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Al Gore's Climate Leadership Training kept me riveted and inspired

Al Gore on day two of climate leadership training (Amy Huva)

Al Gore is a mesmerizing speaker. As a participant of the Climate Reality Project, I saw how people like Gore use stories to build common ground with thousands of people and convince them to care about climate change.

The importance of narrative 

The theme of the three days of climate leadership training was "narrative" – the stories we tell each other that create culture and bind us together. We all tell stories, and stories are what we remember and relate to.

On the first day in Chicago, we were asked to reflect on our own story: what was the path that we took to get to being in Chicago, doing climate leadership training and working on climate change? What was the point at which you realized that solving climate change is the most important thing – and that nothing else matters if we don’t fix this?

It wasn’t easy – I sifted back through all of the things I’ve done over the past years trying to find a point and struggled. Some people on my table had stories of epiphanies where they suddenly realized, but I couldn’t really think of one and ‘I don’t know, it just happened’ is a pretty boring story.

I finally narrowed it down to being given a copy of Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine for Christmas by my cousin in 2007. It was while I was deciding whether or not to do a PhD in Chemistry and become a research chemist who rocked a lab coat full time. The book made me really angry and spurred me into wanting to do something about environmental degradation.

So I became a bureaucrat. Clearly, I didn’t know what I was getting myself into! Then I saw journalist and author Chris Mooney speak at the National Press Club about his book The Republican War on Science and being a science communicator made much more sense to me than government.

Learning from Al Gore about climate leadership

But how to include this in a slideshow on climate change? Gore spent the entire second day with us in Chicago taking us through the PowerPoint presentation we will give as climate leaders. It was an epic 13 hour day, and Gore was on stage working with us from 8am all the way through dinner as we ran overtime, but didn’t care because Gore is such an engaging speaker.

Al Gore has the room enthralled (Amy Huva)

Al Gore knows how to tell stories amazingly well. He had over 1,000 people paying attention to him for the entire day.

He’s also entertainingly self-depreciating. He told us a story about how things can go wrong in the presentation, like when he used to use a ladder to show the increase in CO2 concentration in the atmosphere as it shot up compared to the paleoclimate record.

He was giving the presentation once and didn’t notice the ladder had one leg off the edge of the stage. So he climbed up and toppled off the side of the stage! That he got back up after dusting himself off and said ‘you’ll never forget this presentation!’ shows a cool head under pressure I’d love to have as well.

Gore talked us through how we need to tailor each presentation to specific audiences with budgets. We have a time budget, a complexity budget and a hope budget. The hope budget part was important for me to hear as I’m known for being ‘all end of the world all the time’ and saying ‘we’re at the beginning of the next mass extinction!’ with a cheery tone of voice doesn’t make it less devastating for people.

He told us how it’s important to have the ‘earth rise’ images at the beginning and the end of the presentation because we have to help people get out of their everyday details mindset. As one of the other presenters Kim Wassmeran said: if you can’t pay your rent and you just lost your job and your kid’s school is closing, not being able to breathe the air isn’t first on your list to care about.

The 'bushfire koala' burned into people's memories

Gore also told us about how it’s important to use memorable images to help the facts stick in our minds – like the iconic ‘bushfire koala’ picture from Australia in 2009 after the Black Saturday bushfires ravaged my home state of Victoria, burned two towns to the ground and the animals were so stressed they were willing to approach humans for help.

The iconic bushfire koala image (Reuters)

Now, unless you lived in Victoria when that happened like I did, you’re probably not going to remember all those facts, and you don’t remember what it was like to walk out the front door into 46oC heat and feel like you were walking into an oven. But seeing that koala drinking water from a fire fighter might give you pause to think about what it might have been like and that emotional connection – that empathy – is what’s so important for coming together to fight climate change.

There was so much that Gore told us and taught us through the day that I’m sure I’ll keep remembering different things about it for ages as I work on the presentation and becoming more confident as a climate leader.

Democracy being hacked by special interests

He talked about how democracy is being hacked by special interests in the USA right now, about the need for a price on carbon to jump start emissions reductions, about natural gas and the need to be careful that a ‘bridge fuel’ doesn’t become a climate gangplank.

He talked about the strain on families if their livelihoods depend on resource extraction jobs and how we’ve barely begun to build the renewable energy industry that will be able to create sustainable long term jobs unlike the resource industry’s boom and bust model.

He had us all in tears talking about how we have to come to terms with potentially losing the things we love about this planet – and how that kind of loss can be so overwhelming that it will take time to process.

Most importantly for me, he also talked about needing a hope budget for ourselves as we become climate leaders. In his own words; ‘the difference between hope and despair is a good night’s sleep’. And sometimes, that can be the hardest thing to remember. 

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