Al Gore going strong

By Bryan Walker 01/03/2010

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.