Can Al Gore’s Vision Avert a Climate-Change Catastrophe?

The Nobel Peace Prize award to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change left me a little uncomfortable. I have no problem with the IPCC, obviously, but singling out Gore seemed a little too Hollywood to me. I may well be naive, but I have a hard time buying the idea of Al Gore as the harbinger or champion of an alternative way of organizing our society so as to minimize its toxic impact on the environment. So I approached an environmentalist I know has little time for Gore’s vision for comment. My friend Joel Kovel, most recently author of Overcoming Zionism, is a SUNY professor of psychiatry and a Green Party activist who ran against Hillary Clinton for the Senate. He has set out a more systematic critique of Gore’s vision in a documentary titled A Really Inconvenient Truth. Essentially, he’s arguing that Gore represents the same corporate-driven politics that created the problem in the first place — despite having Gore as its environmental point man, the Clinton Administration’s tenure saw a massive spike in U.S. carbon gas outputs. So read and discuss among yourselves. Next week, on the same topic, we’ll hear from another frequent Rootless Cosmopolitan correspondent, the scientist V. Balaji, on how the perspectives of the developing world are overlooked and ignored in much of the discussion over climate change remedies, and what the global south has to say about how to fix the problem

Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize: A Comment

By Joel Kovel

While the Nobel Peace Prize given to Al Gore (and the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) does not sink to the same depths of moral squalor as, for example, that awarded to Henry Kissinger, it nonetheless belongs in the same category, as a prize given by the establishment to itself in proof that The System Works. In truth, Gore’s achievement has been no more then a
first step, and its sole virtue is to raise the level of awareness about an impending disaster. The problem, however, is that the step he proposes is taken in the wrong direction. If we do not appreciate this–and people are less likely to do so to the degree that the former Vice President is elevated to heroic status–then whatever good Gore has done will be nullified.

The wrong direction is this: that Gore proposes moral uplift and technological fixes to bring down the carbon load on the atmosphere, and in so doing, deliberately ignores the real causes of climate change in the workings of our capitalist industrial system and the society it serves. There is of course no mystery as to why he would do so: Al Gore is and has
been a proven and well-rewarded servant of that system; indeed, as Vice President of the United States from 1993 to 2001 he presided over the greatest increase of carbon emissions in the history of the world and did absolutely nothing effective to check them. Nor has he shown any awareness since of learning from the experience. Gore is simply an untrustworthy guide to getting beyond the crisis he has played so substantial a role in causing; and the best award he could be given would be rejection of the path he now proposes. At least then we would have a chance of still having a civilization to commemorate his worthy warning.

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39 Responses to Can Al Gore’s Vision Avert a Climate-Change Catastrophe?

  1. Pingback: University Update - Hillary Clinton - Can Al Gore’s Vision Avert a Climate-Change Catastrophe?

  2. Gavin Evans says:

    Joel, you may be right that what Al Gore is proposing would not be sufficient to stop the world from tipping over into self-sustaining temperature increases, but not for the reasons you suggest. It’s that little pre-1989, class interests line you trot out – he’s taking this stance because he’s a well-rewarded servant of the capitalist system – that makes me want to say with a yawn, ‘oh no, here we go again’. Gore takes the position he takes because he genuinely believes it, based on his research, experience and so on. It is ridiculous to suggest otherwise. It is also facile to blame him for the fact that carbon emissions increased while he was vice-president. He was, for example, a fervent advocate of America joining with the rest of the world in signing up for Kyoto, but there was no possibility of getting the necessary support in Congress, basically because American opinion had not yet swung that way. But anyone who still suggests that electing Gore, rather than Bush, would have been anything other than extremely desirable for the race against global warming, is plain silly.

    I would suggest that give or take a nuance here and there, Gore’s analysis of the causes of climate change is correct and he has certainly achieved an immense amount in popularising this view, for which the Nobel Prize is well-deserved. The problem with his solutions, however, is that they show too much faith in enlightened self-interest. In essence, they are too optimistic about human nature generally, and markets more specifically.

    To reduce carbon emmissions in the 14 years left before the tipping point is reached (to cite the figure put forward by the climate scientists who shared the Nobel prize with Gore), then the only solution is one involving heavy-handed compulsion, from governments and international organisations – telling people to do things they don’t want to do, and not to do things they want to do. I don’t see any politicians – not even those from the Green parties – spelling this out because, quite simply, it is not yet a vote winner. It would have drastic effects on the world economy and, obviously, would effect the poor far more than the rich, but there is no other solution that can do the job in time. There is, of course, no chance of persuading the world’s governments to take this approach, which is why the Al Gore-type alternative is the only game in town, and we’ll just have to hope that the scientists have got it wrong, and the tipping point is 50-plus years away, rather than 15.

  3. Matthew says:

    I second Gavin’s point. Of course, Gore is a flawed messenger. But the system cannot change unless people inside it decide to change it.

  4. delia ruhe says:

    I would trust Kovel over Gore any day on the solutions, but Gore didn’t get the Nobel for his “solutions.” He got it for raising awareness — which he did superbly and will, I hope, continue to do it. Name-recognition counts for a lot. Who but us green lefties has even heard of Kovel, much less read his excellent book on the topic?

  5. Pete says:

    Even if there is something a bit disconcerting about Gore winning a Nobel, this argument is silly. One doesn’t make changes of this scale by being Cassandra. She was ignored. Were Gore to have taken a position so orthogonal to ongoing public debate, he would similarly have been marginalized. The idea is to make the changes more likely. While it could be argued that Gore has not done as much as possible, it is obvious that he has done more than anybody else. Condemning his efforts only pushes the possibility of change further away.

  6. Joshua says:

    I do not share in the interests of “conforming to the rules of the game” in creating awareness. Gore’s agenda is still unclear to myself, as it seems it is tooled to the machinery of “benevolent capitalism”, only tweaking small “inconvenient truths” to sustain a broken system. Baby steps is not the solution, in my opinion.

  7. jdkbrown says:

    It’s also disingenuous to say that Gore “presided over” the increase in carbon emissions. The Vice President has very little authority or power, even within the executive branch. Add to that that the Clinton White House had to deal with a hostile congress for most of its tenure, and it’s unclear exactly what *Gore* could have done to stem the tide. To say that he has “played a substantial role in *causing*” (my emphasis) the present crisis is simply absurd.

    I certainly agree that the best long-term solutions to climate change will involve societal and economic changes. But to abuse Gore in this manner is both wrong and unhelpful.

  8. naj says:

    I’m going to be the devil’s advocate here …
    who was it, Jameson, perhaps, who wondered about the “death of the author” as the outcome of literary postmodernism, just at the time that the “authors” were no longer the white Europeans, but the brown ones from the ex-colonies?

    Granted that we are pollutant animals, isn’t it ironic that china, posed to devour America in economy, the biggest pollutant of our planet now?

  9. Bernard Chazelle says:

    Whether Gore’s Nobel is deserved or not, it is a waste. The added value is absolutely zero. Like it or not, Gore is already one of the most famous humans on earth and the added visibility and recognition he’ll get from the Nobel is a big zilch.

    Now think of Nobel recipients such as Muhammad Yunus, Shirin Ebadi, or Aung San Suu Kyi and how the prize boosted their cause (and in some cases saved their lives or the lives of others).

    A peace Nobel prize should get people to return your phone calls. I doubt anyone has ever failed to return a phone call from Al Gore (except the Supreme Court).

    But yes it could have been worse… After all, I hear that Bush gets nominated every year.

    Was it Tom Lehrer who said that irony died the day Kissinger got the peace Nobel prize?

    They should have a Nobel War Prize. They’d be lots of qualified candidates.

    Peace is much tougher.

    Reminds me of these geniuses in France who decided that, since war museums flood the planet, they were going to build a Peace Museum! In Verdun, of all places. Great idea. So off they went and raised the money to erect a nice, big building for their peace museum.
    And then it was built.

    And the came the question: “What are we going to put inside?”

    They’re still wondering….

    (I hear some school children contributed a few poems…)

  10. Don Bacon says:

    jdkbrown expressed my exact thought so I’ll repeat it for emphasis: It’s also disingenuous to say that Gore “presided over” the increase in carbon emissions. He didn’t.

    There goes Kovel’s main point. Gone. Let’s move on, as other bloggers have indicated. We don’t need a global warming czar, we need a democratic path to lowered carbon emissions because global warming is bad for people and animals, and will contribute to increased warfare (indicating the proper award of a peace prize to Gore).

  11. Pangean says:

    Solar power’s installed capacity of global energy production has doubled every 2 years for the last sixteen years, even at the very high prices of solar. Most solar vendors are projecting that solar will cost around $1/watt by around 2010, and thus be the cheapest source of energy available.

    Extrapolating out the continuation of the current doubling pace, without assuming a speed up when the lower prices are achieved, and starting from today’s low 0.1% penetration level, it becomes apparent that the exponential growth of solar reaches almost 100% of planetary energy supplies within 20 years.

    Wind, already at 1.0% of global energy, is also exponentially doubling, at a slower pace of every 3.5 years.

    It should be very clear from these doubling rates, and without taking into account the imminent cost reductions, that within 15 years, between solar and wind, almost all planetary energy will be coming from renewable energy.

    The real heroes are the engineers and entrepreneurs who have persevered despite all of the naysayers.

    Amongst such naysayers must be included Al Gore who has relentlessly discounted solar and wind, and instead promoted ‘clean’ coal and nuclear power as would befit a representative from Tennessee.

    Gore has raised awareness of the potential problem, but has studiously negated the real saviors – the scientists, engineers, and entrepreneurs making the solar and wind revolutions possible.

  12. delia ruhe says:

    “I do not share in the interests of “conforming to the rules of the game” in creating awareness. Gore’s agenda is still unclear to myself, as it seems it is tooled to the machinery of “benevolent capitalism”, only tweaking small “inconvenient truths” to sustain a broken system. Baby steps is not the solution, in my opinion.”

    That’s the trouble with the Left: it’s more interested in purism than in getting the job done. Most people on the Left — the real left, not this bourgeois liberalism which passes for Left in the US — are not on speaking terms with one another: no one is pure enough for anyone else.

  13. Brad DeLong says:

    A Green Party candidate criticizes Al Gore? The only possible position for a Green Party candidate is to apologize to Al Gore–unless he or she is a moral idiot.

  14. lupercus says:

    “It should be very clear from these doubling rates, and without taking into account the imminent cost reductions, that within 15 years, between solar and wind, almost all planetary energy will be coming from renewable energy.”

    Pangean, I applaud your optimism, but i wonder if you have anything other than blind hope backing up these sweeping assertions.

    Do you have any idea how much of the Earth’s surface will have to be covered with solar panels and wind generators to bring your vision to reality?

    Optimism is great, but there has to be a little more rigor when talking about the future of our Earth.

  15. Pangean says:

    Lupercus, I am completely rigorous in my analysis and predictions. IT is the pessimists (and even most optimists) who are incapable of applying the rigor of investigation of the sector and its trajectory over the last several decades.

    it is undeniable fact that solar power installation has grown every single year by >40% for the last 16 years. This amounts to a doubling every 2 years.

    And as we know solar has been very expensive, although it has dropped in price from $100/watt in 1980 to ~$4/watt in 2006, and is projected to drop to $1/watt by 2010.

    here is the European Photoelectric Industrial Association’s 2005 scenario projections, which have already been substantially exceeded

    In fact, when you examine their joint reports with Greenpeace since 2000, each year they end up revising their previous estimates by greater than 50% and still end up underestimating the accomplishments that follow.

    Thus even the alleged industrial proponents have continued to underestimate the solar growth rate.

    I am from both the IT world and the DNA world where I am accustomed to both Moore’s Law annual doublings and the DNA sequencing’s every 5 year 100X growth factor so it has been easy for me to recognize the power law in the growth curve and be completely correct for the last 4 years.
    For that reason I am completely confident in solar plus wind covering all energy within 15-20 years.

    Surface Area:
    Every day the planet receives 10,000 X current global energy consumption – including electricity, transportation fuel and heating fuel.

    Here is a very instructive graphic:
    “Solar power systems installed in the areas defined by the dark disks could provide more than the world’s 2006 total primary energy demand (assuming a conversion efficiency of 8%). That is, all energy currently consumed, including heat, electricity, fossil fuels, etc., would be produced in the form of electricity by solar cells. The colors in the map show the local solar irradiance averaged over three years from 1991 to 1993 (24 hours a day) taking into account the cloud coverage available from weather satellites.”

    And keep in mind that current state-of-the-art solar panels are already at 22% efficiency. Boeing Spectralabs announced reaching 41% eff. in the laboratory. And there are many approaches ranging from quantum dot, thin-film to triple junction combined with concentrating lenses that envision efficiencies up to 65%.

    Keep those numbers in mind when looking at how small the discs are for even an 8% efficiency level, and it becomes apparent that global energy usage can easily go up by a factor of 8 with no impact on the surface area that those discs represent.

    Surface area is not at all a constraint for the inevitable triumph of solar energy.

    And neither is storage of intermittently available solar an obstacle.

    Advances in high temperature super conducting cables has continued. Long Island is deploying HTSC and Manhattan is also deploying a 1 km HTSC cable linking to power substations next year.

    The US DOE (Grid 2030) as well as its EU counterpart envision intercontinental HTSC grids linking up sunny areas to energy users at all times of the day and throughout the year.

    Any more reasons to dispute the inevitable triumph of solar?
    Bring it on!
    I live to demolish your arguments.

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  17. lupercus says:

    Fine, Pangean, since you’re feelin’ froggy: where are you going to get all the silver for the contacts on all those solar cells? Just covering America’s energy use alone would exhaust the world market.

    Also – and this is something that often gets lost when talking about energy – only 20% of the generation in the U.S. is used to produce electricity. So, fine, we add a few more Utahs worth of solar cells to power a huge fleet of fuel-cell cars… and we run out of platinum.

    I don’t really want to impugn your optimism… it’s not that there’s no possible solution to our problems, and certainly not that there’s no point in trying. It’s just when some guy on a blog spouts some utopian vision of an ecotech solution to all our problems, my bullshit detector starts going off.

    It is going to take a lot of work, and in my humble opinion we are not going to be able to solve the problems of technology with MORE technology. We are going to have to undergo major changes in the way we live in the industrialised world. And that is an unsexy reality few want to talk about.

  18. Pangean says:

    So, without honestly acknowledging that your first shot from the hip regarding solar surface area was completely erroneous, you take further wild shots. Not to mention that you repeat the lie that it would take ‘a few more Utahs.’

    For your remedial education, please consult again the Solar Area diagram depicting supply ALL global energy – electric, transportation and heating

    Yes, of course, if NO changes occurred in solar cell design technology, no changes in materials science, and no changes in mining activities there certainly would be challenges for current supplies of various materials.

    How likely is it that there will be no changes in solar cell design that reduces either silver usage by making finer etchings or replacing it with copper alloys and composites?

    Human creativity is the inexhaustible resource. Our collective capacity to invent new technologies is fundamental to being human.

    Furthermore, the Two-Thirds World is not about to accept consuming less energy. In fact, they are underconsuming energy by an order of magnitude and no Imperialist Green policy will be able to stand in the way of Global Energy Equality marching forward.

    Solar power is the power of the Two-Thirds World!

    The Green Imperialists may hope to continue to strangle the Two-Thirds World, but humanity’s collective creation of new technologies will break all the Malthusian delusions as it has continued to do so since the theory was first mouthed off back in the 1790’s.

    Incidentally, even Malthus repudiated his own theory, only for racist idiots like Ehrlich to resuscitate.

    You obviously truly wish for the world to continue to suffer from inadequate energy and are purposefully spreading disinformation and pessimism about the inevitable solar revolution, which is also inevitably and inextricably bound up with the liberation of the entire world.

  19. Tyler Kalmar says:

    Your article is really a breath of fresh air in comparison to the typical rubbish I read on solar energy. So many scams out there. Thank you for helping me out.

  20. Elijah Lewis says:

    Climate Change is really scary, now we have super typhoons and a lot of flooding going on some countries..`,,

  21. it is very evident that climate change is already taking effect in this decade`”.

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  23. Ellis Gibson says:

    Climate change is quite on the rise these days, so be prepaired for more weather disasters*-~

  24. wind generators are not very efficient but they are clean sources of energy`;`

  25. Climate Change really causes the formation of bigger tornadoes and bigger typhoons too;~`

  26. wind generators are expensive but they do deliver lots and lots of clean electrical power’–

  27. the climate change that we experience these days are caused by too much air pollutants ~

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