Former Vice President Al Gore issued a stark warning Wednesday about “would-be autocrats” in a blistering call to arms to Harvard’s graduating seniors, decrying attacks on known facts, science, and reason as strongman-like tactics to gather power and weaken democracy.
Gore, who addressed several thousand listeners in Harvard’s Tercentenary Theatre for Class Day, recalled the unrest of his own Harvard graduation 50 years ago. Despite civic turmoil from the Vietnam War, a polarized political system, and a president who “flouted the law” and “exploited division and hate,” those challenges didn’t approach those of today, he said. The checks and balances built into the U.S. system have weakened, he said, with more “compliant” judicial and legislative branches, while the internet and social media spread false narratives and “alternate” facts.
“Veritas — truth — is not only Harvard’s motto … but it is also democracy’s shield. And the right to pursue truth is the most fundamental right of them all, and that right is now at risk. And as a result, freedom itself is at risk, more so now than it was 50 years ago,” said Gore. “The system of checks and balances that has protected the integrity of our American system for more than two centuries has already been dangerously eroded.”
As dire as those threats are to American democracy, the threat of climate change looms over the whole human species rather than just one nation, said Gore, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his efforts to combat global warming. Due to the “war” on facts and targeted misinformation campaigns by the fossil fuel industry and its supporters, the U.S. has the highest percentage of climate science doubters of any country in the world, Gore said. Those campaigns, modeled on past efforts by the tobacco industry, have been effective despite the parades of extreme weather events that happen with increasing regularity.