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AL GORE CALLS FOR IMMEDIATE FREEZE
ON CO2 EMMISSIONS

Thank you Paul and Jim for those kind introductions. I would especially like to thank our host, New York University and the President of the College John Sexton and the Dean of the Law School Richard Revesz. I am also grateful to our co-sponsors, the World Resources Institute and Set America Free.

Many Scientists are now warning that we are moving closer to several “tipping points” that could — within as little as 10 years — make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet’s habitability for human civilization. In this regard, just a few weeks ago, another group of scientists reported on the unexpectedly rapid increases in the release of carbon and methane emissions from frozen tundra in Siberia, now beginning to thaw because of human caused increases in global temperature. The scientists tell us that the tundra in danger of thawing contains an amount of additional global warming pollution that is equal to the total amount that is already in the earth’s atmosphere. Similarly, earlier this year, yet another team of scientists reported that the previous twelve months saw 32 glacial earthquakes on Greenland between 4.6 and 5.1 on the Richter scale — a disturbing sign that a massive destabilization may now be underway deep within the second largest accumulation of ice on the planet, enough ice to raise sea level 20 feet worldwide if it broke up and slipped into the sea. Each passing day brings yet more evidence that we are now facing a planetary emergency — a climate crisis that demands immediate action to sharply reduce carbon dioxide emissions worldwide in order to turn down the earth’s thermostat and avert catastrophe.

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. This no-man’s land — or no politician zone –falling between the farthest reaches of political feasibility and the first beginnings of truly effective change is the area that I would like to explore in my speech today.

My purpose is not to present a comprehensive and detailed blueprint — for that is a task for our democracy as a whole — but rather to try to shine some light on a pathway through this terra incognita that lies between where we are and where we need to go. Because, if we acknowledge candidly that what we need to do is beyond the limits of our current political capacities, that really is just another way of saying that we have to urgently expand the limits of what is politically possible.

Two weeks ago, Democrats and Republicans joined together in our largest state, California, to pass legally binding sharp reductions in CO2 emissions. 295 American cities have now independently “ratified” and embraced CO2 reductions called for in the Kyoto Treaty. 85 conservative evangelical ministers publicly broke with the Bush-Cheney administration to call for bold action to solve the climate crisis. Business leaders in both political parties have taken significant steps to position their companies as leaders in this struggle and have adopted a policy that not only reduces CO2 but makes their companies zero carbon companies. Many of them have discovered a way to increase profits and productivity by eliminating their contributions to global warming pollution.

After all, many Americans are tired of borrowing huge amounts of money from countries to buy huge amounts of oil from the Persian Gulf to make huge amounts of pollution that destroys the planet’s climate. Increasingly, Americans believe that we have to change every part of that pattern.

One-way trade is destructive to our economic future. We send money, electronically, in the opposite direction. But, we can change this by inventing and manufacturing new solutions to stop global warming right here in America. I still believe in good old-fashioned American ingenuity. We need to fill those ships with new products and technologies that we create to turn down the global thermostat. Working together, we can create jobs and stop global warming. But we must begin by winning the first key battle — against inertia and the fear of change.

Our children have a right to hold us to a higher standard when their future — indeed the future of all human civilization — is hanging in the balance. They deserve better than the spectacle of censorship of the best scientific evidence about the truth of our situation and harassment of honest scientists who are trying to warn us about the looming catastrophe. They deserve better than politicians who sit on their hands and do nothing to confront the greatest challenge that humankind has ever faced — even as the danger bears down on us.

Developing countries have gained their own understanding of how threatening the climate crisis is to them, but they will never find the political will to make the necessary changes in their growing economies unless and until the United States leads the way. Our natural role is to be the pace car in the race to stop global warming.

Well, first of all, we should start by immediately freezing CO2 emissions and then beginning sharp reductions. Merely engaging in high-minded debates about theoretical future reductions while continuing to steadily increase emissions represents a self-delusional and reckless approach. In some ways, that approach is worse than doing nothing at all, because it lulls the gullible into thinking that something is actually being done when in fact it is not.

When the politicians are paralyzed in the face of a great threat, our nation needs a popular movement, a rallying cry, a standard, a mandate that is broadly supported on a bipartisan basis.

At present, the global system for carbon emissions trading is embodied in the Kyoto Treaty. It drives reductions in CO2 and helps many countries that are a part of the treaty to find the most efficient ways to meet their targets for reductions. It is true that not all countries are yet on track to meet their targets, but the first targets don’t have to be met until 2008 and the largest and most important reductions typically take longer than the near term in any case.

Many American businesses that operate in other countries already have to abide by the Kyoto Treaty anyway, and unsurprisingly, they are the companies that have been most eager to adopt these new principles here at home as well. The United States and Australia are the only two countries in the developed world that have not yet ratified the Kyoto Treaty. Since the Treaty has been so demonized in America’s internal debate, it is difficult to imagine the current Senate finding a way to ratify it. But the United States should immediately join the discussion that is now underway on the new tougher treaty that will soon be completed. We should plan to accelerate its adoption and phase it in more quickly than is presently planned.

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.

I am convinced that it is possible to build an effective consensus in the United States and in the world at large on the most effective approaches to solve the climate crisis. Many of those solutions will be found in the building blocks that currently structure so many discussions. But I am also certain that some of the most powerful solutions will lie beyond our current categories of building blocks and “wedges.” Our secret strength in America has always been our capacity for vision. “Make no little plans,” one of our most famous architects said over a century ago, “they have no magic to stir men’s blood.”

First, dramatic improvements in the efficiency with which we generate, transport and use energy will almost certainly prove to be the single biggest source of sharp reductions in global warming pollution. Because pollution has been systematically ignored in the old rules of America’s marketplace, there are lots of relatively easy ways to use new and more efficient options to cheaply eliminate it. Since pollution is, after all, waste, business and industry usually become more productive and efficient when they systematically go about reducing pollution. After all, many of the technologies on which we depend are actually so old that they are inherently far less efficient than newer technologies that we haven’t started using. One of the best examples is the internal combustion engine. When scientists calculate the energy content in BTUs of each gallon of gasoline used in a typical car, and then measure the amounts wasted in the car’s routine operation, they find that an incredible 90% of that energy is completely wasted. One engineer, Amory Lovins, has gone farther and calculated the amount of energy that is actually used to move the passenger (excluding the amount of energy used to move the several tons of metal surrounding the passenger) and has found that only 1% of the energy is actually used to move the person. This is more than an arcane calculation, or a parlor trick with arithmetic. These numbers actually illuminate the single biggest opportunity to make our economy more efficient and competitive while sharply reducing global warming pollution.

When we introduce the right incentives for eliminating pollution and becoming more efficient, many businesses will begin to make greater use of computers and advanced monitoring systems to identify even more opportunities for savings. This is what happened in the computer chip industry when more powerful chips led to better computers, which in turn made it possible to design even more powerful chips, in a virtuous cycle of steady improvement that became known as “Moore’s Law.” We may well see the emergence of a new version of “Moore’s Law” producing steadily higher levels of energy efficiency at steadily lower cost.

Today, our nation faces threats very different from those we countered during the Cold War. We worry today that terrorists might try to inflict great damage on America’s energy infrastructure by attacking a single vulnerable part of the oil distribution or electricity distribution network. So, taking a page from the early pioneers of ARPANET, we should develop a distributed electricity and liquid fuels distribution network that is less dependent on large coal-fired generating plants and vulnerable oil ports and refineries.

Just as a robust information economy was triggered by the introduction of the Internet, a dynamic new renewable energy economy can be stimulated by the development of an “electranet,” or smart grid, that allows individual homeowners and business-owners anywhere in America to use their own renewable sources of energy to sell electricity into the grid when they have a surplus and purchase it from the grid when they don’t. The same electranet could give homeowners and business-owners accurate and powerful tools with which to precisely measure how much energy they are using where and when, and identify opportunities for eliminating unnecessary costs and wasteful usage patterns.

This shift would also offer the hope of saving tens of thousands of good jobs in American companies that are presently fighting a losing battle selling cars and trucks that are less efficient than the ones made by their competitors in countries where they were forced to reduce their pollution and thus become more efficient.

Our current ridiculous dependence on oil endangers not only our national security, but also our economic security. Anyone who believes that the international market for oil is a “free market” is seriously deluded. It has many characteristics of a free market, but it is also subject to periodic manipulation by the small group of nations controlling the largest recoverable reserves, sometimes in concert with companies that have great influence over the global production, refining, and distribution network.

Shifting to a greater reliance on ethanol, cellulosic ethanol, butanol, and green diesel fuels will not only reduce global warming pollution and enhance our national and economic security, it will also reverse the steady loss of jobs and income in rural America. Several important building blocks for America’s role in solving the climate crisis can be found in new approaches to agriculture. As pointed out by the “25 by 25? movement (aimed at securing 25% of America’s power and transportation fuels from agricultural sources by the year 2025) we can revitalize the farm economy by shifting its mission from a focus on food, feed and fiber to a focus on food, feed, fiber, fuel, and ecosystem services. We can restore the health of depleted soils by encouraging and rewarding the growing of fuel source crops like switchgrass and saw-grass, using no till cultivation, and scientific crop rotation. We should also reward farmers for planting more trees and sequestering more carbon, and recognize the economic value of their stewardship of resources that are important to the health of our ecosystems.

Biomass–whether in the form of trees, switchgrass, or other sources–is one of the most important forms of renewable energy. And renewable sources make up one of the most promising building blocks for reducing carbon pollution.

Solar photovoltaic energy is–according to researchers–much closer than it has ever been to a cost competitive breakthrough, as new nanotechnologies are being applied to dramatically enhance the efficiency with which solar cells produce electricity from sunlight–and as clever new designs for concentrating solar energy are used with new approaches such as Stirling engines that can bring costs sharply down.

The rapid urbanization of the world’s population is leading to the prospective development of more new urban buildings in the next 35 years than have been constructed in all previous human history. This startling trend represents a tremendous opportunity for sharp reductions in global warming pollution through the use of intelligent architecture and design and stringent standards.

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.

Fortunately, there may be a way to capture the CO2 produced as coal as burned and sequester it safely to prevent it from adding to the climate crisis. It is not easy. This technique, known as carbon capture and sequestration (CCS) is expensive and most users of coal have resisted the investments necessary to use it. However, when the cost of not using it is calculated, it becomes obvious that CCS will play a significant and growing role as one of the major building blocks of a solution to the climate crisis.

CCS is only one of many new technological approaches that require a significant increase by governments and business in advanced research and development to speed the availability of more effective technologies that can help us solve the climate crisis more quickly. But it is important to emphasize that even without brand new technologies, we already have everything we need to get started on a solution to this crisis.

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.

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.

Many of our leading businesses are already making dramatic changes to reduce their global warming pollution. General Electric, Dupont, Cinergy, Caterpillar, and Wal-Mart are among the many who are providing leadership for the business community in helping us devise a solution for this crisis.

Hunters and fishermen are also now adding their voices to the call for a solution to the crisis. In a recent poll, 86% of licensed hunters and anglers said that we have a moral obligation to stop global warming to protect our children’s future.

Moreover, the American religious community — including a group of 85 conservative evangelicals and especially the US Conference of Catholic Bishops — has made an extraordinary contribution to this entire enterprise. To the insights of science and technology, it has added the perspectives of faith and values, of prophetic imagination, spiritual motivation, and moral passion without which all our plans, no matter how reasonable, simply will not prevail. Individual faith groups have offered their own distinctive views . And yet — uniquely in religious life at this moment and even historically — they have established common ground and resolve across tenacious differences. In addition to reaching millions of people in the pews, they have demonstrated the real possibility of what we all now need to accomplish: how to be ourselves, together and how to discover, in this process, a sense of vivid, living spirit and purpose that elevates the entire human enterprise.

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.

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. ?


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    Earth In The Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit by Al Gore.)

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