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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

The Democrats' wake-up call

Eric Adams, a former cop who leads the New York mayoral race, speaks last night at the Schimanski nightclub in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Photo: Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

Democrats, in private and public, are warning that rising crime — and the old and new progressive calls to defund the police — represent the single biggest threat to their electoral chances in 2022.

Why it matters: There has been a big spike in big-city crime, a dynamic increasingly captured in local coverage and nationally on CNN and Fox News.

The robotaxi era will require a rethinking of vehicle safety

Zoox's robotaxi is bidirectional and includes more than 100 safety innovations. Photo: Zoox

Vehicles are being reimagined as autonomous, electric, toaster-shaped robotaxis. Now their safety has to be reworked too.

The big picture: There's more to self-driving cars than just removing the steering wheel and pedals. The entire vehicle needs to be redesigned for riders, not drivers, so their safety can be assured even when they're not in control.

Apple puts antitrust bills in privacy spotlight

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Apple warned Wednesday that new antitrust legislation would place iPhone customers' privacy and security at risk by limiting the company's control over what apps users can install.

Driving the news: Apple CEO Tim Cook called House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other top Democrats to argue that the antitrust bills would hurt innovation and consumers, per a New York Times report.