The last time former US Vice President Al Gore discussed the climate change issue with Discovery News, the Copenhagen treaty discussions were in full swing, and Gore expressed at the time that “I choose to be optimistic” about their outcome.
That was a shade under two years ago, and since then, for those concerned that human activities are changing the planet’s climate, the outlook seems bleaker. The Copenhagen process failed to produce the global agreement for which supporters had hoped, and meanwhile, at least among segments of the population in the United States, skepticism about global warming has, if anything, hardened. And yet, Gore insisted in a conversation last week that he maintains the same optimistic outlook.
“I think there’s great cause for optimism despite the fact that the US political process has been paralyzed largely by a determined effort by the global warming polluters and their ideological allies in the smother-the-government-in-the-bathtub crowd,” he said during a phone conversation with Discovery News and two other outlets. “I think the momentum at the grass roots is deceptively powerful, broad based and building, including among businesses, and I think that is very encouraging. And I think that ultimately the reality of climate change is increasingly difficult for the deniers to deny, and I think we’re in the midst now of a powerful shift in perception of what is happening.”
That reality, he says, is evident: “The pollution produced worldwide every day – 90 million tons – is having the exact effects scientists have long predicted. Based on the laws of physics they cannot but have that effect.” But, he argued recently in an article in Rolling Stone, the picture has been deliberately muddied by a strategy on the part of the fossil fuel industry to, as a leaked 1991 memo stated, ‘Reposition global warming as theory, rather than fact.’
There’s no doubt, he concedes, that “the political process has been paralyzed by this strategy of creating false doubt,” which ranges from challenging the validity of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to floating red herrings, “like [warming is caused by] volcanoes or sunspots [or, more recently, cosmic rays], or it’s not getting warmer, or it’s stopped getting warmer, or something’s happening on Jupiter, or whatever.” The strategy, he continues, extends to assailing “the integrity of the scientists themselves by regularly claiming they are making up evidence because they’re greedy and they’re trying to get more money for research grants by falsifying data. That is a slander that ought to be transparent, but when those and similar messages are pumped out through the mass media on a daily basis and reinforced by politicians who behave as if they are indentured servants of the carbon polluters, it has an effect, no doubt about that. But I think the key to it is to confront the reality of what we are facing.”
As part of that effort, Gore’s Climate Reality Project is launching a 24-hour event on September 14. In one city in each time zone, beginning in Mexico City at 7 p.m. Central Time and working west, a 30-minute slideshow presentation will be followed by a 30-minute discussion with a live audience. The 24 presentations will, in total, be made in 13 languages in locations as diverse as the Aleutian Islands, Cape Verde and Iceland, concluding in a presentation in New York City by Gore himself, with the entire day-long event streamed online. Gore says perhaps “98 percent” of the slideshow is an update of, and different from, the one that formed the basis of the Academy Award-winning An Inconvenient Truth; it will, he says, focus on rebutting the three or four principal assertions made by climate change deniers, and will also focus on the succession of extreme weather events that have occurred globally over the last year.
Linking weather events and climate change is a fraught business, of course, whether doing so to reinforce or rebut global warming theory. But climate change models have long predicted that a changing climate will result in a greater abundance of such events, and greater extremes in those events that occur, and Gore is among those who argue that the evidence shows unequivocally that that impact is now being felt.
“In the last year, the reality of the climate crisis has become palpable,” he says. “We’ve had 10 billion-dollar-plus events in the US alone. We’ve seen flooding in Pakistan, 20 million people displaced from their homes, further destabilizing a nuclear-armed country. In Australia, an area the size of France and Germany combined was inundated. In Russia, the drought and fires killed more than 50,000 people and resulted in all the grain from Russia, Ukraine, and Kazakhstan being taken off the market – which, among other factors, contributed to an all-time record food price spike. The Texas southwestern drought (Texas, New mexico, Oklahoma, Arizona) with no end in sight – of 254 counties in Texas, 252 of them were on fire this summer. And Nashville, where just a year ago we had a once-in-one-thousand-years rainfall, flooding out thousands of my neighbors who lost their homes and businesses and didn’t have flood insurance because it had never flooded in the areas affected.
“And again, the science linking the climate crisis to the increased frequency and severity of these extreme events is quite clear: There’s 4 percent more water vapor in the atmosphere above the oceans than there was only 30 years ago; and the extra heat is not only loading up the atmosphere with more water vapor that fuels these big storms, it’s also responsible for increased intensity and duration of drought. And of course the number of big precipitation events has been increasing around the world, and in the drought-prone areas, the intervals between the downpours have been longer.”
But, insists Gore, the picture he and his fellow presenters will be painting is not one of a bleak future but one of – yes, that word again – optimism, one fueled not least by the increasing availability of relatively simple solutions.
“There are continued advances in the affordability and effectiveness of renewable energy and a continued awakening to the monetary benefits of adopting higher levels of efficiency,” he says. “In some developing countries, the impact is even greater; just as some of those countries leapfrogged the old wired telephone networks and went straight to cellphones, those nations that do not have large electrical grids are going straight to small scale solar and wind. So I think as more people see the viability, affordability, and effectiveness of these alternatives, I think that gives tremendous momentum toward the overall effort toward a solution.”
Even so, that optimism is tempered by urgency. “It’s a race against time, because the overburden of this heat trapping pollution grows every day. [Levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide are] already 40 percent above the levels when human civilization emerged, 40 percent above the conditions that created the well-being of humanity on this planet. But denying the reality that is now perceptible not just in scientific papers but with our eyes and ears all around us, that means any position based on the denial of reality is doomed to collapse. I just think the distance between reality and the false beliefs of the deniers is going to make that view increasingly untenable.”
Top photograph by the Climate Reality Project. Bottom photograph of Kieran Mulvaney talking with Al Gore in 2009 by Lori Cuthbert/Discovery News.