He's won a Nobel Peace Prize, an Emmy and an Oscar for a wonkish request that the world do something about global warming; he's made a slide show of all things famous; and he's cast a long shadow on American politics after losing the presidency.
Today, Al Gore used his unique bully pulpit to promote an ambitious plan for controlling climate change: Produce all electricity from renewable and other nonpolluting sources of power within 10 years. (transcript)
"Today I challenge our nation to commit to producing 100 percent of our electricity from renewable energy and truly clean carbon-free sources within 10 years. This goal is achievable, affordable and transformative. It represents a challenge to all Americans - in every walk of life: to our political leaders, entrepreneurs, innovators, engineers, and to every citizen," Gore said. ...
"I for one do not believe our country can withstand 10 more years of the status quo. Our families cannot stand 10 more years of gas price increases. Our workers cannot stand 10 more years of job losses and outsourcing of factories. Our economy cannot stand 10 more years of sending $2 billion every 24 hours to foreign countries for oil. And our soldiers and their families cannot take another 10 years of repeated troop deployments to dangerous regions that just happen to have large oil supplies."
He talked refreshingly about the nexus of economic, national security and environmental issues wrapped up in our burning of fossil fuels, and identified that single action as the reason "so many things seemed to be going so wrong simultaneously" in the United States.
"I'm convinced that one reason we've seemed paralyzed in the face of these crises is our tendency to offer old solutions to each crisis separately - without taking the others into account," Gore said. "And these outdated proposals have not only been ineffective - they almost always make the other crises even worse,"
"Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises."
The cost, according to an AP account of a pre-speech interview, is estimated at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years. How can you pay over 30 years for a goal to be reached in 10 years? The AP doesn't say. It does, however, point out that that astronomical cost is really no more than building enough coal-fired power plants to satisfy projected increases in energy demand under a business-as-usual scenario.
Gore's argument is not only that a revolution in energy use is needed to save the climate, but the American way of life. Escalating coal and oil prices will continue to bleed us, economically, while weird weather plagues us and our national security is threatened by the shifting climate's effect on vulnerable developing nations, he said.
Gore made some veiled swipes at George W. Bush, who beat him to the White House in 2000, ("A political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it's meaningless") and John McCain's support for offshore oil drilling ("It is only a truly dysfunctional system that would buy into the perverse logic that the short-term answer to high gasoline prices is drilling for more oil ten years from now"). And he decried the dysfunctional political culture that prevents progress on major issues. But he otherwise remained outwardly nonpartisan.
The single most specific policy idea he offered was a carbon tax, to be offset by a reduction in other taxes.
"Of course, we could and should speed up this transition by insisting that the price of carbon-based energy include the costs of the environmental damage it causes. I have long supported a sharp reduction in payroll taxes with the difference made up in CO2 taxes. We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make."
Included in Gore's prescription for a clean-burning economy is the continued but not expanded use of nuclear power and the development of so-called "clean coal" technology that can burn coal without pumping pollutants and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, where emissions lead not only to global warming, but smog, acid rain and other problems, according to the AP account. He made no mention clean coal and nuclear power in the actual speech, instead focusing on wind, solar and geothermal power:
"We have such fuels. Scientists have confirmed that enough solar energy falls on the surface of the earth every 40 minutes to meet 100 percent of the entire world's energy needs for a full year. Tapping just a small portion of this solar energy could provide all of the electricity America uses.
"And enough wind power blows through the Midwest corridor every day to also meet 100 percent of US electricity demand. Geothermal energy, similarly, is capable of providing enormous supplies of electricity for America."
Gore has already endorsed Barack Obama for president, but said he doesn't intend to accept any formal position in any administration. He has compared the work needed to deal with the "climate crisis" to the task of putting a man on the moon, and he's compared Obama with the president who launched the Apollo mission, John F. Kennedy. (He's praised John McCain, too, for taking a position on global warming that's several steps out in front of many in the regulation-averse Republican party.)
Obama released a statement in support of Gore's speech, and one can't help but wonder if the lack of specificity in Gore's speech was at all calculated to make it easy on Obama. While a 10-year timeline is fairly quick, it basically meshes with the broad outlines of Obama's energy and climate plans, so there was nothing to make the Democratic nominee sweat.
Here's what Obama had to say:
"For decades, Al Gore has challenged the skeptics in Washington on climate change and awakened the conscience of a nation to the urgency of this threat. I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence, but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power and advanced biofuels, and those are the investments I will make as President. Its a strategy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced, and one that will leave our children a world that is cleaner and safer."
For now, it appears that Gore is more powerful working outside the government. He's amassed legions of supporters, an e-mail contact list that numbers in the multimillions and a bankroll from his Nobel and An Inconvenient Truth earnings that he's using on advertising spots that pair traditional political enemies like the Revs. Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson showcasing their unified concerns about the climate.
It remains to be seen how powerful Gore is, and whether this speech makes a difference. He's not the first to suggest an Apollo-scale program to tackle climate change and energy use in America, nor is it the first time he's uttered the phrase.
Hey, remember that slide show Al Gore showed in An Inconvenient Truth? Well, he's updating it. Here's a preview:
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