If Al Gore's film An Inconvenient Truth raised awareness about global warming by frightening people, he hopes his latest book, Our Choice, will help people find solutions to the problem. He talked about those solutions with President Obama yesterday in advance of Obama's trip to the world climate-change meeting in Copenhagen. He was coy about their conversation but did talk about his book, the nature of the climate change debate, and the controversy surrounding those e-mails disclosed from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.
Question: Can something as complicated as climate change be tackled in the current calcified political system?
Answer: Sclerotic may be more accurate than calcified but either would do. The role of campaign contributions in our political system and the role of lobbyists have now reached levels that are quite unhealthy for the operations of our democracy. But the antidote, as in past eras of lobbyist excess, is for more involvement by citizens to build pressure on members of the House and Senate to serve the public interest. The House of Representatives has risen impressively to this challenge. The Senate's rules and traditions have made it a tougher case. And yet the public pressure is building and I am optimistic that this climate-change legislation will pass the Senate. Sponsors say they have 60 votes, but we'll see when the roll is called.
Q: Given the state of the economy, if people hear their energy bills are going up, isn't that going to make them oppose any change?
A: If you want your energy bills to go up, you should support an ever greater dependence on foreign oil, because the rate of new discoveries is declining as demand in China and India is growing, and the price of oil and thus the price of coal will go sky high. That is the formula for increasing energy bills. Secondly, the sooner we switch away from carbon-based fuel and start relying on renewable energy sources available in the United States, the sooner we will grow our economy by creating the millions of new jobs that will come from retrofitting homes and businesses, building smart grids, renewable energy systems and planting trees and all the rest. We need to create a lot of jobs that can't be outsourced.
Q: How damaging to your argument was the disclosure of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University?
A: To paraphrase Shakespeare, it's sound and fury signifying nothing. I haven't read all the e-mails, but the most recent one is more than 10 years old. * These private exchanges between these scientists do not in any way cause any question about the scientific consensus. But the noise machine built by the climate deniers often seizes on what they can blow out of proportion, so they've thought this is a bigger deal than it is.
Q: There is a sense in these e-mails, though, that data was hidden and hoarded, which is the opposite of the case you make [in your book] about having an open and fair debate.
A: I think it's been taken wildly out of context. The discussion you're referring to was about two papers that two of these scientists felt shouldn't be accepted as part of the IPCC report. Both of them, in fact, were included, referenced, and discussed. So an e-mail exchange more than 10 years ago * including somebody's opinion that a particular study isn't any good is one thing, but the fact that the study ended up being included and discussed anyway is a more powerful comment on what the result of the scientific process really is.
These people are examining what they can or should do to deal with the P.R. dimensions of this, but where the scientific consensus is concerned, it's completely unchanged. What we're seeing is a set of changes worldwide that just make this discussion over 10-year-old e-mails kind of silly. * The entire North Polar ice cap is disappearing before our very eyes. It's been the size of the continental United States for the last 3 million years and now 40 percent is gone and the rest of it is going. The mountain glaciers are going. We've had record storms, droughts, fires, and floods. There is an air of unreality in debating these arcane points when the world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming.