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Former Vice President Al Gore directly challenged his critics and threw down a moral gauntlet on the issue of climate change in a keynote address to the BIO 2010 convention in Chicago this week.
“What we are facing is unprecedented in human history,” Gore said. “If you confuse unprecedented with improbable, the exceptions can kill you—and climate change is one of those exceptions.”
The former U.S. vice president, a Nobel laureate, painted a stark picture of a civilization on a collision course with a fragile ecosystem. He described the Earth’s atmosphere as a thin shell that sits like a coat of paint on a huge globe. “If you could drive a car straight up, it would only take you 10 minutes to pass through the atmosphere,” Gore said.
Gore noted that 90 million tons of carbon dioxide are being pumped into the atmosphere each day, with 30 million tons of that going into the world’s oceans. “This has already changed the ph level of the ocean, making it more acidic,” he said.
The Nobel prize-winner said that 40 percent of the Earth’s ice cap already has disappeared, critical sources of drinking water are threatened, and the average global humidity has increased by 4 percent. He predicted that continued reliance on fossil fuels will result in an increase in global temperatures by up to 11 degrees F. by the end of this century. “The ice is melting everywhere in the world,” he said.
Gore warned that it will take only a one meter increase in sea levels to create more than 100 million “climate change refugees” in coming decades. Climate change also will spawn destructive storms and droughts that will make it impossible to feed the estimated 9.5-bilion inhabitants of Earth by mid-century, and it will accelerate mass extinctions not seen since an asteroid wiped out the dinosaurs 65 million years ago, he said.
“Only this time it’s not an asteroid—it’s us,” Gore added.
The former VP said the U.S. dependence on foreign oil, currently costing $300 billion annually, soon will exact an even greater price on the U.S. economy and national security, as the oil supply rapidly depletes while worldwide demand increases.“The roller coaster on oil prices is going to speed up. It is headed for a crash and we are in the front car,” Gore said.
Gore directly challenged his critics, who in recent months have become more vocal in questioning the science behind climate change.
“We have seen attacks designed to confuse people, and some of this propaganda is backed by the largest polluters,” he said, comparing the climate-change “deniers” to the large tobacco companies who successfully obfuscated the connection between tobacco and lung cancer for more than 40 years.
Gore declared that the scientific basis of global warming is “unequivocal,” maintaining that the recent 3,000-page international [ICCC] report on climate change contained “only two small mistakes that were quickly corrected.”
“It was proven 150 years ago that carbon dioxide intercepts infrared energy and traps heat,” he said. “By treating this problem as an abstraction we are creating the illusion that we have the luxury of time [to deal with this]. If we continue that way of thinking, the catastrophe will unfold before we realize it.”
Gore compared the “out-of-sight, out-of-mind” mentality of climate change critics to the kind of risks that were taken during the subprime mortgage securities binge that spawned the global financial crisis. “They made some basic assumptions that caused [massive] destruction when their assumptions collapsed,” he said.
Gore lauded his audience, filled with leading biotechnology players, for “incredibly exciting breakthroughs” in creating liquid biofuels. The biotech sector has set the stage for “an historic effort” to develop cellulosic ethanol that will not compete with the food supply like its corn-based predecessor, he said.
“We have the ability to solve this crisis, but we need a new [energy] policy,” Gore said. “We must put a price on carbon.”
According to Gore, the solution to climate change can be found in renewable energy derived from solar, wind, and geothermal sources, combined with sustainable development, energy efficiency and conservation. He added that improved nuclear power technology and some theoretical carbon sequestration techniques are worth considering, but the value of these methods currently is not clear.
The world’s most renown climate change crusader closed his keynote by issuing a moral challenge to his listeners.
“This is more than an environmental, economic and security challenge. It is a moral challenge,” Gore said. “After benefiting from the labors of the generations that came before us, are we going to give the back of our hand to the generations that follow us?”
If the current generation leaves a legacy of chaos to its children and grandchildren, he said, “They will ask us two questions: What were you thinking? Didn’t you care? “
“We have to make a choice. We can leave them with a world in renewal and have them ask: How did you find the moral courage to do it?”
Gore closed by citing a Hindu proverb — “if you want to go quickly, go alone; If you want to go far, go together”—to which he added a call for political action to confront the challenge of climate change.
“In 2010, we have everything we need to solve this problem but the political will,” he declared. “And in the United States of America, political will is a renewable resource.”