This evening Former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore delivered a keynote speech on the subject of innovation at the Fairmont San Jose. The occasion was the annual meeting of the $28 billion CPA firm Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu where about 300 of the most senior partners gather together from all over the world for a few days. There were no cameras or recording devices permitted, but I had the privilege of attending along with a few other select clients and friends.
EcoWorld’s position on climate change has been consistent for several years, and it didn’t change tonight: (1) If humans are causing climate change, it is from a variety of factors – in general, the role of anthropogenic CO2 is being overemphasized and the role of tropical deforestation is being underemphasized, (2) Even if the rise in atmospheric CO2 is due to burning fossil fuel, by the IPCC’s own reasoning, it is impossible to lower it sufficiently to make any impact without completely shutting down industry on planet earth, meaning adaptation would be a more rational investment, (3) CO2 is not pollution, and the emphasis on reducing CO2 is undermining our efforts to reduce other air pollution, and address environmental challenges in general, (4) the political changes that are being proposed and enacted in the name of reducing CO2 emissions are causing increasing harm to our rights and freedoms, and (5) demonizing people who sincerely doubt the “consensus” is absolutely wrong.
So watching this incredibly powerful man, who has become larger than life, stride the stage not more than 20 feet in front of me was something that aroused mixed feelings, to say the least. He spent several minutes cracking jokes, funny jokes at that, with an endearing southern twang that matched his dark black cowboy boots. There sure have been a lot of southerners in high office in recent years in the USA. And it was hard not to like this one.
When Gore got down to business, he said things I was in complete agreement with, such as “we have a series of problems relating to short term thinking,” and things I found refreshingly optimistic, such as “I believe the recession will be shorter than everybody thought.” But when he started to discuss climate change, he said some things that simply must be challenged.
After leading into the topic with the statement “there’s an illusion still out there that the climate crisis may not be real, and if you want to be one step ahead, believe me, it’s real,” he used as his first example “a tale of two planets, Earth and Venus,” which are the “same size, same amount of carbon, but on earth most of the natural processes have put carbon into the earth as fossil fuel.” He then pointed out the average temperature on Earth is 59 degrees (fahrenheit), and the average temperature on Venus is 875 degrees. But he didn’t point out that Venus is 67 million miles from the sun, and earth is 93 million miles from the sun – that plus undoubtedly many other significant differences in the composition of Earth and Venus would account for the difference in temperature. So Gore was not off to a good start.
There isn’t space here to recount all the points Gore made in a generous speech that lasted, including questions, over an hour. But he referenced the IPCC reports as being 99% certain there was human induced climate change – without specifying exactly what they meant by that. To be fair, Gore didn’t have time to go into all these details either. But he didn’t point out that the IPCC reports are written and reviewed by the same people – something that is never supposed to be done in a scientific paper. Peer review of compilations like this are always supposed to be by a separate panel of experts.
Gore then discussed sea ice in the arctic, explaining that on the northern equinox each year the extent of the northern ice cap is measured by scientists, and noting that last September the ice was 40% smaller than it has been historically. “What does it take to get our attention,” he noted, continuing “our kids are going to wonder why you watched this happen and didn’t do anything,” and “it can come back, but only when we quit turning up the thermostat,” and “if we let the heat build up in the Arctic Ocean it [the ice cap] won’t come back, and we will live on a different planet.” Well let’s see what happens this year. Gore did not mention that two recent studies acknowledge the northern hemisphere is about to embark on a cooling period, as the interdecadal oscillations of ocean currents begin to return cool water to the arctic. What Gore and his followers won’t yet consider is that these changes are the result of natural fluctuations.
Gore then noted “there are ten to fifteen other major events,” mentioning a few of them; sea level rise (negligible), storms and floods (tragic, but not more numerous or severe, and only more destructive because we’ve got far more people living in marginal areas on earth today), drought (true, but much of that is being caused by deforestation), extinctions (most of these are from other causes), and deforestation (which we are doing on our own with no help from rising CO2). But as we have noted in previous posts and features, the earth, overall, has had stable temperatures for ten years, and it isn’t clear where all these supposed exajoules of solar heat, allegedly captured by excessive concentrations of atmospheric CO2, are being sequestered, waiting for their moment. In the deep ocean? That’s not what our latest temperature buoys are saying. So where?
Case closed, Gore than leapt to rhetorically asking “why are we seeing these changes.” And here is where Gore’s message becomes something it is far easier to agree with. Because believe it or not, even if you think CO2 induced climate change alarm is overstated, you can still be an environmentalist. Gore noted that along with fossil fuel burning, we are seeing these changes because of a rising population, greater per capita income, and an abundance of short term thinking. And if you take away the fossil fuel burning, and substitute “environmental challenges” for “climate change,” Gore is absolutely right. What ever happened to that iconic image of the ships in the desert, Mr. Gore, published in your book Earth in the Balance? Why can’t we refill the Aral Sea?
On the topic of population growth, Gore reminded the audience that global population will stabilize due to four factors, (1) empowering women, (2) educating girls, (3) making sure people have culturally acceptable access to family planning, and (4) increasing the survivability of children. This is an excellent point, and Gore might have gone on to predict the inevitable population decline that will begin as soon as the peak is reached sometime around 2040. The cultural and economic challenges an aging, declining world population will pose are also things we should be confronting now, as we think ahead.
Along with climate change Gore dealt with the other reason to wean ourselves of fossil fuel, “shifting away from a dirty, expensive [fossil] fuel from dangerous, politically fragile regions,” and not having to compete with the rising nations of China and India for fossil fuel supplies. These are true enough, and the reason many Americans and other westerners embrace climate change even if they aren’t convinced – and I have spoken with countless highly educated and informed people who have stated off the record they are still completely skeptical of the role of CO2 in causing climate change. But so what, if we transition to something new; solar, wind, greater efficiencies, geothermal, “good” biofuel?
Gore is on to something here, as he describes high voltage direct current lines that can be put underground and are far more efficient in transmission, or solar thermal fields so efficient that “a 100×100 square mile area (10,000 square miles) could power 100% of the energy requirements of the entire USA” (we’ve run the numbers and that is theoretically true). Gore has done a lot to stimulate innovation in technologies that will deliver energy independence, and cleaner energy. But there have been tragic missteps as well, such as subsidizing biofuel from tropical rainforests, something that has not only needlessly destroyed tropical rainforests – causing regional droughts and warming, along with heartbreaking losses of wildlife habitat – but has now created an overreaction against all biofuel.
There is nothing wrong with, as Gore puts it “figuring out how to get one step ahead to create a better world.” One of Deloitte’s partners, an urbane gentleman from France, discussed Gore’s remarks with me, saying “we have to exaggerate the problem to solve the problem.” This is a wise sentiment. The problem is letting this crisis mongering cause us to move so fast that we enact political changes and embrace technological solutions that ultimately turn out to be too draconian and too dated, respectively, when high energy prices might have stimulated all the innovation we would ever need, in good time.
Nobody can say with certainty that Al Gore is right or wrong about climate change. But the political changes afoot in the name of fighting climate change are not trivial, they are epochal, and therefore simply arguing we should invoke the precautionary principle is not something that should be stated unequivocably, or so selectively. The debate is not over, the debate has scarcely begun, and that perhaps is my biggest disagreement with Al Gore. His world changing message has awakened a generation to the values of environmentalism, which is wonderful, but now that generation might consider the nuances of the mission and the message. There are myriad environmental challenges, and they cannot possibly be viewed or mitigated in their totality purely through the lens of climate change alarm. If you doubt this, just ask the Orangutans of Borneo.