September 24, 2006

Al Gore's Global Warming Action List

This week, Al Gore gave a very important speech on Global Warming at New York University. In this speech, he started out noting that the debate about global warming is over and now the discussion has moved to what should we do to address the climate crisis.

The serious debate over the climate crisis has now moved on to the question of how we can craft emergency solutions in order to avoid this catastrophic damage.

You read that right: emergency solutions. And not a moment too soon. The evidence that we are very near the global tipping point is so strong that we absolutely must be applying our knowledge and our technology to the problems with all the passion we can muster.

As Gore says, the problem that faces us is stark.

This debate over solutions has been slow to start in earnest not only because some of our leaders still find it more convenient to deny the reality of the crisis, but also because the hard truth for the rest of us is that the maximum that seems politically feasible still falls far short of the minimum that would be effective in solving the crisis.

How stark I hadn't realized until I read an article in the Sierra Club's monthly magazine about Seth Zuckerman's low carbon diet. In the article, Zuckerman worked through how to live within specific carbon consumption quotas starting at the average American daily consumption down to the world's carrying capacity for dealing with carbon emissions:

122 lbs

Average American daily carbon ration

24 lbs

Average worldwide ration

9 lbs

World daily average carbon ration carrying capacity

How do we get to a world average usage of 9 pounds per day per person?

Here is some of Al's speech which shows what he thinks we must start to do.

[A] responsible approach to solutions would avoid the mistake of trying to find a single magic “silver bullet” and recognize that the answer will involve what Bill McKibben has called “silver-buckshot” — numerous important solutions, all of which are hard, but no one of which is by itself the full answer for our problem.

One of the most productive approaches to the “multiple solutions” needed is a road-map designed by two Princeton professors, Rob Socolow and Steven Pacala, which breaks down the overall problem into more manageable parts. Socolow and Pacala have identified 15 or 20 building blocks (or “wedges”) that can be used to solve our problem effectively — even if we only use 7 or 8 of them. I am among the many who have found this approach useful as a way to structure a discussion of the choices before us.

He lays out some of the key approaches that will be required to start to deal with our carbon emissions. Those approaches are some we've talked about before: greater efficiency and the further exploitation of carbon free energy sources like wind mills and photovoltaic solar cells, improving our transportation infrastructure, using the biomass to trap carbon and to produce energy with lower emissions, refining carbon sequestration and even where necessary, tapping into nuclear energy. But the latter, he sees as problematic.

Many believe that a responsible approach to sharply reducing global warming pollution would involve a significant increase in the use of nuclear power plants as a substitute for coal-fired generators. While I am not opposed to nuclear power and expect to see some modest increased use of nuclear reactors, I doubt that they will play a significant role in most countries as a new source of electricity. The main reason for my skepticism about nuclear power playing a much larger role in the world’s energy future is not the problem of waste disposal or the danger of reactor operator error, or the vulnerability to terrorist attack. Let’s assume for the moment that all three of these problems can be solved. That still leaves two serious issues that are more difficult constraints. The first is economics; the current generation of reactors is expensive, take a long time to build, and only come in one size — extra large. In a time of great uncertainty over energy prices, utilities must count on great uncertainty in electricity demand — and that uncertainty causes them to strongly prefer smaller incremental additions to their generating capacity that are each less expensive and quicker to build than are large 1000 megawatt light water reactors. Newer, more scalable and affordable reactor designs may eventually become available, but not soon. Secondly, if the world as a whole chose nuclear power as the option of choice to replace coal-fired generating plants, we would face a dramatic increase in the likelihood of nuclear weapons proliferation. During my 8 years in the White House, every nuclear weapons proliferation issue we dealt with was connected to a nuclear reactor program. Today, the dangerous weapons programs in both Iran and North Korea are linked to their civilian reactor programs. Moreover, proposals to separate the ownership of reactors from the ownership of the fuel supply process have met with stiff resistance from developing countries who want reactors. As a result of all these problems, I believe that nuclear reactors will only play a limited role.

He notes that we need to begin to make the market work to bring about the right incentives. One way to do that is to revise our tax system to tax pollution creation, rather than job creation.

In a market economy like ours, however, every one of the solutions that I have discussed will be more effective and much easier to implement if we place a price on the CO2 pollution that is recognized in the marketplace. We need to summon the courage to use the right tools for this job.

For the last fourteen years, I have advocated the elimination of all payroll taxes — including those for social security and unemployment compensation — and the replacement of that revenue in the form of pollution taxes — principally on CO2. The overall level of taxation would remain exactly the same. It would be, in other words, a revenue neutral tax swap. But, instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees, it would discourage business from producing more pollution.

Global warming pollution, indeed all pollution, is now described by economists as an “externality.” This absurd label means, in essence: we don’t to keep track of this stuff so let’s pretend it doesn’t exist.

And sure enough, when it’s not recognized in the marketplace, it does make it much easier for government, business, and all the rest of us to pretend that it doesn’t exist. But what we’re pretending doesn’t exist is the stuff that is destroying the habitability of the planet. We put 70 million tons of it into the atmosphere every 24 hours and the amount is increasing day by day. Penalizing pollution instead of penalizing employment will work to reduce that pollution.

And as he says,

This is not a political issue. This is a moral issue. It affects the survival of human civilization. It is not a question of left vs. right; it is a question of right vs. wrong. Put simply, it is wrong to destroy the habitability of our planet and ruin the prospects of every generation that follows ours.

Sometimes we humans are given huge challenges because it can inspire us to reach beyond what we once thought possible. Gore believes that this is just that type of challenge.

This is an opportunity for bipartisanship and transcendence, an opportunity to find our better selves and in rising to meet this challenge, create a better brighter future — a future worthy of the generations who come after us and who have a right to be able to depend on us.

What should we do in the face of the global warming crisis? Certainly, it is not enough to stay on the sidelines passing it on to someone else or another generation do something about it. It is our time to answer this challenge with all the courage, ingenuity and perseverance that we have available.

(This speech has been added to my list of Al Gore speeches from 2002 to 2006 here.)

Posted by Mary at September 24, 2006 08:30 PM | Environment | Technorati links |

There was yet another alarmist news article, this one quoting James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies and other colleagues, saying that "Earth may be close to the warmest it has been in the last million years,...". They cite peak temperatures, average temperatures and global surface temperatures. They didn't discuss camping out in Sweden next winter.

The earth has been a lot warmer in recent human history than it is now. We can look forward to the climate getting increasingly colder as time goes on. We had our bout of global warming over 10,000 years ago, and we won't see another bout for another 90,000 years. We have seen and will continue to see swings in temperatures, but these will continue to tend to cooler temperatures (over the millenia).

Posted by: Chris Vail at September 25, 2006 05:56 PM

Chris, it would be nice if you could share where you do your research for climate change. We'd like to know who is publishing the information you are providing in your comments - could it be you and your team studying the climate models?

Posted by: Mary at September 25, 2006 07:39 PM