When I caught up with Al Gore at his home in Nashville last December, the former Vice Presidentturned-green-guru was in a pensive mood. I was surprised he was just finishing his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance speech, which he was due to give in Stockholm a few days later. For a man who had lost the Presidency in the most agonizing way possible, winning the Nobel should have offered some consolation. But when I asked Gore if he felt vindicated, he shook his head. "It's hard to celebrate recognition of an effort that has thus far failed," he said. He was referring to his work not only to awaken the world to the danger of climate change, but to get us to really do something about it. "I'm not finished, but thus far, I have failed. We have all failed."
Gore was right. For all the hot air expended talking about climate change, global greenhouse gas emissions continue, at a rate of about 70 million tons a day. The gap between the scale of the threat posed by global warming it is potentially civilization-altering and the solutions so far proposed change a light bulb are obvious and disheartening. Gore realized that back in December. "We have to abandon the conceit that isolated personal actions are going to solve this crisis," he said. "Our policies have to shift."
Now it's clear just how much Gore wants us to shift, and how quickly. Speaking in Washington on July 17, Gore called on Americans to completely abandon electricity generated by fossil fuels within 10 years, and replace them with carbon-free renewables like solar, wind and geothermal. It is a bold plan, almost to the point of folly. But at the very least, it's one that certainly matches the scale of his rhetoric. "The survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk," he said. "The future of human civilization is at stake."
Gore's speech was less a step-by-step plan than a sweeping call to action. His path to a decarbonized electrical supply doesn't surprise: more investment in solar and wind, keeping nuclear in the mix, maximizing energy efficiency and implanting carbon capture and storage for existing fossil fuel plants, plus a shift to electric cars. But Gore's message was subtly different this time. The man who has in the past called climate change a "moral and spiritual challenge" sounded more pragmatic notes. While sounding the alarm on melting Arctic ice and strange weather, Gore also emphasized the financial toll that high gasoline prices were taking on average Americans, and the security threat posed by our increased dependence on foreign oil.
That fits with a growing concern among some conservatives, including Republican Sen. John Warner, who co-sponsored the Senate's recent legislation to cap carbon emissions. It's also a good sign for Gore. It remains impossible for most people to connect what comes out of our wall sockets to morality, or to believe that the nation needs to embark on a massive restructuring of its energy policy. But national security, or foreign oil dependency or high energy prices are all talking points that just might get a majority of Americans to support going green.
But doing it in 10 years? If the earlier, personal solutions to global warming drive a hybrid, put in better insulation were far too little, Gore's goal seems far too much. Less than 28% of our power currently comes from carbon-free sources, and the vast majority of that is hydroelectric and nuclear. High-tech renewables account for less than 3%. Wind and solar are growing far faster than fossil fuels such as coal or natural gas, but considering that we don't even know if economical carbon capture and storage will ever be possible, it's hard to see how Gore's target is remotely attainable. This isn't negative thinking, or fiction put out by the oil industry. This is reality.
Gore must have anticipated this skepticism. "To those who say 10 years is not enough time, I respectfully ask them to consider what the world's scientists are telling us about the risks we face if we don't act in 10 years," he said. He's right. A number of scientists, though not all, warn that the world has a decade at most to reverse the growth in greenhouse gas emissions, or risk catastrophic climate change. But here's the fact that keeps me up at night: Gore and his allies could be right. We may simply be technologically and politically incapable of doing anything about it. Maybe we've already run out of time, and we just don't know it.
Night terrors aside, the 10-year target is a mistake for strategic reasons. It feeds into the perception still held by a large number of Americans that Gore is an alarmist, and alarmists can be ignored. Such a wildly ambitious goal sets us up for failure, and obscures the fact that the battle against climate change won't be won in a decade, or even two it will last for the foreseeable future and beyond. (And if you think Gore has thoughts about returning to the political arena, forget it. His speech couldn't have come at a worse time for Democrats, who are already fighting off accusations that they're insensitive to rising gas prices.)
Gore ended his speech with a rousing reminder of President John F. Kennedy's challenge to put a man on the moon a challenge that was met, Gore noted, in less than a decade. "We must now lift our nation to reach another goal that will change history," he said. But the Apollo comparison, while great for speeches, only underscores how different the climate challenge will be. The moon shot called for focused scientific resources for a single target. Outside Houston and Cape Canaveral, most of us just watched. But decarbonizing our energy supply will require innovation, funding and sacrifice at every level of society. It will be long and arduous, and even if it works, we won't be rewarded with stirring film of a man on the moon. The spoils of this fight will be a world that will perhaps be less worse off than it would have been had nothing been done. What we most need is time to make these changes, but that's what we've squandered. If only someone else had been President these past eight years someone like, well, Al Gore.