Fewer than five minutes and four questions into Al Gore’s press meeting at UNLV this week, his handler stepped, arms outstretched Christ-like, between the former vice president and the small scrum of cameras and microphones — including mine. “Thank you all very much,” he said, backing us en masse toward the door. “We’ll see you at the main event.” So much for my question.
Here’s what it was, in case you were wondering: Last week, Governor Steve Sisolak signed a bill into law requiring the state to get 50 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2030. Las Vegas City government has been running its buildings and infrastructure completely on renewable energy since 2017. To what extent are state and local efforts to slow climate change such as this undermined by the apathy — or even denial — coming out of Washington, D.C.?
It’s a mouthful, I know. But important, I thought, for this reason: National leaders’ actions and attitudes affect citizens’ day-to-day decisions. For instance, why should people bother recycling or changing lightbulbs if human activity doesn’t cause climate change anyway, as the current presidential administration contends?
Gore sort of addressed the point during the brief press scrum, answering a TV reporter’s question related to President Trump’s tariffs, which derailed a Nevada solar panel manufacturing project. “Well,” Gore said, acknowledging that his answer would seem biased by his having been invited to UNLV by his old friend Harry Reid, “the big policy push … came when Congress was putting together one of the big omnibus bills when Senator Reid was in charge of the Senate. He dug his heels in and said, ‘If you don’t put the right policy in here to really encourage solar, we’re not going to do anything.’ And so, they said, ‘Yes, sir, Senator Reid,’ and put it (the solar Investment Tax Credit) in the bill. And now we see the current administration is famously unenthusiastic about renewable energy, but because of what got started years ago … the costs of solar — and wind, by the way, and battery storage — are coming down so quickly that the fossil-fuel production of electricity can’t compete anymore.”
While that may be comforting to people concerned about the impacts of climate change, it doesn’t fully answer the question about the federal government’s ability to undermine state and local progress. So I put that question to some people who attended Gore’s general presentation. Here’s what they had to say.
“People who grew up in the boom generation, when everything was good, they just kind of use it and throw it away. And now there are all these issues, and a lot of people from that generation are currently in government, involved in politics, so it’s a view that carries over through multiple levels of everyday people you see on the street and people who make big decisions in government.” — Michaela Moen, UNLV student in landscape architecture
“Well, it certainly makes the road more difficult, but ultimately I think that it’s grassroots efforts and the efforts of states and cities — that's where real political change tends to happen first. So, while I would prefer that they were involved and weren't so apathetic (like you said; I think I would use a different word), I think that the changes that are coming from the ground up will ultimately lead to making those changes. It's just going to take longer and be a little tougher, unfortunately.” — Eric Weber, UNLV associate professor of architecture
“It seems like Vice President Gore made the seminal point, (which is), yes it’s good not to drink out of plastic bottles, but it’s more important to go vote to make a positive change, because we're going to need to get elected officials in Washington who understand that this is a real challenge and crisis, and who will address it in a way that helps the rest of us, including changing policies, changing laws, and speeding this along.” — Shelley Berkeley, former U.S. Representative from Nevada and current CEO of Touro University
“Absolutely, I think apathy is a huge problem, not only locally, but nationally and globally, too, because we always think that someone else will make the change. Someone else will turn off the light. Someone else will vote. Someone else will care about certain propositions that don't want us to use renewables, that want us to continue with coal or oil. So, yes, apathy is the greatest enemy of the people.” — Bashar Barazi, UNLV graduate student in music
Indirectly, Gore did answer my question at the end of his presentation — after spending more than half an hour inventorying the nauseating devastation that manmade climate change has wrought on planet Earth and its people. He was (finally) getting to whether we (humans, those in the audience) will change, and he said this …
Under the law … and we are still a nation of laws … (eliciting raucous laughter and applause from the audience, and the comment, “Are we, though?” from the woman sitting next to me) … the U.S. cannot legally withdraw from the Paris (climate) Agreement until the day after the 2020 election. … You can conclude whatever you want from that.”
Gore’s conclusion, obviously, is that anyone who supports the Paris Agreement should elect new national leadership. Of all the meaningful changes you can make in your home, neighborhood, and state, the most important one may still be casting a ballot.