Al Gore. Quieter than the Children of Uganda

My goal was to arrive at TED for Al Gore’s speech at 7pm – I beat the traffic and made it for the Children of Uganda, an impressive drum, dance and song troupe who’ve offered “a journey to Uganda in 18 minutes”. The journey’s even more ambitious than that, offering rhythms from neighboring Tanzania as well> I haven’t quite found the stage yet – TED’s main stage appears to be surrounded by comfortable overflow lounges, where I’m writing this from… but it’s close, as I can feel the whoomp! of the drums as the drummers play using sticks.

(Music geek note – I don’t have a good view of the xylophones being played, but they appear to be radically different from the xylophones we play in Ghana – the keys are much wider, and there are no visible resonators. Plus the sticks the players are using don’t have a soft tip, rubber or otherwise.)

TED organizer Chris Anderson introduces Al Gore as the president of the US in an “alternative universe so very close to our own.” Vice President Gore takes the stage, unfortunately not naked to the waist, beating drums. But he does open with a good joke:

I am Al Gore. I used to be the next President of the United States of America.

applause

I don’t think that’s funny.

Gore’s talk is a slideshow of images, designed to help us think about “a planetary emergency, a climate crisis”. He quotes the old saw that the Chinese character for crisis includes signs for “danger” and “opportunity” and suggests that we have the possibility of making the 21st century the “Century of Renewal”

The slideshow begins with the first image of earth from space, taken on the Apollo 8 mission. This image, Gore tells us, inspired countless environmentalists, sparked Earth Day, the EPA and the modern environmental movement. He shows the iconic full-disc image of the earth taken from Apollo 17 – the last picture of earth taken from space, since it’s the last time humans have been beyond near earth orbit. He tells us this image is so well known – possibly the most reproduced image in the world – because it’s the only one where the sun is entirely behind the camera. He then shows some contemporary images, made from stitching together cloud-free satellite photos and building maps and animations.

Gore tells us that maps help us challenge embedded asumptions. We believe that continents are too big to move… but maps help show that Africa and South America fit together neatly. Quoting Mark Twain, “What gets us into trouble is what we know, but just ain’t so.”

A similar embedded assumption is that the earth is so big, we can’t have any impact on it. This isn’t true any more. Showing us first a Matt Groening cartoon, then data about CO2 levels, he tells us that the level of atmospheric CO2 is rising very quickly. This line, Gore tells us, is what motivated him to move into politics, attempting to pass legislation including a carbon tax.

He shows us images of melting glaciers in Kilimanjaro and “the park formerly known as Glacier”. We look at the Himalayan Glaciers, which are the headwaters of seven rivers which provide the drinking and farming water for 40% if the world.

He goes on to explain that we’ve experienced the 10 hottest years on record in the last 14 years, including temperatures of 122F in India. It’s not just the land that’s getting hot – ocean temperatures are rising as well, consistent with models of global warming, and way outside historical data.

Warmer oceans mean more, and stronger, storms. Japan saw 10 typhoons last year – the previous record had been 7. For the first time, we saw a hurricane in the South Atlantic, as well as a record hurricane season. Storms are stronger and wetter – outside the bounds of history – including downpours like the one that flooded Mumbai recently.

Unfortunately, global warming makes places drier as well, changing rainfall patterns. Gore points to the crises in Niger and Darfur as being connected to desertification in those regions.

Gore tells us that the polar regions should be thought of as “canaries in the coal mine”. The Ward-Hunt Ice Shelf recently cracked, freaking scientists out badly. “Drunken trees” in Alaska are falling because they sunk roots into permafrost, which now is melting.

These changes at the poles have systemic effects – ice reflects a great deal of energy, while open water absorbs a great deal of eat. Losing ice has a hugely non-linear effect. And there’s an additional effect – much global cooling happens by warm water moving up the coast of Europe and being cooled in Greenland. About 10,000 years ago, a change in salinity caused these “conveyor currents” to fail, which caused a thousand-year ice age in Europe. (London and Paris get one third as much heat from the ocean as from the sun.)

These changes are having habitat changes as well – not just on polar bears, but for insects closer to the equator. Trees in the US west are suffering from pine beetle attacks. Mosquitos now live at higher latitudes, meaning that Nairobi is facing malaria for the first time.

Gore identifies three reasons for the crisis we’re facing: increasing population, increasing impact of the technologies we use, and the misconceptions of our thinking.

Unpacking those misconceptions, Gore addresses issues of doubt over global warming. There’s no real disagreement about global warming – a survery of peer reviewed papers showed 928 supporting a theory of global warming and 0 opposing it. But there’s a powerful lobby that is producing doubt, and suceeding – a survey of the popular press reveals that 53% of popular press articles have some doubt about global warming.

Gore argues that another misconception is that we need to balance environmentalism with economic impact. Showing a picture of the earth and a pile of gold bars in balance, Gore notes, “If we don’t have a planet…” and trails off to laughter. If we do the right thing, he argues, we’ll create a lot of wealth and a lot of jobs. Right now, we can’t sell cars in China, because we can’t meet their environmental standards.

Finally, Gore believes that a final misconception is that we can’t do anything about this. He reminds us that Americans have a history of leading incredible efforts – eliminating slavery, landing on the moon, bringing down communism. He reminds us as well that we’ve solved a huge environmental problem already, reversing the hole in the ozone layer.

Chris Anderson puts Gore on the spot, and asks if he’ll be running for president… and if not, why not? Gore gives an honest answer – he’s run four nationwide races and says “I don’t think I’m a very good politican.” From the audience, someone yells, “You won” and he responds, “Yeah, there is that.”

He goes on to explain that politics has become about 30 ads and simple soundbites, neither of which do well at conveying the magnitude of challenges like this one. (Which may explain why Gore’s 18 minute talk is an hour long with a ten minute response to Anderson’s question… :-)


(An editorial note – it’s very easy to forget that Gore is a career politician – and almost our President – during this talk. I’ve heard a number of climate change talks, and this is a pretty good one… and one you’d expect from a scientists with a good talent for explaining issues to a popular audience. But it’s also easy to understand why so many people didn’t vote for him – he’s every science teacher you ever loved, or ever hated.)

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