“What in the Hell Do They Think Is Causing It?’

Al Gore talks about global warming, those e-mails, and his new book.

If Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth raised awareness about global warming by frightening people, he hopes his latest book, Our Choice, will help people find solutions to the problem. He talked about those solutions with President Obama yesterday in advance of Obama’s trip to the world climate-change meeting in Copenhagen. He was coy about their conversation but did talk about his book, the nature of the climate change debate, and the controversy surrounding those e-mails disclosed from the Climate Research Unit (CRU) at the University of East Anglia.

Question: Can something as complicated as climate change be tackled in the current calcified political system?

Answer: Sclerotic may be more accurate than calcified but either would do. The role of campaign contributions in our political system and the role of lobbyists have now reached levels that are quite unhealthy for the operations of our democracy. But the antidote, as in past eras of lobbyist excess, is for more involvement by citizens to build pressure on members of the House and Senate to serve the public interest. The House of Representatives has risen impressively to this challenge. The Senate’s rules and traditions have made it a tougher case. And yet the public pressure is building and I am optimistic that this climate-change legislation will pass the Senate. Sponsors say they have 60 votes, but we’ll see when the roll is called.

Q: Given the state of the economy, if people hear their energy bills are going up, isn’t that going to make them oppose any change?

A: If you want your energy bills to go up, you should support an ever greater dependence on foreign oil, because the rate of new discoveries is declining as demand in China and India is growing, and the price of oil and thus the price of coal will go sky high. That is the formula for increasing energy bills. Secondly, the sooner we switch away from carbon-based fuel and start relying on renewable energy sources available in the United States, the sooner we will grow our economy by creating the millions of new jobs that will come from retrofitting homes and businesses, building smart grids, renewable energy systems and planting trees and all the rest. We need to create a lot of jobs that can’t be outsourced.

Q: How damaging to your argument was the disclosure of e-mails from the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University?

A: To paraphrase Shakespeare, it’s sound and fury signifying nothing. I haven’t read all the e-mails, but the most recent one is more than 10 years old. * These private exchanges between these scientists do not in any way cause any question about the scientific consensus. But the noise machine built by the climate deniers often seizes on what they can blow out of proportion, so they’ve thought this is a bigger deal than it is.

Q: There is a sense in these e-mails, though, that data was hidden and hoarded, which is the opposite of the case you make [in your book] about having an open and fair debate.

A: I think it’s been taken wildly out of context. The discussion you’re referring to was about two papers that two of these scientists felt shouldn’t be accepted as part of the IPCC report. Both of them, in fact, were included, referenced, and discussed. So an e-mail exchange more than 10 years ago * including somebody’s opinion that a particular study isn’t any good is one thing, but the fact that the study ended up being included and discussed anyway is a more powerful comment on what the result of the scientific process really is.

These people are examining what they can or should do to deal with the P.R. dimensions of this, but where the scientific consensus is concerned, it’s completely unchanged. What we’re seeing is a set of changes worldwide that just make this discussion over 10-year-old e-mails kind of silly. * The entire North Polar ice cap is disappearing before our very eyes. It’s been the size of the continental United States for the last 3 million years and now 40 percent is gone and the rest of it is going. The mountain glaciers are going. We’ve had record storms, droughts, fires, and floods. There is an air of unreality in debating these arcane points when the world is changing in such dramatic ways right in front of our eyes because of global warming.

Q: What’s your view on the medieval warm period and the charge that the East Anglia e-mails suggest data was manipulated to “ contain” that anomaly?

A: I haven’t read those e-mails in detail, but the larger point is that there are cyclical changes in the climate and they are fairly well-understood, and all of them are included in the scientific consensus. When you look at what has happened over the last few decades the natural fluctuations point in the opposite direction of what has actually occurred. When they run the models and plug in the man-made pollution, the correspondence is exact. Beyond that, the scale of natural fluctuations has now been far exceeded by the impact of man-made global warming.

And again, we’re putting 90 million tons of it into the air today and we’ll put a little more of that up there tomorrow. The physical relationship between CO2 molecules and the atmosphere and the trapping of heat is as well-established as gravity, for God’s sakes. It’s not some mystery. One hundred and fifty years ago this year, John Tyndall discovered CO2 traps heat, and that was the same year the first oil well was drilled in Pennsylvania. The oil industry has outpaced the building of a public consensus of the implications of climate science.

But the basic facts are incontrovertible. What do they think happens when we put 90 million tons up there every day? Is there some magic wand they can wave on it and presto!—physics is overturned and carbon dioxide doesn’t trap heat anymore? And when we see all these things happening on the Earth itself, what in the hell do they think is causing it? The scientists have long held that the evidence in their considered word is “unequivocal,” which has been endorsed by every national academy of science in every major country in the entire world.

If the people that believed the moon landing was staged on a movie lot had access to unlimited money from large carbon polluters or some other special interest who wanted to confuse people into thinking that the moon landing didn’t take place, I’m sure we’d have a robust debate about it right now.

Q: Is that where the poles in this debate are? Is there a skeptic or critic about whom you would say, I can have an open and honest debate with this person about the facts of the case?

A: There are skeptics who do not come to their view because they have a source of income from carbon polluters. I don’t mean to imply that they’re all in that category at all. There are also those who are also not motivated by ideological resistance for any role of government. But I don’t know of any arguments or any presenters of arguments that overturn the consensus that I think have gained any legitimacy.

I’m not a scientist, so I’m not the best witness, but I have followed the debate for 40 years. It was a somewhat harder case to make 30-40 years ago, but it was still clear. So many of the details have been filled in now, it’s very hard to find a respectable argument contrary to the consensus on the main points about global warming. Some people don’t want to hear that, but it’s a fact.

Q: Why does the Copenhagen meeting matter?

A: We face the gravest threat that civilization has ever confronted. It’s global in nature and requires a global solution. Increased CO2 emissions anywhere, whether from China or the United States or from one of the countries that is burning its forests like Brazil or Indonesia—from wherever the emissions come, they have the same effect: They trap much more heat from the sun, melt the ice, raise the sea level, cause stronger storms, floods, drought, bigger fires, generate millions of climate refugees, destabilize political systems, threaten the growing of food crops and cause a number of other catastrophic consequences which, taken together, threaten the basis for the future of human civilization on the Earth. Because these consequences are distributed globally, the problem masquerades as a distraction. Because the length of time between causes and consequences stretches out longer than we’re used to dealing with, it gives us the illusion that we have the luxury of time. Neither of those things is true. The crisis is a concrete threatening reality today. It stands to get catastrophically worse unless we take action before the accumulation [of] this global warming pollution reaches such toxic levels that the problem becomes bigger than we can solve.

We’re already at the point where it’s stretching our capacity to reach an agreement that will solve the problem, but it’s still within our capacity. There are abundant reasons for hope that we will act in time. If you look at the difference between today and 10 years ago, there is a global consensus. More than 70 leaders from nations are gathering at Copenhagen. Many nations have taken action and the world is waiting for the natural leader, the United States to move on this.

Q: Must climate change go through the Senate? Is there another route through the EPA, the courts and the states?

A: Yes, but it’s an imperfect alternative. Local and state governments have outrun the federal government. The EPA has served notice that it will enact a rule requiring CO2 reductions by major emitters in the absence of major legislation. But it’s a blunt instrument that is a little more difficult to use than a legislative remedy. But the existence of the EPA regulation will require large carbon polluters to look at their hole cards, and some of them have decided that they much prefer legislation.

Q: Do you think there will ever be a CO2 tax?

A: I think eventually we’ll use a CO2 tax offset by a reduction in taxes elsewhere alongside a cap-and-trade plan, but the degree of difficulty associated with a CO2 tax far exceeds that with a cap-and-trade plan. We’re seeing it’s hard to get a cap-and-trade plan and it’s much easier to use as a basis for a global agreement than a CO2 tax. There’s such a wide variation in tax systems around the world, it’s difficult to imagine a harmonized CO2 tax that every country agrees to. That’s not in the cards in the near term. But the countries that are doing the best job, like Sweden, are already doing both of these. I think that eventually we’ll use both of them but we need to get started right away and the cap-and-trade is a proven and effective tool.

Q: Vice Admiral Dennis McGinn has said that if you don’t like wars in the Middle East and you’re driving an SUV, you’re not walking the walk. He said driving an SUV is a national security statement. What’s your view?

A: I think it’s true, but even though it’s important for all of us to change our light bulbs and the vehicles we drive, it’s much more important to change our laws and policies. I drive a hybrid and we’ve changed our light bulbs and windows and installed solar panels and geothermal ground source heat pumps and most everything else. But putting the burden on individuals to solve this global crisis is ultimately not going to be the most effective way to solve it.

It’s an important point, and every little bit helps not least because those who make those kinds of changes are more likely to make their voices heard as citizens. But the ultimate solutions are going to come through policies. We need to put a price on carbon, and that’s what cap-and-trade does and that’s also what a CO2 tax does. As long as our current valuation in the marketplace tells us every minute of every day that it’s perfectly all right to dump 90 million tons of global warming into the thin atmosphere surrounding the planet every 24 hours as if that atmosphere is an open sewer, then the individual actions are not going to solve the problem.

Q: Your critics say that you have a lot of investments in green technology and say, “Isn’t he sounding the alarm here to make himself rich?”

A: That’s not my principal business. I’ve been fortunate over the last eight years to be successful in business. But most of my success has been in Internet and media companies, and yet my wife and I have made some investments in renewable energy ideas that I think are good ideas. If I didn’t [invest], I’d be accused by the same people of being a hypocrite and not being willing to put my money where my mouth was.

Q: What did you tell the president?

A: We talked about Copenhagen and the Senate legislation and we talked about the options available to the executive branch. The green stimulus bill made a big difference. The EPA action is alongside another EPA regulation which requires all large emitters of CO2 to account for their emissions and report them. The last time that was used as a tool, there was a scramble by companies to get off the list when it was published. He’s also brought about change in fuel efficiency.

Q: Did you give the president any advice on accepting the Nobel award?

A: I want to keep my conversation with him private.

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Update: In the interview, Al Gore said that the e-mails printed from researchers at the University of East Anglia were 10 years old. They are more recent than that, including many from 2009. In response, Gore has issued a statement: “The e-mail exchanges that I focused on are approximately 10 years old. Some of the e-mail exchanges cited by others are more recent. None of them change the scientific consensus in any way.”