Al Gore is in the news again. His new climate change movie, An Inconvenient Sequel: Truth to Power, is in theaters now. And that means the folks who don’t believe in climate change — or at least folks who don’t believe that humans have any impact on it — are out in force trying to discredit the message.
As was the case 10 years ago when Gore’s original movie came out, they’re going after his carbon footprint and making the case that he’s a hypocrite. Let’s take a look at the issues.
Al Gore’s carbon footprint
The National Center for Public Policy Research (NCPPR) released a report this month on Gore’s energy use. Titled Al Gore’s Inconvenient Reality, it gives the findings of their research into the electricity consumption of the Gore home in Tennessee. And the authors are shocked, I tell you. “The findings were shocking,” they write, before detailing the highlights. Here are three of their six bullet points:
- The past year, Gore’s home energy use averaged 19,241 kilowatt hours (kWh) every month, compared to the U.S. household average of 901 kWh per month.
- Gore guzzles more electricity in one year than the average American family uses in 21 years.
- Gore paid an estimated $60,000 to install 33 solar panels. Those solar panels produce an average of 1,092 kWh per month, only 5.7% of Gore’s typical monthly energy consumption.
According to Energy Vanguard, a company devoted to making homes more energy efficient, an “efficient” home uses between 5-10 kWh of electricity per square foot each year. A house that consumes 15 kWh per square foot or more of electricity per year is categorized as “bad” due to its inefficiency and excessive electricity consumption. Homes that expend more than 20 kWh of electricity per square foot each year are labeled “energy hogs,” which is Energy Vanguard’s worst rating.
I’m happy to see my article quoted, and they didn’t do too bad a job with it. There are, however, a couple of problems with how they used what I wrote. That scale gives you a glimpse into how much opportunity for savings there might be in your home, but if you’re running an office out of your home, that changes things. Also, this analysis tells you only about energy use intensity, not carbon footprint.
DéjÃ vu all over again
If all this sounds familiar, it’s because we went through the same thing a decade ago. Gore releases movie. Climate change obfuscators attack Gore’s personal energy use. Everyone screams, “Hypocrisy!” In that first round, Gore did something about it. He undertook a huge energy retrofit of his home in Nashville.
The lead photo above is from that retrofit. I was the regional manager for the EarthCraft House program at the time, and the team in charge of the retrofit was considering getting that certification. I think in the end they never followed through on the EarthCraft certification, although the home did get LEED-certified, I believe.
During the period when the work was happening the summer of 2007, I got to visit the house. In the photo at the top of this article, you can see the new double-pane, low-e windows waiting to be installed as they got rid of the single-pane windows. They encapsulated attics and crawl spaces, put in a lot of spray foam insulation, installed ground-source heat pumps (a.k.a. geothermal), replaced and sealed the ductwork, and installed a photovoltaic array on the roof. It was an impressive operation, on a much larger scale than the home performance projects I worked on in my earlier life as a contractor.
Gregory Thomas’s company, Performance Systems Development in Ithaca, NY, was brought in afterward to analyze the results, and Thomas said this about the project: “The retrofit was an electrification of a large home that also serves as an office for the former Vice President’s staff. There were natural gas boilers for heating and hot water and after the retrofit there was only cooking gas. All off-site electricity was purchased from renewable sources, no offsets for the electricity. All said and done, the carbon footprint on this house is really low.”
Gore’s communications director told the New Republic, “Vice President Gore leads a carbon-neutral life by purchasing green energy, reducing carbon impacts, and offsetting any emissions that cannot be avoided, all within the constraints of an economy that still relies too heavily on dirty fossil fuels.”
So, two things need to be pointed out. Energy use isn’t the same as carbon footprint. Yeah, we can argue about the significance of purchasing renewable energy that comes in through the same wires as the dirtiest coal-fired electricity, but we’ll save that for the comments below or another article. The other thing is that Gore’s house isn’t just a residence. He’s running an office with staff out of that building as well.
The truth about Al Gore’s carbon footprint
All this talk about Al Gore’s personal carbon footprint is meant to do one thing: distract. It’s a red herring. The New Republic makes the case that Al Gore’s carbon footprint doesn’t matter in an article they published last week. They’ve said it much more eloquently and completely than I’ll do here, so you really should read their piece. In short, the message put out by Al Gore and others climate change leaders is that individual actions can help on a small scale, but it’s the large scale carbon emissions that are the key.
David Roberts, a writer for Vox, is one of the clearest voices speaking out about climate change and all the crazy debate we in the United States just can’t seem to get past. (He’s well worth following on Twitter, too.) He spoke about the hypocrisy issue in an article about criticism of Leonardo DiCaprio. In it he wrote, “DiCaprio’s personal emissions are a fart in the wind when it comes to climate change. If he vanished tomorrow, and all his emissions with him, the effect on global temperature, even on US emissions, even on film-industry emissions, would be lost in the noise.”
Here’s another way to think about it. Your personal residence uses energy, and depending on where you live, the electricity delivered to your home may be really dirty. Think coal power plants, billowing out plumes of carbon dioxide laden exhaust. Or it may come from hydro, wind, and solar and have very low carbon emissions. It all depends on where you live and where your local utility purchases power.
If you get dirty electricity and want to do something about it, you could undertake an energy retrofit of your home. I’m all in favor of that, of course, but to cut your energy bills in half, say, you’re going to have to put up a bunch of money or get a good financing deal. That’s not always easy to do. Another thing you could do is install some photovoltaic modules on your home to generate solar electricity. Well, first you may need permission from your homeowners’ association. Then the laws in your state or the rules of your utility may have a say in how expensive it’ll be for you to do so.
No, to tackle this problem, it’s got to be done on a much larger scale than Al Gore or Leo DiCaprio can affect with their personal energy use, much less with what you can accomplish with your home. But by educating people about the issue and getting pressure on decision makers, we can have an impact on the large scale.
In addition, the hypocrisy charge just doesn’t ring true because Gore isn’t telling people the solution to this problem will come through individuals cutting back. Here’s what that New Republic article says:
Advocates like Gore certainly have suggested ways individuals can do their part. In 2007, he stated, “The only way to solve this [climate] crisis is for individuals to make changes in their own lives.” But just a year later, he said, “In addition to changing the light bulbs, it is far more important to change the laws and to change the treaty obligations that nations have.” Last month, he said the three best ways are to talk about climate change (which he does), look for environmentally responsible choices when making large purchases (which he does), and support climate-friendly political candidates (which he does). Individual action has never been the focus of his message.
Oh, one more thing about the National Center for Public Policy Research’s calling out of Gore for hypocrisy. One thing they’ve done a fair amount of over the years is to fight against climate scientists who speak out publicly. I wonder if that nearly half a million dollars they received from ExxonMobil has anything to do with it?
The bottom line here is that it doesn’t really matter how much energy Al Gore uses, even if he does use green energy and purchase offsets. What matters is that the Earth is heating up. What matters is that about 95% of scientists who work in the field have concluded humans are causing the accelerated climate change by dumping vast quantities of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. What matters is that we don’t have much time to turn things around. Dropping out of the Paris Accord makes it harder to effect change on the large scale.
And large-scale change is what we need most.