Al Gore Connects the Dots

"We’re borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in
ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that’s got to change."

A Generational Challenge to Repower America, Thursday, July 17, 2008.

  • Larry Littlefield

    “This is a generational moment. A moment when we decide our own path and our collective fate. I’m asking you – each of you – to join me and build this future.”

    I hope he is speaking to those under 40, or at least under 50. Because Al’s generation has already failed the same challenge, laid out by President Carter in his moral equivalent of war speech over 30 years ago, on April 18th 2007.

    “Tonight I want to have an unpleasant talk with you about a problem unprecedented in our history. With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge our country will face during our lifetimes. The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly.”

    “It is a problem we will not solve in the next few years, and it is likely to get progressively worse through the rest of this century.”

    “We must not be selfish or timid if we hope to have a decent world for our children and grandchildren.”

    “We simply must balance our demand for energy with our rapidly shrinking resources. By acting now, we can control our future instead of letting the future control us.”

    “Two days from now, I will present my energy proposals to the Congress. Its members will be my partners and they have already given me a great deal of valuable advice. Many of these proposals will be unpopular. Some will cause you to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices.”

    “The most important thing about these proposals is that the alternative may be a national catastrophe. Further delay can affect our strength and our power as a nation.”

    “Our decision about energy will test the character of the American people and the ability of the President and the Congress to govern. This difficult effort will be the ‘moral equivalent of war’ — except that we will be uniting our efforts to build and not destroy.”

  • Larry Littlefield

    Of course I meant April 18, 1977. It’s been that long.

  • GR

    On a more specific level- anybody notice that that speech (Gore’s) was completely devoid of the words transit, train, bike, and I think Urban?

    A search of wecansolveit.org also does not reveal any smart growth or livable streets solutions to climate change either – but does feature a prominent pic of a gas pump.

    This train is definitely leaving the station…

    -GR

  • “This train is definitely leaving the station…”

    It is too bad nobody is on it.

  • rlb

    Thinking the same thing, GR. Particularly how depressing it is that he’s giving a speech about reducing our carbon consumption, and then mentions the Interstate system as one of our country’s great achievements.

  • gecko

    It’s not clear why anyone would disparage Gore’s proposal since it solves an immediate energy and economic crisis and a path for mitigating and adapting to the long-term climate change crisis as well, will provide a huge amount of jobs and income to some of the world’s largest companies (and small ones also) and provide the energy required for reversing global environmental degradation from many past and current years of hyper industrialization.

    There are other scale-appropriate initiatives:

    Stopping global deforestation immediately saves 25% CO2 emissions.

    Virtually eliminating the extreme poverty of the 2 billion chronically and dangerously poor could reduce this planet’s peak population at 2050 to about 8 billion instead of the projected 9 to 10 billion with the equivalent emissions savings of as much as India and China combined.

    But, eliminating cars from the world’s major cities with the constructive appeal of immediate benefit would be akin to Gore’s current proposal an idea which will hopefully gain increasing traction.

  • He states a goal of having zero-carbon fuel equivalent to $1 per gallon gas. While that may solve the environmental issues of our driving obsession, it does nothing to solve the congestion and land use issues that our suburban growth patterns have given us. So we’ll still have nightmare commutes and cities that aren’t walkable or bikeable, but hey at least we can have the windows open!

  • My wife took me to see Al Gore last year for my birthday (yes, more insight into my level of geekiness!). I was quite disappointed, that even here in Portland, he didn’t mention the word “bicycle” a single time.

  • d

    In cities like Portland or NYC it’s easy to think that more people should switch to bikes or transit. But Gore is a smart politician. For over 90% of this country, that’s not an option and won’t be soon. I’m sure he would say he’s in favor of more investment in and use of public transport and non-motorized transportation, but imagine if political fallout if he talked for even a moment about bikes. I can hear Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity right now: “Gas is $5, your commute is 25 miles each way, and Al Gore wants you to ride your bike.”

    I think Al Gore is smart enough to know how to approach this issue. He’s choosing to focus on changing or retrofitting how we get our energy. Give the guy a break.

  • “Give the guy a break.” Sorry — but… No.

    An overwhelming majority of trips in our country are less than 5 miles long. Bicycles are a legitimate option for far more than 10% of roadway users. That number would shift even more dramatically if reasonable investments were made in non-auto transportation.

    Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s a former Vice President. If he can’t handle Rush Limbaugh chiding his anti-Hummer ways, then is he the right person to lead this effort?

  • The word “walking” was also missing from Gore’s speech. If his stated program would help, imagine how much more effective it would be if you throw in walkable communities and transit. But I think d’s reading of the situation is the correct one. I bought Gore’s DVD and showed it to family members precisely because his message is reasonable enough and carefully crafted enough to really change people’s minds.

  • jim

    This is sort of in response to GR’s comment.

    There are two possible strategies to curbing global warming. One is a diplomatic strategy. It was, for example, the basis of Kyoto. We decide what level of greenhouse gas emissions we can, globally tolerate, and then agree on a division of that total between countries. That leads to caps, which leads to cap and trade.

    The other is a more technological strategy. We work on an individual contributing technology at a time. We find a way so that that technology no longer contributes greenhouse gas emissions. Roll out that revised version to all countries. Then tackle the next technology.

    Gore’s speech was an attempt to start this second strategy. He is, after all, a private citizen. He can’t be involved in diplomacy. He can try to push technological change. The obvious first technology to try to change is electricity generation. There’s an awful lot of greenhouse gas emissions due to it. There’s mature candidates to replace the emitters. Most electricity generation is done centrally. So it’s practical to attempt to do it, first in the United States, and then roll it out to other countries, the United States paying, where the country involved can’t afford to adopt the cleaner version.

    Transport is harder. Yes, it generates an awful lot of greenhouse gases, but only some of the candidates to replace emitters are sufficiently mature. And transportation decisions aren’t centralized. If we can get a global success from electricity generation, then we can leverage that to work on transport. One problem at a time

    In the meantime, nothing prevents governments from negotiating global greenhouse gas caps and taking subsequent action internally to meet that part of the cap that’s been allocated to their country. If they fail to agree, then Gore’s initiative may still succeed. If they gain agreement then Gore’s initiative will help them in their internal actions to meet their caps.

    Remember Larry Wall’s slogan: there’s always more than one way to do it.

  • gecko

    #11, Jim, Correction: The world’s great cities’ transportation and transit systems are centralized where it’s easy pickings for extensive car-less improvements with immediate benefit.

  • I’ve written before about the dots that Al Gore has consistently refused to connect:

    Environment
    Encouraging walking
    Pedestrian safety
    His own family’s life and safety

  • jim

    gecko,

    Yes, improvements with immediate benefit, but not elimination of greenhouse gas emissions. To eliminate greenhouse gas emissions from transportation, you need to stop individuals from buying or driving vehicles operated by internal combustion engines. There are very few countries where that can be done centrally.

  • vnm

    Gecko wrote:

    It’s not clear why anyone would disparage Gore’s proposal

    .

    And yet, they do: RedState: Al Gore: just plain nuts.

  • “I bought Gore’s DVD and showed it to family members precisely because his message is reasonable enough and carefully crafted enough to really change people’s minds.”

    Really?! We can’t be reasonable and use the words like “bicycle”, “walk”, or “transit”?

    Do you think Gore’s “reasonable” world continues to be what we have now, and growth patterns like we have now, just with different types of engines and road materials?

    It just strikes me that if we can about livable streets and have a clear vision for how to get there, we have to be able to admit to what the vision is. For me, that vision includes those unreasonable words. If we can’t say it, we certainly won’t get it.

    ps: for the record, I am not “GR”. I always post as “Greg Raisman”. I do, however, think GR is on to something.

  • The majority of my family members are over 60. A full list of the ones who don’t consider “bicycle, walk and transit” to be reasonable would take me all evening to compile, but to name just one, my mother. She will celebrate her 82nd birthday next month, has survived two strokes, and can barely walk. Even getting on a bus would be too much for her.

    I, on the other hand, am fit enough to walk and use subways and buses, and do. I am a licensed driver and haven’t driven since 1979 because, among other reasons, I consider it ethically reprehensible to own or drive a car. But not everyone I know agrees with that or is physically able to get around that way.

  • gecko

    #14, Jim Thought it was mentioned elsewhere that cars should be eliminated from the world’s great cities. This would show how extraneous they are. Cities could showcase some really great ways to get around like they showcase so many other great things.

    #15 vnm, On leaving NYC nothing makes sense or is clear. (Well sort of.) Sorry for the lack of clarification.

    #17 Mark Walker, You are absolutely correct but, relatively minor adaptations to bicycle and human-scale transport would be a lot easier for your 82-year old mother to use than transit (maybe, not unlike an electric wheelchair); and, than most people realize including alternate transportation advocates and environmentalists, which is why they haven’t been advocating them. It’s kind of embarrassing really. Too many people really love bicycles and they are quite nice but it is time to move beyond them for those who need something more practical.

    Any transportation revolution — cheaper, better, easier, faster, safer, etc.: that kind of stuff — would likely cannibalize the auto industry and if there are public figures that understand this you can’t blame them for proceeding with caution because most likely the mechanics and outcomes are not clear where an excess of $40 billion in annual salaries are at stake and an industry costs in excess of $300 billion annually; probably in the $trillions in indirect costs embedded in an economic fabric (insurance, medical, banking, advertising, etc.) though probably at a net loss and best removed.

  • rlb

    “Do you think Gore’s “reasonable” world continues to be what we have now, and growth patterns like we have now, just with different types of engines and road materials?”

    When he starts bringing up 1 dollar equivalent gallons of gasoline, it sure seems like it. It also seems like it when he brings up Detroit back on top making electric cars. The vision he outlines in that speech is not one of reducing energy consumption, but one of making energy consumption less costly environmentally and maybe on the wallet.
    That vision is a little shocking when you revisit the fact that New Yorkers take in 1/3 the energy of the average person in this country. How much easier would this task be if you brought the average American’s consumption down to just twice the average New Yorkers’?
    Does he really expect electric cars to be some sort of solution within ten years. GM is working like mad to what was more or less outlined as a failure to produce a viable electric car by 2010. Detroit needs retooling for electric Buses, trolley cars and train engines – not cars.
    I love Gore’s idea. But the solution can be partly solved with a change in living habits that it even seems people are hungry for. Downtown’s of cities are coming back, Amtrak and mass transit were getting more use even before the crisis levels, and sprawl and it’s induced traffic have been taken to the extreme. Somebody who people might listen to, and that includes Gore, needs to say that in order to reduce our energy cosumption, we have to live more efficiently, and the way to do that is to live in a city.

  • I’m with Gecko and Jim on this one. And I’ve been hard-core for Livable Streets even before it had a name.

    Electricity generation generates almost twice as much greenhouse gases in the U.S. as driving. And as G&J pointed out, the electric sector is way more conducive to quick, painless and out-of-sight (almost, anyway) decarbonization. Even the Kheel Plan, with a fourfold higher congestion toll than PlaNYC ($16 instead of $8, charged during twice as many hours), and offering free buses and subways, would have only eliminated a measly 2% of NYC’s CO2 emissions. Gore’s electric focus is the right one for moving the U.S. from last to first in getting off carbon ASAP.

    Moreover, Gore’s full-throated endorsement, yet again, of a carbon tax (“We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make.”), is proof that he doesn’t shy from cutting-edge advocacy.

    It’s true that Gore has never “gotten” bike/walk. The “bicycle” word was (in)famously missing from his “Earth in the Balance” book, and when he went to China in 1997 (?) he unfortunately disregarded my plea — rendered in a truly gorgeous letter — to ride a bike in Beijing to show support for the dignity and viability of urban cycling there.

    OK, no one’s perfect. Ted Williams never stole 50 bases. Mark Twain didn’t write poetry. Gore’s climate advocacy is at least in their class. We should honor it.

  • vnm

    As GR noted, Gore may not have mentioned the words “train,” “bike” or “urban,” but the subtext of his comments implies a big shift to those modes of travel. He calls for 100% of our electricity to be generated by renewable sources in 10 years and speaks of ever-rising prices for oil and natural gas.

    So what does that mean for transportation? A huge shift toward things that can be propelled with electricity and human power and away from the car.

    Electric cars have proven to be difficult. The New York City Subway and various passenger rail lines around the region have been powered by electricity continuously for more than a century. That electricity may not be from clean sources, but it could be.

  • Vnm, I think Rlb’s evidence counts against your argument:

    When he starts bringing up 1 dollar equivalent gallons of gasoline, it sure seems like it. It also seems like it when he brings up Detroit back on top making electric cars. The vision he outlines in that speech is not one of reducing energy consumption, but one of making energy consumption less costly environmentally and maybe on the wallet.

    This kind of talk is the same I’ve been hearing for years from the “Subaru wagon liberal” crowd. They want to be independent of foreign oil and they want a reduction in greenhouse gases, but they won’t consider any way of accomplishing it that would involve giving up their llama farm and moving back to Greenwich Village.

    I don’t think that Gore is censoring himself the way he was in 2000. I think what we’re seeing is the real Gore, and I don’t think that Gore is ready to give up his mansion and his cars. Until then he won’t make the connection between car dependence and his son’s safety, and he won’t mention transit, walking or cycling. Maybe he never will, but we’ve got a Presidential candidate who will and he’s got Gore’s support, and that’s what really matters.

  • There are more comments here than I can read at the moment, but my take on the lack of mention of sustainable non-auto options is that as a general public and specifically as the key targets in that room, I get the sense that people aren’t all that in tune with biking, transit, and walkable communities. Having 100% electric cars might actually encourage more sprawl, so the measures necessary to combat sprawl need to be implemented. There are voices like James Kunstler that are raising these issues but obviously he doesn’t have as much celeb status and political clout as Gore. At any rate, it’s a very powerful speech that makes it clear what direction we need to head in. Interestingly, he mentioned what is in effect a “carbon tax,” something the Province of British Columbia just 3 weeks ago put into effect, spearheaded by the (hypocritical) Premier Gordon Campbell. People are objecting to it, which is ridiculous, and while it’s not THE solution, it’s a significant step in the right direction. Unfortunately, at both the Provincial and Federal levels, the two men/parties putting forth revenue-neutral (tax-shifted) carbon tax proposals or laws are getting a bucketload of flack from the opposition, which is money better spent making progress! Unfortunately Mr Campbell and the Minister of Transportation are also hellbent on widening a major arterial bridge and the highway, which is completely contrary to their GHG reduction goals. There was some new announcement as well about solar powering 100,000 homes by 2020 or around there, so it calls into question their priorities and whether some of this stuff is just to please the people. We have an election next year that will challenge some aspects. Looking forward to big changes here and in the US. Let’s get a move on.

  • I guess the two stumbling blocks for me were:

    #1 By repeatedly citing the issue of high oil prices, but focusing almost exclusively on renewables for electricity generation, there was a bit of trading apples for oranges. A relatively small proportion of our electricity is generated from oil (especially from a wesetern perspective where we rely mostly on coal and natural gas).

    #2 Mentioned by another commenter, but I’ll repeat it. If reducing dependence on foreign carbon-based fuels connects the dots of the economy, national security and climate disruption, then why doesn’t reducing automobile dependence connect all those dots with the dots of public safety, health, protection of farm, timber and wildlands, community cohesion, and the economy yet again (with regard to all the cars we import or manufacture for foreign corporations)?

    I guess we have a lot of work to do if Al Gore himself honestly doesn’t get this stuff.

  • People can be very religious about their cars. I can totally see why Gore would want to steer clear of that issue. He wants to focus on energy and climate, which are more pressing issues than liveable streets.

    The bicycle is the rational answer to much of today’s transportation needs.
    24% of all trips are made within a mile of the home, 40% of all trips are made within two miles of the home, and 50% of the working population commutes five miles or less to work. Source:
    http://www.1world2wheels.org/get-involved

    I think the USA can switch over to 100% renewable electricity in ten years. But having people make more rational transportation choices in their daily lives will take longer.

  • d

    Al Gore gets this stuff, but his focus is on getting political leaders, business leaders, and world governments to change. Getting people to ride bikes is good, but it’s not the drastic change he’s advocating. He didn’t mention canvas shopping bags either. Do people have a problem with that? What about composting? Recycling? Again…look at the big picture. It’s easy on a bike-centric site in an urban environment to think he should have mentioned bikes, but I guarantee you their lobbing the same criticisms at him on the canvas shopping bag blog.

    I think his recent focus has been on big change from the top down, recognizing that there is already a lot of bottom up change happening all over. Seems like his goal is to get the people at the top to start making the decisions the people on the bottom are waiting for.

    It’s ridiculous to say he doesn’t get this stuff. He gets it. Again, his strategy is now to get government to take action. He’s said as much, mentioning that he hopes he can provide the space in which Obama or McCain can make the necessary big decisions when either one assumes office.

  • “Getting people to ride bikes is good, but it’s not the drastic change he’s advocating. He didn’t mention canvas shopping bags either. Do people have a problem with that? What about composting? Recycling? Again…look at the big picture.”

    Transportation accounts for about a third of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S., about the same as electricity generation. It accounts for two thirds of oil use in America. Like it or not, it is a big part of the big picture.

    And again, Gore’s idea that we are “connecting dots” and not looking at problems in isolation, pretty much leads to rethinking transportation and land use policy (not just “getting people to ride bikes”), because of related issues: public health, public safety, economics, equity, and community cohesion.

    I like his proposal, but it is just one of many strategies that will be required to reduce our emissions beyond 30%.

  • GR

    There is a great deal of valuable perspective here it seems, and this general topic area – Should livable streets and transit be a part of the broader anti-climate change movement – is a critical conversation to have. Various commenters make the entirely valid point(s) that electricity generation is low-hanging fruit, and therefore should be a priority. I recognize that, but see it as the scientific perspective. The political one is far more complex.

    Gore laid out a political challenge, not a scientific one. And the in his omission of urban issues from the speech he made a political mistake that many of our leaders make on this issue of our energy consumption – he totally avoids any request of sacrifice or participation in this cause by the American public. And to me, one of the most obvious choices that we can make as members of that public is to ride the bus, or walk a little bit more, or maybe even live in a smaller home that uses less electricity. As it is, he is only asking us to wait until GM shows up with their affordable plug-in.

    In his speech, he states:

    “What could we do instead for the next 10 years? What should we do during the next 10 years? Some of our greatest accomplishments as a nation have resulted from commitments to reach a goal that fell well beyond the next election: the Marshall Plan, Social Security, the interstate highway system. But a political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that it’s meaningless. Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit our target.”

    Thats what tells me this primarily about political change. But in order for the public to really have some skin in the game, and to drive up the stakes – which is so critically important – they’re going to need to know what THEY can do, and how they can change their habits. Only after a bigger number of people can do that will those same people hold leaders accountable for anything remotely like a 10 year revolution, which is exactly what he is calling for.

    On a fundamental level, if we’re going to get on top of this thing, I think reasonable people agree that we’re going to need to use less energy. Whether as a result of carbon taxes or personal choices, it will come down to less watts per capita. Technology advances alone won’t cut it. Until we level with people on that, we’ll never even approach the pace of change he asks for.

  • gecko

    #29 GR, BTW there is about 6000 times the amount of energy we require daily hitting this planet daily in the form of solar energy.

    When we have captured the first 100% of our daily requirement the additonal 599900% (hope the percentage is right) cost for further capture will have dropped significantly as well as the emergence of other methods for obtaining energy and or energy equivalents (like potentially extreme changes in the built environment using super-strong super-light nanotechnology and or civilizations based on much more intelligent funner greener existences).

    It seems that the really cool thing is if we are smart we will all benefit with minimal or no hardship and have plenty to look forward to.

    If some kid does not want to part with his toy truck we’ll just have to humor him after its taken away and until he grows up a little bit.

  • gecko

    #29 GR (continued), As you’d alluded to it is starting to become apparent that Al Gore neglected one key issue. In ten (10) years it is highly likely that increasing numbers of automobiles, buses, and trucks will be electric greatly increasing demand making the fossil-free electric development effort that much more ambitious in such a short time.

    One way to mitigate the demand would be to coincidently develop and broadly implement small light hybrid human-electric ruggedized vehicles suitable for transport and transit.

    It’s still not clear that any real hardships would be incurred.

  • gecko

    Gore no longer concerned about displeasing big coal may embolden others to start proposing scale-appropriate solutions such as Amory Lovins’ Rocky Mountain Institute which seems to be on the trajectory yet remains another captive of the “too large, heavy, and overpowered model” and has yet to recommend zero-carbon near net-zero energy hybrid human-electric transport and transit:

    http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid192.php

    Ultralight Construction
    Low-Drag Design
    Hybrid-Electric Drive
    Efficient Accessories

    “. . . vehicles that are 3–5 fold more fuel-efficient than comparable current models, yet are as good or better in every other respect.”

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