Friday, August 17, 2007

International: Al Gore, the failed prophet?

The science of global climate change first came to be discussed seriously in 1987. First it was met with skepticism, then real debate, and now widespread acceptance. Alas, 20 years on, it is breathtaking that we have made almost no tangible progress towards stopping the damage to our planet.

Perhaps I'm being too harsh. After all, a scientific consensus has been forged; the Kyoto treaty was ratified by some and put it into force; a few regional cap-and-trade markets have been launched; and there has been a lot of technical learning. This all adds up, yes. But when it comes to actually reducing our global emissions of greenhouse gases (GHG), or even slowing the rate of growth, our accomplishments are painfully modest.

We're just not getting it done.

With due respect to the engineers and economists, I don't believe the really tricky part about reducing emissions is going to be in the technical details. The hardest challenge is going to be in building the political will to pay the price of reducing emissions. Even with the best technological advances one can realistically hope for, it seems clear that we face real tradeoffs between economic growth and environmental sustainability. We have to make those choices wisely.

Al Gore was the first major US politician to recognize the importance of this issue, and in the last few years he is finally reaping some of the rewards for that far-sightedness. He deserves the credit, and I applaud him for his efforts. But Gore proved in 2000 that while brilliant, he is not the most gifted of communicators. I can't help feeling that there is an eerie similarity between him and another great political mind, Sir Edward Grey.

Sir Edward Grey was the British Foreign Secretary at the start of World War I. He held the position for 11 years, the longest continuous holder of the office ever. As the War approached, he was one of the few men who could see clearly the unfolding tragedy, and one of the most dedicated to peace. Yet that vision, even in a Foreign Secretary, did not translate into the ability to stop the war. Here's what Wikipedia says about him:

"His attempts to mediate the dispute between Austria-Hungary and Serbia by a "Stop in Belgrade" came to nothing due to the tepid German response. He also failed to clearly communicate to Germany that a breach of the treaty not merely to respect but to protect the neutrality of Belgium - of which both Britain and Germany were signatories - would cause Britain to declare war against Germany. When he finally did make such communication German forces were already massed at the Belgian border and the German High Command convinced Kaiser Wilhelm II it was too late to change the plan of attack."

When Grey finally got his message through, it was too late to stop the threat. Sound familiar?

I hope Al Gore is not the modern incarnation Grey. I hope that leaders will listen to his message. I hope that more gifted political entrepreneurs, especially in the US, will take up his mission and create an opening for real change. I hope that leaders in China and India start to see sustainability as a common goal to which they must contribute. I hope the public in the West gives support to politicians who propose meaningful environmental action.

Maybe Gore can get black and white results. But I fear Gore is just too much Grey.


Jessica Green said...

I have to respectfully disagree. Al Gore (along with a huge network of scientists, advocates, and even some governments), put climate change on the map. Ten years ago, the average American thought climate change and ozone depletion were one in the same. Now, it is common to hear mainstream discussions of carbon offsets. This represents a huge shift in public understanding and awareness about the problem.

Basic logic tells us you can't solve a problem until you know what it is. In this respect, Al Gore has been the catalyst for some very important progress.

Anonymous said...

Although I agree that progress has been slow, we are now at a turning point (at least in the West). As Jessica observes, the public is engaged and demanding action. In Canada, for instance, the environment now ranks above health care as the primary concern in public opinion polls. That means something, since as long as I have been following polls (more than a decade) health care has always been the number one issue. Al Gore's influence has been late, but I'm not ready to say too late just yet.