12 April 2008

Al Gore is Back

Wouldn't it have been nice to have had a reasonable human being with actual knowledge of the world around us as president these last seven years?

The presentation's a little rough (as Gore acknowledges at the beginning), but overall he's got a good message here -- we need to see climate change as our opportunity to do good in the world, not as some imposition on our liberties by a bunch of tree-hugging hippies. I personally think some of the imagery here was a bit off-message, like the time-lapse footage of development in Bolivia with the sound of chainsaws -- it seems like we're making a false dichotomy between economic development and environmentalism, which is clearly not the case, and plays into the hands of the global warming denialists. And that was clearly a focus of this presentation: that economic development and combating the climate problem can go hand-in-hand, i.e. through development of better energy sources and the like. I would have liked to see a bit more emphasis on things like nuclear energy -- I don't see how we're going to get out of this mess without some kind of investment in newer, cleaner, nuclear technologies.

But overall those are just quibbles. This is a wonderful speech, one made by a man who only seems to become more compelling as the years go past. One of my favorite moments in the speech was when he made the explicit comparison to the money spent on the Iraq War versus climate change, which I was thinking of earlier this morning before even watching this video. Libertarian blowhards like Bjorn Lomborg harp on about the economic costs of dealing with climate change, but where was that kind of sober analysis before we decided to spend three trillion dollars plus on a nonsensical war with a country that didn't threaten us in a nonexistent "global war on terror?" Surely if the lives of people around the world are subject to an economic cost/benefit analysis with regard to climate change, we should be able to make a similar analysis with regards to killing lots of brown people for no reason.

Of course, in the short-term sense it's easier for people to see that fighting climate change costs more money than the war, because the large firms that make the weapons and other technology that is used in Iraq get to make money by billing it to the government, which then passes the bill to future generations. What that means is that to pay for the war we're shortchanging our future infrastructure development (one of the things that government is unquestionably good at -- driven on an Interstate or used the internet lately?), whereas by battling climate change and investing in better technology and cleaner energy we'll be helping to build infrastructure on which our economy will rest for decades to come. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

Gore is also smart to separate the personal sacrifices that people make (i.e. using cleaner light bulbs) with the kinds of regulatory and social action that combats the larger problems of climate change. One of the problems of the modern-day environmental movement is a lack of perspective, i.e. the actions of a single person in recycling bottles or using cloth shopping bags instead of plastic really doesn't help much in dealing with global pollution, and tars the whole movement with a kind of nannyish scolding attitude towards people at large. Focusing on the future of development, on better technology that paves the road for the rest of the 21st century and beyond rather than browbeating people for personal choices that ultimately are much smaller in scope is a much better direction, and I'm glad that's the way Gore is framing this issue.

Ultimately, conservation isn't about making due with less, it's about doing what you do now more efficiently. When that's the image of conservation that's in people's heads, when that's the way people see environmental movements and regulations, the population will be a lot more supportive of the movement. What's more important, keeping a few bottles out of landfills or making sure the global infrastructure of the developed world isn't ravaged by climate change?

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