Global warming is no longer a scientific issue, but a moral issue that mankind must confront now or face devastating consequences, former Vice President Al Gore said last night.
Gore compared the dangers of climate change with Nazi Germany’s threat to Europe in the 1930s, likening those who ignore the threat of global warming to former British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain, who attempted to stay Adolf Hitler’s aggression by appeasing his territorial ambitions. Quoting Winston Churchill, he said procrastination is no longer viable and that humanity is entering a “period of consequences.”
One of those consequences, he said, is the recent spate of devastating hurricanes, which he attributed to a rise in ocean temperatures caused by global warming. This year’s storm season has been one of the worst in recorded history, with a record-tying 12 hurricanes, including Wilma, the strongest Atlantic storm ever observed by one measure of storm intensity.
Speaking at the Power Center for the Performing Arts at the invitation of the School of Natural Resources, Gore conceded that there is no established link between the frequency of hurricanes and global warming but said the higher intensity of recent storms is a result of warming – and that disasters like Katrina will serve as a wakeup call.
“Something happened to the way we think about global warming when Hurricane Katrina drowned New Orleans,” he said.
Beyond disastrous weather, Gore pointed to major changes to the Earth’s geography – changes that, as the United Kingdom’s chief scientific advisor noted last year, could redraw world maps – as the next major threat of global warming.
Using photos and illustrations, as well as past examples of rapidly melting glaciers, Gore argued that the glacier covering Greenland is in real danger of melting and raising ocean levels by seven meters, which would displace dozens of millions of people by placing coastal areas like Beijing, Shanghai, the San Francisco Bay, Calcutta and much of southern Florida below sea level.
Gore rebutted those who present human-induced global warming as a theory debated among scientists. He said the scientific community is in virtual unanimity on the issue and that those who argue otherwise – like tobacco executives who years ago tried to sow doubt about the negative health effects of cigarettes – are motivated by a desire to prevent government regulation of industry.
But will he run?
Even with a crowd composed largely of scholars and students of the environment, the question of Gore’s presidential ambitions hung over the event. Gore, who lodged an unsuccessful bid for president five years ago, recently said he has no plans to run again in 2008 – but he would not rule out a candidacy. His speech often seemed to reflect this ambiguity.
The slideshow-enhanced address was punctuated by applause lines more typical of a stump speech than an academic lecture: After mentioning former President Clinton, Gore added in an aside, “I thought he and I did a pretty good job on the environment and the economy,” prompting hearty cheers from the crowd.
The tension between Gore the politician and Gore the environmental activist was even more apparent on two occasions when the former vice president approached sensitive political issues.
When be brought up a graph showing human population growth over the past 100,000 years or so, Gore at first made light of recent debates over the origins of human life: “You don’t have any new laws here I should know about?” he quipped before labeling the point at the beginning of the graph “Adam and Eve,” provoking laughter. But then Gore adopted a more prudent tone, adding, “In all seriousness, I really do not see any conflict between my religious faith and sound science.”
Later in the presentation, when discussing automotive fuel economy standards, Gore – speaking at a venue about an hour from Detroit, and in the midst of some of the worst months in the history of the American auto industry – seemed to pull some of his punches. “Forgive me if this is a sensitive topic,” Gore said before producing a chart that showed American fuel economy standards far below those of the European Union, China, Japan, Australia and Canada.
While noting efforts by the American auto industry to block California legislation that would bring the state’s emissions standards closer to China’s, Gore was quick to add that he doesn’t own a foreign car: “I’m loyal to GM and Ford and the United Auto Workers,” he said. “I just want them to make more stuff that’s good for the environment.”
Audience members, many of whom were affiliated with SNRE, came away impressed with the presentation and speculating about a presidential run.
Ty Brookhart, a graduate student in SNRE who describes himself as “middle-of-the-road” politically but passionate about the environment, said he had come to hear about climate change but left thinking about Gore’s presidential prospects.
“If I could write him a letter encouraging him to run, I would,” Brookhart said.