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Al Gore looks to youth to spark action on climate change

“We cannot continue to use the sky as an open sewer in a way that is absolutely destroying the future,” Gore said before an audience at the Kennedy Center.
Former Vice President Al Gore addresses youth climate leaders from Georgetown University at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.
Former Vice President Al Gore addresses youth climate leaders from Georgetown University at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday.Margot Schulman

Al Gore is fired up.

The environmentalist and former vice president appeared on stage Wednesday evening in Washington, D.C., speaking to young activists from Georgetown University about the youth-led climate movement and excoriating the lack of political will worldwide to address the growing crisis.

"We cannot continue to use the sky as an open sewer in a way that is absolutely destroying the future," Gore said before an audience at the Kennedy Center.

The talk, part of an exhibition called "COAL + ICE" that uses immersive video and photography to show the consequences of climate change, comes just days before youth leaders are set to hold a global day of protest on Friday against climate inaction.

Speaking across the generational divide, Gore said young people have helped propel cultural shifts throughout history.

"Young people have always been in the vanguard of these morally based social movements demanding change," he said.

Anya Wahal, a student at Georgetown University, said many of her peers feel frustrated about climate change, particularly because young people are shouldering the burden of a global emergency they did not cause.

"I think the anger and the frustration is that we do sometimes feel like the burden is shifted on us," Wahal said. "But not only that, we want to act, and we're frustrated that we can't act now, given the urgency of the situation."

Gore agreed that lawmakers around the world are not doing enough to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and transition away from harmful fossil fuels. He blamed the United States' "broken" political system for the country's sluggish action on climate, saying the fossil fuel industry holds too much power over the government.

"What they're trying to prevent is the immediate deployment of safe, clean alternatives that are already cheaper because it hurts their business models," Gore said of fossil fuel companies.

Growing more impassioned, he added: "I'm sorry if it hurts their business models, but I want my grandchildren and yours to live and thrive in a world that is not degraded and destroyed," he said, before apologizing for getting "all fired up here."

The desire to fire people up is at the heart of the "COAL + ICE" exhibit, which is put on by the Asia Society and will be on display at the Kennedy Center through April 22.

An accompanying six-week festival that includes music and theater performances, workshops, panel discussions and other educational programs is designed to raise awareness about climate change beyond scientific and academic discussions, said Orville Schell, the Arthur Ross director of the Center on U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society, who is leading the project.

"I'm a writer and I believe in the written word, but it has its limits,” Schell said. “And one of the great unmobilized resources are the arts. Insofar as we can, we have to expand into other areas of life to get people to wake up."

At Wednesday's event, several Georgetown University students engaged directly with Gore, including Myiah Smith, who said addressing climate change and the pitfalls of capitalism requires shifting to a new way of living that prioritizes the health of people and their communities.

"When you talk about capital, you're talking about a system that was created that was never meant to value human bodies," Smith said.

Carson Ramirez, another Georgetown student, talked about the need to engage Indigenous tribes and consider Indigenous rights in crafting solutions to climate change. Sayed Erfan Nabizada, a student whose family immigrated to the U.S. from Afghanistan, also emphasized the importance of climate justice.

"Afghanistan is one of those countries that is the least responsible for carbon emissions but most impacted by carbon emissions," Nabizada said.

A report released last month by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said that while no one on Earth is immune to the effects of climate change, the hardest-hit people and places are the ones least able to cope. 

The assessment found that poorer countries that have contributed the least to human-caused climate change are already being disproportionately affected by global warming, with lower-income populations, Indigenous communities, women and children bearing the greatest burdens.

Gore said while a global problem needs a global solution, the countries that have contributed most to climate change need to take responsibility for their actions.

"The wealthy, developed countries have to bear the biggest burden, have to take the lead, have to reduce emissions, have to assist the low-income countries in making the transition, have to end the subsidies for fossil fuels and have to rapidly deploy the new technologies here and throughout the world," he said.

Gore encouraged young people to keep speaking up about the climate crisis and to hold lawmakers accountable for their political decisions.

"Political will is itself a renewable resource," Gore said. "Our job is to renew the political will to get this done."