As the world heats up, so does Al Gore. Every melting glacier, every catastrophic storm, every record-breaking hot spell is a planetary-scale endorsement of his belief that tackling global warming is the biggest challenge of our time. Gore may not have announced his candidacy for president – not yet, anyway – but he is already running one of the most aggressive campaigns in American history. His Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, brought the harsh facts of the climate crisis to millions of people around the world. He's in the midst of an intensive tour to promote his new book, The Assault on Reason, which savages the Bush administration for its deceitful war in Iraq, its illegal wiretapping and its reckless refusal to take action on climate change. And he's gearing up for Live Earth, the global rock concert he has orchestrated for July 7th.
Gore understands that confronting the climate crisis will require not just new kinds of technology but a new kind of politics. In a sense, he is following a path blazed by filmmaker Michael Moore, using his own presence and political outrage to focus public attention on a broader cause. In the two years since he wrote "The Time to Act Is Now," the introduction to the special issue on global warming we published in 2005, Gore has not only shifted the national debate on planet-warming pollution, he has found his true voice – at once reasoned and impassioned, urgent and optimistic. At the end of May, he sat down with Rolling Stone in his office in Washington, D.C., to discuss the threat posed by catastrophic climate change – and why he believes it's not too late to stop it.
The world's leading climate scientists – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – issued a report earlier this year that shows global warming is far more advanced than even the most dire predictions had led us to believe. Is there any one finding from the most recent wave of science that alarms you?
The degree of certainty the scientists are willing to assign to their conclusions has gone up. But what's more interesting to me than the IPCC report is the stream of evidence just in the last five months since that report. Many scientists are now uncharacteristically scared. The typical pattern in a dialogue between scientific experts and the general public, of which I'm a part, is for the scientists to say, "Well, what you've heard is a little oversimplified. It's a lot more textured than that, and you need to calm down a little bit." This situation is exactly the reverse. Those who are most expert in the science are way more concerned than the general public.
For the first time, we can see in the numbers that the rate of increase in global warming is accelerating. One of the studies that has come out since the IPCC report shows that the Arctic ice cap is melting three times faster than the models predicted. And in the Antarctic, near the South Pole, an area the size of California has melted – with temperatures up to forty-one degrees Fahrenheit for an extended period of time. That's really unexpected.
I spent most of a day at the Scripps Institute last week reviewing the evidence with a large group of scientists. The IPCC will typically have projections for three scenarios: low, moderate and severe. Almost all of the new results that are cascading in are hugging the top, severe scenario. Any rational person who immerses himself or herself in this evidence would say, "Oh, my God, we've got to act immediately and drastically. We have a planetary emergency."
Many climate scientists say, off the record, that they have grave doubts that we'll be able to slow global warming in time to stave off a planetwide catastrophe. James Lovelock, one of the world's most esteemed scientists, told us recently that he believes it is already too late to save ourselves by buying Priuses and changing light bulbs – that we need to begin preparing for life on a different planet. Do you agree with that?
I agree that we're not going to solve this problem by buying Priuses and changing our light bulbs. But driving hybrids and choosing better technology is still important in two respects. First, it makes a small contribution to reducing CO2. And second, when people make changes in their own lives, they are much more likely to become part of a critical mass of public opinion and to support the bigger policy changes that are going to be needed to really solve the problem.
Another part of Lovelock's analysis I agree with is that some degree of change in the planet's climate is now clearly unavoidable. Some is already beginning to take place, and a good deal more is programmed into the climate system because of the extra heat stored up in the oceans. That will play out in our lifetimes and beyond. So some degree of adaptation is sensible and necessary. But it's crucial that we not fool ourselves into thinking that we can adapt to this climate crisis. If we don't begin to sharply reduce CO2 emissions, then there would be no adaptation to the constant reshuffling of the climate deck – rainfall and storms and sea level and soil moisture and diseases and ice melting and all the rest. It would be a different planet from the one on which human beings evolved
So does that mean we need to start figuring out how to terraform Mars?
No. It's impertinent for me to disagree with such a distinguished scientist about anything in the scientific realm – James Lovelock has forgotten more than I will ever learn. But I think I may know one thing about politics that he doesn't know. And that is that the political system shares one thing in common with the climate system: They're both nonlinear. For those who look at the frustratingly slow pace of change that has characterized the last few decades on this issue, it is tempting to simply extrapolate that pace of change and conclude that we're not going to get there. But I think that we are closer than ever before to a genuine political tipping point beyond which the pace of change is going to accelerate very dramatically.
So despite the accelerating pace of changes that climate scientists are seeing, you're still optimistic?
Look, I will 'fess up to the element of "hope being father to the thought" here. But I don't think it's an unrealistic hope at all. I believe that it's much more likely than not that we will see within the next few years a very dramatic political change in most of the world, including in the United States, that will sharply reduce CO2. We're on the threshold of the kind of sweeping policy changes that we really need. If I didn't believe that, I wouldn't be doing what I'm doing.
What do you think will drive that change? Will it take another planetary-scale disaster like Hurricane Katrina? Or do you envision a more organic sort of awakening?
I think it's a combination of the two. More and more people are taking the time to learn about the science, and they are connecting the dots for themselves. When those dots are connected – when families and churches and synagogues and mosques and civic organizations and entire communities all start to focus on the evidence – then even evidence from Mother Nature that falls short of a Katrina-scale catastrophe reinforces the message. The heat wave last summer didn't reach the level of Katrina, but it led Pat Robertson to say, "I've changed my mind, global warming is real, we've got to sharply reduce fossil-fuel use." There will be no shortage of statements from Mother Nature. April was the hottest April in the history of Europe. The hottest winter in the world's history was December, January and February. The hottest year in America's history was 2006.
There is also a very deep emotional and spiritual component to this tipping point we're going to cross. The civil rights movement took off in the United States only when it was lifted out of the political framework and placed in a spiritual framework. Young people asked their parents, "You tell me to choose right over wrong, so explain to me why this guy Bull Connor is acceptable." When the adults couldn't answer, that's when the laws changed. Young people are now asking their parents and grandparents, "Please explain to me why what's going on with global warming isn't insane." A lot of adults can't answer. The revolution is beginning.
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