In Training with Al Gore

Former US Vice-President, Al Gore, has begun a project to train ‘Climate Change Messengers’ and representatives from BTH master’s programme in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability (MSLS) were selected to train with him. Tony Thompson (class of 2007) and Ingrid Jacobson (class of 2006) share their experiences and reflections on The Climate Project with MSLS Programme Assistant, Richard Blume.

So Tony, tell us about The Climate Project.

Tony: It’s a follow-up to Al Gore’s award-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” and is an effort to share the message of climate change with as many people as possible.

Ok, and what’s involved?

Tony: Its essentially a series of training sessions for people to deliver updated versions of the slideshow that Al Gore gives in the movie.  In exchange for the training, participants agree to deliver the presentation at least 10 times over the next year. A total of 1,000 people have done the training, mostly in the US, but some in other areas around the world.

I understand there were over 5,000 highly-qualified applicants so congratulations to both of you for making the cut! Ingrid, can you tell us what the training was like?

Ingrid: It was a pretty intensive two days of training. Al gave the presentation twice for us, with the second time, taking his time to go over the slide transitions as well as red thread analogies that he pulls through the presentation.  We also had training on presenting positive solutions as well as presentation skills.

Did you get the chance to meet Al personally?

Ingrid: I didn’t meet him personally but he was there for most of the two days as well as the evening events. He was accessible to those that wanted or needed to talk with him over the course of the training.

Tony: I didn’t meet him either… kind of felt sorry for him in fact. Everyone was trying to shake his hand and get a picture with him – he was very gracious about all of it, but you could tell that it was wearing him out.

So overall, was it a worthwhile experience?

Ingrid: Yes, definitely. It was extremely well organized and the participants were well taken care of. I will say that one unfortunate aspect of the training is that it did not make enough effort to attract an ethnically diverse group of people.  In my group of 200 there was only a handful of people of color and not one African American participant, I think this says a lot about the lack of inclusiveness in this movement and the project itself.

That is a shame and I guess you will be doing your best to reach out to those groups in your own presentations?

Ingrid: Richard, you know me too well!

Ok. Lets move on. I want to ask you both about some of the issues raised by the recent rise in public awareness about climate change, which Al Gore has helped bring about. I’ve heard some criticisms of Al Gore’s documentary – some say that its great for raising awareness but its too negative, scares people and offers little in the way of positive messages or hope. Is that a fair assessment?

Ingrid: I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, and I think the training tried to address it with its “solutions” section.  I feel like the main message is to let people know that there IS time and hope, and we CAN do something to improve our situation on this planet. I mean, we are in the middle of a climate change crisis, and the recent IPCC report clearly tells us this, so I don’t even really believe we can talk about climate change in terms of “negative ‘or “positive,” it just is, and so lets get going on doing something about it.

Tony, what do you think?

Tony:   Yes, I agree. I don’t think its too negative. The fact is we don’t know the effects that climate change will have. But nothing that Gore presents is out of the realm of possibility – in fact, much of it is quite likely. We need to be aware of that, and we need to start doing something about it – and that’s Gore’s message.

So how does Gore’s message relate to the training you’ve undertaken at BTH? You’re obviously both well-versed in the “strategic sustainable development” concepts that are taught in the MSLS programme. Is the message of The Climate Project consistent with our approach (ie whole systems perspective, backcasting from sustainability principles)?

Ingrid: Whole systems perspective yes, although certainly through the lens of White Middle America. There was no backcasting or even real strategy presented in the training, but maybe we are meant to wait for Al’s upcoming book on solutions for more information.


Tony: I think that whenever a single issue is given so much attention – in this case climate change – I wonder if it can truly be a whole systems perspective.   There’s little acknowledgement in the slideshow about how solutions to climate change can also be solutions to our energy needs, which can also address the US’s national security concerns… and I think that is a weakness.

These sort of issues would be familiar to all MSLS graduates. Is it fair to say that the concepts studied in the MSLS programme were helpful as you went through the training?

Ingrid: Absolutely, I think if I hadn’t been trained in the basic science of climate change, I would have been too overwhelmed with all the information presented.  I was really thankful to have attended the program.

Tony: I agree with Ingrid.   By having this programme as a background, I didn’t have to spend as much time concentrating on the science that was being taught to us, and could instead focus on how I might best deliver the presentation in order to have the most impact on an audience.

You certainly have big shoes to fill in giving Al Gore’s presentation but I am sure you’ve developed your own presentation style. More importantly though, what do you see as the biggest challenges you’ll face communicating the ideas about climate change and sustainability to your audiences?

Tony: People want short, easy answers – specific steps that they can take to do their part… so our response is “change a light bulb” or “drive less.”  But that doesn’t get to the core of what sustainability is about.  Most people aren’t ready to get to the core of what sustainability is about… so we have to start small, and use actions like light-bulb changing and conservative driving to get people to begin to think.  After people have started doing this, then we can start talking about the merits of local, organic, seasonal food or installing heat pumps in their homes or supporting legislation that trades immediate financial benefits for longer-term prosperity.

Ingrid: I think the challenge is creating the bridge between explaining what climate change is (the core purpose of the presentation) and using that as a platform to illustrate how that is a result of our unsustainable practices in general, with so little time I wonder how I will be able to do that.

And on that note, what’s next for both of you?

Ingrid: I am pretty excited and nervous to be giving my first presentation with one of our volunteers here at the Ella Baker Center for Human Rights. Chris is a senior in high school and is doing his senior project on global warming. He is organizing for me to present to his entire high school.  This is perfect for me, because it provides me with an opportunity to include students of color, mainly low-income kids, in this conversation.  I will also be giving it to my co-workers for feedback on how to tailor the message so that it is relevant to the residents of West Oakland, US, where I live.

Tony, I expect we’ll hear more from you at BTH with some presentations on campus but I understand you’re also doing some presentations back home?

Tony: Yes, my first big group of presentations will be back in my home state of Iowa. I have 8 presentation scheduled over six days, with a couple of others pending… so I think we might see a noticeable drop in carbon dioxide emissions the following week!  I’ll be working on my thesis here at BTH through May, and I don’t know what comes after that.  Anyone want to finance me for a year to travel around and speak about climate change and sustainability?

Thanks for your time Ingrid and Tony. Keep up the good work and best of luck with the presentations on behalf of the MSLS Programme.

Interview: February 2007.

Postscript: you can read more about Tony's presentations in Iowa's local press: West Branch Times, Iowa State Daily and Mid Iowa News

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