On Friday night I went to see Al Gore at Radio City Music Hall. The former Vice President walked onto the stage to thunderous applause and a fan shouted, "You rock Al!" (Although, I'm an obsessive Gore fan- that wasn't me). Al has been keeping himself busy with Current TV, serving as a partner of Kleiner Perkins Caufield and Byers, on the board of Apple Inc., consulting for Google, working on a new slideshow, and even teaching at Middle Tennessee State University. Over the three days prior to the lecture, he had been in New York City meeting with venture capitalists in the clean tech field. Gore's delivery has been improving over the years—he's now pretty funny. He began by working the crowd with recycled snippets s from graduations/other speeches. A loyal audience ate it up. "I used to be the next President of the United States; I used to fly on Air Force 2, now I have to take off my shoes like the rest of you." He also relayed a story that got blown up and bungled in the media a couple of years ago, about how he and Tipper were opening a restaurant called Shoney's in Tennessee, when in actuality they were only patrons of the restaurant chain. Well . . . you had to be there.
Of course, Al turned serious soon enough, stressing this extraordinary moment in time and our unique current relationship with planet earth. He launched into statistics many of us are familiar with: today, the world's population is more than 6.6 billion. The majority of people now live in cities. So there are big changes that need to be made for the long run, but there is still, or more acutely now, a problem of short term thinking. "We are managing planet earth like a business in liquidation," Gore said, "when we need to be planning for the long term. We can't escape to another planet if we couldn't evacuate New Orleans."
Why, he challenged the audience, are we not leaders in these crises? He referred to how "the Greatest Generation" simultaneously fought two wars in Europe and the Pacific, and then created the World Bank and the UN. (This point in Gore's lecture reminded me of what E.O. Wilson had to say last week at Town Hall). "The greatest generation" was not isolationist, he reminded us. They thought about the Big Picture, wisely and morally. Our moral authority, for Gore, has depreciated since those days. Darfur, the extinction of fisheries—these are moral imperatives disguised as political problems. We need to see them in their true light and respond effectively.
Gore became impassioned as he talked about how, instead of leading, the U.S. blocked leadership in Bali regarding climate change. A twenty-year old delegate from Papua New Guinea famously addressed the U.S. delegation with, "If for some reason you are not willing to lead, leave it to the rest of us," he said. "Please, get out of the way." And the rest of the world's representatives cheered. Our delegation finally effectively said, "Ok, we'll get out of way." A shameful episode in U.S. history, whose retelling nearly brought Gore to tears.
Gore thinks that, if we take action, China and India will join the U.S. in confronting the environmental crisis. Japan and Germany, he said, are already there. But we need to stop borrowing money from China to buy oil from Saudi Arabia.
China depends on drinking water from melted Himalayan glacial ice, and air pollution in Beijing is an issue for the Olympic Games. So China has built in incentives to start thinking more environmentally. With added global pressure, Gore stated, China could be brought into being a part of the solution to the crisis. And they already have better auto standards and tree-planting efforts than we do.
Al also addressed the pathetic state of a media obsessed with stories about Paris Hilton and "KFed," saying the media needs to remember that they are providing a public service, and are not just a business. The same number of questions in the 2008 election have been asked about UFO sightings as about climate change.
He urged the audience not to vote a particular way, but to act a certain way, and to respect the sun, waves, and water for the renewable resources they are. We just need political will, he said, and that itself is a renewable resource.
In the Q&A; period Gore was asked, "You have given a variation of this speech so many times, but what will it take to change things, and to avoid an environmental 9/11?"
Al responded that we are already experiencing environmental catastrophes: the flooding of New Orleans, the disappearance of the polar ice caps, and world wide droughts, to name a few. But the message isn't sinking in enough because we cannot rely on cataclysmic events to induce action; this is dangerous because of lag times. We fear things that evoke immediate visceral reactions, but do not experience the same fear when confronted with long term dangers. When enough of us connect the dots to realize the long term danger of climate change, we will not have to rely on visceral fear to make smart choices.
A hodgepodge of other issues came up during the Q&A;: Gore opposes the idea of a Gas Tax Holiday. He reminded us that while in office he advocated a carbon tax. And, had we stuck with the solar efforts started in the 1970's during the oil crisis, he said, we would not be in the situation we are now. Solar energy, a longtime passion for Gore, can, he said, supply all our energy needs if we can figure out how to properly recover it. Buried transmission lines can bring energy from areas with abundant sunshine to the areas that need energy the most. The results would be less debt, and fuel that would eventually be free.
Finally, Gore acknowledged that he is an uncommitted superdelegate, and, despite pressure from the moderator, refused to endorse a presidential candidate, beyond saying that any of the three would be better than Bush. At which point, the audience clamored for Al to enter the race. But he stated emphatically that he has no plans to be a candidate again. Oh well.