Al Gore in NYC

When Marty Hoffert mentioned Al Gore would be part of an event sponsored by Wired magazine at Town Hall in New York City this evening, I jumped on the chance to see him in person. This "Wired Town Hall on the Climate Crisis" was a forum with Gore, global warming scientist James Hansen, and film producers Laurie David and Laurence Bender, moderated by John Hockenberry of Wired magazine, all introduced by Wired Editor Chris Anderson. Gore was in great form, and Hansen spoke well; David and Bender were mostly quiet which was fine. Unfortunately Hockenberry wasn't as familiar with the subject as you would hope for from a moderator, though he did pick out some good audience questions (but not mine) to ask the panel. 

The event was timed to coincide with the publicity build-up around the film, "An Inconvenient Truth", featuring Gore's presentation on global warming. Wired featured Gore and highlighted the movie on the cover in a recent issue, distributed to the roughly 1000 attendees tonight. That's not a bad thing - the film producers obviously have good intentions in putting the effort they have into this - on the other hand, they're also still trying to make money: one of the audience questions was on why they hadn't just put the film up on the web for free - one wonders which way would actually reach more people in the end.

The question on making money in doing good was somehow fitting - one of the themes of Gore's presentation is that, at least if we act soon, the crisis represents real opportunity, not just danger and things we should fear. It's a difficult message to get across clearly; it's something easily satirized, and the "Billionaires for Bush" loudly proclaiming that "global warming is good for tans" as we waited outside demonstrated irony in satire at several levels - after all, if it's a real opportunity, billionaires should be for Gore on this one too.

I was told Gore and the others arrived in plenty of time, but the crowd drifted in slowly, and the evening started a half hour later than scheduled. After a short video of Blue Man Group on the theme of the day, Chris Anderson of Wired gave a great introduction on the passionate, funny and incredibly well-informed guest of honor, and Gore entered to a lengthy standing ovation.

Gore talked briefly about his family - Tipper was there in the audience, along with Chelsea Clinton - and then launched into a shortened version of his global warming talk, minus visual aids. He talked about the crisis as a challenge to our moral imagination. A radical transformation of the relationship between humans and our planet. Nothing in our prior history and culture prepare us for this new reality - we never before had the ability to do lasting harm.

And he talked about something else that has made all this worse: the emergence of a "new public philosophy that discounts the future consequences of present actions" - we see it in the market place with emphasis on short-term results, in politics with overnight polling, in the media everywhere - news has devolved to reflect the long-standing mantra of local editors: "if it bleeds it leads, if it thinks it sinks". This short-term approach is not conducive to the need we have on the climate issue.

Gore called this all a "bizarre manifestation of a very destructive pattern", and likened our actions to "operating the planet like a business in liquidation". The problems afflict the oceans, the rain forests, in many places we see this collision between our civilization and the planet.

Global warming is the most serious manifestation, and we have to come to grips with it - and the related problem of CO2 absorption in the oceans, making them more acidic and disabling shell production among sea creatures.

Gore extolled the level of current climate modeling, with its clear message on what this all means for the planet. "We are literally changing the relationship between the earth and the sun".

But to all of this too often the response has been denial - it's too painful to think about the consequences and what we might have to change to solve this. And once people get over denial, too often they go straight to despair. But we don't need to go there yet.

Gore summarized the situation with 5 points:

  1. global warming is real
  2. humans are principally responsible
  3. it is not both good and bad: the bad far outweighs the good
  4. we need to fix it
  5. it is not too late, we have time

"This is by far the most dangerous crisis we have ever faced; and it has the capacity to bring civilization itself to a halt. Scientist James Lovell has a dark vision of where we are headed. But I know something about the political system that some people in science don't know. The political system is nonlinear - it can appear to move at a snail's pace, but then it can cross a tipping point and shift into a completely new path." Gore sees a solution to the climate crisis in the potential for a major political change as the American people respond to the challenge.

He talked about "the greatest generation" and the challenges they faced and overcame. This is the moral imperative of our generation, and we can rise to meet it - but we need to empower ourselves with knowledge, and Gore specifically pointed people to the website he has helped create on this:

We were then treated to a short excerpt from "An Inconvenient Truth", with Gore talking about the consequences of sea-level rise, with Manhattan under water and potentially 100 million refugees in the next half-century.

The full panel then came on stage and sat down; moderator Hockenberry started things off by likening Gore's appearance tonight with Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union, not far away, 146 years ago, a speech that led to extraordinary consequences. "We are here at a similar moment, the emergence of an issue that could not be more urgent, but that has failed to attract a mass movement until now."

James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan gave a short presentation: "I'm not speaking as a government employee" he started. He outline the inevitable warming consequences of the current state of things, and his view that we have one more decade of "business as usual" before we start to reach a point of irreversible changes, a "climate tipping point", that will take us beyond anything Earth has experienced since the first proto-humans evolved three million years ago.

Hansen talked about the impact on animals and plants: on average they are moving northward at about 4 miles per decade, but the climate zones are moving northward at 35 miles per decade, and with "business as usual" that rate will increase to 70 miles per decade later this century. 50% of plant and animal species on Earth are expected to die out. This is a profound moral issue (Hansen mentioned Noah's commandment to save all the species), if we ourselves manage to survive.

Hansen reviewed again the dangers from glacier melting in Greenland and West Antarctica; direct measurements of their mass showed the mass of Greenland decreased by 50 cubic miles of ice in 2005, and the mass of West Antarctica by a similar amount. 5 degrees (Fahrenheit) of temperature increase will lead to cataclysmic problems and the 100 million refugees Gore mentioned, or perhaps as many as half a billion refugees, with a 25 meter sea level rise.

And Hansen compared the "Ozone success story" to the disaster we have had with global warming; with ozone, scientists, the media, government, and even industry eventually joined in working out the solution and making it happen. With global warming, just about everybody has fallen down on the job - but Hansen particularly blamed "special interests" or industry for the lack of progress.

But - there is still hope for an alternative scenario, with the right political and technological leadership in the United States.

General discussion followed, appropriately focused on Gore and Hansen. Gore talked about changing your individual life, becoming part of the solution, and being emboldened to speak up. That it was still even for him, knowing about the problem for over 30 years, a challenge to fully internalize the gravity of the situation. And that, "If you believe what Dr. Hansen said, if you accept that reality, we may have less than 10 years before we cross a "point of no return". So - what else matters?"

"We who are alive today are at a point in history with a burden of action almost unimaginable in the context of human history."

But Gore stated that we have everything we need: we have technologies to get us started, others that we know we can focus on to develop to meet the need. What we're really missing is political will - but from his experience, "that is a renewable resource" (applause!)

Gore also echoed Hansen's points about the great contrast between the ozone problem - the Montreal protocol was signed by Ronald Reagan - and global warming: now the government is aligning with the worst and least responsible of the polluters. And the news media is acting like a referee at a pro-wrestling match!

On what we need to be doing, Hansen pointed out that with cfc's for ozone, once we thought there was a problem we didn't build any more infrastructure, and we then eliminated that infrastructure over a period of years after signing the protocol. We need to do the same here: quit increasing emissions (still rising at a rate of about 2%/year) - in particular the US, China and India have plans for many new coal-fired power plants, and the number of transportation vehicles keeps increasing relentlessly.

Hansen believes we can stop this increase in CO2 emissions now through efficiency improvements that would last us 10-20 years, by which time we may have the technology to actually replace fossil generators and take us down a different path. To reduce the need for new power plants we need to promote end use efficiency: appliances, lighting, etc. Individuals can do some of this, but we have got to have government leadership.

Gore also commented on the potential for government leadership in enforcing standards - that in his view it had to start with a change in the political environment: we need an informed citizenry, as our founders intended. As long as we do not have an informed citizenry, it doesn't matter what the other three branches of government do.

There are things that can be done but they are definitely difficult, and entrenched special interests will fight them to the death. We need the informed citizenry to rise up and oppose those special interests and do what's right.

Gore: "If I could wave a magic wand, and make each and every one of you in this room into an active informed citizen, this is more than enough people to change the United States of America".

On the question of immediate government steps Gore had a quick answer: get rid of all the subsidies for coal and oil.

The carbon tax came up - Hockenberry surprisingly didn't seem to understand this meant a gasoline tax, and oddly worded his commentary on this. Both Hansen and Gore noted that such a tax is what economists uniformly recommend as the best approach to reducing carbon emissions. Such a tax can be revenue neutral: Gore has long proposed a carbon tax that replaces a portion of social security payroll taxes, so the poor are not disproportionately disadvantaged. It should also be added slowly to give people time to adjust their habits and purchases.

But Gore's comment on this was that, unfortunately, "the maximum tax that is presently realistic politically falls far short of the minimum to really address this crisis." implying that other measures are needed.

But he muddied this message a bit, also talking about expanding the limits of what is politically possible, and changing the way of thinking among the American people. "I've worked on this for 30 years: the avenue to change runs right through the hearts and minds of the people" (the latter I believe is a paraphrase of a profound statement on good and evil from Solzhenitsyn).

This returned to the informed citizenry issue: we need clear understanding, in media and movies, of this scientific knowledge. When that change comes, and people demand that elected officials look around for what makes sense - then we will be able to do it.

Gore mentioned his plans to train 1000 people to give his slideshow presentation, which he is planning to share under a "creative commons" license.

Going beyond America, Hansen responded to a question on what to do about China and other places where CO2 emissions are growing rapidly. "A lot can be done - they're less than half as efficient." Hansen mentioned that the Kyoto accord included a clean development mechanism for China and India to help be more efficient. They would have cleaner technology if we'd been involved in Kyoto, but we just walked away. They're eager to do what's right, but we're not helping.

A question on the economics of solutions brought out Gore's most interesting point: the largest polluters have pushed the idea that CO2 reductions will bring great economic hardship but it's just not true. A great example are US automakers - they got what they wanted, the worst standards in the world: now GM is staving off bankruptcy and Ford is in junk bond status. While Toyota has a long waiting list for every Prius; Toyota and Honda are taking over the markets because they are addressing the CO2 reduction issue head-on: by being more efficient. Now GM and Ford are running ads that they'll do better. Gore hopes they have time.

Pollution is waste, eliminating it almost always saves money. Another example Gore raised: Northern Telecom committed to eliminating CFC's in production; they redesigned their process, making products cheaper, better, more competitive and less polluting; their competitors had to license the process.

When we make a moral commitment to do the right thing and push hard enough for a new generation of technology, it's almost always better, and we need these new generations of technology so we can be competitive in the future.

Laurie David and Laurence Bender talked about some small things people could do; Bender also referred to the present situation as a "perfect storm": Katrina, oil prices, and the war in Iraq all emphasize the importance of this at this time.

There was a very brief discussion of ethanol; the new cellulosic processes should be better than current corn-based ethanol production at actually bringing a net benefit.

Gore talked a bit about coal and carbon sequestration: catching the CO2 before it goes into the atmosphere and putting it int the ground. He's still in favor of coal if it can be used cleanly in this manner, since there's a lot of it available. Coal mining may cause local troubles, but he felt they tended to be local, and very different from the global problem presented by CO2.

Laurie David and Al Gore talked about bringing the message to a more diverse group. Gore's comments here were quite powerful: "Look at those who suffered most from levee failures in New Orleans. Those who suffer the most from being downwind of power plants. The first victims of global warming will also be the poor, those who don't have the resources to move easily." Minority communities are fed up with being the first and worst victims, and they'll be behind this, but we have to ensure we're inclusive as we build up an informed citizenry.

The panelists talked about online activists, and the religious community: evangelical leaders have begun to recognize this is a violation of a core belief on stewardship of the planet, and have done some great work on this recently.

The issue of whether the science is conclusive or not came up via an audience question. Hansen and Gore both answered - Gore quoted Upton Sinclair: "it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it". But on this the debate is over. The consensus is as strong as it ever gets in science.

Gore referred to the precedent in the tobacco industry. If the scientific consensus had been understood more broadly a lot of lives would have been saved. 500,000 people were dying every year from cigarette-caused illnesses, over a 40-year period during which time the scientific consensus was not adopted because of these people who confused the public. Some of the executives of tobacco companies look back on this period and are ashamed. Gore believes in a few years Exxon Mobil executives will look back and be ashamed too.

On media claims of scientific bias, Gore pointed to Hansen: "here's a man who's devoted his entire life to being a public servant, and they accuse him of being greedy, trying to get more grants, by twisting the truth... I don't know why it's no longer considered acceptable to have a boycott of a company like Exxon-Mobil that does this..."

All the panelists talked about things they have done to reduce their "carbon footprint". Gore noted that it's really not that hard to be "carbon neutral" - it doesn't cost as much as you might expect.

It was clear a lot of the audience questions were directed to Gore, on whether he planned to run for president; Hockenberry saved them all for a single question at the end. Gore responded in typical long-winded fashion, but concluded pretty clearly on why he's not planning on it right now: "There are lots about politics I don't like these days, in our sound-bite political culture. It works against the politics of ideas. It's a toxic process. I don't think my skills are well suited to this political climate. I want to do my best to make it possible for whoever is elected this year and in 2008 to start changing the picture."

Hockenberry concluded echoing this concept of "a politics of ideas" and exhorted us to be part of that "informed citizenry, passionate, activist, and countervailing preexisting economic interests." Judging by the long line to buy Gore's book afterwards, a good portion of the audience was eager to at least become better informed.

It was definitely worth a trip to the city to see Al Gore in person; however this session was slightly unsatisfying. The concrete steps proposed all seemed too slight to really address the problem, and even Hansen's best hope seemed to be, for right now, just stabilizing emissions levels rather than an actual reduction. Maybe the informed citizenry talked about so much really is the key and once there, the technology will resolve itself. But can you get citizens involved and ready to take action without a clear path they can see that will actually solve the problem? Anyway, kudos to Wired and the movie producers for at least getting Gore and Hansen the attention they deserve on this critically important issue.

Created: 2006-05-26 16:35:43 by Arthur Smith