"We are facing a planetary emergency"

At a Senate hearing, former Vice President Al Gore gives his recommendations on how to stop global warming, and faces some harsh questioning.

Salon Staff
March 22, 2007 11:00PM (UTC)

GORE: For most of human history we lived on the harvested energy that came from the sun, and it was a net energy balance. And then with the beginning of the use of coal and then oil and other fossil fuel supplies, we began to use the accumulated reservoirs of the hundreds of millions of years worth of accumulated solar energy. And, of course, that meant returning carbon to the atmosphere in very large quantities.

And from the early days of that period, there were a few scientists who said, "Wait a minute. That's going to have some consequences." And it did. And it has now reached a point where we've literally changed the radiated balance between the earth and the sun. ...


This is not a normal time. We are facing a planetary emergency, and I'm fully aware that that phrase sounds shrill to many people's ears. But it is accurate. The relationship between humankind and planet Earth has been radically altered in a very short period of time. What would make us believe that we could go through these changes and not have an impact on the planet? ...

The 10 hottest years every measured in the record have been since 1990. Twenty of the 21 hottest years have been in the last 25 years. The hottest year of all was 2005. The hottest year of all in the U.S. was 2006. The hottest winter ever measured worldwide was this winter: December, and then January and February of this year -- last month. This is going on right now. And it's continuing to increase. ...

The consequences are bad and will be catastrophic unless we act. We can act, we can solve it, there's still time, and we have everything we need to get started. Those points are in agreement. One of the leading scientific experts said the consensus supporting this view on global warming is as strong as anything in science, with the possible exception of gravity. ...


I want to talk to you a little about some ideas that I believe could hopefully help in your deliberations. First of all, I think that we ought to have an immediate freeze on CO2 emissions and start the reductions from there. All the time that we've been talking about prospective cuts, the emissions have continued to increase. I think we ought to have an immediate freeze. ...

Secondly, I think that we ought to use the tax code not to increase taxes, Senator Inhofe. I'm not for that. And what I'm about to propose to you, I'm fully aware, is considered way outside the range of what's considered politically feasible, so I advise you not to spend too much of your ammunition on it because people don't yet think it's going to be on the agenda.

But here's what I think we should do. I think we ought to cut taxes on employment and take that burden off employees and employers and make up the difference with pollution taxes, principally CO2 taxes. Some other countries are talking about it seriously, because in the developed world we're now in a new competitive global environment, and our big disadvantage is these developing countries with big populations still growing significantly with low wage rates all of a sudden have access in an IT-empowered world to the best technology and container shipping, and we're competing with them.


And we don't want to lower our wages, but we don't have to pile on top of the wages the full cost of our health and welfare and Social Security and social programs. We ought to be encouraging employment and small business and discouraging pollution instead of the other around, and we ought to use some of that revenue to help the poor with the adjustments that are coming forward.

The third suggestion. I'm in favor of cap-and-trade as part of the freeze -- very strongly in favor of it. And I've supported Kyoto, but I understand the realities of the situation. And I think the new president who takes office in January of 2009 should take office at a time when our country has a bipartisan commitment to de facto compliance with Kyoto, and then I think we should move the starting date of the next treaty period -- now due to begin in 2012 -- forward two years to 2010. And we ought to start a sprint to negotiate and ratify a new tougher treaty that starts in 2010.


And we need to find a creative way to get China and India involved sooner rather than later. That's a tough challenge, and an important one for many reasons, not least because China's emission will be larger than those of the United States in another couple of years. And it has to be a negotiation. ...

Third [sic], I believe that we ought to have a moratorium on any new coal plants that are not fixed with carbon capture and sequestration technology. It is simply irresponsible to go forward without carbon capture and sequestration.

Fifth, I believe that this Congress, this Senate should fix a date in the future beyond which incandescent light bulbs are banned. And there may be some other technologies that fall in that category. Give the industry time to make sure all the sockets are worked out and all the dimmers and all the things that people want, but then tell them by date certain you're going to have to sell this other kind, and they'll do it. They'll make money at it. It's like WalMart. WalMart's not taken on the climate crisis simply out of the goodness of their heart. They care about it, but they're making money at it. And if we set the standards, our economy will work for us.


Sixth, the creative power of the information revolution was unlocked by the Internet, and when the scientific and engineering pioneers came up with Arbinet, and this Senate empowered them with the legislative framework and research and development funds, all of a sudden people just developed it amazingly.

We ought to have an Electranet, and we ought to encourage widely distributed power generation by homeowners, by small business owners, and here's the key: you ought to take off the cap. Let them sell as much as they want to into the grid.

And remember that the flip side of a monopoly is the monopsony, the tyranny of the single buyer. Don't let the utility in each area decide how much they're going to pay homeowners and business people for selling the electricity. Set the rate the way the public utility commission does now. Have a tariff that reflects the market price.


You may never have to build another central generation power plant. You watch. You give them the ability -- individuals out there, families, small businesses -- they're going to go to town with this on Electranet.

Then I think we ought to raise the CAFE standards for auto efficiency. I do think it ought to be part of a comprehensive solution. Don't single out autos as the main culprit. It is part of it, and it's a significant part of it, and so we ought to raise CAFE standards as part of a larger package.

Next, I would propose that you pass a Carbon Neutral Mortgage Association, or a Connie Mae, and here's why. The buyers of new homes and homebuilders and sellers of new homes are all focused on the purchase price. The market clears it. It's a very sensitive number. But the expenditures that go into more insulation and window treatments and the expenditures that don't pay back immediately -- but they pay back over two or three years in lower energy bills -- are not used because they raise the purchase price. ...

You ought to also -- and I will respectfully recommend; and this is my last recommendation -- require corporate disclosure of carbon emissions. Investors have a right to know about material risks that could affect the future value of the stocks that they purchase. ...


We can become more efficient and more productive. We can create more jobs and lift our standards of living, and in the process we can save the habitability of this planet and tell that future generation that we were up to the challenge, and we did what some thought was impossible. We did it on a bipartisan basis. And in the process we gained the vision and moral authority in our generation to take on these other challenges that also need our attention.

Thank you.

Editor's note:With the end of Gore's testimony, the ranking member of the committee, Sen. James Inhofe, R-Okla., a leading global warming skeptic, questioned the former vice president. Also speaking is the chairwoman of the committee, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

INHOFE: First of all, yes or no, do you believe that human-caused global warming is a moral, ethical and spiritual issue affecting our survival?


GORE: Yes, I do.

INHOFE: Yes or no, do you believe that reducing fossil fuel based energy usage will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions?

GORE: It depends on what the substitutes are, but basically yes. I think that we can capture and sequester the carbon and continue using carbon based...

INHOFE: Very good. And yes or no, do you believe that home energy use is a key component -- not the only component, but a key component -- to overall energy use?


GORE: I believe that buildings as well as cars and trucks and factories are definitely a part of the problem. Yes.

INHOFE: All right. Now, I'd like to put up a little pledge thing here. I'm going to ask you if you would like to commit here today. Do you know how many hundreds of thousands of fans you have out there that would like to follow your lead? This pledge merely says, if you can read it up there, that you're agreeing to consume no more energy in your residence than the average American household by one year from today -- not right now. You've got a whole year to do this.

Now, the one thing I'd like to have you not use in response to this question, which is a yes or no question, is the various gimmicks ... the offsets and the credits that are gimmicks used by the wealthy so they don't have to change their lifestyles. ...

GORE: Well, first of all, Senator, thank you so much for your question. ... You know, one of the other recommendations that I would have is that you also set standards for green energy produced by utilities. And one reason I say that in response to what you're saying here is that that's what we purchase. And we pay more for it because it's still relatively uncommon.

INHOFE: Senator Gore...

GORE: If I could just...

INHOFE: Well, you can't.

BOXER: If you could allow -- you've asked the senator an important question. He's answering it. Give him the...

INHOFE: All right, could we stop the clock during this time then?

BOXER: No, I'm not going to stop the clock. He has a minute to answer. How can you ask a question and not give the man a minute to answer? Please.

GORE: We purchase wind energy and other green energy that does not produce carbon dioxide, and that does cost a little more now, and that is one of the reasons why it costs a little more. We're also in the process of renovating an old home...

INHOFE: OK. Senator Gore...


GORE: Could I make one other point? Because a lot of communities actually have laws preventing the installation of solar photable tags...

INHOFE: So I assume the answer is no. Let's go to the next question.

GORE: And if I could continue. I don't believe that there should be a federal provision that overrides any local restrictions on...

INHOFE: All right. Senator Gore, I'm very sorry. I don't want to be rude, but from now I'm going to ask you to respond for the record in writing, since you're not going to respond -- if you change your mind.

GORE: If I choose to respond to you verbally here, I hope that will be OK, too.

INHOFE: If it's a very brief response. All right. I'm sure you read the New York Times article that quoted the scientists. I mentioned this in my opening statement about their criticizing you for some of your being too alarmist and hurting your own cause. Now I'll ask you to respond in writing for that one, because that would be a very long response, I'm afraid.

It seems that everybody on global warming in the media...


BOXER: Senator Inhofe, we'll freeze...

INHOFE: I'm asking...

BOXER: We'll freeze the time for a minute. I'm just trying to make...

INHOFE: Oh, yes. Take your time. We're freezing the time.

BOXER: We're freezing the time just for a minute. I want to talk to you a minute, please. Would you agree to let the vice president answer your questions? And then if you want an extra few minutes at the end, I'm happy to give it to you. But we're not going to get anywhere.

INHOFE: Why don't we do this? Why don't we do this? At the end you can have as much time as you want to answer all of the questions.

BOXER: No, that isn't the rule. You're not making the rules. You used to when you did this. You don't do this anymore.


Elections have consequences, so I make the rules. But here's the thing. I want you to get your questions answered. I promise you to give you an additional three minutes of time, but if you will allow the chair -- if I believe the vice president is wandering into another area, I will just say that quietly, and he will, I know, move on. He knows the rules here. ...

INHOFE: All right. Now, it seems that everything is blamed on global warming. You talked about the fires in Oklahoma. Last summer we had a heat wave, and everyone said, "Oh, that's proof. It's global warming." And then we had a mild December. "Oh, that's proof that it's global warming that's taking place." Now I wonder how come you guys never seem to notice it when it gets cold? If you put up chart number two, there.

This is for your benefit, Senator Clinton. This is Buffalo, New York.

I have in my hand here the document from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. They set records all over America in January: 183 cold records -- 183 of them -- this is a new record -- all over America. That was all in one month. And I would just have to say that in our state in Oklahoma we had three days that were the coldest days in history. Where is global warming when you really need it? ...

[W]e've got thousands of meteorologists, geologists, physicists, astrophysicists, climatologists, scientists who disagree with you. Are they all wrong, and you're right?


GORE: The National Academy of Sciences here in this country and in the 16 largest or most developed countries in the world -- the ones that have respected large national academies of science -- all of them unanimously have expressed agreement with the consensus that I stated to you. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that has had its fourth unanimous report in 15 years agrees with the consensus that I stated to you.

INHOFE: Sir, my time is almost expired completely. Are you aware of that?

GORE: If I could complete my answer...

INHOFE: Well, if you do, my time is expired. Are you aware of that? Do you care?

GORE: Well, I can't help that because you went on for a long time, but I would like to...

INHOFE: No, I had 15 minutes. You, sir, had 30 minutes. I had 15. You've got to let me have my 15 minutes, Senator Gore.

GORE: If I could just...

INHOFE: I could respond to what you said...

GORE: ... complete my response...

INHOFE: Well, you've already done it. The National Academy of Sciences...


BOXER: Senator, Senator, I will stop the clock and allow Senator Gore to complete, please. And then we'll go back to you.

INHOFE: Thank you.

BOXER: OK. Go ahead.

GORE: I'll just give you one other example. The University of California did a very well respected, well picked over, peer-reviewed study. The team was led by Professor Naomi Oreskes. They reviewed every single peer-reviewed scientific journal article for the previous 10 years on this topic. They took a very large sample of almost 10 percent of them -- 928. About 25 percent of the articles didn't deal with the central point of the consensus -- some arcane matter -- but of those that dealt with the main consensus, the number that disagreed with the consensus was zero. This is a very well established and very strong scientific consensus, and it's not me saying it. It's what the scientific community is saying.

INHOFE: OK. My response to that is that first of all, every scientist that I named up here is a member of the National Academy of Sciences. They disagree with you. They disagree with that statement. But the National Academy of Sciences back in 1975 had a very interesting observation. They said, however, asserting "a finite possibility that a serious worldwide cooling could befall the earth within the next 100 years" -- exactly what they're saying now, except at that time it was not.

GORE: Could I comment on that?

INHOFE: No. With all respect, Senator Gore, we can't do that.

Salon Staff

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