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Al Gore's Incredible Shrinking Climate Change Footprint
The former vice president set out to create the Apple Computer of climate change. From a sweeping, expensive “blitz” to a “niche” effort in digital media.
WASHINGTON — Last January, Al Gore took a boatload of scientists, donors, and celebrities to Antarctica to talk about climate change.
Richard Branson, James Cameron, Ted Turner, Tom Brokaw, and Tommy Lee Jones joined more than 100 other paying guests — Gore's handpicked best and brightest — on the National Geographic Explorer, an ice-class 367-foot cruise ship, to see "up close and personal" the effects of a warming planet, courtesy of the former vice president's environmental nonprofit, the Climate Reality Project. Singer Jason Mraz, another passenger aboard Gore's Antarctic voyage, would later describe the trip on his blog as "a kind of floating symposium, much like the TED Talks series."
Back in the more populated areas of the world, climate change activists snickered. The trip, and the Climate Reality Project, drew headlines but did little, they said privately, to affect the movement Gore hoped to revolutionize when he founded the group in 2006.
In the years since the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the Nobel Peace Prize that followed made Gore the number-one climate change advocate in the world, the activist group he created with his fame has been steadily shrinking, as has its once-lofty mandate: to create a new nonpartisan global movement around climate change.
The numbers, according to a review of the nonprofit's tax filings, show the change has been severe. In 2009, at its peak, Gore's group had more than 300 employees, with 40 field offices across 28 states, and a serious war chest: It poured $28 million into advertising and promotion, and paid about $200,000 in lobbying fees at the height of the cap-and-trade energy bill fight on Capitol Hill.
Today, the group has just over 30 people on staff and has abandoned its on-the-ground presence — all of its field offices have since shut down — in favor of a far cheaper digital advocacy plan run out of Washington. Advertising expenses have decreased from the millions to the thousands, and the organization no longer lobbies lawmakers. Donations and grants have declined, too — from $87.4 million in 2008 to $17.6 million in 2011, and many of its high-profile donors have drifted away, one telling BuzzFeed she now sees the group's initial vision as "very naïve."
Slick and omnipresent television ads from the group's early years, produced by the same agency that made the Geico Auto Insurance gecko famous, have been replaced by smaller web-based programs. One ongoing effort, "Reality Drop," helps activists post boilerplate comments to blog entries written by climate change skeptics.
Some climate change activists look at the Climate Reality Project today and question whether it can do much in its newest, stripped-down iteration. In a testament to Gore's celebrity, however, most of these comments come in private.
"I can't really think of much to say about Gore's efforts that I'd want to put on the record," a prominent climate change activist told BuzzFeed in a typical email.
Supporters of Gore's team, including the current leadership of his group, say the changing focus of the organization — first called the Alliance for Climate Protection — reflects the shift in the climate debate that has transformed nearly every player in the movement since Gore won his Oscar in 2007.
In those six years, a Democratic president was elected; a Democratic-led Congress tried and failed to pass legislation limiting carbon emissions; and a conservative revolution inside the GOP has all but banished talk of a bipartisan climate change bill from mainstream Republican politics. In 2008, both candidates vying for the White House had to sell their solutions to climate change on the national stage; in 2012, the subject didn't come up in a single debate question. The issue got something of a reboot this year when, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, President Obama gave it top billing in his inaugural address, delighting activists and putting the issue back on the table in an era when skeptics are as powerful as ever.
Yet there's no denying the Gore organization is significantly smaller in size and scope than when it first launched. Back then, the Nobel laureate aimed for a "blitz as sweeping and expensive as a big corporation's rollout of a new product," according to a 2008 60 Minutes segment on Gore's early efforts. Press coverage at the time noted blanket coverage by the group's signature ads featuring unlikely political allies: Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson in one spot, Nancy Pelosi and Newt Gingrich in another. The ads appeared on American Idol and across prime-time television.
Now, discussing their efforts online, Gore staffers say the effort isn't smaller — the group has just found its "niche," said Dan Stiles, the chief operating officer of the Climate Reality Project, in a wide-ranging interview with BuzzFeed on the organization's history. "I don't think what we're doing right now is any less expansive than what we were doing before," Stiles said. "We're not narrowing the blitz, but we're doing it in a digital space."
But a person close to Gore, who was present at the creation of the Alliance for Climate Protection and was a former senior official with the group, described an original plan to create something like the Apple Computer of climate change. There was the expensive signature logo, described in The New York Times as an update of "1960s Swiss/Modernist poster design." There was the CEO, Maggie Fox, a 30-year veteran of environmental and progressive organizing. And then there was the goal: to revitalize climate change activism, building a national movement with fans focused on unique solutions to the problem rather than fear-mongering about a future in which climate change goes unchecked.
"When we first started it, it was about lobbying big national groups and rallying the country," the former official said. "The Alliance was supposed to be the big force in climate change, the group that united America behind the problem."
In 2009, the political landscape changed. With climate change-friendly leadership in Washington, Gore's group shifted gears to focus almost entirely on lobbying Congress to pass climate change legislation. That year, the organization invested in 40 field offices around the country, poured hundreds of thousands into lobbying government officials directly, and beefed up its staff and volunteer army to partner with older and larger grassroots organizing groups like the Sierra Club. "After the stimulus bill, the decision was made to move [the Alliance] to D.C. and go full-court press on a climate bill," the senior person familiar with the early years of the group said.
Stiles described the significant and expensive change of course as a period referred to internally as Climate Reality Project's "Chapter 2." ("Chapter 1," he says, spanned years 2007 and 2008, when the group focused on its national media campaign.) "To build broad public support for the passage of climate change legislation," Stiles said, the organization "focused on building out a full-scale boots-on-the-ground campaign across the United States, which involved expanding our staff greatly."
That move turned out to be a mistake. Instead of turning Gore's group into a major national institution, it left it much diminished.
"Turning the organization into a lobbying group didn't really work," the former Alliance official said.
Conservatives quickly villainized the cap-and-trade bill that became the focus of advocates' efforts in 2009, and the legislation died in the Senate, sending the climate change community and the Gore group into a tailspin from the defeat.
"We all know what happened there," said Stiles, referring to the failed legislation. "We came up short in the legislative battle, and we took some time as an organization, with our chairman Vice President Gore, to take a step back and look at what was missing, and why we had come up second as a movement."
That soul-searching process, said Stiles, led to the group's current iteration: "Chapter 3." From the embers of the lobbying effort came a smaller, less ambitious Alliance. The group that had planned to bring revolution to climate change advocacy instead sought out a smaller part of the existing movement. "We saw as our niche to bring together leaders in the advertising and social media and marketing worlds from some of the world's most innovative companies," Stiles said.
The former top official said it was an end to the broad ambitions. "Everyone hunkered down and stopped going for the moon shots," the former official said. Gore himself took a step back, as his involvement was seen as politicizing in a way that it hadn't at the outset, when his documentary was an international hit.
The smaller operation has drawn less interest from the national media — and even from some of the group's own early backers. Susie Tompkins Buell, a California-based Democratic donor and one of Hillary Clinton's closest friends, seeded $5 million in 2007 to the organization, but now says she hasn't "followed it very much" or contributed since.
Buell cited her admiration for Gore — for "sticking with it," she said in an interview by phone — but acknowledged her frustration at the lack of progress from the group, and the climate movement on the whole. (Last year, she notably declined to contribute to Obama's reelection campaign because, she said, he had not been "vocal enough" on environmental issues.)
"I don't regret doing it," Buell said of her initial donation. "I think, honestly, we were all very naïve. We thought this would catch on. I really felt with the right media, with everything in place, we could really bring this problem to the forefront and really solve it."
The Gore group's current era, Stiles said, is focused on a "lean, mean machine" — but practically, that means an organization that is spending less, raising less, and employing fewer people.
Current efforts include "leader trainings" for the "Climate Reality Leadership Corps," a volunteer group well acquainted with the up-to-date science on climate change, tutored on public speaking best practices, and versed in the rhetoric that made An Inconvenient Truth so accessible. Earlier this year, Gore held two climate leader trainings, one in Istanbul and the other in Chicago. Between the two events, the group trained 1,500 new people, 100 of whom were members of Organizing for Action, Obama's outside grassroots organizing group, and the latest player in the climate movement. An attendee at the Chicago training said she learned "how to communicate climate change in a compelling and informative way" at the session.
Outside the trainings, the Gore group focuses on the digital world, trying to tell the story of climate change and shame skeptics online. The "Reality Drop" program, still in beta phase, allows users to post prewritten comments on articles the group says distort the facts about climate change. The effort has caught the attention of the Heartland Institute, the biggest skeptic group in the country — but it hasn't impressed officials there.
"They credit themselves with 55 'drops' into one of our recent environment blog posts, of which I approved one for posterity," said Jim Lakely, communications director at Heartland and the main author of posts on the group's blog, "making their claims of 'victory' as exaggerated as their claims of man-caused climate catastrophe."
More than one climate change activist said privately it might be better for Gore to divert his fundraising prowess and brand awareness to other, longer-lasting groups at this point and abandon the idea of running his own operation. Gore and his prowess are still praised, but there seems to be confusion about what exactly the group does.
"[They] did an amazing production end of last year, a 24-hour live broadcast on climate that circled the globe," said Kert Davies, research director at Greenpeace, referring to a live-stream video project the group aired last November that picked up 14 million unique viewers worldwide. Davies also cited Gore's continued influence as a singular voice in the climate change community; the former vice president recently gave an interview on the subject to the Washington Post. "They have creative juices and cash and also do a lot of work behind the scenes. And they have Al Gore."
Though the group has long since abandoned lobbying, current climate change activists still associate the group with those efforts.
"I'm on their email list and that's about all I know," said Daniel Kessler, spokesperson for 350.org, a grassroots climate change startup that has worked with billionaire Democratic donor Tom Steyer. "Their emphasis seems to be on going after congressional deniers."
Stiles described a third iteration of Gore's climate change group that no longer casts Gore as Steve Jobs. Rather than revolutionize the movement, Gore's group is settling into a role of support player in climate change fight.
"Everything from what 350.org is doing and their impact on the movement to what we're doing and our impact on the movement — we're all contributing to the momentum that's out there that we can feel," said Stiles, when asked what specifically Gore's group had brought to the climate change movement. "It takes all of us, so that's really how we're moving forward on this issue. That's together, and not really pointing to any particular impact that one organization is having over the other."