|Former Vice President Al Gore and Brian Ettling|
On May 7, 2015, former Vice President Al Gore gave me one of the best gifts I have received as a climate change communicator: how to answer his critics.
For years, as I gave climate change talks, especially to my South County Toastmasters group, a conservative climate change contrarian would confront me with statements like, “It is hard for me to accept global warming when Al Gore lives in a big mansion and flies on private jets. His attitude seems to be, ‘do as I say, not as I do.'”
I would ignore these comments. I even asked other Climate Reality Project Leaders and friends of Al Gore how they would respond. The consensus seemed to be to just ignore those folks. Research shows it is very unlikely we can change their minds about climate change. However, what bothered me though was that I would see the politically moderate folks in my Toastmaster group chuckle in agreement with the climate contrarians.
Those dismissive comments sounded laughable to folks who read Skeptical Science and know the scientific understanding about climate change. The contrarians were trying to discredit the science of climate change because of Al Gore. As former Vice President, the Democratic candidate who won the popular vote for President in 2000, winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, and the subject of the Academy Award winning 2006 documentary An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore is probably the most recognizable global spokesperson on climate change.
It is easily observed that politically conservative voters strongly despise him. They noticed Al Gore strongly talked about the need to reduce the threat of global warming. Therefore, if he was for it, they had to be against it. This baffled me because Al Gore awoke me to the issue of climate change.
My Deep Admiration for former Vice President Al Gore
I grew up in the 1980s as a conservative Republican admirer of President Ronald Reagan. I voted for the Bush/Quayle ticket in the 1988 election. In my sophomore year of college in 1989, I was the President of the College Republicans club at my school, William Jewell College in Kansas City, MO.
Upon graduation from college in 1992, I started my career of working in the national parks. In January 1993, I read Al Gore’s book he had written a few years earlier, Earth in the Balance. The book really connected with my love of nature and our planet. I remember thinking at the time, ‘I may be a Republican, but I am really glad Al Gore is our Vice President.’
By 1996, I was such a strong admiration that I voted for the Clinton/Gore ticket primarily because of Al Gore. I eagerly awaited for him to run for President in 2000. As a Florida voter, it was a very bitter defeat for me when he fell short in the 2000 election by 537 votes in Florida. It was another disappointment for me when he decided not to run for President in 2004.
In 2006, I saw the documentary An Inconvenient Truth during the opening weekend. The movie had such a deep impact I knew then that I wanted to spend the rest of my life working on climate change advocacy. I bought Al Gore’s companion book to the film, An Inconvenient Truth, immediately when it arrived in the bookstores. When the movie became available as a DVD, I rushed to Walmart to buy it. Let me clarify that I am not a Walmart shopper, but I wanted to vote with my dollars that Walmart should sell that movie. I watched the video and the extras countless times at home to memorize it and absorb all the information.
I jumped for joy when An Inconvenient Truth won the Academy Award for Best Documentary in 2007. It felt like my team had won the Superbowl when Al Gore was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2007. After all his accomplishments that year, it was mystifying to me when Time Magazine chose Vladimir Putin over Al Gore as The Person of the Year for 2007.
For many years, the top famous person I wanted to meet most was Al Gore. Paul McCartney was my close second with my deep love of the Beatles and his solo music. Thus, I never understood the deep conservatives hostility for Al Gore since I relate to him for his love of the Earth and concern over climate change.
Al Gore and all climate communicators including me rank low on The Credibility Spectrum
Largely because of Al Gore’s influence, I everything I could about climate change starting in the late 1990s. In 1999, I read my first book global warming, Laboratory Earth: The Planetary Gamble We Can’t Afford to Lose, by climate scientist Dr. Stephen Schneider of Stanford University. Years later, I read mainstream popular books on climate change, such as Field Notes from a Catastrophe by Elizabeth Kolbert in 2006, The Weather Makers by Tim Flannery in 2007, and Hot, Flat and Crowded by Thomas Friedman in 2008. By the time I read Storms of my Grandchildren by NASA climate scientist Dr James Hansen and Science as a Contact Sport by Stephen Schneider in 2009, I was well aware that there was lots of other voices of journalists, writers, activists, and scientists calling for action on climate change besides Al Gore.
As I researched to develop my own presentations on climate change years later, I stumbled across The Credibility Spectrum, on the blog climatesight.org. This idea was put together by Kaitlin Alexander, now a PhD student in climate science at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, Australia. She created flow chart image and post in April 25, 2010 when she was just a 18 year old college student at the University of Manitoba, Canada, studying climate modeling and starting her academic goal to be a climatologist.
|Image Source: climatesight.org|
This Credibility Spectrum answers this question: Who should one believe when hearing conflicting media stories on climate change?
To summarize Kaitlin’s blog post, this credibility spectrum pyramid is split into two: the scientific community, and the non-scientific community. The scientific community starts with scientists, with the emphasis on climate scientists having the best expertise. As climate scientists find new discoveries through their research, they write peer-reviewed papers, published in journals like Nature and Science.
Scientific journals are the next step up the credibility spectrum. When scientific papers are submitted for publication in journals, their methods and conclusions are evaluated by independent climate scientists for robustness and accuracy. If other scientists in the same field reject the robustness and accuracy, they will reject the paper and the journal will not publish it.
However, as thousands of papers are published every month, some papers will be proven wrong later.
Thus, the top of the spectrum sits the scientific organizations, like NASA or the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). They compile peer-reviewed knowledge which has stood the test of time into consensus statements. The top level of this spectrum isn’t infallible, but it has a low error rate compared to other sources.
Everyone who isn’t a scientist falls into the lower half of the credibility spectrum. The communicators category includes the mainstream media, 350.org, high school teachers, politicians such as Al Gore. and concerned citizens like me.
Whether its Al Gore or me, we are not part of the scientific community. Therefore, you should always check our sources. Even more, since we attempt to use credible scientific sources to communicate about climate change, we should be held more accountable for what we say than just any random person on the street. The public, which can easily be swayed by popular media, rumors, advertising, corporate publicity, celebrity statements, etc, makes up the lowest rung of our credibility spectrum.
The conservative argument to reject climate change because of Al Gore carries no weight
It has been well documented that over 97% of climate scientists, over 99% of peer reviewed papers, and 100% of the world’s scientific organizations affirm that climate change is happening, currently caused by humans, and it is a dangerous threat. Multiple lines of evidence show that climate change is real and currently human caused.
Furthermore, scientists, such as Eric Steig, an isotope geochemist at the University of Washington, has scrutinized Al Gore’s climate statements. When An Inconvenient Truth was released in 2006, Steig critiqued it on realclimate.org, a website maintained by top climate scientists. His assessment: “For the most part, I think Gore gets the science right…The small errors don’t detract from Gore’s main point (on climate change).”
|Image Source: Brian Ettling
Climate Reality Project Training
August 22, 2012
Therefore, I find the dismissive argument of “global warming phony because Al Gore lives in a big mansion and flies on private jets” has zero credibility. Even more, it is a total waste of time to try to convince those folks because they cannot rise above their hatred of Al Gore. However, what bothered me though was that I would see the politically moderate folks be persuaded by the climate contrarians.
I was determined to find an answer to debunk this argument.
At The Climate Reality Project Training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa in May 2015, Al Gore gave a great tip how to handle difficult climate contrarians in the audience during our talks. He advised climate communicators to ‘respond with respect and kindness because that resonates better with the audience. Keep in mind that everyone else in the audience has been put uncomfortably into the jury box.’ Gore counseled that being respectful and kind, but also firm and confident can help win the audience over to our side in those difficult situations.
Having one tough time trying to get that answer to respond to Gore’s conservative critics.
In August 2012, The Climate Reality Project selected 900 individuals including me for their Training in San Francisco, CA. Founded by Al Gore in 2006, this is educational, worldwide grassroots organization has trained over 8,000 volunteers worldwide to give public climate change talks, similar to Gore’s presentation in An Inconvenient Truth. After many years of following Al Gore’s climate change advocacy, I finally had my chance to see him in person and learn how to give his climate change talk.
|Brian Ettling at Climate Reality Project Training,
Cedar Rapids, IA, May 5-7 2015
During the second day of the conference, Al Gore spend 8 hours with the participants going over his climate change slides. At during the afternoon session, the tables of 8 to 10 individuals were encouraged to develop a question to be answered by Al Gore. With around 100 tables seating all the attendees, The Climate Reality Project staff could only select a few questions to be answered. Thus, each of us at my table wanted to rise to the challenge of having our question selected.
During our table discussion, I mentioned my experience encountering climate change contrarians wanting to argue about Al Gore during my climate change talks. I tried to persuade my table that we should ask the very difficult, elephant in the room question. We should leave this conference with a tool how to address Al Gore’s critics so we are ready when they engage us. Thus, I proposed this question to the group: “How can we best respond to contrarians who reject global warming because they point to Al Gore living in a big mansion and flying on private jets?”
Immediately, there was a gasp at the table from the others that I would propose that question. They did not see the Climate Reality staff selecting such a sensitive question. One woman expressed openly hostility towards my question. She thought my question was a waste of time because it would never fully persuade Gore’s contrarian critics. With such a strong negative reaction, I quickly withdrew my question.
It was still a peak life experience for me to attend this San Francisco conference to see Al Gore in person and learn how to give his climate change talk, even if I was not able to get my question answered.
In August 2013, The Climate Reality Project selected 1400 individuals for their training in Chicago, Illinois. The organization chose me to be one of 50 mentors to assist the trainees attending this conference. I was assigned 20 people spread out over 2 tables. It was exhilarating and exhausting to make myself available to each person at both tables. My focus this time addressing the needs and questions of my group. During the breakout sessions to brainstorm questions for Al Gore, I strictly let my group pose the questions they wanted answered. It did not feel acceptable for me to impose any of my lingering questions on them.
|Brian Ettling mentoring 20 Climate Reality Project Leaders
The Climate Reality Project Training, Chicago, IL, July 30-August 2, 2013
Thus, I left Chicago feeling another peak experience of seeing Al Gore, enhancing my knowledge of how to give better climate change talks, and mentoring 20 Climate Reality Leaders. No chance to get my nagging question answered at that conference.
My breakthrough opportunity to ask Al Gore my question at The Cedar Rapids, Iowa Training.
In May 2015, The Climate Reality Project selected 400 individuals for their training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. The organization chose me to be one of 30 mentors to a group of 7 trainees. This was the third Climate Reality Project training I had attended over the past 3 years. Thus, it was wonderful spend time with many friends attending this conference, especially among my fellow group of mentors.
|Brian Ettling mentoring 7 Climate Reality Project Leaders
The Climate Reality Project Training, Cedar Rapids, IA, May 5-7, 2015
At the mentor meetings, Climate Reality Project staff, Jacqueline Kaiser and Jessica Hamilton, did an excellent job guiding the mentors including me. In our meetings they shared best practices to engage our trainees. They assigned us specific actions to make this training a success. During one of our our mentor meetings, Jacqueline and Jessica, announced that Al Gore would be attending our meeting on the final morning of the conference. They shared that Mr. Gore, as they call him, wanted to hear directly from us about our successes and challenges as Climate Reality Project Leaders.
My heart started beating fast as I heard this news: YES! Would I finally be able to ask Al Gore directly the question that had troubled me for years? I was going to find out on Thursday morning.
Thursday morning, May 7, 2015, arrived and all of the Climate Reality Mentors arrived early for the opportunity to engage Al Gore. Soon after Jacqueline and Jessica gave the announcements and latest
details for the last day of the training, Al Gore walked into the room along with the senior staff of Climate Reality Project. There were two entrances to the small conference room, and I gambled he would come through the entrance right by where I was seated. He did. He walked just a couple of feet away from me.
|Al Gore speaking at Climate Reality Project Training,
Cedar Rapids, IA, May 6, 2015.
Image Source: Brian Ettling
He sat in a chair in the front and eagerly fielded questions from the mentors about what was on their minds. I found him to be very engaged, friendly, and relaxed as he answered our questions. Gore displayed a great sense of humor as he shared personal stories with us. However, my mind was a blur of what he said to our group because I was so eager to get my question answered.
I did raise my hand each time he fielded a new question, but it was harder for him to see me because I was seated towards the back of the room by the door. Time was becoming short. Gore’s staff was becoming fidgety and signaling to him that it was time to wrap things up with us. All of us, including the Climate Reality Project staff, Al Gore, the mentors, and me, needed to start breaking up the meeting so we could start the full agenda for the last day of the training.
Thus, Al Gore then stated, “I have time for one more question.”
My hand shot up in the air before the others.
Al Gore pointed right at me and asked: “What is your question?
Gulp. My heart was racing. After many years of wanting this moment, it finally had arrived.
My Question to Al Gore of how to respond to his critics.
I was incredibly nervous. After a second which seemed like an eternity, I blurted out this question:
“Mr. Gore, thank you so much for this opportunity to speak to you. All of us really do appreciate it today. For years I have been giving climate change talks, especially to my Toastmasters group in St. Louis, MO. Some of them ask me questions that are very critical of you. I know we will never convince the Uncle Joe in our family or audience or accept climate change. It is a waste of time. Unfortunately, the moderate folks in our audience are being influenced by conservative Uncle Joe who listens to Rush Limbaugh and Fox News. The moderates seem to be easily swayed when Uncle Joe says, ‘we cannot trust Al Gore on global warming because he flies on private jets and lives in a huge mansion.’ How should we respond to that? ”
Al Gore responding to my question
It was such a relief to finally ask this question since my mind was still in a blur. However, I remember the whole room now sitting up and paying attention to how he would respond.
Al Gore’s body language showed that he was eager to answer it. It seemed like time stopped as Al Gore wanted to give this question the full attention that it deserved.
‘Thank you for asking me that question. I am under no delusion that people who ask it are just using one of the oldest tricks in history to just ‘shoot the messenger.’
As a boy growing up in the South, I heard people around say, “I would be all favor Civil Rights if it was not led by Martin Luther Coon.”
(From reading my body language, Gore could see that I was stunned by that quote from his childhood. I am a huge fan of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. He responded to my body language and gasp saying…)
Oh, yes, that is what I heard growing up.
I do have 33 solar panels and 10 geothermal wells on my house.
Almost all the time, I fly commercial. I even flew in a small commercial plane to and from this conference from American Airlines. However, I occasionally have no choice and must to charter a plane to get to certain commitments. It is quite an expense and I avoid it as much as I can.
I know certain people would love to make climate change about me. Therefore, sometimes I do deliberately lower my profile so the issue does not become about me.
However, those critics would love for me ultimately to just go away.
I am never giving them that satisfaction.
As long as I can, I will be speaking up about the climate issue.”
The whole room burst into applause with his response. His answer seemed to elevate the positive energy of the room to a whole new level. It felt like a sublime out of body experience that I was having trouble processing in the moment.
Shaking hands with Al Gore
|Al Gore, May 7, 2015
Image Source: Brian Ettling
That that note, Al Gore stood up, as well as the rest of the senior staff from Climate Reality Project, and they walked by me to the door. As he walked by me, I could not contain myself.
I humbly blurted out, “Mr. Gore. Thank you so much for answering my question.”
Al Gore stopped his walk. He turned to me, reached out, and shook my hand. He looked me directly in the eye saying,
“Thank you for all you are doing.”
It was hard to believe that all of this was real.
He then left with senior staff of The Climate Reality Project.
Immediately afterwards, other Climate Reality mentors gathered around me. They complimented me on my question and they were amazed by Al Gore’s response. The energy level for me and everyone in the room seemed sky high. It seemed like I had given all of them a tool they needed to respond to Al Gore’s contrarian critics.
Running into Al Gore at the Cedar Rapids Airport and on my flight
The peak experience of that morning of interacting with Al Gore was soon to be overshadowed later on that day. From my morning conversation with Al Gore, I could not wait to tell the seven people I was mentoring at the conference and anyone else who I could corner. The final talks at the conference were all excellent and very informative. However, my mind and body still felt overwhelmed from interacting directly with Al Gore. Part me was eager to race back home and share this story with friends and family back in St. Louis.
|Cathy Cown Becker and Brian Ettling|
When the conference ended at 4:00 pm, my goodbyes had to be brief to my good friends and the 7 folks I mentored at the conference. I had a plane to catch just a couple of hours later.
Around 4:40 pm at the passenger drop off area of the Cedar Rapids Airport, I ran into a Facebook friend who was also at the same conference, Cathy Cowan Becker. We intended to meet up at some point during the conference to say ‘hello.’ After three busy days, it was a thrill to finally meet her and get my picture with her.
After we went through airport security, it happened that we had to hang out at the same
concourse gate area to wait for our flight. While we were waiting, Al Gore came walking up to us. It turned out that he was on the same flight with us. I asked him if I could get my picture with him and he was very happy about taking pictures with me. Then I made sure Cathy had her picture taken with him.
|Cathy Cowan Becker and Al Gore
Image Source: Brian Ettling
After three days of spending many hours sharing his knowledge about climate change, Al Gore must have been very tired. I would have totally understood if he needed his privacy with us. Just the opposite. He was very friendly with Cathy and me. While we chatted with Al Gore, I met a new friend on the spot, Videns Veritatis. She was also at the Climate Reality Project Conference. I helped snap of picture of her with Al Gore on her smart phone.
Thinking of the climate change contrarians, I made this joke while while Cathy, Videns, and I were all waiting for our plane: “Looks like we are all going to be flying on the same private jet as Al Gore.”
I am not sure though if Al heard that joke because I did not see him then. However, as I was boarding the airplane, seated in the front row looked totally exhausted was Al Gore. As a jokester, I could not keep quiet. As I walked past him, I shook my head and remarked, “I don’t know, Al. Looks like I am going to have to tell Fox News I saw you on a private jet.”
|Rehia Quais, Al Gore and Javaria Quais Joiya
Photo used by permission of Javaria Quais Joiya.
Al did not seem to be in the mood for my joke. He looked way too tired to laugh. However, his security detail seated across from him did bust out laughing.
I hope Al does not hold that joke against me if we do meet again.
Even then, he stood up to get his picture taken with Javaria Qais Joiya and her 9 year old daughter Rehia Qais. Javaria and Rehia are from Pakistan. They attend the Climate Reality Project Training. Rehia read a very beautiful poem to all 400 of us in attendance during the Training. Al looked very happy to get his picture taken with them.
Soon the plane took off for Chicago and we then went our separate ways.
This very positive interaction with Al Gore happened 7 months ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday.
|Brian Ettling and Tanya Couture on their wedding day,
November 1, 2015.
Just one day after my flight landed in St. Louis, I started driving across country to my summer job at Crater Lake National Park, Oregon. My job at Crater Lake keeps me very busy running from one ranger talk to the next. My fiancée Tanya came out at the end of June. She worked and lived with me at Crater Lake until late September.
I left Crater Lake in the second week of October to return to St. Louis to get ready for our wedding. Tanya and I got married on November 1st. I then taught a climate change class on November 14th. I went to Washington DC to lobby Congress on climate change November 15 to 19th.
After all of this, I finally have a chance to write this blog of gratitude how Climate Reality Project and Al Gore gave me the gift of how to respond directly to his critics.
Thank you Al Gore!
P.S. I hope my fellow mentors from The 2015 Climate Reality Project Training in Cedar Rapids, Iowa or The Climate Reality Project know they are more than welcome to contact me if I have misquoted Al Gore’s comments. I will be more than happy to correct them.