The Moment of Truth
by: Al Gore 9 April 2006
(Vanity Fair) - Clichés are, by definition, over used. But here is a rare exception - a certifiable cliché that warrants more exposure, because it carries meaning deeply relevant to the biggest challenge our civilization has ever confronted.
The Chinese expression for "crisis" consists of two characters: 危機. The first is a symbol for "danger"; the second is a symbol for "opportunity."
The rapid accumulation of global-warming pollution in the Earth's atmosphere is now confronting human civilization with a crisis like no other we have ever encountered. This climate crisis is, indeed, extremely dangerous, but it also presents unprecedented opportunities.
Before we can get to the opportunities, however, it is crucial to define the danger, and to discuss how it is that we in the United States seem to be having such difficulty perceiving that danger.
The climate crisis may at times appear to be happening slowly, but in fact it is a true planetary emergency. The voluminous evidence suggests strongly that, unless we act boldly and quickly to deal with the causes of global warming, our world will likely experience a string of catastrophes, including deadlier Hurricane Katrinas in both the Atlantic and Pacific.
We are melting virtually all of the mountain glaciers in the world - including those in the Rockies, the Sierras, the Anders, and the Alps - and, more ominously, the massive ice field on the roof of the world, on the enormous Tibetan Plateau, which has 100 times more ice than the Alps, and which supplies up to half of the drinking water of 40 percent of the world's people, through seven river systems that all originate there: the Indus, the Ganges, the Brahmaputra, the Salween, the Mekong, the Yangtze and the Yellow.
Even more important, we are rapidly melting the vast, but relatively thing, floating ice cap that covers the Arctic Ocean. For the first time, sceintists are finding significant numbers of polar bears that have died by drowning, as the distance from the shores of the Arctic to the edge of the ice cap has stretched in placees to 60 kilometers (37.02 miles) or more.
At present, the North Polar cap helps to cool the planet by relfecting the vast majority of the sunlight that hits the Arctic during six months of the year. It is like a gigantic mirror larger than the entire Unted States. But the growing areas of open water left as the ice cap melts are absorbing the vast majority of the energy coming from the Sun, raising temperatures at the top of our planet far more rapidly than anywhere else.
We are beginning to melt - and possibly de-stabilize - the eneormous, 10,000-foot-thick mound of ice on top of Greenland and the equally enormous mass of ice of West Antarctica, which is propped up precariously aginst the tops of islands, poised to slip into the sea. Either of these massive, land-based ice sheets would, if it melted or broke up and slid into the ocean, raise the sea level worldwide by more than 20 feet.
The largest ice mass of all on the planet - East Antarctica - was long thought to be still growing. Until two months ago, that is, when a new, in-depth scientific survey showed that it, too, may be beginning to melt.
Since the entire climate system of Earth is formed by the planetwide pattern of wind and ocean currents, which redistribute heat from the tropics to the poles, there is growing concern that the relatively stable pattern that has persisted for 11,000 years - since the last ice age and before the first appearance of citites - may now be on the verge of radical and disruptive changes. The Gulf Stream, the monsoon cycle in in the Indian Ocean, the El Niño/La Niña cycle in the Eastern Pacific, and the jet streams, among the other circulartory phenomena, are all at risk of being pushed into new and unfamiliar patterns.
Global warming, together with the cutting and burning of forests and the destruction of other critical habitats, is causing the loss of living species at a rate comparable to that of the extinction of dinosuars 65 million years ago. Most scientists theorize that that event, by the way, was caused by a giant asteriod colliding with the Earth. This time it is not an asteriod wreaking havoc; it is us. We are recklessly dumping so much carbon dioxide into the Earth's atmosphere that we have literally changed the relationship between the Earth and the Sun, altering the balance of energy between our planet and the rest of the universe, so the buildup of heat energy that should be re-radiated by the Earth is beginning to wilt, melt, dry out, and parch delicate components of the planet's living systems.
More than 70 percent of the planet's surface is covered by ocean, and a series of new, comprehensive studies show that the amount of CO2 being absorbed into the oceans is about one-third of what we have put into the environment with the burning of fossil fuels. As a result, the oceans of the world are becoming more acid, and the total amount of carbonic acid - even though it is a realtively weak acid - is beginning to change the mix of carbonate and bibcaronate ions in the oceans. This interferes with the ability of corals to form their calcium-carbonate skeletons, which constitute the base of many food chains in the oceans. Even more ominously, the amounts of carbonic acid we are continuing to sink into the oceans will, if we don't change the current reckless pattern, make it more difficult for many ocean creatures, large and tiny, to make shells, because the shells would instantly dissolve in the newly acid ocean water, the way chalk (also calcium carbonate) dissolves in vinegar. Continuing on our current path will return the oceans to chemical pH balance that last existed 300 million years ago - when the Earth was a very different planet from the one that gave birth to and nurtured the human species.
All of this, incredibly, could be set in motion in the lifetime of the children already living - unless we act boldly and quickly. Even more incredibly, some of the leading scientific exprets are now telling us that without dramatic changes we are in grave danger of crossing a point of no return within the next 10 years!
So the message is unmistakable. This crisis means danger!
But in order to move through the danger to seize the opportunity, we have first to recognize that we are in fact facing a crisis. So why is it that our leaders seem not to hear such clarion warnings? Are they resisiting the truth because they know that the moment they acknowledge it they will face a moral imperative to act? Is it simply more convenient to ignore the warnings?
Perhaps, but inconvenient truths do not go away just because they are not seen. Indeed, when they are not reponded to, their significance doesn't diminish; it grows.
For example, the administration was warned on August 6, 2001, of an attack by al-Qaeda, "Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US," said the intelligence community in a message so important that it was the headline of the president's daily briefing that day, five weeks before the attacks of September 11. Didn't he see that clear warning? Why were no questions asked, meetings called, evidence marshaled, clarifications sought?
The Bible says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."
Four Augusts later, as Hurricane Katrina was roaring across the unusually warm water of the Gulf of Mexico and growing into a deadly monster that was less than two days away from slamming into New Orleans, the administration received another clear warning: the levees - which had been built to protect the city against smaller, less powerful hurricanes - were in grave danger. But once again an urgent warning was ignored. The videotapes of one session make clear that the president heard the warnings but, again, asked not a single question.
This not a partisan analysis. A recent report by Republicans in the House of Representatives called the White House reaction a "blinding lack of situational awareness." Repbulican representative Tom Davis, of Virginia, the chairman of the House Committee on Government Reform, which produced the report, added, "The White House failed to act on the massive amounts of information at its disposal." Coupled with "disjointed decision making," the report continued, the president's failure to see the danger "needlessly compounded and prolonged Katrina's horror."
Where there is a blinding lack of situational awareness, the people perish.
Nearly 70 years ago, when a horrible and unprecedented storm of another kind was gathering in Europe, British prime minister Neville Chamberlain found it inconvenient to see the truth about the nature of the evil threat posed by the Nazis. In criticizing his government's blinding lack of awareness, Winston Churchill said, "So they go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resovled to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent." After the appeasement at Munich, Churchill said, "This is only the first sip, the first foretaste, of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year - unless by supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor we rise again and take our stand for freedom."
Then he warned prophetically that "the era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays, is coming to a close. In its place, we are entering a period of consequences."
Today, there are dire warnings that the worst catastrophe in the history of human civilization is bearing down on us, gathering strength as it comes. And these warnings have also been met with a blinding lack of awareness, by the Congress as well as by the administration.
After the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, many Americans now believe that we have entered a period of consequences - that Katrina, as horrible as it was, may have been the first sip of a bitter cup which will proffered to us over and over again until we act on the turth we have wished would go away. And they are beginning to demand that the administration open its eyes and look at the truth, no matter how inconvenient it might be fore all of us - not least for the special interests that want us to ignore global warming.
As Abraham Lincoln said during our time of greatest trial, "We must disenthrall ourselves, and then we shall save our country." America is beinning to awaken. And now we will save our planet.
So it is time for the good news: we can solve this crisis, and as we finally do accept the truth of our situation and turn to boldly face down the danger that is stalking us, we will find that it is also bringing us unprecedented opportunity.
I'm not referring just to new jobs and new profits, though there will be plenty of both. Today we have all the technologies we need to start the fight against global warming. We can build clean engines. We can harness the sun and wind. We can stop wasting energy. We can use the Earth's plentiful coal resources without heating the planet.
The procrastinators and deniers would have us believe that this will be painful and impossibly expensive. But in recent years dozens of companies have cut emissions of heat-trapping gases and saved money. Some of the world's largest companies are moving aggressively to capture the enormous economic opportunities in a clean-energy future.
But there's something far more precious than the economic gains that will be made. This crisis is bringing us an opportunity to experience what few generations in history ever have the privilege of knowing: a generational mission; the exhilaration of a compelling moral purpose; a shared and unifying cause; the thrill of being forced by circumstances to put aside the pettiness and conflict that so often stifle the restless human need for transcendence; the opportunity to rise.
When we do rise, it will fill our spirits and bind us together. Those who are now suffocating in cynicism and despair will be able to breathe freely. Those who are now suffering from a loss of meaning in their lives will find hope.
When we rise, we will experience an epiphany as we discover that this crisis is not really about politics at all. It is a moral and spiritual challenge.
What is at stake is the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth. Or as one eminent scientist put it, the pending question is whether an opposable thumb and a neocortex are a viable combination on this planet.
The new understanding we will gain - about who we really are - will give us the moral capacity to comprehend the true nature of other, related challenges that are also desperately in need of being defined as moral imperatives with practical solutions: H.I.V./AIDS and other pandemics that are ravaging large parts of humankind, global poverty, the ongoing redistribution of the world's wealth from the poor to the rich, the ongoing genocide in Darfur, famines in other parts of Africa, chronic civil wars, the destruction of ocean fisheries, families that don't function, communities that don't commune, the erosion of democracy in America, and the re-feudalization of the public forum.
Consider once again what happened during the crisis of global Fascism.
When England and then America and our allies ultimately did rise to meet the threat, we won two wars simultaneously, in Europe and in the Pacific. And by the end of those terrible wars, the Allies had gained the moral authority and vision to create the Marshall Plan - and persuade the taxpayers to pay for it!
They had gained the spiritual capacity and wisdom to rebuild Japan and Europe and launch the renewal of the very nations they had just defeated in the war. In the process, they laid the foundation for 50 years of peace and prosperity.
One of their commanders, General Omar Bradley, said at the end of World War II, "It is time we steered by the stars and not by the lights of each passing ship."
And now so must we. For this, too, is a critical moment. Ultimately, it is not about any scientific discussion or political dialogue; it is about who we are as human beings. It is about our capacity to transcend our limitations, to rise to this new occasion. To see with our hearts, as well as our heads, the response that is now called for. This is a moral, ethical, and spiritual challenge.
Just as we can no longer ignore this challenge, neither should we fear it. Instead, we should welcome it. Both the danger and the opportunity. And then we will meet it because we must.
We have accepted and met other great challenges in the past. We declared our liberty and then won it. We designed a new form of government. We freed the slaves. We gave women the right to vote. We took on Jim Crow and segregation. We cured polio and helped eradicate smallpox, we landed on the moon, we brought down Communism, and we helped end apartheid.
We even solved a global environmental crisis - the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer - because Republicans and Democrats, rich nations and poor nations, businessmen and scientists, all came together to shape a solution.
And now we face a crisis with unprecedented danger that also presents an opportunity like no other. As we rise to meet this historic challenge, it promises us prosperity, common purpose, and the renewal of our moral authority.
We should not wait. We cannot wait. We must not wait.
The only thing missing is political will. But in our democracy, political will is a renewable resource.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Vanity Fair magazine