It's always a warm bath of mutual admiration when the U.S. Senate welcomes back one of its former members for a hearing. But when former Vice President (and Senator) Al Gore showed up today to testify at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, the event was a full-blown lovefest. New Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry expressed his deep respect for Gore's post-Senate career and noted in an aside, "It's well-known that we have a certain political experience in common." (Hint: it doesn't involve winning.) Christopher Dodd hailed Gore as having been for years a "lonely voice in the wilderness" and pointed out that the Nobel Peace Prize winner had been warning about climate change ever since he was a member of the House of Representatives decades ago. Even Republican members like Bob Corker and Richard Lugar hastened to add their admiration for Gore, who was appearing before Congress for the first time in nearly two years. (See pictures of Al Gore.)
The happy atmosphere wasn't just senatorial clubbiness. The fact that Kerry chose to make global warming the subject of his first hearing as chairman of the committee signals that in President Barack Obama's Washington at least, Gore's views on the severity of climate change and the need for action are gaining clout and not just for environmental reasons. "Climate change will be increasingly central to our foreign policy," said Kerry. (Read "Obama Cleans Up After Bush.")
That's a marked departure from the Bush Administration, which sought to marginalize global diplomacy on carbon emissions. With a major U.N. summit on global warming just 10 months away in Copenhagen, the current shift is necessary if the U.S. is to regain leadership on climate issues and work toward an equitable international deal on reducing carbon emissions. "The U.S. is the only nation that can lead the world, and this is the most serious challenge the world has faced," said Gore.
For most of his prepared testimony, Gore ran through an abbreviated version of his famous Inconvenient Truth PowerPoint presentation on the threat of climate change updated with new, increasingly scary data. He pointed out that the increase in global carbon emissions over the past few years is well above previous estimates from the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, meaning that we are beginning to put ourselves on track for worst-case scenarios. He noted a sobering new paper published Jan. 27 in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, which indicated that even if we managed to stabilize carbon concentration levels in the atmosphere between 450 and 600 parts per million, up from 385 p.p.m. today a target that would be politically challenging we would still suffer rising sea levels, worsened droughts and more, for centuries to come. "The scientists are practically screaming from the rooftops," said Gore. (See the top 10 green ideas of 2008.)
It's no surprise that Democrats like Kerry, a regular at U.N. climate-change summits, are in favor of pushing for a new global deal on carbon, but even Republicans seemed to grasp Gore's message. Senator Corker of Tennessee, who has emerged as one of the more thoughtful GOP voices on energy, told Gore he could see the shift coming on climate. "We are now firing with real bullets," said Corker. "My sense is, this year something will really occur."
What that something will be, though, will need the support of more than just diplomats. Gore urged Congress to pass President Obama's stimulus package and, as soon as possible, a national cap-and-trade bill for carbon emissions a prerequisite to leading negotiations in Copenhagen. If the U.S. takes on carbon restrictions of its own, Gore argued, major developing nations like China and Brazil are ready to fall in line. The Kyoto agreement gave developing countries a free pass to keep emitting carbon a key reason the accord failed in the U.S. Senate but Copenhagen will be different, because the world is now different. "The scientific consensus is far beyond what it was 10 years ago," said Gore. "This is a planetary emergency." (Read "Raising the Bar on Fighting Climate Change.")
Gore's position was echoed across the Atlantic today, as the European Union presented its own negotiating position for the Copenhagen talks. E.U. Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimos called for all 30 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to take on mandatory carbon cuts. The OECD includes such nations as South Korea and Mexico, which were exempted from Kyoto targets. Dimos also promised billions in aid to developing countries as an enticement to agree to a new deal at Copenhagen though in a possible sign of how difficult such programs might be in a global recession, he refused to put a specific amount on the aid offer. But together with the Obama Administration's naming of Todd Stern as its special envoy for climate change, and with Gore's appearance on Capitol Hill, change has already come to the long-deadlocked global talks on warming. "This is a strong signal that Obama is ready to engage," says Jake Schmidt, international climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. "They're set to take off like a rocket."