s hard. Climate is so pervasive. How do you have a conversation about toxics without having a conversation about plastic? The fossil fuel industry is making a big bet on plastics for once we no longer need fuel. It’s hard to divorce climate from what some may view as environmental issues.

This intersectionality with the environment, with poverty, with all kinds of other critical issues is why you see around climate advocacy a broad coalition of environmentalists, clean-energy advocates, of labor, anti-poverty groups. The impacts of climate are so broad and widespread. It’s maybe a little of a distinction without a difference.

Al Gore during a panel discussion on day one of Tech Arena 2024 at Friends Arena on Feb. 22 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Al Gore during a panel discussion on day one of Tech Arena 2024 at Friends Arena on Feb. 22 in Stockholm, Sweden.
Michael Campanella via Getty Images

Given the geopolitical tension in the world right now, especially since the invasion of Ukraine, has that been a hindrance to climate policy? Or a help because it has encouraged more thinking about energy security and how to get off Russian hydrocarbons?

In the short term, it’s definitely a challenge in terms of our expansion here in the United States for export.

I think over the longer term it’s helping to focus policymakers on the national security and economic impacts of dependence upon fossil fuels and what that means, and what alliances it promotes or doesn’t. Obviously if you can be less dependent on the exports and products of other nations that you may not be aligned with on other issues, the better and more secure you’re going to be.

Republicans increasingly say they embrace the reality of climate change, even if the party by and large is still supportive of increased fossil fuel production.

Years ago, there was a climate bill authored by Sen. John Warner, a Republican senator and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that the Bush administration worked to kill. Republicans in the past have been supportive. You have a million examples. The creation of the EPA.

It’s interesting that the environment, and even climate to a point, was accepted by many Republicans, or by some Republicans. Then it became part of this culture war where it had to be denied or else there were challenges for Republican candidates to move forward.

That position is really by and large unsustainable based on the fact that many young Republican voters believe in climate change and members of Congress have to go back to states and districts where the impacts of climate change are being felt every day, whether it’s in sustained droughts and heat or sudden impacts like extreme weather events.

They also have to be accepting of solutions to the climate crisis. You find a lot of members will talk about impacts, the need to do things, the need to have new jobs or new roads or new bridges or new resilience. The language around climate can be different. We continue to talk about climate science, the fact that it’s real and the impacts have been faster and more ferocious than science predicted.

We have conversations about science, we always speak to the science. But we also speak to the solutions and the benefits of the solutions. That is a thing that’s a more universal language in some constituencies. An electric vehicle is great to drive, let alone it isn’t an internal combustion engine. It’s fantastic to have solar on your roof or be a member of a community solar farm. An induction stove is certainly something I’ve ordered!

What are your plans if Donald Trump wins in November?

We’re all trying to think about that. Our worry is that he has promised the first thing he’s going to do is withdraw us from the Paris Agreement. That’s a terrible signal. It could allow other countries room to move forward and be leaders, or it could be an excuse for many countries to step back from commitments.

It’s going to be more important than ever for local and state level action here in the United States, as well as country action. So we’re trying to think of a lot of scenarios where you could apply pressure upward. That is going to be a critical rallying cry that we’re still in, and we’re still moving forward despite denial from the highest levels of government here in the United States. It just would be a terrible thing.

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