Al Gore was in Chicago last week, but without his PowerPoint deck. He was part of the Speaker Series, the post-Obama political craze. Gore talked about the role of carbon fuel in the worldâ€™s three crises: climate, financial, and security.
Naturally, the crowd was warm to the man who should have been the nationâ€™s 43rd President, especially his campaign managerâ€™s hometown, where he received 73% of the popular vote, contributing well to his national victory. (No, I havenâ€™t gotten over the 2000 election. Have you?) A few people heckled him, yelling â€œLiar, Liar!â€; out front, PETA had its own protest, arguing that Gore doesn’t go far enough.
Now, there are plenty of unknowns about global warming: we donâ€™t know how quickly climate change is happening, what the ultimate effects will be, or how to reverse the damage. (Manhattan may be underwater, but Buffalo, on the shores of the worldâ€™s largest freshwater repository, may rise again!) But we do know that the climate is changing, and change is difficult. The joy that may be felt in Buffalo, Detroit, and Duluth will be offset by decimated industries, forced migration, and new dustbowls. The culprit is carbon, and Gore is right about that.
Because the U.S. is dependent on oil, we are also dependent on people who do not have Americaâ€™s best interests are heart: the Saudis, Hugo Chavez, Sarah Palin. Iraq was a tasty target for the other 43rd Presidentâ€™s military fantasies because it has oil, unlike North Korea. Saddam Hussein was no prize, but neither are a lot of other international leaders. And at least a few of those less savory folks are in Africa, which is also rich in oil. We give these people leverage over us because we need cheap oil, so score another point for Gore.
The relationship between carbon and the financial crisis is tougher. Some of the volatility in currency and commodity markets is related; oil is priced in dollars, and most Arab nations have tied the value of their currencies to the dollar. The U.S. automakers are in trouble in part because their fleets were overloaded with gas guzzlers, but those firms have long histories of financial troubles. Most of the financial crisis is due to over-extension in the financial services sector, not commodities. Heck, the Saudis donâ€™t use Western financial services, because Muslims do not pay or receive interest. Sure, thereâ€™s been a real-estate bust in Calgary, but oil didnâ€™t contribute to the bust in Sacramento.
Ford and GM both sell hybrids, not that youâ€™d necessarily know that. GM has a great new electric car scheduled for release next year, the Chevy Volt; the mystery is why it isnâ€™t out sooner. Chrysler has been working on electric, hybrid, and hydrogen-powered cars for the last decade, but where are they? Lee Iacocca saved Chrysler during its last bailout by introducing the minivan. If TK could pull out an electric minivan this time around, maybe the companyâ€™s situation would be different.
I suspect that Gore tried to tie the financial crisis to carbon because it made for a nice three-point speech. He should have argued that the financial crisis is a contributor to the carbon crisis. Sure, a shuttered Washington Mutual branch uses less power than an open one, but thatâ€™s a small factor. Banks and investment companies have no money to fund new ventures right now, so an inventor with a great idea for renewable power generation or better battery technologies would find no easy source of funds to get the product ready for market.
Gore had a great comment: â€œWeâ€™re deceived by what seems to be common sense,â€ he said. He was talking about how people used to think pollution wasnâ€™t a problem because the sky seemed so vast when itâ€™s thin relative to the total size of the earth and of space. Itâ€™s a wise observation about the climate, security, and financial crises, too. All defy easy solutions, but that does not mean that they cannot be solved. With creativity and a willingness to challenge the status quo (a real challenge, not simply yelling â€œliar, liarâ€ or rioting in the streets), things will change.