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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

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U.S. releases report finding Saudi prince approved Khashoggi operation

Photo: Bandar Algaloud / Saudi Kingdom Council / Handout/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

The Office of the Director of National Intelligence (ODNI) has released an unclassified report assessing that Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman (MBS) approved the operation to "capture or kill" Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in 2018.

Driving the news: The White House also announced sanctions on entities implicated in the murder, though not on MBS directly. Officials also announced a new "Khashoggi ban" under which individuals accused of harassing journalists or dissidents outside their borders can be barred from entering the U.S.

About 20% of U.S. adults have received first vaccine dose, White House says

Joe Biden speaks during an event commemorating the 50 million COVID-19 vaccine shots. Photo: Doug Mills-Pool/Getty Images

Nearly 1 in 5 adults and nearly half of Americans 65 and older have received their first dose of the coronavirus vaccine, White House senior adviser Andy Slavitt said on Friday.

The big picture: The Biden administration has previously said it has secured enough doses to vaccinate most of the American population by the end of July.

Updated 4 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

  1. Health: Most COVID-19 survivors can weather risk of reinfection, study says — "Twindemic" averted as flu reports plummet amid coronavirus crisis
  2. Vaccine: Employers mull COVID vaccine requirements — New data reignites the debate over coronavirus vaccine strategyPfizer begins study on 3rd vaccine dose as booster shot against new strains.
  3. Economy: What's really going on with the labor market.
  4. Local: All adult Minnesotans will likely be eligible for COVID-19 vaccine by summer — Another wealthy Florida community receives special access to COVID-19 vaccine.
  5. Sports: Poll weighs impact of athlete vaccination.