More Inconvenient Truths

April 2, 2008 |

Al Gore's Alliance for Climate Protection just launched the We Campaign. With the Obama-esque tagline, "We can solve it," and bright images of solar panels, wind turbines, and moon-walkers, the mood is hopeful and buoyant. With allusions to the invasion of Normandy and the Civil Rights Movement, Gore has finally figured out that the trope of American greatness is more powerful than the one of an empire in decline.

This is a big step in the right direction, but now Gore needs to come to terms with two more inconvenient truths about climate change:

we campaign.jpg
First, that trying to make Americans care more about global warming is a losing battle -- with the ailing health care system, the slumping economy, and the Iraq war, there simply isn't room to prioritize everything, especially when ecologic issues are pitted against economic and social ones. Second, a price for carbon alone is ecologically irrelevant. We need a policy agenda that includes a government investment commensurate to the monumental size of the challenge.

While he knows how to bring his cause into the limelight, Gore keeps missing the mark when it comes to an effective policy agenda. This year's presidential campaign is focused on the concept of "empty" rhetoric, but it's a charge that Gore deserves more than Obama. While this latest effort may come in different packaging than the gloomy Inconvenient Truth, the policy agenda is none changed. Nowhere in the extensive website literature is there a call to invest in clean energy R&D. What we get instead is the soothing mantra that we already have all the technology we need:

The technological and policy solutions for the climate crisis already exist.

This is the clean energy economy we can adopt with today's technologies, resources, know-how...

We can...ensure that future energy projects take advantage of the clean renewable resources available.

The way he puts it, you almost believe we have a long row of clean energy darlings, politely waiting their turn out in the hallway. The strategy that goes along with this way of thinking focuses on garnering public support as a sign to leaders that we're over our carbon "addiction" -- we're ready for politicians to start calling in those patient clean energy technologies.

The problem with this approach is two-fold. First, it assumes that Americans are very concerned about global warming. But when asked about their top priorities, Americans consistently rank global warming near the bottom of the list; a recent Pew survey found that "dealing with global warming" ranked 20th out of 23 given policy priorities. When the question is open-ended, no one responds with global warming. Even during the increased media attention to global warming that accompanied the release of An Inconvenient Truth, the percentage of people who ranked global warming as an important issue fell. If the environmental movement had 15 minutes of fame, that was it -- what makes Gore think that this ad campaign is going to succeed where his feature film failed?

It is here that the We Campaign suffers a failure of imagination -- they insist upon framing the issue as an environmental one, rather than making it about something that Americans actually care about. The environment may not be high on Americans' policy priority list, but energy independence is. Studies show that voters strongly support large investments into clean energy sources to achieve energy independence and deal with global warming. Issues-based politics miss the opportunity to meet voters where they are -- always a more effective strategy than appealing to values that they don't share.

The second problem with the We Campaign is that in failing to advocate for substantial investment in technology innovation, it underestimates what it will take to counter global warming -- just as the IPCC did in assuming a trend of global decarbonization, as reported by Breakthrough Senior Fellow Roger Pielke in Nature today. In both cases, the result was the same: policy recommendations far short of what's actually needed.

Everyone agrees that switching over to renewable energy is a good thing, but if it were easy, we would have done it already. Our current level of technology is not be capable of both reducing carbon emissions and supporting global standards of living, and it will not become capable of doing so spontaneously. From development to deployment, there are still many hurdles to implementing new clean energy systems, and it is going to take technological breakthroughs to clear those hurdles. Any serious attempt to address global warming must put an aggressive technology R&D agenda front and center, and despite its aspirational rhetoric, the We Campaign fails in this regard.



Breakthrough believes we need major public investment in every stage of the technology development process, from basic R&D up through deployment. That goal would encompass what's needed to move many of the items on your list into commercialization.

Solar thermal and solar PV are mature enough that we ought to significantly ramp up support for deployment. Others technologies, like carbon sequestration and storage, need to be demonstrated quickly so that we can properly assess their potential to reduce emissions. Still others, like nanosolar, are in much earlier stages, but could radically change the economics of clean energy technologies.

We have never suggested that research and development efforts ought to take precedence over immediate action. We need to massively scale up at every stage of the process and we need to do it quickly.

By Lindsay Meisel on 2008 04 30

Almost all wars and terrorism in the world can be stopped. Almost all dictators and tyrants can be rendered powerless. All we have to do is to stop paying them. An alarming amount of the money Western nations pay for oil is going into the coffers of people who are terrorists and dictators. All we have to do defund the world

By poetryman69 on 2008 04 13

I'm afraid you folks are either not well informed or have a hidden agenda that escapes me. I've posted a list of 20 technologies on my blog and I'm going to add 4 more that will reduce GHG emissions by 90% or more if deployed en masse. We have the tools, just not the right policies.

With the possible exceptions of Iceland, Germany and now Spain we have had no countries who have yet taken the task of transitioning to a sustainable energy system seriously. It's like you guys are saying, "We give up" before we in the US have even tried to meaningfully deploy what we either already have or will have very soon. You also are demonstrating a poor knowledge of emerging technologies in your assertions that we need to go on major research excursions. Yes, there are a few areas we need to work on, but we can wipe out 90% of our emissions at least with existing technologies.

So research is good and needs to be stepped up but deployment of what we have is better.

Michael Hoexter

By Michael Hoexter on 2008 04 12

I think you analysis of the We campaign is on target. My impression is that this is just the opening foray for a broader campaign, but that is just speculation. My question for you is has the Breakthrough Inst attempted to contact ACP or their ad agency?

By Eric on 2008 04 09

Lindsay: Another thing that Gore doesn't realize, and you guys at Breakthrough aren't coming to terms with either, is the near-irrelevancy of reducing carbon dioxide emissions in solving the atmospheric problem. IPCC fourth assessment states that 100% reductions in 2007 would result in gradual decline of CO2 by about 40 ppm in the year 2100. In other words, with 100% reductions, we're not even going to notice a slowdown in global warming.

Academics and scientists like Hansen are specialists in "know that" rather than know-how. They know that global warming is happening, and some of the why, but they haven't a real clue how to solve it.

Soil organic matter is the invisible solution, and its potential politics are very different from those of emissions reductions.

Because of the local benefits to a soil carbon strategy, it resembles your Breakthrough strategies of investment.


By Peter Donovan on 2008 04 02