Laying Down the Gauntlet

Al Gore, perhaps inadvertently, gave the most important speech of his life in New York yesterday. He rose to answer the question, "What is to be done?" -- the question that his film An Inconvenient Truth raised for so many of those who saw it. What are the solutions? At New York University, I watched as he spoke to an enthralled audience. But even as he spoke, rumors swirled that the Bush Administration had decided to tweak its posture denial on global warming and lay down a new benchmark.

But today, Tuesday morning, it looks like Bush has backed away from plans to make some kind of new statement on global warming.

Really, it doesn't matter. What Gore said yesterday is what's important. The press is covering this as a major policy address. Even Democratic think tanks focussed on Gore's ringing call to cut taxes on employment, and raises taxes on carbon emissions and other pollutants.

After hearing the speech I ran into several former Gore staffers at my hotel -- even they wanted to know how he handled carbon taxes. All politics, all policy, 24/7.

I think this misses the point. This is not about politics or policy. It as, as Gore repeatedly emphasized, about the need to understand the moral dimensions of what Gore has consistently called "the climate crisis." (Note to everyone -- what to call this problem is no longer in dispute. It's climate crisis.) Gore's remarks were the other half of An Inconvenient Truth. If An Inconvenient Truth was the voice of science resolved, this speech was a snapshot of a mind engaged. There were no new technologies on display to reduce carbon dioxide pollution. There was nothing but a richness of new ways to think about those technologies and make them real.

Here are some examples of the new thinking -- admittedly tentative -- on display. Gore called for an "electranet", a distributed electrical system in which each business or household would choose, in real time, whether to take energy from the grid or add it to the grid -- thereby wiping out the currently crippling and top-down distinctions between efficiency and renewables. He said we should help the auto industry retool -- but only to produce flexible fuel, plug-in, efficient hybrids -- thereby leaping above all of the squabbles among auto-efficiency experts.

He called for attention to the terrestrial biomass carbon sinks -- but by lengthening the rotation cycle for trees and acknowledging that quick-fix "trading" schemes could actually reduce the total storage capacity of forests and soils.

He called for producing 25 percent of our fuels from rural America by 2025, and endorsed the American Institute of Architects plea that every building by 2030 be carbon neutral -- and then suggested a CNMA (Connie Mae) mortgage association to fund the necessary front-end investments in such green buildings.

He acknowledged that some new nuclear plants might be built -- but pointed out that economics and proliferation probably ensure that nuclear power is a small part of our energy future. And then, yes, he made it clear that if we don't make those who appropriate the globe's carbon sinks pay, if we don't send the right price signals and charge people for the pollution they cause, then people won't behave sensibly. And when he touched this third rail of American politics, no thunderbolt struck him dead.

I'm not going to reveal how he tied this crisis in with the others we face -- you'll have to read the end of his remarks to catch that. It's worth it.