Our Choice: Al’s plan to solve the climate crisis

By Bryan Walker 16/11/2009

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.