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Transcript: NBC's Mitchell interviews Al Gore

NBC's Andrea Mitchell interviews former vice president Al Gore.
/ Source: NBC News and

ANDREA MITCHELL, HOST, MSNBC'S "ANDREA MITCHELL REPORTS": Thank you very much for doing this, Mr. Vice President.

AL GORE, FMR. U.S. VICE PRESIDENT: It's my pleasure. Thank you.

MITCHELL: Congratulations on the book. You write in your new book, "Our Choice," "The global warming deniers' arguments are fraudulent and often nonsensical." Yet even today, one of the best-known voices in the Republican Party, Sarah Palin, has an op-ed in the Washington Post, and she is escalating a major attack against Copenhagen and against -- against the summit. Palin calls it "junk science." She says, "The agenda-driven policies being pushed in Copenhagen won't change the weather, but they would change our economy for the worst."

What's your response to that?

GORE: Well, you know, the -- the global warming deniers persist in this air of unreality. After all, the entire north polar icecap, which has been there for most of the last 3 million years, is disappearing before our eyes. Forty percent is already gone. The rest is expected to go completely within the next decade. What do they think is causing this?

The mountain glaciers in every region of the world are melting, many of them at an accelerated rate, threatening drinking supplies -- drinking water supplies and agricultural water supplies. We have these record storms, drought, floods, fires, three deaths (ph) in the American West, climate refugees beginning now, expected to rise to the hundreds of millions unless we take action.

These effects are taking place all over the world exactly as predicted by the scientists, who have warned for years that, if we continue putting 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere every day, the accumulation -- that's going to trap lots more heat, raise temperatures, and cause all of these consequences that are already beginning.

MITCHELL: Well, one of the things that she has written recently on Facebook is that this is doomsday scare tactics pushed by an environmental priesthood that makes the public feel like owning an SUV is a sin against the planet.

GORE: Well, the scientific community has worked very intensively for 20 years within this international process, and they now say the evidence is unequivocal. A hundred and fifty years ago this year was the discovery that CO-2 traps heat. That is a -- a principle in physics.

It's not a question of debate. It's like gravity; it exists.

MITCHELL: If it's so unequivocal, I've got to ask you about the -- the leak of those e-mails. Even today, Tom Friedman talked about them massaging the evidence. Why would they feel the need to hype the evidence if it's so unequivocal, some scientists, I should say?

GORE: Yeah, I don't think they did. I haven't read all the e-mails that were stolen. They're from -- the most recent one was like 10 years ago.

And what they've done is they've snatched a few phrases completely out of context, and I'll give you an example.

One of the oft-quoted phrases has to do with the scientist saying that a particular study isn't good science and shouldn't be included in the -- international report. Well, that was their view. They exchanged it privately.

The study was included, fully aired, discussed. The weak points were -- were analyzed. The other points were analyzed. So it's an example of how these private exchanges have been blown out of proportion, taken out of context, misrepresented.

MITCHELL: At the same time, there is an economic impact. It is harder to persuade a lot of people -- a lot of Americans unemployed, facing the effects of this recession that (inaudible) the upfront costs of doing something about global warming are worth it. No doubt there are overwhelming economic benefits down the road, but how do you persuade

(inaudible) that this should be their immediate priority?

GORE: Well, for one thing, when the world went into the recession, interest rates were already so low, the only economic policy tool that governments had to try to stimulate the economy was to have stimulus spending. And the need to build new infrastructure to accommodate the shift away from imported oil on which we have a growing dangerous dependence pushed many countries, including the U.S., to devote a substantial part of that stimulus to a green stimulus.

Now we have the opportunity to create millions of good new jobs in making this transition, just the retrofitting of homes with better windows and lighting and insulation to save money on their energy bills and put millions of people to work in local communities, in jobs that cannot be outsourced, building the smart grid, building the solar, wind, geothermal, renewable energy systems, planting trees. These are all job-creators that help to stimulate the economy and produce sustainable growth.

MITCHELL: Even if they're net job creators nationally, there are going to be areas in the rust belt -- Michigan, let's say -- where there's a net loss from the effect of doing something, of making a commitment, and of spending billions of dollars to help poor countries adapt, the commitments that are being expected of the president and -- and of the United States government of Copenhagen.

GORE: well, I think that the losses of jobs started a long time ago with the outsourcing to other countries for a variety of reasons, including the cheaper labor costs. It's not -- not because of the response to global warming.

The response to global warming can bring jobs back. I'll give you an example. There is this company called Cardinal Fastener in Ohio that is very broad to have made the bolts for the Golden Gate Bridge and the Statue of Liberty, and they had some hard times. Now they're hiring people back, making bolts for windmills and these wind farm installations.

The governor of Michigan, Governor Granholm, is one of the most vigorous advocates of bringing jobs back into the -- some of these rust belt areas that were hard hit years ago, but now see the hope for a renaissance putting people to work building these new renewable energy installations.

MITCHELL: As you note in "Our Choice," there's a real partisan divide when it comes to peoples attitudes.

GORE: Yes.

MITCHELL: The Pew poll that you cite in "Our Choice" says that 75 percent of college-educated Democrats believe humans are responsible; only 19 percent of college-educated Republicans. How do you figure that?

GORE: Yeah, it may be partly because of the tendency for many people to follow their perceived political leaders, and the leadership of the modern Republican Party has really gotten into a global warming denier posture that I think has influenced some people.

But it -- it should not be a political issue. It really is a moral issue. It -- it speaks to the responsibility of the present generation to take steps to safeguard those generations yet to come, because this has now reached the level where, if we were not to act, the consequences already beginning at a low level are predicted to reach catastrophic levels, unless we take steps to prevent it from that.

MITCHELL: There's been -- according to the Pew research -- a 20 percent drop in the number of people in the last year -- since 2008, 71 percent believe that humans contributed to global warming. Now it's only 51 percent. Do you attribute that to the economic hard times and people focusing inward?

GORE: Well, I think that result dovetails with the first one that you cited, because when you look inside that study, virtually 100 percent of those who changed their opinion were conservative Republicans. And this should be a bipartisan issue. It used to be. And the -- the extreme partisanship we've seen in recent years, I think, has affected the way our country has responded to this.

Now, beneath the surface, there have been a lot of Republicans, a lot of people who used to be skeptics actually moving towards an acceptance of the science and a determination to do something about it. Lindsey Graham, for example, from South Carolina is one of those Republicans in the Senate who's now saying, look, the evidence tells us we've really got to take action.

A lot in the faith-based community, a lot of fundamentalist groups are -- are now saying, you know, the Earth is the lord and the fullness there of, and we have an obligation to be good stewards of the planet.

So I see signs of optimism and hope even though in an economic recession, naturally, when you ask people to list their priorities, they're going to place a higher priority on the immediate economic situation.

MITCHELL: You met with President Obama this week, and he is, of course, going to head to Copenhagen at the end of the summit. You're going next week and giving your major speech.

Yet Greenpeace and some of your other natural allies in the environmental community are very upset, really critical of what the administration is doing, saying that there should be a binding agreement now, not just these targets, which, in fact, are lower than the targets that the Clinton-Gore administration proposed for Kyoto in 1997. We seem to be moving backwards. What can you say to the administration about doing more, from your perspective?

GORE: Well, within one month of taking office, President Obama made a major investment in the green stimulus program. He has accomplished major improvements in auto efficiency. His EPA has issued a binding regulation requiring the reduction of CO-2, even if legislation...

MITCHELL: Just this week.

GORE: ... is not -- is not passed. Yes, but that began early in the administration and took this amount of time for the Administrative Procedures Act to be -- to be followed. Another regulation requires public reporting of all CO-2 emissions by major emitters, covering 85 percent of the CO-2 emissions in -- in the U.S.

He has succeeded in passing this legislation in one house of Congress, and the sponsors say they now have the votes to pass it early next year in the Senate. I -- I hope they're right.

He cannot be expected, in my opinion, to -- to make commitments that go beyond what the Congress is willing to approve. We -- we've seen that before. That doesn't work out very well.

So, yes, the reductions are lower than they should be, and the treaty that hopefully results next year will be weaker than it should be. But it's a crucial first step. And putting a price on carbon and beginning the process of adjusting to a low-carbon economy can build on its own momentum.

What we've often seen is that when we Americans say, look, we've got to reduce pollution, business -- some businesses complain about it, but almost every time, it's turned out to be easier and cheaper and accomplished faster, and they've gained confidence, and then we go farther.

MITCHELL: You're an old hand at Washington politics. You know the House from your years there, the Senate. Was it a mistake to do health care first, because now everything else is backed up behind health care? And who knows when the Senate is going to get to this? And how can you expect China and India to make commitments? You can't pressure them until the Senate acts.

GORE: Well, the old cliche is hindsight is 20/20, and I'm sure that if they had known that health care would take the entire year -- and possibly more -- maybe there would have been some different calculations.

But I have not criticized the president for trying to do several things right at the beginning of this administration because I know that the mandate of a new president is much stronger and more powerful at the beginning of the administration. And he was elected having made a number of pledges, and he wanted to follow through on them.

So I'm -- I'm pleased that he's consistently made the climate crisis one of his top three priorities, has continued to speak about it. I would always like to see more time on this issue, but I give the president credit for really changing the mood and bringing about a sea change in the U.S. position.

MITCHELL: In "Our Choice," you cite some interesting psychological data.

What is it about the way we think that makes it so difficult for people -- for many people (inaudible) to accept the facts as you see it?

GORE: Well, it's an unprecedented challenge. And because the impacts of global warming are distributed globally, the crisis masquerades as an abstraction. And because the length of time between causes and consequences is longer than we're used to dealing with, it gives us the illusion that we have the luxury of time. Neither of those things is true.

But when we respond to threats immediately and take action right away, it's usually the threats that we're hard-wired to respond to, the kinds of things that our ancestors survived. On this one, we -- we have to use our reasoning capacity and set long-term goals based on our deepest values.

The good news is, the experts on, you know, neuroscience and psychology and all that, reassure us we definitely have the capacity to do that. We did it with NATO. We did it with the Marshall Plan. We've done it on a number of things.

But it's more difficult, it requires a conscious choice, it requires full communication about why we're setting out on this course, and we have to stick to it. So it does require leadership and determination.

MITCHELL: Now, the president is heading to Oslo today to accept the Nobel Prize. You've been through that experience. Any advice?

GORE: Well, it's a wonderful, wonderful ceremony, and a well-deserved honor for him, and I hope that -- I hope that he really enjoys the experience. And I'm certain that he'll use the occasion to deliver a meaningful address.

MITCHELL: Is there some dissonance in him going to accept the peace prize just as he had to unveil this war strategy for Afghanistan?

GORE: Well, the -- the strategy in Afghanistan is, after all, designed to achieve peace. We were attacked from the territory of Afghanistan, and now a nuclear-armed nation next door to Afghanistan is under siege from fundamentalist forces that are connected to those groups in the border areas that would probably take over Afghanistan again if this effort fails.

So it is consistent with the search for -- for peace and prosperity. And I'm sure -- I read from reports that he will address this in his talk in Oslo.

MITCHELL: Many of your friends and allies in the antiwar movement are very unhappy -- many progressives, Democrats -- are very happy with the president and this -- this new deployment. Are you comfortable with what he has outlined, 30,000 more troops? Hamid Karzai is saying to Secretary Gates yesterday that they'll need help for 15 to 20 years. What is America getting into here?

GORE: Well, there are uncertainties that lie ahead, but I don't remember seeing a foreign policy and national security challenge quite as complex as the one President Obama faces in Afghanistan. I don't think that he has a choice of just pulling out and leaving that situation to deteriorate, again, in major part because it's next door to an -- to a nation facing a lot of unrest from the same forces that are undermining Afghanistan, and Pakistan has this very large nuclear arsenal that absolutely has to be protected. That is a major potential threat to the United States, were it to fall into the wrong hands.

So I don't think he had a choice but to try to stabilize the situation in Afghanistan. Whether -- whether this strategy will work will depend on the execution of this plan and some uncertainties that lie ahead that they'll have to adjust to and react to.

So I think that, all in all, he threaded a very difficult needle, and now the success will depend on how well this is executed.

MITCHELL: Should we be focusing more on Pakistan, which is nuclear-armed, which has this very unstable government?

GORE: But it has a government in place. And the majority of the people in Pakistan want to see a -- a moderate regime there. And in Pakistan, the -- the idea of introducing U.S. troops is counterproductive, for all the reasons that you know.

And just because the focus in the president's speech and plan is on Afghanistan should not be taken as a statement that they're not focusing on Pakistan. In fact, they are; they just have to go about it in a very different way.

MITCHELL: Late last night, there was a compromise that the majority leader, Harry Reid, announced, which would, we are told, lower the entrance into Medicare, expand Medicare to include people as young as 55 years old, and eliminate what has been known as the public option. Do you think that, again, the liberal wing of the party should sign on to this? Is this something that progressives should support? Is it better to have something than nothing come out of this health care process?

GORE: Well, I haven't seen this plan, and the details of it have not been released, so I -- I would prefer to withhold judgment on it.

MITCHELL: Sure. But in general, do you think that -- that the liberal Democrats need to compromise and produce something, rather than having this whole thing fall apart?

GORE: I hope that this doesn't fall apart. I hope that, at the end of this process, there is a meaningful health care reform plan that achieves the important objectives the president has laid out. Whether or not this plan meets that standard, I really don't know.

But it's interesting that Medicare is now an icon of success. Anything that even brings about cost savings in Medicare many Republicans attack.

Medicare has been an outstanding success, and it's a government-run plan.

Of course, in the larger scheme of things, it's ridiculous that our country spends way more than any other nation on health care, a third of it or so for unnecessary paperwork and so much of it wasted, and even though we spend much more than any other country, we do not get better outcomes. In fact, we are way behind many other countries with tens of millions of Americans having absolutely no health insurance.

The current system works well for some, but is completely failing way too many other Americans. And so it's obvious that we need the reform, but the details do matter.

MITCHELL: Nonproliferation has long been one of your most passionate causes and Iran. The president reaches out to Iran. He takes new steps, engagement. They reach an agreement in principle, at least, for doing something about their enriched uranium and exporting it to Russia to -- to be reformatted in -- in a non-threatening form. And at the same time, Iran is now stalling (ph).

GORE: Yeah.

MITCHELL: And what would you do? Sanctions haven't worked. We can't get Russia and China to move beyond where they've been in the Security Council. If there is no agreement, what do you do about the Iranian nuclear threat?

GORE: Well, it's very difficult, because it's apparently dispersed in multiple locations, not all of which are known, many of which are hardened and hidden. And so the option of a military strike to take out the capacity may not be feasible.

So the effort to build an effective international coalition is still option A, and I would not assume that the dialogue with Russia and China behind the scenes has yielded no chance of cooperation from them.

The Russians are very frustrating to deal with on this issue, but there are many in Moscow who do understand that they themselves face a terrorist threat, some of which is connected to Islamic fundamentalist groups in the Transcaucasus. And so the possibility of a loose nuclear weapon or a nuclear terrorist incident threatening Russia itself is something they have had to think about, and it is connected to the potential proliferation of these devices, were Iran to -- to get access to nuclear weapons technology.

So it's -- it's an extremely dangerous situation. And I would hope that the administration is successful in working with Russia and China. I think China will cooperate eventually. Russia is a harder case, but -- and that's where I think the principal focus (inaudible)

MITCHELL: How do you persuade Israel, which has a much shorter timeframe and believes that the red line that Iran is crossing is much sooner rather than later -- their own estimates are really far different from our own intelligence -- how do you persuade Israel that it would make things worse to take military -- military action against Iran?

GORE: Well, first of all, Israel has its own right as a nation to defend its national security. It did so in launching an attack on the reactor project in Iraq many years ago, the Osirak reactor, from news reports, also in Syria, and the world did not really raise a peep, because essentially people recognized that it was justified. Nobody said that, but I think that was the reality.

Where Iran is concerned, we have to come back to a point earlier discussed. It's not clear that a military option could be successful, because the sites are dispersed. Some of them are unknown; some of them are hidden and hardened. And -- and so it's not clear that option is -- is really one that would succeed.

MITCHELL: And, finally, North Korea. You've had some unwelcome connections to North Korea in the last months with -- with the -- the capture of two of your Current TV employees and the great news of their release. What do we know -- what more do we know, because (inaudible) President Clinton was able to go -- what do we know about Pyongyang, as our own envoy, Ambassador Bosworth, arrived there today or yesterday?

GORE: Yeah. Well, first of all, I'm very happy that Laura Ling and Euna Lee are back home safe, enjoying their families, working. We're very proud of -- of them and happy that they're safe.

The Hermit Kingdom, North Korea, as sometimes called, is very difficult to understand, because they appear to act irrationally so -- so much of the time. But I think that there is now an opportunity to engage with them, albeit in the context of the six-party framework, with five other nations joining with the U.S. and...

MITCHELL: We do have a representative in Pyongyang now for the first time.

GORE: That is correct. That -- that is correct.

MITCHELL: There seems to be potentially -- I mean, it's probably the result of the fact that President Clinton was received there to negotiate (inaudible) a side effect, perhaps. We now have one-on-one talks. Do you think that there is a way to get them back into the nuclear framework?

GORE: There may be. There may be. There's such a long history of broken promises on their side, some complaints that they lodged back in 2001, 2002 that could be reviewed by both sides, but I think that the Obama administration has done an excellent job in figuring out a way to have a direct dialogue without threatening the integrity of this alliance in Northeast Asia that has been built up over a period of years. And I'm hopeful that Ambassador Bosworth will make progress there.

MITCHELL: Thank you so much, Vice President Al Gore. The book is "Our Choice." And what's your next adventure, beyond Copenhagen? What's the next chapter for Al Gore?

GORE: Well, I'm going to be focused -- I'm going to be focused on doing everything I possibly can to help solve the climate crisis, and that includes trying to convince the Senate to pass meaningful legislation and then assist in any way possible in converting that into a final treaty next year, and then there will be the ratification battle


MITCHELL: Thank you very, very much.

GORE: Thank you.

MITCHELL: Safe travels.