March 20, 2008
More Inconvenient Truths
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:
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.