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Al Gore speaks to Mike Allen at an Axios event. Photo: Axios/Chuck Kennedy

Speaking at an Axios event Tuesday, Al Gore likened climate change activism to a suite of other morally driven movements — such as gay rights and abolishing slavery — but sociology experts say climate is unique in a way that makes it harder to rally around.

Why it matters: For all the debate around climate change, Congress has never passed comprehensive legislation on the matter since it became a public concern decades ago. Climate is also not a top priority compared to other issues for most Americans.

"Every great morally based movement that has advanced the prospects for humanity has been led in significant measure by young people. I see this climate movement in the context of these previous movements, [such as the] abolition of slavery."
— Al Gore, climate activist and former vice president, at Axios event

What we’re hearing: Robert Brulle, a sociologist at Drexel University, cited a 2017 study by Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam that concluded climate change “has spawned surprisingly little grassroots activism in the contemporary United States.” McAdam cites a few factors for that, such as Republicans denying the issue is a problem and lobbying by fossil-fuel companies.

Brulle added in an interview Tuesday that the climate movement is unique because it doesn’t have a natural constituency like civil rights, feminism or gay marriage — all of which have specific types of people directly and clearly affected.

“Where as the environmental movement, there’s not a natural group with a vested interest. In other words, you could say young people because they’ll live longer, but it depends on whether you’re rich or poor, and whether you live in Bangladesh or Sweden or Switzerland. You get a lot of variety.”
— Robert Brulle, sociologist at Drexel University

Staff for Gore said in response that climate change affects a broader constituency than other issues, and also that other social movements were helped by those not directly affected.

One level deeper: While Brulle disagrees with Gore on the extent of similarities between climate activism and movements, the two seem to agree on a related idea: Lawsuits alleging oil and gas companies concealed what they knew about climate change could play a pivotal role in compelling Washington to act. These lawsuits are seeking from oil companies billions of dollars of damage caused by rising global temperatures. (Read this column for lawsuit details.)

If a trial became even a remote possibility, some lawyers predict oil companies would go to Congress, which cigarette companies did facing liabilities related to cancer. The theory goes that industry would push Congress to enact a climate policy like a carbon tax in exchange for limiting liabilities.

What they're saying: “The way these morally based revolutions advance is sometimes public opinion changes enough to the point where the courts realize, ‘OK we need to really look at the question of right and wrong here,'" Gore said at the Axios event. "That’s actually what led to the tipping point on gay rights.”

  • Brulle said the litigation is already feeding social movements led by activist groups like 350.org. Citing society’s dependence on fossil fuels and the amorphous nature of climate change, Brulle predicts: “I think it’s going to be more constrained than gay marriage. That makes it slower.”

Go deeper

Study: Common antidepressant guards against COVID hospitalization

A COVID-19 intensive Care Unit in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil on May 27, 2021. Photo: Fabio Teixeira/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The readily available antidepressant fluvoxamine significantly reduced COVID-related hospitalizations, according to a large study published Wednesday.

Why it matters: The clinical trial suggests that a cheap, readily available drug could dramatically reduce serious illness and death when prescribed early.

By the numbers: Catholics, Biden and abortion

Expand chart
Reproduced from Pew Research Center; Chart: Axios Visuals

President Biden — the second Catholic U.S. president — will meet with Pope Francis at the Vatican on Friday, as some church leaders debate whether to deny Holy Communion to politicians who support abortion rights.

By the numbers: Overall, two in three U.S. Catholics believe Biden should be allowed to take Communion despite his stance on abortion, according to polling by Pew Research Center.

Texas House probes school library books dealing with race and sexuality

Photo: Brittany Murray/MediaNews Group/Long Beach Press-Telegram via Getty Images

Texas state Rep. Matt Krause, chair of the Texas House Committee on General Investigating, announced Wednesday that he's initiating a probe into schools' library books, according to a letter sent to the state's education agency and other superintendents.

Why it matters: The probe focuses on books that discuss race, sexuality or "make students feel discomfort, guilt, anguish or any other form of psychological distress because of their race or sex," Krause wrote in the letter.