Finding Solutions To The Climate Crisis
by Al Gore, former Vice President of the U.S.A, Nobel Peace prize 2007
Or how rectify our errors and carelessness (I)
This speech was presented by M. Al Gore to New York University School of Law on September, 18, 2006. Here is the transcript.
A few days ago, scientists announced alarming new evidence of the rapid melting of the perennial ice of the north polar cap, continuing a trend of the past several years that now confronts us with the prospect that human activities, if unchecked in the next decade, could destroy one of the earth's principle mechanisms for cooling itself.
Another group of scientists presented evidence that human activities are responsible for the dramatic warming of sea surface temperatures in the areas of the ocean where hurricanes form.
A few weeks earlier, new information from yet another team showed dramatic increases in the burning of forests throughout the American West, a trend that has increased decade by decade, as warmer temperatures have dried out soils and vegetation. All these findings come at the end of a summer with record breaking temperatures and the hottest twelve month period ever measured in the U.S., with persistent drought in vast areas of our country. Scientific American introduces the lead article in its special issue this month with the following sentence: "The debate on global warming is over".
Many scientists are now warning that we are moving closer to several "tipping points" that could within as little as 10 years make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet's habitability for human civilization. In this regard, just a few weeks ago, another group of scientists reported on the unexpectedly rapid increases in the release of carbon and methane emissions from frozen tundra in Siberia, now beginning to thaw because of human caused increases in global temperature. The scientists tell us that the tundra in danger of thawing contains an amount of additional global warming pollution that is equal to the total amount that is already in the earth's atmosphere. Similarly, earlier this year, yet another team of scientists reported that the previous twelve months saw 32 glacial earthquakes on Greenland between 4.6 and 5.1 on the Richter scale a disturbing sign that a massive destabilization may now be underway deep within the second largest accumulation of ice on the planet, enough ice to raise sea level 20 feet (6 m) worldwide if it broke up and slipped into the sea.
Each passing day brings yet more evidence that we are now facing a planetary emergency a climate crisis that demands immediate action to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in order to turn down the earth's thermostat and avert catastrophe.
The serious debate over the climate crisis has now moved on to the question of how we can craft emergency solutions in order to avoid this catastrophic damage. This debate over solutions has been slow to start in earnest not only because some of our leaders still find it more convenient to deny the reality of the crisis, but also because the hard truth for the rest of us is that the maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis.
This no-man's land or no politician zone falling between the farthest reaches of political feasibility and the first beginnings of truly effective change is the area that I would like to explore in my speech today.
Some light on the target to reach
T. S. Eliot once wrote: "Between the idea and the reality, Between the motion and the act Falls the Shadow. Between the conception and the creation, Between the emotion and the response Falls the Shadow".
My purpose is not to present a comprehensive and detailed blueprint for that is a task for our democracy as a whole but rather to try to shine some light on a pathway through this terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we need to go. Because, if we acknowledge candidly that what we need to do is beyond the limits of our current political capacities, that really is just another way of saying that we have to urgently expand the limits of what is politically possible.
I have no doubt that we can do precisely that, because having served almost three decades in elected office, I believe I know one thing about America's political system that some of the pessimists do not: it shares something in common with the climate system; it can appear to move only at a slow pace, but it can also cross a tipping point beyond which it can move with lightning speed. Just as a single tumbling rock can trigger a massive landslide, America has sometimes experienced sudden avalanches of political change that had their beginnings with what first seemed like small changes.
Two weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans joined together in our largest state, California, to pass legally binding sharp reductions in CO2 emissions. 295 American cities have now independently "ratified" and embraced CO2 reductions called for in the Kyoto Treaty. 85 conservative evangelical ministers publicly broke with the Bush-Cheney administration to call for bold action to solve the climate crisis. Business leaders in both political parties have taken significant steps to position their companies as leaders in this struggle and have adopted a policy that not only reduces CO2 but makes their companies zero carbon companies. Many of them have discovered a way to increase profits and productivity by eliminating their contributions to global warming pollution
Many Americans are now seeing a bright light shining from the far side of this no-man's land that illuminates not sacrifice and danger, but instead a vision of a bright future that is better for our country in every way a future with better jobs, a cleaner environment, a more secure nation, and a safer world.
After all, many Americans are tired of borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the Persian Gulf to make huge amounts of pollution that destroys the planet¹s climate. Increasingly, Americans believe that we have to change every part of that pattern.
When I visit port cities like Seattle, New Orleans, or Baltimore, I find massive ships, running low in the water, heavily burdened with foreign cargo or foreign oil arriving by the thousands. These same cargo ships and tankers depart riding high with only ballast water to keep them from rolling over.
One-way trade is destructive to our economic future. We send money, electronically, in the opposite direction. But, we can change this by inventing and manufacturing new solutions to stop global warming right here in America. I still believe in good old-fashioned American ingenuity. We need to fill those ships with new products and technologies that we create to turn down the global thermostat. Working together, we can create jobs and stop global warming. But we must begin by winning the first key battle against inertia and the fear of change.
We are responsible towards our childs and the world
In order to conquer our fear and walk boldly forward on the path that lies before us, we have to insist on a higher level of honesty in America's political dialogue.
When we make big mistakes in America, it is usually because the people have not been given an honest accounting of the choices before us. It also is often because too many members of both parties who knew better did not have the courage to do better.
Our children have a right to hold us to a higher standard when their future indeed the future of all human civilization is hanging in the balance. They deserve better than the spectacle of censorship of the best scientific evidence about the truth of our situation and harassment of honest scientists who are trying to warn us about the looming catastrophe. They deserve better than politicians who sit on their hands and do nothing to confront the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced even as the danger bears down on us.
We, in the United States of America have a particularly important responsibility, after all, because the world still regards us in spite of our recent moral lapses as the natural leader of the community of nations. Simply put, in order for the world to respond urgently to the climate crisis, the United States must lead the way. No other nation can.
Developing countries like China and India have gained their own understanding of how threatening the climate crisis is to them, but they will never find the political will to make the necessary changes in their growing economies unless and until the United States leads the way. Our natural role is to be the pace car in the race to stop global warming.
So, what would a responsible approach to the climate crisis look like if we had one in America? Well, first of all, we should start by immediately freezing CO2 emissions and then beginning sharp reductions. Merely engaging in high-minded debates about theoretical future reductions while continuing to steadily increase emissions represents a self-delusional and reckless approach. In some ways, that approach is worse than doing nothing at all, because it lulls the gullible into thinking that something is actually being done when in fact it is not.
An immediate freeze has the virtue of being clear, simple, and easy to understand. It can attract support across partisan lines as a logical starting point for the more difficult work that lies ahead. I remember a quarter century ago when I was the author of a complex nuclear arms control plan to deal with the then rampant arms race between our country and the former Soviet Union. At the time, I was strongly opposed to the nuclear freeze movement, which I saw as simplistic and naive. But, 3/4 of the American people supported it and as I look back on those years I see more clearly now that the outpouring of public support for that very simple and clear mandate changed the political landscape and made it possible for more detailed and sophisticated proposals to eventually be adopted.
When the politicians are paralyzed in the face of a great threat, our nation needs a popular movement, a rallying cry, a standard, a mandate that is broadly supported on a bipartisan basis.
A responsible approach to solving this crisis would also involve joining the rest of the global economy in playing by the rules of the world treaty that reduces global warming pollution by authorizing the trading of emissions within a global cap.
At present, the global system for carbon emissions trading is embodied in the Kyoto Treaty. It drives reductions in CO2 and helps many countries that are a part of the treaty to find the most efficient ways to meet their targets for reductions.
It is true that not all countries are yet on track to meet their targets, but the first targets don't have to be met until 2008 and the largest and most important reductions typically take longer than the near term in any case.
The absence of the United States from the treaty means that 25% of the world economy is now missing. It is like filling a bucket with a large hole in the bottom. When the United States eventually joins the rest of the world community in making this system operate well, the global market for carbon emissions will become a highly efficient closed system and every corporate board of directors on earth will have a fiduciary duty to manage and reduce CO2 emissions in order to protect shareholder value.
Many American businesses that operate in other countries already have to abide by the Kyoto Treaty anyway, and unsurprisingly, they are the companies that have been most eager to adopt these new principles here at home as well. The United States and Australia are the only two countries in the developed world that have not yet ratified the Kyoto Treaty. Since the Treaty has been so demonized in America's internal debate, it is difficult to imagine the current Senate finding a way to ratify it. But the United States should immediately join the discussion that is now underway on the new tougher treaty that will soon be completed. We should plan to accelerate its adoption and phase it in more quickly than is presently planned.
Third, a responsible approach to solutions would avoid the mistake of trying to find a single magic "silver bullet" and recognize that the answer will involve what Bill McKibben has called "silver-buckshot" numerous important solutions, all of which are hard, but no one of which is by itself the full answer for our problem.
One of the most productive approaches to the "multiple solutions" needed is a road-map designed by two Princeton professors, Rob Socolow and Steven Pacala, which breaks down the overall problem into more manageable parts. Socolow and Pacala have identified 15 or 20 building blocks (or "wedges") that can be used to solve our problem effectively even if we only use 7 or 8 of them. I am among the many who have found this approach useful as a way to structure a discussion of the choices before us.
Over the next year, I intend to convene an ongoing broad-based discussion of solutions that will involve leaders from government, science, business, labor, agriculture, grass-roots activists, faith communities and others.
I am convinced that it is possible to build an effective consensus in the United States and in the world at large on the most effective approaches to solve the climate crisis. Many of those solutions will be found in the building blocks that currently structure so many discussions. But I am also certain that some of the most powerful solutions will lie beyond our current categories of building blocks and "wedges." Our secret strength in America has always been our capacity for vision. "Make no little plans", one of our most famous architects said over a century ago, "they have no magic to stir men's blood."
I look forward to the deep discussion and debate that lies ahead. But there are already some solutions that seem to stand out as particularly promising