WASHINGTON — Last January, Al Gore took a boatload of scientists, donors, and celebrities to Antarctica to talk about climate change.
Richard Branson, James Cameron, Ted Turner, Tom Brokaw, and Tommy Lee Jones joined more than 100 other paying guests — Gore’s handpicked best and brightest — on the National Geographic Explorer, an ice-class 367-foot cruise ship, to see “up close and personal” the effects of a warming planet, courtesy of the former vice president’s environmental nonprofit, the Climate Reality Project. Singer Jason Mraz, another passenger aboard Gore’s Antarctic voyage, would later describe the trip on his blog as “a kind of floating symposium, much like the TED Talks series.”
Back in the more populated areas of the world, climate change activists snickered. The trip, and the Climate Reality Project, drew headlines but did little, they said privately, to affect the movement Gore hoped to revolutionize when he founded the group in 2006.
In the years since the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth and the Nobel Peace Prize that followed made Gore the number-one climate change advocate in the world, the activist group he created with his fame has been steadily shrinking, as has its once-lofty mandate: to create a new nonpartisan global movement around climate change.
The numbers, according to a review of the nonprofit’s tax filings, show the change has been severe. In 2009, at its peak, Gore’s group had more than 300 employees, with 40 field offices across 28 states, and a serious war chest: It poured $28 million into advertising and promotion, and paid about $200,000 in lobbying fees at the height of the cap-and-trade energy bill fight on Capitol Hill.
Today, the group has just over 30 people on staff and has abandoned its on-the-ground presence — all of its field offices have since shut down — in favor of a far cheaper digital advocacy plan run out of Washington. Advertising expenses have decreased from the millions to the thousands, and the organization no longer lobbies lawmakers. Donations and grants have declined, too — from $87.4 million in 2008 to $17.6 million in 2011, and many of its high-profile donors have drifted away, one telling BuzzFeed she now sees the group’s initial vision as “very naïve.”