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Magazine / ISSUES & IDEAS

Gore Out To Change The World

The former vice president hopes that climate change becomes a moral issue, rather than a crisis that "masquerades as an abstraction."

November 14, 2009

With the domestic and international debates over climate change reaching a critical point, former Vice President Gore is back with a book on the issue. In Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis, Gore argues that the prospect of disruptive climate change presents "a unique and unprecedented challenge" because its impact will unfold over decades and affect societies worldwide. Those are bigger units of measurement than political leaders usually work with when trying to build coalitions for action. "In other words, because of its planetary scope, this crisis masquerades as an abstraction," Gore writes, in one of his book's most memorable passages.

As the debate intensifies, Gore isn't focused just on the far horizon. His Alliance for Climate Protection and its associated Climate Protection Action Fund has 200 organizers working in 22 states trying to build support for legislation to limit carbon emissions; the groups are collecting thousands of video statements of support for action on their Repower America website. Gore spoke with Atlantic Media Political Director Ronald Brownstein on November 5 about his new book, the Senate climate debate, and the prospects for the international climate-change meeting that will open in Copenhagen on December 7.

 

NJ: In your documentary An Inconvenient Truth you laid out the climate-change problem. What is this book designed to do that you did not do in the film?

Gore: An Inconvenient Truth focused 90 percent on the nature of the crisis, its causes, and its impacts, and 10 percent or so on its solutions. This book focuses 99 percent on the solutions. And the most important discovery I made after three years of intensive research is that we really do have available to us the tools to solve three or four climate crises; the good news is, we only have to solve one.

These solutions are available. Some of them are emerging rapidly, but taken together it's an impressive tool kit that we need to start using quickly. I lay out three sections of the book: a more precise definition of exactly what the problem is; the six substances, and there are only six, that go up into the atmosphere; all the systems that are connected to those six; all the changes that need to be made to reduce the amount going up and to increase the rate at which they come back out of the atmosphere. What goes up must come down.

The second section goes into detail on the tools themselves. The third section goes into the obstacles that have to be removed in order to use these tools effectively and solve the crisis. There are certain enabling technologies that connect to many of these solutions. The premier example is the super-grid. Committing to build an interconnected super-grid of smart-grid distribution, transmission and storage networks will completely change the game for solar, wind, geothermal, and efficiency.

NJ: Is the challenge more political than it is technological?

Gore: It's fundamentally moral, ethical, and spiritual. To solve this crisis we cannot rely only on fact-based analysis and the kinds of short-term responses to which we are predisposed. We have to draw upon a capacity that we also have to form longer-term goals based on deep values, and build a sufficient consensus necessary to stay on a path toward those goals.

I use the example of the great cathedrals of Europe built over multiple generations by parents, grandparents, children all staying focused on the same task. The capacity to base a commitment of that sort on deep values requires a somewhat different approach. It requires a shared consensus. It requires a collective choice. Were we to reap and fully exploit the benefits of all the labors and sacrifices of all the previous generations who created this magnificent civilization for us and then give the back of our hand to our children and all future generations, it would be the most immoral act of any generation that's ever lived on this planet. And I don't think that's who we are. I refuse to believe that.

NJ: And yet, the tension here right now in the political system is the argument that the economy is hurting -- we can't afford to do this now.

Gore: It's true that in times of recession and the aftermath of recession people are focused immediately on the economic implications of everything. But the recession actually provoked a much broader understanding of the job opportunities in the conversion to green technologies and a low-carbon economy. These are jobs that cannot be so easily outsourced.

That's why you've seen a number of labor unions leave their former opposition to this transformation and become very vocal advocates of it. That's one of the reasons why you see these high-profile defections from the Chamber of Commerce and the National Association of Manufacturers and some other groups.

NJ: Do you believe that the United States is on track to act on climate change before the 2010 election?

Gore: Oh, yes. I had hoped we were on track to have a final bill out of the Senate before Copenhagen, but I think we may still be on track to get a consensus draft that inspires the perfectly realistic expectation of 60 votes in favor of it being announced and published prior to the Copenhagen conference.

NJ: What has given new momentum to legislation is this discussion primarily between Senators John Kerry and Lindsey Graham of a grand bargain to limit carbon emissions in return for increased domestic development of oil and natural gas and increased incentives for nuclear power. Is that a bargain that environmentalists should accept?

Gore: There's more than one devil lurking in these details, but assuming that the package is crafted well, I think that it certainly can attract support from environmentalists.

NJ: Are you surprised to see Senator Graham step up in that way? Had you seen indications of interest from him in the past?

Gore: I had, and I have seen signs for several years now that the evangelical community was moving powerfully in this direction, including the Christian Coalition. I saw a member of [Graham's] House delegation, Bob Inglis, come out with some very far-sighted positions that obviously reflect a vigorous dialogue within the South Carolina electorate.

NJ: In the book, you are certainly skeptical that nuclear energy could grow to the magnitude that advocates such as Graham envision.

Gore: I am not an opponent of nuclear power. I hope that it can become a larger part of our energy mix. But I doubt that it will become a much larger part, at least not within the next 15 to 20 years, because years ago, in the first decade of nuclear power, they scaled up the basic design of these reactors now on the drawing boards to match the [size of] coal plants. Now they only come in one size: extra large. That means a very considerable portion of utilities' construction budget has to be allocated to a large increment [of generating capacity] that would become available in an uncertain number of years at an uncertain cost. I can't find a single reputable engineering firm that will stand behind an estimate of how long it will take to build one of these plants and how much it will cost [to complete one].

NJ: Would that argue for or against including nuclear incentives in a climate package?

Gore: If they get large enough, these subsidies will lead to some of these plants being built. OK. But not many [will be built], because the same uncertainty over demand projection that was a central element in the collapse of the industry in the '70s is back again.

New conservation, new efficiency, a new larger role for renewables, all of those elements further complicate the task for these demand planners on the utility side trying to figure out how much generating capacity they're going to need 12 to 15 years from now. Their preference in the context of high uncertainty is to bet on smaller increments rather than betting the farm on one large, new plant.

And assuming that waste disposal, terrorism, and safety of operation are all solved, and I assume that they will be, the proliferation risk limits the global scalability of the nuclear option, because new technology in enrichment -- specifically, centrifuges -- is much cheaper, much easier to hide, and has shortened the distance between reactor fuel and weapons-grade material. As a result, the developed nations with nuclear arsenals cannot responsibly scatter tens of thousands of reactors all around the world, including in countries that we do not want to have nuclear weapons.

NJ: The other big carrot that Kerry and Graham are hoping to use to expand their coalition is more access to drilling, both offshore and onshore. Does that make sense?

Gore: I think that the more appealing part of that is gas, and I think that the discovery of these vast new shale reserves changes the energy supply-and-demand picture significantly. Some of the environmental questions raised about the new "fracking" techniques have to be answered, but I do think that it makes sense to convert heavy trucks to gas, and to use gas standby generators in conjunction with intermittent wind and intermittent solar.

Yet, we can't chart a course toward any further dependence on fossil fuels. Gas as a substitute for coal is more attractive than gas as a substitute for oil. The combination of electric vehicles, plug-in hybrids, and plug-ins with a supergrid, smart storage, and renewable electricity -- that is the future of the automobile fleet.

NJ: What are you expecting from Copenhagen this year? How do you expect the international track and the domestic track to interact over the coming year?

Gore: In some ways it is a classic chicken-and-egg conundrum, but the only way to get an effective international agreement that solves this crisis is with full U.S. participation and leadership. And given the history of Kyoto, it's necessary to have the realistic prospect of Senate passage with 60 votes in order to make the U.S. leadership role credible. I think that the Senate can clear that bar before Copenhagen.

If that's the case, then the U.S. can play its customary role in bringing about an international consensus with as broad and binding a political agreement in Copenhagen as we can get, followed by Senate passage of the legislation in the first quarter of next year, and then a further meeting of the parties, if not before, then in Mexico City next year at this time. Between now and Copenhagen, [President Obama] is going to China. I had an hour one-on-one with [Chinese Premier] Wen Jiabao just 10 days ago, and as with many visitors to China, every time I go I'm further astonished at how quickly they're moving. I judged him to be completely sincere and truthful when he said, "We want an agreement -- we will not be an obstacle to an agreement."

NJ: What agreements do you think the Chinese will have to make to alleviate concern in the U.S. that by imposing limits on ourselves we will simply be handing China the advantage.

Gore: I think that they have to accept some binding obligations. Both China and India have signaled that they are willing to accept binding obligations. But it's unclear the extent to which they want to make them binding under their own domestic law, with an international reporting requirement, and the extent to which [that approach] might be a clear way station toward an internationally binding agreement -- which we have to wind up with.

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