Speaking before a joint hearing of two House panels on March 21, Al Gore likened the fight against "the climate crisis" to the battle waged against overwhelming odds by a band of Spartan warriors at Thermopylae in 480 B.C., dramatized in the new movie 300. "This Congress is now the '535,'" said the former vice president, facing "a true planetary emergency." He urged U.S. legislators to find "uncommon moral courage" and "redeem the promise of American democracy." That way, they can tell future generations, "This was our Thermopylae."
Gore's testimony at twin House and Senate hearings the same day was long on metaphors. He mentioned the trials overcome by America's "greatest generation," drew parallels to the Cold War and the Marshall Plan, and fired off soundbites like "Nature is on the run" and "The planet has a fever." "If your baby has a fever," Gore quipped, "you go to the doctor. If the doctor says, 'You need to intervene here,' you don't say, 'Well, I read a science fiction novel that tells me it's not a problem.' If the crib's on fire, you don't speculate that the baby is flame-retardant. You take action."
His noisiest Senate foe was James Inhofe, an Oklahoma Republican who has called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." Inhofe showed a frame from Gore's Oscar-winning film, An Inconvenient Truth, which asks viewers: "Are you ready to change the way you live?" He then challenged Gore to take a "Personal Energy Ethics Pledge" to "consume no more energy for use in [his] residence than the average American household by March 21, 2008." And please don't mention "offsets" or any other "gimmicks" used by the wealthy, Inhofe added.
Gore dodged. "We do not contribute to the problem," he insisted, arguing that his family--whose massive energy consumption recently made headlines--purchases "wind energy" and other "green energy" to ensure their lifestyle is "carbon neutral." Inhofe frequently interrupted Gore, and was himself interrupted by Democratic committee chairman Barbara Boxer of California, who reminded Inhofe that he no longer holds the gavel. "Elections have consequences," Boxer snapped, prompting applause.
Indeed they do. And one consequence of the 2006 election is that Democrats are now better positioned to pass legislation curbing carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi aims to do so this year, and the resistance from Republicans is slowly weakening. Despite all the criticism of his "hypocrisy" and his trademark hyperbole, Gore has won the first part of the debate, at least for now: Even many of his critics agree that manmade CO2 emissions have played a significant role in the Earth's recent warming. That much was evident at the hearings. Gore boasts that the "scientific consensus" is firmly on his side.
But Gore's penchant for doomsday projections tugs him beyond the "consensus." His movie trots out the specter of sea levels rising by up to 20 feet and flooding cities such as Miami, San Francisco, and New York. As GOP congressman Joe Barton of Texas reminded Gore, the latest report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, predicts a sea level increase of between 7 and 23 inches by the end of this century (though earlier IPCC estimates were much higher).
Gore has warned that global warming could lead to "killer heat waves." But Danish statistician Bjørn Lomborg, who testified before the House panel right after Gore, noted that any increase in heat-related deaths must be balanced against the corresponding decrease in cold-related deaths. For the United States, Lomborg said in his written testimony, "the net lower death count from global warming in 2050 is estimated at 174,000 per year." Lomborg also chastised Gore for overstating the (still unsettled) linkage between climate change and hurricane activity, and for doing the same with malaria.
"He has got carried away and come to show only worst-case scenarios," said Lomborg. Other experts concur. "Part of [Gore's] scientific audience is uneasy," the New York Times reported in mid-March. "In talks, articles, and blog entries that have appeared since his film and accompanying book came out last year, these scientists argue that some of Mr. Gore's central points are exaggerated and erroneous. They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism."
In his movie, Gore claims that "we have just ten years to avert a major catastrophe" related to global warming. Ten years from 2006, when the film premiered, is 2016. The Kyoto Protocol, which the Bush administration famously rejected, expires in 2012. "I'm in favor of Kyoto," Gore said. "We should work toward de facto compliance" and toward a new, "tougher" CO2 treaty by 2010.
But what about China and India? Though among the world's biggest CO2 polluters, they and other developing countries are exempted from Kyoto. In a report released last November, the International Energy Agency (IEA) predicted that China, which is building new coal plants at a furious pace, will eclipse America as the largest emitter of CO2 "before 2010."
Lomborg made clear how little Kyoto would accomplish, and at tremendous cost: "Even if it had been successfully adopted by all signatories (including the U.S. and Australia), and even if it had been adhered to throughout the century," Kyoto "would have postponed warming by just 5 years in 2100 at a cost of $180 billion annually." So why should the United States embrace a Kyoto-style straitjacket, for so little gain, if China, soon to be the planet's worst CO2 polluter, doesn't? Gore said America needed to display leadership.
His other proposals for U.S. lawmakers included an immediate "freeze" on CO2 emissions accompanied by a CO2 cap-and-trade regime; a CO2 tax; a moratorium on construction of new coal plants without carbon capture and sequestration technology; a ban on the incandescent light bulb; an "electranet" to enable the buying and selling of power generation; stricter automobile fuel economy standards; a "carbon-neutral mortgage association"; and more complete corporate disclosure of CO2 emissions.
A careful calculation of the potential costs and benefits of these measures stands in jarring contrast to Gore's life-and-death urgency. Climate economist David Montgomery, a vice president at the consulting firm CRA International, testified recently before the House Ways and Means Committee that "previous studies" of emission-capping proposals by him and his colleagues showed annual losses to the U.S. economy ranging "from 0.3 percent to about 1.9 percent of GDP in 2020." How much would such regulations aid the fight against climate change? "Even if all industrial countries" met the Kyoto targets, argued Montgomery, it "would not be sufficient to prevent most of the temperature increases now projected for the next century."
In a similar vein, Kevin Trenberth, chief of the Climate Analysis Section at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, testified before the House earlier this year in support of mitigation actions, but put them in perspective. "The 2007 IPCC report makes clear that even aggressive mitigation would yield benefits many decades in the future, and that no amount of mitigation can avoid significant climate change," said Trenberth. "The inertia of the climate system and the long life of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere mean that we are already committed to a significant level of climate change." Thus, "we should adapt to climate change by planning for it and making better predictions of likely outcomes on several time horizons."
With reference to planning for the future, Gore conceded that nuclear energy might be "part of the solution" (though only "a small part"). "I'm not a reflexive opponent of nuclear," he told GOP senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia. The Energy Department has projected that U.S. electricity consumption will jump nearly 50 percent by 2030. As former New Jersey governor Christine Todd Whitman, a pro-nuclear green Republican, points out, "Renewables and conservation aren't gonna get us there." Nuclear power is a low-carbon alternative to coal, and can deliver far greater capacity than solar or wind.
Then again, nuclear energy presents a raft of safety, proliferation, and cost concerns. But as Gore himself emphasized last week, there are no free-lunch solutions to this particular planetary emergency.
Duncan Currie is a reporter at THE WEEKLY STANDARD.