Al Gore hails from Tennessee, but when he comes to California next week, he'll be coming back to his spiritual home. In 2000, Californians gave him a double-digit lead — 1.3 million votes — over George W. Bush for president. His documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Oscar. California's GOP governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, signed the nation's most groundbreaking greenhouse-gases law. Californians buy the Prius; the rest of the country buys Ford trucks. Gore arrives amid the hoo-hah over the half-billion-dollar sale of Current TV to Al Jazeera, and touting a hefty new book magisterially titled "The Future." He must think that California, of all places, is ready for it.
What went through your mind when you heard President Obama say in his inaugural speech that the U.S. must lead the response to climate change?
I was very encouraged and happy he gave it emphasis and pride of place. I think it implies that he will do a great deal to follow up.
We have the nuclear Doomsday Clock, indicating that we're within five minutes of nuclear "midnight." If there were an environmental Doomsday Clock, what would it read?
I don't know what numbers the hands would be pointing to, but I do know that scientists who study the climate crisis say we are on borrowed time. We are putting 90 million tons of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere as if it's an open sewer. It's heating the oceans and drying the land and creating bigger floods and stronger storms and melting the ice and creating other consequences we cannot continue to ignore. The good news is we have the opportunity to solve these challenges, and if we rise to them, we will find millions of new jobs and create a better way of life.
Aren't humans, like that frog in a pot of slowly heating water, accustomed to just acclimating, whether it's hurricanes or a Sandy Hook massacre?
Leaving aside the gun issue, where climate is concerned, we're equipped to respond more readily to the kind of threats our ancestors survived: short-term threats — other people with clubs or weapons, and snakes and spiders. When there are larger, long-term threats that can only be perceived by our reasoning capacity, that's sometimes more challenging. We've proven in history that we have that capacity, and we have to draw on that now. [Yet] we would draw the wrong lessons from history if we did not realize the change we're going through now is fundamentally different in kind, not only in degree, from anything that has come previously.
Lots of species have gone extinct. Maybe our time is up and we're just fighting a rear-guard action.
I don't agree with that. I think that human beings are unique among species. We do have limitations, but we have the inherent capacity to rise above our limitations when the stakes are high. Now is such a time.
Who is your audience for "The Future," beyond the people who already agree with you?
I've been very pleased with the reaction from political conservatives. Arthur Laffer [a Reagan economics advisor] liked it so much, he put a blurb on the book. I've gotten a heartening reaction from conservatives who said this book transcends ideology. I've tried to be strictly factual in reporting trends that I've found the evidence [for], and let the chips fall where they may. There are things in here that liberals and progressives may not like.
These problems are so vast that they make people want to throw in the towel; they don't think they can make a difference. What's your answer to them?
"Early to bed, early to rise, work like hell and organize" — on the Internet! The Internet is empowering individuals to create reform, to connect with others who want a brighter future and design ways to encourage positive change. I've seen individual bloggers have a big impact on the way issues are debated. New reform movements have sprung up on the Internet. Initiatives get organized on the Internet. I'm very optimistic, but the stakes are high and time is short.
If the Internet is the answer, is a paper-and-ink book the right way to get your ideas across?
The book is available on the Internet. I am exploring other ways to use the Internet to get these messages out.
The forces pushing back, you write, are corporate and governmental. You say our democracy has been hacked.
The operating system of American democracy has now been captured by big money and special interests. The design of American democracy is the most powerful tool we can use, if we restore its integrity. We've got to push big money out of politics. We have to address troubling distortions in our markets. The short-term focus is hurting shareholders and the public interest. We need to reform both democracy and capitalism to seize the future.
Why has green energy been slow to catch on — too expensive?
In many parts of the world, electricity from solar and wind energy is cheaper than energy from coal. The more coal and oil we use, the more the price increases. The more solar and wind we use, the more the price goes down. In 2010, global investments in renewable energy exceeded global investments in fossil fuels. And the developing countries' total investments in renewable energies are now larger than those in the industrial countries. There are real reasons for hope.
You've been criticized for the sale of Current, the media company you co-founded, to Al Jazeera.
I'm proud of what we did with Current TV, and I'm proud of the sale because Al Jazeera is an outstanding and highly respected news-gathering network, and I think its addition to the TV dial will be a big plus.
Current never reached a huge audience. Why not?
Primarily because we are in an age of conglomerates, and an independent network that does not have the ability to promote itself with free advertising on sister networks faces a severe disadvantage. In spite of that, we were profitable every year, we won every major television journalism award, we had a fantastic investigative team, we did a great job.
What did you learn as a media entrepreneur?
Viewer-created content cannot yet serve as the basis for a news network. YouTube lost money for years, but they were purchased by Google and have been a great success since then, but not with news gathering.
Glenn Beck is sore that you wouldn't sell Current to him.
[Laughs.] And your point is?
He says you're hypocritical for making a lot of money and living well while telling people they need to change their lifestyles for the sake of the planet.
I'm proud to have had a successful business career in several fields. I make no apology for that. But I walk the walk. I have solar panels all over my house; I even have a solar-paneled little houseboat for recreation. I have geothermal wells underneath my driveway and an electric car. I do understand the challenges of making this transition to a decarbonized world, and renewable energy is a difficult one, but I am doing my part.
So your carbon footprint will stand up to anybody's in the First World?
Some people depreciate the significance of carbon offsets, but when you investigate them thoroughly, I think they are valid, and I minimize my carbon footprint and then completely offset what cannot be eliminated.
A Hollywood question: "An Inconvenient Truth" won an Academy Award. So do you get to vote for the Oscars?
No, but I would sure vote for Tommy Lee Jones to get best supporting actor.
You have a personal stake in it: He was your college roommate.
I'm completely objective!
This interview was edited and excerpted from a taped transcript. An archive of Morrison's interviews can be found at latimes.com/pattasks.