Posts Tagged Al Gore

Turning point: Al Gore’s new hope Bryan Walker Jun 22

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Al Gore has written an impressive long article in Rolling Stone magazine. I read it with gratitude and wanted to recommend it to others. It’s a highly readable text packed with rich detail which reflects the wide spectrum across which Gore operates and the considerable intelligence which informs his thinking. It deserves wide readership.

The article proclaims new grounds for hope that we will yet find our way to a low-carbon global economy in time to prevent the worst effects of unchecked climate change. Gore opens with an affirmation that a powerful yet largely unnoticed shift is under way in the needed transition. Here is the surprising fact that signals hope:

“Our ability to convert sunshine into usable energy has become much cheaper far more rapidly than anyone had predicted.”

The cost of solar electricity has decreased by an average 20 percent per year since 2010. Gore sees an ongoing decline in cost to the point where by 2020 more than 80 percent of 0the world’s people will live in regions where solar will be competitive with electricity from other sources.  This is already the case in at least 79 of the world’s countries.

With lowering costs Gore considers we are witnessing the beginning of a massive shift from the “central station” utility-grid model to a “widely distributed” model with rooftop solar cells, on-site and grid battery storage, and microgrids.

He cites evidence from many places that the shift to solar energy is under way and successfully so. Not least is the alarm shown by many utilities whose electricity is produced by fossil fuels. Gore points to the recent decision of Barclays to downgrade the entirety of the US electric sector because the declining cost trends in distributed solar ­photovoltaic-power generation and residential­-scale power storage is likely to make utility investments less attractive.

Fossil fuel interests are fighting back against solar energy, often fiercely. Gore points for example to Koch brothers-funded efforts to persuade state legislatures to tax home-owners who install photovoltaic panels on their roofs, claiming they are involved in “greedy” free-riding. But the vested interests are losing the battle as solar and wind costs come down and fossil fuel costs go up.

The article ranges widely from its early focus on solar energy and includes compelling surveys of the effects of climate change already being experienced in increased extreme weather events, droughts, floods and sea level rise, along with warnings from current science of worse to come. Gore’s writing on the impacts of climate change is always firmly tethered to the science but less constrained by the degree of scientific reticence considered necessary for professional scientists.

As a lay person myself deeply alarmed by what I see to be the implications of the advancing science I welcome Gore’s readiness to write clearly and unequivocally of the impacts of climate change and not to soften his perceptions. Too many policy makers take refuge in best case scenarios, though there is no assurance that they will eventuate.

But the main purpose of Gore’s article is to emphasise that there is reason for hope that we can yet avoid the worst outcomes. In addition to technology he discerns and tracks many new trends in business, in economics and in politics which he presents as grounds for such hope. And in the course of these discussions he sounds the refrain:

“And all the while, the surprising and relentless ongoing decline in the cost of renewable energy and efficiency improvements are driving the transition to a low-carbon economy.”

Gore is not afraid of oratorical undergirding as he develops his theme. Churchill warning of fascism in the mid-1930s and Martin Luther King in some of the bleakest hours of the civil rights revolution are both invoked.

Of particular aptness is his reference to the words of the American poet Wallace Stevens:

“After the final ‘no’ there comes a ‘yes’
And on that ‘yes’ the future world depends.”

Gore reflects on the noes that nevertheless gave way to the abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the reining in of the nuclear arms race, the quickening global recognition of gay and lesbian equality, and indeed every forward advance in the long march of social progress.

Not that Gore expresses abounding optimism. He is well aware of the obstacles ahead and the power of well-funded opposition. But he nevertheless allows himself to hope and urges his readers to have the courage to reject despair and be part of the active citizenry which is essential to achieving change.

Roughan’s relaxed, world drowns Bryan Walker Apr 07

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rising seaInsouciance is the new face of climate change denial. John Roughan’s column in Saturday’s New Zealand Herald was a typical example. Half a metre sea level rise by the end of the century? What’s there to be concerned about in that, he scoffs. A bach at the water’s edge might no longer be a good idea, but that’s about all it amounts to.

At a century off, the predicted disaster of climate change is a slow burn.

“It is plenty long enough for people to move if necessary, for crops to change, fresh water to be managed much more efficiently. Human life will adapt if it has to…”

It’s hard to credit the nonchalance, let alone the implicit inhumanity. Roughan settles for the lower sea level rise estimates, I notice.  No mention of the metre or more which is now commonly advanced by scientists. But there’s not much need to be too closely acquainted with the science if you can brush it all away with the assertion that humans will adapt if they have to.

There’s no acknowledgement that sea level rise will continue to catastrophic levels in succeeding centuries if we take no notice of the urgent need to constrain emissions. No recognition of what a metre of sea level rise will mean for many small island states, or for the dense populations of low-lying coasts and the great river deltas. No appreciation of the precariousness of the lives of the hundreds of millions of poorer people whose subsistence is closely tied to a relatively dependable climate pattern. Does he advise them to be “sensibly relaxed about the risk of climate catastrophe”, as he praises the New Zealand government for being?

He appears as dismissive of technologies to address climate change as he is of the magnitude of the risks it carries. He contemptuously suggests that the alternative to adapting to climate change is returning “to some pre-industrial age of bicycles and village crafts.”  I think of books like Al Gore’s Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis which grew out of many lengthy and intensive “Solution Summits” he organised to enable leading experts from round the world to share their knowledge. The kind of technological expertise they represent is apparently not worth Roughan’s bothering to acquaint himself with.

Roughan’s trivialising may not be denial of the science, but it is denial of the science’s import. It effectively claims that climate change can’t be as bad for humanity as the science warns it will be. It pours scorn on those who allow themselves to be thoroughly alarmed at the prospect. It undermines urgent mitigation measures and misrepresents what those measures might be.

Roughan is a senior editorial writer and columnist for the Herald. Of late the paper has carried a number of accurate and well-assembled news reports about climate change matters, albeit at some distance from the front pages.  It also hosts occasional opinion pieces which set out the seriousness of the issue. And a couple of days ago it at long last tackled the question in a thoughtful editorial critical of the lack of urgency in the government’s approach to climate change.

It’s disappointing, to say the least, to find one of its senior journalists so blasé on such a serious matter.


Butterfly futures flutter by Bryan Walker Oct 02

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James Hansen’s latest discussion paper begins and ends with Monarch butterflies. He watches some on his property in Pennsylvania as they prepare to leave for their migration to Mexico and reflects on the prospects for their survival as a species as global warming takes hold. The Monarchs cross Texas on their way south, a difficult path this year over desolate, baked-out territory. Which leads Hansen to a spirited denunciation of ’well-oiled Governors and Senators in Texas and Oklahoma’ who assert that global warming is a hoax and help business-as-usual CO2 emissions to continue.

He addresses the question of whether the drought and fires in Texas can be attributed to global warming. The media have remained largely silent this year on possible connections between extreme weather events and human-made climate forcing, and Hansen asks whether scientists should be making more effort to draw public attention to the human role in climate anomalies.

The longstanding difficulty in such communication is distinguishing climate change caused by global warming from natural climate variability.  ’The human-made climate ‘signal’ must be extracted from the large ‘noise’.’ But he thinks the public can understand the distinctions.

He sets out the reasons we can expect intensified climate extremes from global warming:

(1) Warmer air holds more water vapor, and precipitation occurs in more extreme events. ’100-year floods’ and even ’500-year floods’ will become more likely. Storms fueled by water vapor (latent heat), including thunderstorms, tornadoes and tropical storms, will have the potential to be stronger. Storm damage will increase because of increased flooding and stronger winds.

(2) Where weather patterns create dry conditions, global warming will intensify the drought, because of increased evaporation and evapotranspiration. Thus fires will be more frequent and burn hotter. Observations confirm that heat waves and regional drought have become more frequent and intense over the past 50 years. Rainfall in the heaviest downpours has increased about 20 percent. The destructive energy in hurricanes has increased (USGCRP, 2009).

What about the Texas drought? Is it related to human-made global warming?

There is strong reason to believe that it is. Basic theory and models (Held and Soden, 2006) and empirical evidence (Seidal and Randel, 2006) indicate that the global overturning circulation, air rising in the tropics and subsiding in the subtropics, expands in latitude with global warming. Such expansion tends to make droughts more frequent and severe in the southern United States and the Mediterranean region, for example.

But while the occurrence of unusual Texas heat and drought is consistent with expectations for increasing CO2, may this year’s event just be climate ‘noise’?

I used ‘climate dice’ in conjunction with testimony to Congress in 1988 to try to help the public understand that the human-made climate ‘signal’ must be extracted from the large ‘noise’ of natural climate variability.

In an upcoming post (Climate Variability and Climate Change, Hansen, Sato and Ruedy) we try to clarify this matter via simple maps and graphs that show how the odds have changed, allowing comparison of expectations and reality…

We show that a ‘signal’ due to global warming is already rising out of the climate ‘noise’, even on regional scales.

Hansen offers maps and some technical detail to illustrate this, and concludes:

The chaotic element in climate variability makes it impossible to say exactly where large anomalies will occur in a given year. However, we can say with assurance that the area and magnitude of the anomalies and their practical impact will continue to increase. Clear presentations of the data should help the public appreciate the situation as global warming continues to rise further above the level of natural variability.

So much for the longstanding difficulty for scientists in helping the public understand the distinction between climate variability and the overall trend of the effects of global warming. But Hansen also describes a new difficulty which has arisen more recently and which has nothing to do with the science. It is the character assassination of scientists, mainly directed against Ben Santer, Michael Mann and Phil Jones.

The important point I wish to note is that each of these three targets, the scientific conclusions that provoked the critics and which they aimed to destroy or discredit, have been shown in subsequent analyses to have been correct, indeed, dead-on-the-mark.

However, the scientific community is well aware of the toll that these attacks took on the scientists, despite the fact that their work was eventually vindicated and corroborated.

Thus, it would not be surprising if these experiences have an effect on the willingness of other scientists to make statements that draw attention to the likely role of human-made forcings as a contributor to the climate extremes of the past summer.

But the “inherent objectivity” of science is needed to help society find a path which will avoid our exiting the stable Holocene climate in which civilisation developed. Hansen is not prepared to stop short of engagement with the policy implications of the science, though governments want scientists to do so. He explains why:

If scientists do not connect all of the dots in this story, the dots will be connected by people with a vested interest in preserving the fossil fuel industry. The resources that the fossil fuel industry brings to bear in protecting its economic interests are formidable. The public is immersed daily in advertisements using effective spokespeople including skilled professional actors. Their message has appeal. They say that efforts to extract fossil fuels in tar sands, in the Arctic, and so on, would provide jobs and produce needed energy.

Existing irrefragable climate science makes clear that this path — advocated by the fossil fuel industry and supported by governments worldwide — would be calamitous for young people and nature. Yet if scientists bring only this negative message, there is no hope of stopping the fossil fuel juggernaut with its aim to exploit all fossil fuels.

Hansen’s positive message, which is well known by now, is that the way forward is a rising carbon fee or tax collected from fossil fuel companies and returned to the population on a per capita basis. He has been criticised for his advocacy of a fee-and-dividend policy and blunt rejection of cap-and-trade schemes, which he describes in this paper as ’designed to allow business-as-usual, leading to certain mining of all fossil fuels on the planet and a debacle for young people’.

His specific advocacy may be arguable. However it is important that scientists who know the consequences of continuing to extract and burn fossil fuels should speak up if politicians who claim to be addressing the problem are at the same time allowing and even abetting the further exploitation of fossil fuels – as if the magic of trading and offsetting will somehow render them harmless. That appears to be very much the case in New Zealand under present government policies which unashamedly look to a prosperous future from fossil fuel exploration and exploitation while running an ineffectual ETS on the side and getting credit internationally for doing so. Hansen’s forthrightness exposes this for the greenwash that it is.

And his carbon tax proposals are not foolish, even if they’re not flavour of the month.  I recently reviewed Shi-ling Hsu’s book The Case for A Carbon Tax, which advanced a strong and well-considered argument for such an approach. Al Gore has expressed his preference for a carbon tax albeit acknowledging it is not currently acceptable in the US.

Hansen’s paper ends wryly with those butterflies:

Survival of the Monarch will depend more on conditions in Mexico than in Texas. If business-as-usual continues and we burn most of the fossil fuels this century, it is unlikely that those forests [where the Monarchs winter] or the Monarchs will survive. There is not much that the Monarch can do about this matter. Their fate will be up to the intelligent species.

Current extreme weather events part of climate change Bryan Walker Sep 20

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Al Gore didn’t hesitate to dwell on extreme weather events as evidence of the reality of climate change in his closing address for the 24-hour Climate Reality Project last week. There has certainly been no lack of them in the past year or so. Was he pushing the boundaries of the science? It wouldn’t worry me too much if he was because there’s plenty else in the scientific projections which is clearly under way, such as the melting polar ice or the acidification of the oceans. But Gore is a very intelligent and well-informed man and I don’t think he allowed himself to be carried away beyond the scientific mandate. Consider what is being said by some scientists right now.

Two recent papers have looked at extreme heat. A Stanford team paper (full text) was published in Climate Change Letters in June. The lead author Noah Diffenbaugh, an assistant professor of environmental Earth system science and fellow at the Woods Institute for the Environment at Stanford, had this to say:

“According to our projections, large areas of the globe are likely to warm up so quickly that, by the middle of this century, even the coolest summers will be hotter than the hottest summers of the past 50 years.”

And the process is already under way:

“We also analyzed historical data from weather stations around the world to see if the projected emergence of unprecedented heat had already begun. It turns out that when we look back in time using temperature records, we find that this extreme heat emergence is occurring now, and that climate models represent the historical patterns remarkably well.”

This supports the projections:

“The fact that we’re already seeing these changes in historical weather observations, and that they match climate model simulations so closely, increases our confidence that our projections of permanent escalations in seasonal temperatures within the next few decades are well founded.”

Boston University researchers have published a paper (full text) in the current issue of Climatic Change Research. The lead author is Bruce Anderson,  Associate Professor, Geography and Environment. The press release explains:

Anderson’s research indicates that if the 2°C increase [the current international target for limiting emissions] were to come to pass 70—80% of the land surface will experience summertime temperature values that exceed observed historical extremes (equivalent to the top 5% of summertime temperatures experienced during the second half of the 20th century) in at least half of all years. In other words, even if an increase in the global mean temperature is limited to 2°C, current historical extreme values will still effectively become the norm for 70-80% of the earth’s land surface.

Anderson comments:

’Many regions of the globe–including much of Africa, the southeastern and central portions of Asia, Indonesia, and the Amazon–are already committed to reaching this point, given current amounts of heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere.’

In the United States, the impacts are expected to be most severe over the western third of the country. ’In these regions, if the 2°C threshold is passed, it is more likely than not that every summer will be an extreme summer compared with today.’

’While previous work, including our own and that of researchers at Stanford, has highlighted that summertime temperature extremes, and how frequently they occur, will change significantly even in response to relatively small increases in global-mean temperatures, the extent and immediacy of the results really caught us off guard. Because these results are referenced to increases in global-mean temperatures, and not some particular time or change in amount of heat-trapping gases, they hold whether we reach this global-mean temperature increase in the next 40-50 years as currently projected, or the next century. They really are telling us that this is a temperature threshold that poses significant risks to our lives and livelihoods.’

Climate Communication is a new group set up to combine expertise in climate science with clear and accessible communication to the public. They have recently published an article setting out very clearly the connections scientists see between recent extreme weather events and climate change. The expert science reviewers are Kevin Trenberth and Jerry Meehl, National Centre for Atmospheric Research, Jeff Masters, Weather Underground and Richard Somerville, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego. Here are one or two extracts from the overview:

As the climate has warmed, some types of extreme weather have become more frequent and severe in recent decades, with increases in extreme heat, intense precipitation, and drought. Heat waves are longer and hotter. Heavy rains and flooding are more frequent. In a wide swing between extremes, drought, too, is more intense and more widespread…

Small changes in the averages of many key climate variables can correspond to large changes in weather. Substantial changes in the frequency and intensity of extreme events can result from a relatively small shift in the average of a distribution of temperatures, precipitation, or other climate variables…

Rigorous analyses have shown that natural variability alone cannot explain the observed long-term trends of changing extremes in temperature and precipitation.

In contrast, the observed trends fit well with our understanding of how climate change drives changes in weather. Computer models of the climate that include both natural forces as well as human influences are consistent with observed global trends in heat waves, warm days and nights, and frost days over the last four decades. Human influence has also been shown to have contributed to the increase of heavy precipitation over the Northern Hemisphere.

The article covers several aspects of the subject in the course of its 28 pages — precipitation patterns, floods, droughts, heat waves, hurricanes, winter storms and more.  All is unobtrusively but carefully referenced to scientific papers and reports. It is fully accessible reading for the non-scientist and betokens a valuable role for Climate Communication.

The conclusion of the article:

Human-induced climate change has contributed to changing patterns of extreme weather across the globe, from longer and hotter heat waves to heavier rains. From a broad perspective, all weather events are now connected to climate change. While natural variability continues to play a key role in extreme weather, climate change has shifted the odds and changed the natural limits, making certain types of extreme weather more frequent and more intense.

While our understanding of how climate change affects extreme weather is still developing, evidence suggests that extreme weather may be affected even more than anticipated. Extreme weather is on the rise, and the indications are that it will continue to increase, in both predictable and unpredictable ways.

So no, Al Gore did not overstep the mark. He simply expressed with urgency the reality that we are indeed causing more extreme weather events by continuing to increase the level of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

Here it is straight from the scientists in the Climate Communication article:

The Climate Show #16: Keith Hunter on oceans, acids and the carbon cycle Gareth Renowden Jul 15

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We learned a lot this week, as Professor Keith Hunter of the University of Otago, one of the world’s leading ocean chemists, gave us a masterclass on ocean acidification and what it means for the future of the oceans. Plus we discuss Australia’s new carbon tax, green growth campaigns in New Zealand, why China’s aerosols may have been doing us a favour and why cleaning them up might unleash more warming, and climate models having trouble with rapid climate events. On the solutions front we look at a tiny electric aeroplane setting a new speed record and a solar initiative in NZ. No John Cook in this show, but he’ll be back soon.

Watch The Climate Show on our Youtube channel, subscribe to the podcast via iTunes, listen to us via Stitcher on your smartphone or listen direct/download from the link below the fold…

Follow The Climate Show at The Climate Show web site, and on Facebook and Twitter.

The Climate Show

News & commentary: [0:03:25]

Australia bites the carbon bullet.

Going for Green Growth in NZ

Pure Advantage campaign launched

Green Growth Advisory Group launches discussion document

China’s power stations generate ‘future spike’ in global warming The paper referred to is Reconciling anthropogenic climate change with observed temperature 1998—2008 by Robert K. Kaufmann et al, pdf here.

State-of-the-art climate models are largely untested against actual occurrences of abrupt change. It is a huge leap of faith to assume that simulations of the coming century with these models will provide reliable warning of sudden, catastrophic events.

Al Gore is back: Gore’s Climate Reality project announced it would kick off with a 24-hour live streamed event on 14 September. The day’s events will include a new multimedia presentation by Gore that will “connect the dots” between extreme weather events and climate change, a statement said.

Interview: Professor Keith Hunter of the University of Otago. [0:30:00]

Professor Keith Hunter is New Zealand’s leading scientist in the field of marine and freshwater chemistry. His research interests include the effects of trace metals, both essential and toxic, on the growth of phytoplankton; the marine chemistry of the major greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide and marine surfaces (air-water, sediment-water). He directs the joint NIWA-University of Otago Centre of Excellence for Chemical and Physical Oceanography based in the Department of Chemistry, and is involved in several PGSF-funded research programmes.

Skeptical Science series on ocean acidification:

Solutions [01:10:30]

Councils asked to go solar in ‘The Solar Promise’ nationwide campaign launched this week:

Tiny electric airplane sets speed record

Thanks to our media partners:, Scoop and KiwiFM.

Theme music: A Drop In The Ocean by The Bads.

Al Gore: denial derails the democratic conversation Bryan Walker Jun 24

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Al Gore’s book The Assault on Reason, which followed An Inconvenient Truth, was published in 2007 and revealed an impressive intelligence in its analysis of how America was losing the rule of reason in democratic discourse, the Enlightenment ideal which was a founding principle of the new republic in the 18th century.  America’s people were not participating in the conversation of citizens essential to functioning democracy, with a consequent diminishment of reason, logic and truth in decision making.  Television and advertising had been appropriated and used to make for a passive citizenry which expects no engagement in the political process.

Gore pointed to the results apparent in the Bush administration. The invasion of Iraq was justified by deliberate falsehood and deception.  Twisted values were promoted in the shocking use of torture.  The threat of terrorism was exploited for purposes well beyond the needed response, giving unnecessary powers to the executive. The careful work of climate scientists was treated with dismissive contempt and the climate crisis threatening humanity ignored in the perceived interests of big corporations.  ’Greed and wealth now allocate power in our society.’

I mention The Assault on Reason here because its themes are echoed in the lengthy and eloquent article by Gore which has just appeared in Rolling Stone and which Gareth listed under Hot Tweets. I also like to take any chance that offers to recommend the book as demonstrating Gore’s intellectual depth.

The Rolling Stone article discusses the trampling of the rules of democratic discourse by the organized propaganda of the polluters and ideologues. They are financing pseudoscientists, buying elected officials wholesale with bribes that can now be made in secret, spending hundreds of millions of dollars each year on misleading advertisements, and hiring four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. They are undermining public respect for science and reason by constantly attacking the integrity of climate scientists, accusing them of falsifying evidence or pursuing a hidden political agenda.

Gore sees the increase of extreme weather events as clear evidence of the reality of climate change. ’It is not uncommon for the nightly newscast to resemble a nature hike through the Book of Revelation.’ The large reinsurance company Munich Re agrees: “The only plausible explanation for the rise in weather-related catastrophes is climate change”.

’Yet most of the news media completely ignore how such events are connected to the climate crisis, or dismiss the connection as controversial; after all, there are scientists on one side of the debate and deniers on the other.’

Gore is in no doubt that continuing on our current course would be suicidal for global civilisation. But he asks how that fact can be driven home in a democratic society when questions of truth have been converted into questions of power, when the distinction between what is true and what is false is being attacked relentlessly, and when the media are failing to exercise responsibility.

The ’public square’ of early America, where the conversation of democracy was accessible to every literate person through the inexpensive medium of the printed word has given way to a world where television is the medium through which the public mind is shaped. Access to it requires large sums of money.  This is the power allocated by wealth theme which he sounded in his book.

’The public square that used to be a commons has been refeudalized, and the gatekeepers charge large rents for the privilege of communicating to the American people over the only medium that really affects their thinking.’

He discusses the effect of this on political life in trenchant terms. Up to 80 percent of the campaign budgets for candidates in both major political parties is now devoted to the purchase of 30-second TV ads. The only reliable sources from which the necessarily large sums can be raised continuously are business lobbies. No one else can match them and the recent deregulation of unlimited – and secret – donations by wealthy corporations has made the imbalance even worse.  And the corporations expect returns for their financial support.  Politicians who don’t acquiesce don’t get the money they need to be elected and re-elected.

The result is that the ‘conversation of democracy’ has become deeply dysfunctional. Americans’ ability to make intelligent collective decisions has been seriously impaired. The distinction between truth and falsehood is systematically attacked without shame or consequence and crucially important decisions are made on the basis of completely false information that is no longer adequately filtered through the fact-checking function of a healthy and honest public discussion. The climate crisis is denied or ignored as a result.

Gore takes space to discuss what he calls the special case of Barack Obama’s approach to the climate crisis. He is cautious in his criticism, expressing sympathy for Obama in the enormous challenges he has had to face. On the climate front he details them:

…a badly broken Senate that is almost completely paralysed by the threat of filibuster and is controlled lock, stock and barrel by the oil and coal industries; a contingent of nominal supporters in Congress who are indentured servants of the same special interests that control most of the Republican Party; and a ferocious, well-financed and dishonest campaign poised to vilify anyone who dares offer leadership for the reduction of global-warming pollution.

He acknowledges the worth of many of the climate-friendly measures Obama has nevertheless put in place, and he makes it quite clear that he is a strong supporter of his presidency. But in spite of his many achievements, Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.

’President Obama has never presented to the American people the magnitude of the climate crisis. He has simply not made the case for action. He has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks. Nor has he provided a presidential venue for the scientific community – including our own National Academy – to bring the reality of the science before the public.

’…The United States is the only nation that can rally a global effort to save our future. And the president is the only person who can rally the United States.’

Gore understands the political advice which will lie behind Obama’s disappointing failure so far to give leadership on the issue, but he reiterates that the crisis is real and it’s time to act.

It’s a terrifying passivity in American democracy that Gore perceives. ’Citizens’ have become ’consumers’ or ’the audience’. Championing the cause of rationality and science in the face of the rampaging unreason that special-interest money has funded and supported may look like a lost cause, but Gore doesn’t concede to the accusation of naivety. He urges individuals to become actively involved and build unrelenting pressure on the media and on politicians. That is, to ignite the democratic conversation and not surrender the public square.

The Climate War Bryan Walker Jun 20

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The climate change rhetoric when Obama came to power was exciting. It sounded as if he would lead from the front and the US would soon have a federal cap-and-trade system. ’Delay is not longer an option. Denial is no longer an acceptable response.’  Certainly we have seen an end to denial from the White House. But we are still waiting for an end to delay, and increasingly it looks as if we’ll be waiting for a long time. Why?

Eric Pooley’s book The Climate War: True Believers, Power Brokers, and the Fight to Save the Earth sheds a good deal of light on why it is that America, in spite of all the scientific evidence that demonstrates the threatening reality of climate change, is still unable, and often unwilling, to mobilise itself to address the danger.

The author is an accomplished journalist who has spent hundreds of hours over the past three years interviewing some of the players in America’s painfully slow progress towards climate change legislation.  The result is an illuminating story of battles in an ongoing war which is far from conclusion. It’s told painstakingly but with a narrative verve that carries the reader along irresistibly through its mass of detailed accounts. It’s compelling reading, from which I’ll mention just a few examples.

The Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) is the climate change group to which Pooley devotes most of his attention. A large organisation which has been at work for over 40 years, the EDF has long argued for a cap and trade system to tackle CO2 emissions. Its president, Fred Krupp, is focused on partnership with business to bring about political action on climate change and was influential in the formation of the US Climate Action Partnership (USCAP) in 2007, initially a group of ten companies and four environmental groups. Among them was Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy. In typically detailed fashion Pooley recreates the drama of meetings at which were hammered out the conditions on which Rogers felt he could join the Call for Action USCAP planned to issue. It hinged on whether allowance was made for initial free distribution of allowances to utilities like Duke, a sticking point for Rogers.

USCAP may have been looked at askance by many Green groups, but Roger’s involvement didn’t go down well with his colleagues at the Edison Electric Institute either. He was chairman at the time and several CEOs called for him to step down. At the Heartland Institute denier’s convention in 2008 Steven Milloy bitterly expressed his dismay that CEOs would endorse a mandatory cap. ’What do you do when the people who represent business and free enterprise have switched sides on you?’

As the Waxman-Hartley bill was developing, the question of emission allowances being free or auctioned remained vexed. Krupp was willing to give way to the companies, maintaining that it didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was how many allowances were distributed in a given year and how quickly the number was ratcheted down. The declining cap would see to it that coal use declined.

After his close coverage of the tortuous development of the bill, Pooley concludes:

’Of course Waxman-Markey was full of flaws, compromises, and reluctant nods to political reality.  But the bill got right a lot more than it got wrong.  By giving carbon allowances to electric distribution companies and requiring them to pass the value on to customers, it used the cap and trade mechanism to address to genuine cost imbalances between regions of the US — making the system fairer and helping the very heartland people who most wanted to see the whole thing wither and die.’

Pooley recognises that the intransigence of the Republicans meant that the bill reflected negotiations only between the left and right wings of the Democratic party, not between the left and right wings of America. ’Like a wounded animal, the GOP’s only reflex was to lash out. Anything Obama was for, they would be against.’  It’s a sad commentary on a party which has too often allowed itself to be informed on global warming by the organised denial movement which Pooley also takes into his purview.

Al Gore features frequently in the book. His Alliance for Climate Protection organization aimed to spend $100 million a year for three years on advertising campaigns. In July 2008 his Repower America speech challenged the nation to commit to clean energy within ten years. After the elections he sought to orchestrate a large, loud chorus of voices calling on the president-elect and the new Congress to go big and go quickly on the energy front. Some wanted an energy bill first and to leave cap-and-trade for later. Gore disagreed. ’If we’re going to have a fight on climate, let’s have a big fight.’

James Hansen enters the picture from time to time.  He met with Rogers over a meal. Pooley records each man’s feeling as they left the restaurant. Rogers felt positive: I’m not a confrontational guy, and neither is he. Hansen felt disappointed: This man has a reputation for being green, but he doesn’t really know what it means. His priority is making money.

Pooley records at best mixed messages from the White House. On a good day Larry Summers told USCAP leaders that the stimulus bill needed to be complemented with a cap-and-trade mechanism. ’It’s like two blades of a scissors…We need both of them.’  But when it came to the Waxman-Markey bill, chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and senior adviser David Axelrod wanted to stick to the clean energy message and leave climate policy to Waxman. Pooley tells of the committed greens in the White House being defeated time and again by those in the political and economic teams who consider voters don’t care about climate action enough for the president to fight for it. The president who we expected to lead on the issue remains strangely constrained.

Obama went to Copenhagen having failed to move a climate bill. Pooley credits him with an honest, even heroic, attempt there to break the deadlock by bringing the major developing nations to the climate table. His speech offered welcome straight talk on the science, though little on the necessary action to address it. But the possibility of a triumph at Copenhagen had already been ruled out by his decision at home not to mount an education campaign on climate science and clean energy jobs to counter the sceptics, and the failure to put a top-level aide in charge of the international climate issue.

Pooley ends with questions:

’Alexis de Tocqueville long ago said that in the US, events ‘can move from the impossible to the inevitable without ever stopping at the probable.’  Was that still true?  How bad did things need to get before the moment came?  Would the prospect of a clean energy economy, and the jobs it would bring, mobilize enough people to make a difference?  Or would some sort of monstrous, galvanic weather event — epic heat and drought, Katrina on steroids — be needed to shake America fully awake?’

They seem to me open questions.  After following through the labyrinthine processes the author describes by which anything happens, if it happens, in the American political system and recognising the blinkered self-interest and sometimes sheer malevolence that seems to motivate many of the players, I found it hard to credit that America is on the verge of significant progress.  But I took what comfort I could from Pooley’s final brief paragraph where he imagines that the campaigners refused to be paralysed by the questions posed, ’splashed some cold water on their faces, ran their fingers through their hair, threw back their shoulders and marched toward the sound of the guns’.

[Buy at Fishpond (NZ),, Book Depository (UK)]

Gore makes a connection Bryan Walker May 09

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If the oil spill is a disaster consider the CO2 spill, writes Al Gore in an article published yesterday in The New Republic.

’Worldwide, the amount of man-made CO2 being spilled every three seconds into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding the planet equals the highest current estimate of the amount of oil spilling from the Macondo well every day. Indeed, the average American coal-fired power generating plant gushes more than three times as much global-warming pollution into the atmosphere each day–and there are over 1,400 of them.’

Global temperatures are rising and the acidity of the sea is increasing as a result. But that’s only a start. These processes have triggered a ’cascading set of other impacts.’ He lists them:

  • The melting of virtually all the mountain glaciers in the world
  • The prospective disappearance of the North Polar Ice Cap
  • The accelerating melting of the Greenland and West Antarctic ice masses threatening catastrophic increases in sea level
  • Deeper and longer droughts in mid-continent regions
  • More and larger forest fires
  • The migration of tropical diseases to temperate latitudes
  • An accelerated extinction rate
  • The increased destructive power of tropical storms coming off the ocean
  • Increased large downpours of both rain and snow

He discusses precipitation changes at greater length, noting their effect on subsistence farmers in developing countries in particular.  He draws into the discussion the extraordinary recent report of April rainfall by British scientists working near the North Pole and moves to point to the effects of the rapid warming in the Arctic with its consequences for decrease of albedo and methane release from the thawing of permafrost.

The problems are too easily put out of sight and out of mind.  But inaction means that the truly disastrous consequences become inevitable long before the worst impacts are manifest.

’Our perception of the dangers of the climate crisis therefore relies on our ability to understand and trust the conclusions reached by the most elaborate and impressive scientific assessment in the history of our civilization.

’In other words, rather than relying on visceral responses, we have to draw upon our capacity for reasoning, communicating clearly with one another, forming a global consensus on the basis of science, and making a choice in favor of preventive action on a global scale.’

At this point he launches an attack on the ’cynical and lavishly funded disinformation campaign’:

’A number of large carbon polluters, whose business plans rely on their continued ability to freely dump their gaseous waste products into the global atmospheric commons–as if it is an open sewer–have chosen to pursue a determined and highly organized campaign aimed at undermining public confidence in the accuracy and integrity of the global scientific community. They have attacked the scientific community by financing pseudo-studies aimed at creating public doubt about peer-reviewed science. They have also manipulated the political and regulatory process with outsized campaign contributions and legions of lobbyists (there are now four anti-climate lobbyists for every single member of the House and Senate).’

This is happening at a time when American democracy has grown sclerotic. (A theme he developed extensively in his book The Assault on Reason, which is well worth reading for a sense of the intellectual depth Gore brings to his analysis.) Money plays a dangerous part in politics.

’Our democratic conversation is now dominated by expensive 30-second television commercials, which consume two-thirds of the campaign budgets of candidates in both political parties. The only reliable source of such large sums of campaign cash is business lobbies.’

Most members of the House and Senate facing competitive election contests have to spend large amounts of time each day asking special interests for money to finance their campaigns. This is the context in which the climate bill is stalled in the Senate.

It’s a dismal picture, but Gore has hopes that the oil spill will give some momentum to the  Senate bill.

’The unpleasant reality now spilling onto the shores of the Gulf Coast is creating public outrage and may also be generating a new opportunity to pass legislation, just as the oil spill 20 years ago from the Exxon Valdez created public momentum sufficient to overcome the anti-environment special interests.’

Let’s hope that is the case, for Gore is fully justified in one of his concluding statements: ’Unless we change our present course soon, the future of human civilization will be in dire jeopardy.’

Al Gore going strong Bryan Walker Mar 01

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That travesty of a news outlet, Fox News, carried an article last Thursday (in its science and technology section, believe it or not) which opened as follows:

’Al Gore won a Nobel Prize and an Oscar for his film, An Inconvenient Truth. But in the last three months, as global warming has gone from a scientific near-certitude to the subject of satire, Gore —- the public face of global warming —- has been mum on the topic.’

The writer elaborates in the rest of the article, with such choice pickings as this quote from the Investors’ Business Daily:

’The godfather of climate hysteria is in hiding as another of his wild claims unravels — this one about global warming causing seas to swallow us up. We’ve not seen or heard much of the former vice president, Oscar winner and Nobel Prize recipient recently as the case for disastrous man-made climate change collapses.”

No doubt this kind of taunting is rife in the fevered madness of some of the right-wing media in America. It’s not a world I willingly dip into.

But they’re as wrong about Gore’s reticence as they are about the science he communicates.  He contributed a lengthy opinion piece to last weekend’s New York Times.  In it he recognises the recent attacks on the science of global warming, even says it would be an enormous relief they were true. But they’re not.

Two mistakes in the thousands of pages of careful scientific work over the last 22 years by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change don’t change the climate crisis, he says. Nor do e-mail messages stolen from the University of East Anglia in Britain showing that scientists besieged by an onslaught of hostile, make-work demands from climate skeptics may not have adequately followed the requirements of the British freedom of information law. In a nutshell:

’Here is what scientists have found is happening to our climate: man-made global-warming pollution traps heat from the sun and increases atmospheric temperatures. These pollutants – especially carbon dioxide – have been increasing rapidly with the growth in the burning of coal, oil, natural gas and forests, and temperatures have increased over the same period. Almost all of the ice-covered regions of the Earth are melting – and seas are rising. Hurricanes are predicted to grow stronger and more destructive, though their number is expected to decrease. Droughts are getting longer and deeper in many mid-continent regions, even as the severity of flooding increases. The seasonal predictability of rainfall and temperatures is being disrupted, posing serious threats to agriculture. The rate of species extinction is accelerating to dangerous levels.’

He goes on to acknowledge that, in spite of the efforts of many, ’our civilization is still failing miserably to slow the rate at which emissions are increasing — much less reduce them.’ Because the world still relies on leadership from the US, the failure of the Senate to pass legislation to cap American emissions before Copenhagen guaranteed that the outcome would fall short of what is required. He laments the political paralysis on this issue and others which has gripped Washington. 

There is no readily apparent alternative path at the present time to the cap-and-trade approach. It is proving difficult, but  the flexibility of a global market-based policy – supplemented by regulation and revenue-neutral tax policies – is the option that has by far the best chance of success. 

Time is not on our side:

’The lags in the global climate system, including the buildup of heat in the oceans from which it is slowly reintroduced into the atmosphere, means that we can create conditions that make large and destructive consequences inevitable long before their awful manifestations become apparent: the displacement of hundreds of millions of climate refugees, civil unrest, chaos and the collapse of governance in many developing countries, large-scale crop failures and the spread of deadly diseases.’

He refers to the market fundamentalism which has held sway at just the time that the seriousness of climate change became apparent. Market fundamentalists fought to weaken existing constraints and scoffed at the possibility that global constraints would be needed to halt the dangerous dumping of global-warming pollution into the atmosphere.

’[At the same time] changes in America’s political system – including the replacement of newspapers and magazines by television as the dominant medium of communication – conferred powerful advantages on wealthy advocates of unrestrained markets and weakened advocates of legal and regulatory reforms. Some news media organizations now present showmen masquerading as political thinkers who package hatred and divisiveness as entertainment. And as in times past, that has proved to be a potent drug in the veins of the body politic. Their most consistent theme is to label as ‘socialist’ any proposal to reform exploitive behavior in the marketplace.’

Can the rule of law be used ’as an instrument of human redemption’?  He hopes that the Senate will take up the legislation likely to be presented this week and follow the House of Representatives in taking the first halting steps for pricing greenhouse gas emissions and stimulating the development of low-carbon sources of energy.

Gore is well known for his film and book  An Inconvenient Truth. People are less aware of a subsequent book The Assault on Reason. ’Greed and wealth now allocate power in our society’, he wrote in that book, and supported his statement with many examples.  He discusses how he thinks television and advertising have been appropriated and used to make for a passive citizenry which expects no engagement in the political process.  The rule of reason in democratic discourse was a founding principle of the new republic but America has lost the participation of its people in the conversation of citizens essential to functioning democracy. The intelligence and passion of the book impressed me.

His latest publication Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, is reviewed here. The three books together add up to a substantial body of writing of considerable intellectual breadth and a thoroughly decent concern for the human future.  He is vilified and demonized by a sector of society, but those of us who value rationality and care about the future of civilisation have ample reason to be grateful for the advocacy role he has adopted.

Our Choice: Al’s plan to solve the climate crisis Bryan Walker Nov 16

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Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate CrisisAl Gore hasn’t been resting on his laurels since An Inconvenient Truth. His substantial new book Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis has grown out of the more than 30 lengthy and intensive ’Solution Summits’ he has organised to enable leading experts from round the world to share their knowledge and experience in subjects relevant to solving the crisis, as well as the one-on-one sessions he has had with others. 

The expertise shows. The discussions of energy sources are focused and packed with useful information and judgments. Electricity from the sun is the first. Concentrated solar thermal (CST) power and photovoltaic power are both explained and evaluated. Each has a future, photovoltaics perhaps more so than currently recognised as it develops new chemical processes and fabrication technologies. Indeed some conclude that photovoltaics are near a threshold where they will have a cost advantage over CST and soon even over fossil fuel generation.

Wind harvesting in the US is not only the fastest-growing source of renewable energy but also the fastest-growing source of any form of energy, surpassing coal-fired, gas-fired and nuclear power plants combined. Geothermal energy is a vast resource, often misunderstood. It is not limited to natural sources of hot underground water. Gore explains the new and exciting possibilities of enhanced geothermal systems which tap into hot rock by drilling and then pumping pressurised water down to be heated, pumped up again, and used for generation before being returned for repeated processing. 

Biomass fuel is canvassed. At this point he admits to the mistake of deriving ethanol from corn in which he participated when in office, but sees more promising possibilities in cellulosic fuels as well as in biomass use for electricity generation. Carbon capture and sequestration receives cautious attention, but its practicability is still uncertain. He thinks that a price put on carbon will allow market forces to work out whether the process is viable or not. Similarly the nuclear option is surveyed with some caution largely on grounds of its cost.  

Deforestation produces an estimated 20 to 23 percent of annual global CO2 emissions as well as causing the extinction of species at an alarming level. The placing of a value on carbon will reveal the worth of tropical forests and the vital ecosystem services they perform. Gore quotes one expert on forest economics who considers that, worldwide, a $30 per ton price on CO2 would result in an 80% reduction in deforestation.  Meanwhile afforestation is proceeding in many places and he points up the significance of tree-planting programmes such as those in China which achieved planting of 11.7 million acres of forests in 2008.

Carbon sequestration in soil, through better soil management practices, is recognised as holding considerable potential and discussed at length.  Stabilising world population also receives attention and Gore notes Obama’s reversal of the previous US administration’s refusal to support many international fertility-management programmes on grounds of their possible connection with providing access to legal abortions. 

He is eloquent on energy efficiency improvements as by far and away the most cost-effective among the solutions to the climate crisis and capable of being implemented faster than any others. He provides numerous examples from this neglected field, including the sequential use of energy for two productive purposes in cogeneration, or combined heat and power systems.

Continent-wide unified smart grids are essential for the new patterns of generation. Gore has an illuminating chapter on the technologies now available for grid modernisation, including storage opportunities and progress in the development of batteries. The management of intermittency in solar and wind power features in his discussion. The role of electric cars in doubling as a co-ordinated fleet of batteries to assist storage needs is explored.

From solutions Gore turns to obstacles. Climate change is an unprecedented mortal threat. We clearly have the means to avert it. Why are we still procrastinating? He recognises that massive changes in human behaviour and thinking are involved, and that they are not easy to achieve. However in discussing the workings of the human brain he finds evidence that we can make decisions that take account of a long span of time and that once made they produce powerful commitments to change. Our ancestors were capable of common long-term goals as evidenced by medieval cathedrals which could take a century to complete.

Because there is not a price on carbon we are receiving flawed signals in the marketplace. This must be aggressively remedied to internalise the true environmental cost of coal and oil. Gore writes of ’subprime carbon assets’ which depend for their valuation on the belief that it’s perfectly okay to put millions of tons of CO2 into the earth’s atmosphere every 24 hours —- and on a zero price for carbon that reflects this assumption. His own preference is for a CO2 tax offset by equal reductions in other taxes, but he recognises that the ascendance of market fundamentalism in the US has meant that only a cap and trade system is currently acceptable. Eventually he believes both will be chosen in the US as they have been in Sweden. Direct regulation also has a part to play in encouraging renewable energy investment. Sustainable capitalism is Gore’s model.

The difficult political decisions needed in combating the climate crisis have been exacerbated by the cloud of confusion generated by a massive political campaign of international deception on the part of many corporate carbon polluters. Gore is unsparing in his exposure of the organised denial movement ’aimed at actively misleading the public about what science actually tells us concerning the nature and severity of the climate crisis’. Based on the same tactics as those employed decades ago by the tobacco companies, large companies joined forces in order to systematically create doubt and confusion about the scientific consensus. ’Reposition global warming as theory rather than fact’  are the words from an internal fossil fuel memo that he highlights. The cynical and well-funded campaign, aided by the news media abandonment of one of their traditional roles of refereeing important arguments in the public domain, has succeeded in frustrating and delaying the world’s efforts to reduce deadly pollution. The companies concerned have meanwhile continued to make record profits.   

Gore doesn’t leave his subject without a plug for information technologies and the new possibilities and new tools they provide for solving the climate crisis.  His survey of some of them is an example of the buoyant yet realistic optimism which underlies the book. ’We can solve the climate crisis. It will be hard, to be sure, but if we can make the choice to solve it, I have no doubt whatsoever that we can and will succeed.’

As he did with the science in An Inconvenient Truth Gore in this book has done a sterling job in bringing to the public a coherent account of the technologies available to take us away from the path of disaster. Obviously a patient learner and gatherer of information from authoritative sources, he’s also a gifted communicator of what he finds. His background makes him also highly aware of the political and economic dimension in which these solutions must be applied.  The book is not only written with intelligence and flair but also contains a great collection of apposite pictures and some commissioned illustrations which aid reader understanding enormously. Its presentation is as attractive as its content. I hope it proves highly influential in informing public resolve to adopt the obvious solutions to the dangers which threaten us.

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