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Al Gore in NYC - "Operating the planet like a business in liquidation"

Arthur Smith has been following energy issues since 2002, co-founded the Alternative Energy Action Network, and is vice president for chapters with the National Space Society.

imageCAN17005201948.jpgLast night's "Wired Town Hall on the Climate Crisis" was a forum with Al Gore, global warming scientist James Hansen, and film producers Laurie David and Laurence Bender, moderated by John Hockenberry of Wired magazine, all introduced by Wired Editor Chris Anderson. The event was timed to coincide with the publicity build-up around the film, An Inconvenient Truth. Wired featured Gore and highlighted the movie on the cover in a recent issue, distributed to the roughly 1000 attendees last night.

Gore talked briefly about his family - Tipper was there in the audience, along with Chelsea Clinton - and then launched into a shortened version of his global warming talk, minus visual aids. He talked about the crisis as a challenge to our moral imagination, a radical transformation of the relationship between humans and our planet. Nothing in our prior history and culture prepare us for this new reality - we never before had the ability to do lasting harm.

And he talked about something else that has made all this worse: the emergence of a "new public philosophy that discounts the future consequences of present actions" - we see it in the market place with emphasis on short-term results, in politics with overnight polling, in the media everywhere - news has devolved to reflect the long-standing mantra of local editors: "if it bleeds it leads, if it thinks it sinks". This short-term approach is not conducive to the need we have on the climate issue.

Gore called this all a "bizarre manifestations of a very destructive pattern", and likened our actions to "operating the planet like a business in liquidation".

Global warming is the most serious manifestation, and we have to come to grips with it - and the related problem of CO2 absorption in the oceans, making them more acidic and disabling shell production among sea creatures.

Gore extolled the level of current climate modeling, with its clear message on what this all means for the planet. "We are literally changing the relationship between the earth and the sun".

But to all of this too often the response has been denial - it's too painful to think about the consequences and what we might have to change to solve this. And once people get over denial, too often they go straight to despair. But we don't need to go there yet.

Gore summarized the situation with 5 points:

* global warming is real
* humans are principally responsible
* it is not both good and bad: the bad far outweighs the good
* we need to fix it
* it is not too late, we have time

"This is by far the most dangerous crisis we have ever faced; and it has the capacity to bring civilization itself to a halt. Scientist James Lovelock has a dark vision of where we are headed. But I know something about the political system that some people in science don't know. The political system is nonlinear - it can appear to move at a snail's pace, but then it can cross a tipping point and shift into a completely new path." Gore sees a solution to the climate crisis in the potential for a major political change as the American people respond to the challenge.

He talked about "the greatest generation" and the challenges they faced and overcame. This is the moral imperative of our generation, and we can rise to meet it - but we need to empower ourselves with knowledge, and Gore specifically pointed people to the website he has helped create on this:

One of the themes of Gore's presentation is that, at least if we act soon, the crisis represents real opportunity, not just danger and things we should fear. It's a difficult message to get across clearly.

We were then treated to a short excerpt from "An Inconvenient Truth", with Gore talking about the consequences of sea-level rise, with Manhattan under water and potentially 100 million refugees in the next half-century.

The full panel then came on stage and sat down; moderator John Hockenberry started things off by likening Gore's appearance tonight with Abraham Lincoln's anti-slavery speech at Cooper Union, not far away, 146 years ago, a speech that led to extraordinary consequences. "We are here at a similar moment, the emergence of an issue that could not be more urgent, but that has failed to attract a mass movement until now."

James Hansen of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies in Manhattan gave a short presentation: "I'm not speaking as a government employee" he started. He outline the inevitable warming consequences of the current state of things, and his view that we have one more decade of "business as usual" before we start to reach a point of irreversible changes, a "climate tipping point", that will take us beyond anything Earth has experienced since the first proto-humans evolved three million years ago.

Hansen talked about the impact on animals and plants: on average they are moving northward at about 4 miles per decade, but the climate zones are moving northward at 35 miles per decade, and with "business as usual" that rate will increase to 70 miles per decade later this century. 50% of plant and animal species on Earth are expected to die out. This is a profound moral issue (Hansen mentioned Noah's commandment to save all the species), if we ourselves manage to survive.

Hansen reviewed again the dangers from glacier melting in Greenland and West Antarctica; direct measurements of their mass showed the mass of Greenland decreased by 50 cubic miles of ice in 2005, and the mass of West Antarctica by a similar amount. 5 degrees (Fahrenheit) of temperature increase will lead to cataclysmic problems and the 100 million refugees Gore mentioned, or perhaps as many as half a billion refugees, with a 25 meter sea level rise.

And Hansen compared the "Ozone success story" to the disaster we have had with global warming; with ozone, scientists, the media, government, and even industry eventually joined in working out the solution and making it happen. With global warming, just about everybody has fallen down on the job - but Hansen particularly blamed "special interests" or industry for the lack of progress.

But - there is still hope for an alternative scenario, with the right political and technological leadership in the United States. General discussion followed, appropriately focused on Gore and Hansen. Gore talked about changing your individual life, becoming part of the solution, and being emboldened to speak up.
That it was still even for him, knowing about the problem for over 30 years, a challenge to fully internalize the gravity of the situation. And that, "If you believe what Dr. Hansen said, if you accept that reality, we may have less than 10 years before we cross a "point of no return". So - what else matters?"

"We who are alive today are at a point in history with a burden of action almost unimaginable in the context of human history." But Gore stated that we have everything we need: we have technologies to get us started, others that we know we can focus on to develop to meet the need. What we're really missing is political will - but from his experience, "that is a renewable resource" (applause!)

Gore also echoed Hansen's points about the great contrast between the ozone problem - the Montreal protocol was signed by Ronald Reagan - and global warming: now the government is aligning with the worst and least responsible of the polluters. And the news media is acting like a referee at a pro-wrestling match!

On what we need to be doing, Hansen pointed out that with cfc's for ozone, once we thought there was a problem we didn't build any more infrastructure, and we then eliminated that infrastructure over a period of years after signing the protocol. We need to do the same here: quit increasing emissions (still rising at a rate of about 2%/year) - in particular the US, China and India have plans for many new coal-fired power plants, and the number of transportation vehicles keeps increasing relentlessly.

Hansen believes we can stop this increase in CO2 emissions now through efficiency improvements that would last us 10-20 years, by which time we may have the technology to actually replace fossil generators and take us down a different path. To reduce the need for new power plants we need to promote end use efficiency: appliances, lighting, etc. Individuals can do some of this, but we have got to have government leadership.

Gore also commented on the potential for government leadership in enforcing standards - that in his view it had to start with a change in the political environment: we need an informed citizenry, as our founders intended. As long as we do not have an informed citizenry, it doesn't matter what the other three branches of government do.

There are things that can be done but they are definitely difficult, and entrenched special interests will fight them to the death. We need the informed citizenry to rise up and oppose those special interests and do what's right.

Gore: "If I could wave a magic wand, and make each and every one of you in this room into an active informed citizen, this is more than enough people to change the United States of America".

On the question of immediate government steps Gore had a quick answer: get rid of all the subsidies for coal and oil.

The carbon tax came up - Hockenberry surprisingly didn't seem to understand this meant a gasoline tax, and oddly worded his commentary on this. Both Hansen and Gore noted that such a tax is what economists uniformly recommend as the best approach to reducing carbon emissions. Such a tax can be revenue neutral: Gore has long proposed a carbon tax that replaces a portion of social security payroll taxes, so the poor are not disproportionately disadvantaged. It should also be added slowly to give people time to adjust their habits and purchases.

But Gore's comment on this was that, unfortunately, "the maximum tax that is presently realistic politically falls far short of the minimum to really address this crisis." implying that other measures are needed.

But he muddied this message a bit, also talking about expanding the limits of what is politically possible, and changing the way of thinking among the American people. "I've worked on this for 30 years: the avenue to change runs right through the hearts and minds of the people" (the latter I believe is a paraphrase of a profound statement on good and evil from Solzhenitsyn).

This returned to the informed citizenry issue: we need clear understanding, in media and movies, of this scientific knowledge. When that change comes, and people demand that elected officials look around for what makes sense - then we will be able to do it.

Gore mentioned his plans to train 1000 people to give his slideshow presentation, which he is planning to share under a "creative commons" license.

Going beyond America, Hansen responded to a question on what to do about China and other places where CO2 emissions are growing rapidly. "A lot can be done - they're less than half as efficient." Hansen mentioned that the Kyoto accord included a clean development mechanism for China and India to help be more efficient. They would have cleaner technology if we'd been involved in Kyoto, but we just walked away. They're eager to do what's right, but we're not helping.

A question on the economics of solutions brought out Gore's most interesting point: the largest polluters have pushed the idea that CO2 reductions will bring great economic hardship but it's just not true. A great example are US automakers - they got what they wanted, the worst standards in the world: now GM is staving off bankruptcy and Ford is in junk bond status. While Toyota has a long waiting list for every Prius; Toyota and Honda are taking over the markets because they are addressing the CO2 reduction issue head-on: by being more efficient. Now GM and Ford are running ads that they'll do better. Gore hopes they have time.

Pollution is waste, eliminating it almost always saves money. Another example Gore raised: Northern Telecom committed to eliminating CFC's in production; they redesigned their process, making products cheaper, better, more competitive and less polluting; their competitors had to license the process.

When we make a moral commitment to do the right thing and push hard enough for a new generation of technology, it's almost always better, and we need these new generations of technology so we can be competitive in the future.

Laurie David and Laurence Bender talked about some small things people could do; Bender also referred to the present situation as a "perfect storm": Katrina, oil prices, and the war in Iraq all emphasize the importance of this at this time.

There was a very brief discussion of ethanol; the new cellulosic processes should be better than current corn-based ethanol production at actually bringing a net benefit.

Gore talked a bit about coal and carbon sequestration: catching the CO2 before it goes into the atmosphere and putting it into the ground. He's still in favor of coal if it can be used cleanly in this manner, since there's a lot of it available. Coal mining may cause local troubles, but he felt they tended to be local, and very different from the global problem presented by CO2.

Laurie David and Al Gore talked about bringing the message to a more diverse group. Gore's comments here were quite powerful: "Look at those who suffered most from levee failures in New Orleans. Those who suffer the most from being downwind of power plants. The first victims of global warming will also be the poor, those who don't have the resources to move easily." Minority communities are fed up with being the first and worst victims, and they'll be behind this, but we have to ensure we're inclusive as we build up an informed citizenry.

The panelists talked about online activists, and the religious community: evangelical leaders have begun to recognize this is a violation of a core belief on stewardship of the planet, and have done some great work on this recently.

The issue of whether the science is conclusive or not came up via an audience question. Hansen and Gore both answered - Gore quoted Upton Sinclair: "it is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on his not understanding it". But on this the debate is over. The consensus is as strong as it ever gets in science.

Gore referred to the precedent in the tobacco industry. If the scientific consensus had been understood more broadly a lot of lives would have been saved. 500,000 people were dying every year from cigarette-caused illnesses, over a 40-year period during which time the scientific consensus was not adopted because of these people who confused the public. Some of the executives of tobacco companies look back on this period and are ashamed. Gore believes in a few years Exxon Mobil executives will look back and be ashamed too.

On media claims of scientific bias, Gore pointed to Hansen: "here's a man who's devoted his entire life to being a public servant, and they accuse him of being greedy, trying to get more grants, by twisting the truth... I don't know why it's no longer considered acceptable to have a boycott of a company like Exxon-Mobil that does this..."

All the panelists talked about things they have done to reduce their "carbon footprint". Gore noted that it's really not that hard to be "carbon neutral" - it doesn't cost as much as you might expect.

It was clear a lot of the audience questions were directed to Gore, on whether he planned to run for president; Hockenberry saved them all for a single question at the end. Gore responded in typical long-winded fashion, but concluded pretty clearly on why he's not planning on it right now: "There are lots about politics I don't like these days, in our sound-bite political culture. It works against the politics of ideas. It's a toxic process.

I don't think my skills are well suited to this political climate. I want to do my best to make it possible for whoever is elected this year and in 2008 to start changing the picture."

Hockenberry concluded echoing this concept of "a politics of ideas" and exhorted us to be part of that "informed citizenry, passionate, activist, and countervailing preexisting economic interests." Judging by the long line to buy Gore's book afterwards, a good portion of the audience was eager to at least become better informed.

It was definitely worth a trip to the city to see Al Gore in person; however this session was slightly unsatisfying. The concrete steps proposed all seemed too slight to really address the problem, and even Hansen's best hope seemed to be, for right now, just stabilizing emissions levels rather than an actual reduction. Maybe the informed citizenry talked about so much really is the key and once there, the technology will resolve itself. But can you get citizens involved and ready to take action without a clear path they can see that will actually solve the problem? Anyway, kudos to Wired and the movie producers for at least getting Gore and Hansen the attention they deserve on this critically important issue.

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There are a couple of bad links in there.

* * *

"operating the planet like a business in liquidation".

Well, with [the return of Jesus | The Singularity] just around the corner, why not live it up?

Posted by: Stefan Jones on 26 May 06

I don't know whether Gore will run for President, but if a Democrat gets elected, maybe he can install Gore as energy czar (remember when we had an energy czar), but this time with clout.

Too bad many of us were living it up in the 90s. We were having just too much fun and making too much moeny to think about global warming. The Clinton administration, even with Gore, accomplished virtually nothing. I love Gore in his current reincarnation but am still somewhat bitter about how they wasted so many opportunities when they were in power.

Even this time, Gore doesn't seem to be going far enough, unless I've missed this somewhere. Where is the call for reducing our co2 emissions by up to 70%. This is daunting. But just think. The Prius emits 60% less emissions than the average vehicle. If you combine Prius like mileage with some cutbacks in driving, you're there as far as that sector goes.

The real challenge, it seems, is in the home heating and cooling sector. We know how to build new houses that can reduced emissions by 70%, but how do we do this with respect to existing houses.

We've made some progress on solar and wind, but we need to make at least 50% subsidies universal. We've got subsidies in Colorado, but it just applies to those serviced by the big utilities.

To achieve the emission reductions necessary to make a dent in global warming is daunting. But it will be impossible unless and until our leaders, including Gore, set an explicit goal of 70% and then set about how we are going to get there. In part because I live at a high altitude, I have seen radical changes in just the last few decades. I feel and see the radical change in climate each season and this Spring was the worst, as usual. It also appears we will have another Summer of hell, at least relatively speaking.

I know 60 or 70 percent may be politically unrealistic, but we have to begin to plant the seed. Gore needs to plant that seed, but thus far he seems to be lacking with respect to specific goals and plans to achieve those goals.

Posted by: t on 26 May 06

I'm pretty sure the "James Lovell" referred to above is James Lovelock, the originator of the Gaia hypothesis (rather than the astronaut).

Posted by: JMG on 26 May 06

Gore never heard of the tragedy of the commons, huh?

It's always been like this, people. Don't think we haven't changed climates before - overgrazing, deforestation, etc, etc....

Posted by: donna on 26 May 06

Excellent entry. Unfortunately, none of this addresses the elephant in the room: the tremendous American attention, energy and resources being diverted instead to the "war" on terror.

Truly, the U.S. cannot focus the necessary attention or provide the needed leadership to the climate challenges until it gets past this U.S. obsession with the "war" on terror.

The time is short. Leadership is needed now.

Posted by: JC on 26 May 06

't' hits the trouble I had with it right on the nose. I'm encouraged by the DailyKos plan, "Energize America" - Draft 5 is the latest version of that, which sets a goal of 75% CO2 reductions by 2020. I've been discussing this with the authors a bit further and I think they're going to have to do some adjustment of numbers to actually make that realistic rather than wildly pie-in-the-sky, but it's good to see a number like that in print - and I really do wonder why Gore and friends don't push for something of that sort now. You're right that we can make a huge dent with efficiency right away: Hansen pointed this out too; but I think we need big pushes on many fronts to get anywhere near what we need.

I'm sure "JMG" is right - Gore drops a lot of names in his talks as usual and I didn't catch them all properly!

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 26 May 06

The Clinton administration, even with Gore, accomplished virtually nothing.
In all fairness, one of the first things the Clinton administration tried to do was to implement a system of carbon-related taxes on fuel.  Unfortunately, the proposal was a nightmare of different taxes (and colored dyes) for different purposes, and it died a well-deserved death.  The outright stupidity displayed by that effort plus Hillary's health-care proposal were big factors in the Republican takeover of the House in 1994.

As is typical for things like this, the ridiculous complexity came from mis-guided attempts to spare the poor (or politically influential groups) from having to do or spend much to address the problem.  If this is an important thing to do, it needs to be sold as patriotic or even human duty and nobody should get off scot-free.

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 27 May 06

I really enjoyed the Wired Town Hall meeting on Thursday.

No, it was not heavy on the concrete suggestions of "what to do" beyond a few personal steps. (Laurie David is talking about idling school buses at every interview lately, it seems -- I don't doubt her sincerity for a second, but maybe a bit more variety in the anecdotes, folks?) Gore avoided recommending precise industrial, social or political steps, as did the whole panel, despite a few attempts by Hockenberry to get them going.

But it was magnificent as a manifestation of how understanding of global warming, and the need for the U.S. to act, is moving towards the mainstream of public discussion and debate.

A significant portion of the audience -- including the slightly tipsy blond of a certain age in the row in front of me -- probably don't know a carbon tax from carbon fiber sunglass frames. But Town Hall was nearly full for a panel discussion on how our actions are disrupting the climate. That's a great sign that public pressure may catalyze and force the policy-makers get to work on this.

It's up to people like those of us who read and write Worldchanging to be here as the public moves to the next level of understanding and needs to encounter optimistic technological, industrial and personal solutions.

Posted by: Emily Gertz on 27 May 06

Arthur: Yours is a terrific piece of reportage. From a physicist yet. Sorry I missed you at the Town Hall Gore event. I went after seeing Gore's "An Inconvenient Truth" earlier that day, and was blown away by both his grasp of global warming science and his emotional commitment to solving the problem. But certainly neither Al Gore in the film or the Town Hall panelists were anywhere near reality regarding the scale and efforts needed to address the climate/energy problem. I hope those who think we're we're already there technologically, and lack only political will to do something about it, will factor the following realities into their thinking:

(1) The 850 new conventional coal-fired power plants being built by non-Kyoto signatories -- China, India and the US -- will put five times as much CO2 into the atmosphere as Kyoto cuts will remove (if they even happen) -- equivalent to all the CO2 input since the industrial revolution. Against this the US offers to build at a still undertermined place and time a "FutureGen" coal gasification piliot plant incorporating an integrated combined cycle (gas turbine + steam turbine) with CO2 capture and sequestration underground; i.e., in deep saline aquifers. What can we expect from this one plant against massive wave of recarbonization and CO2 buildup? This buildup wasn't considered in the Pacala-Socolow's Science paper which concluded that existing technology is sufficient to solve the carbon and climate problem for the next 50 years. Their paper is cited at the end of the Gore film -- I believe to present an upbeat takeaway message -- but the objective problem is a lot harder, and will take a lot more imaginative approach to solve.

For one thing, the technology to solve to solve the carbon and energy problem only exists in the sense that the technology existed to build nuclear weapons in the late '30s, or that the technology existed to build crewed lunar rockets in the late '50s. But it took the Manhattan and Apollo programs to make these so. We need massive and imaginative R & D programs on at least those scales along with active participation by the kind of entrepreneurial talent that made the US the world's technology leader for 200 years to solve the climate-energy problem. Another critical issue is what to do about the hundreds of $billion in capital investments sunk for a half century in those 850 conventional coal reactors. These are essentially impossible to retrofit cost-effectively for sequestration. In the event of eventually intolerable global warming impacts, will the plants be shut down with these investments just lost? Written off, like the $6 billion invested in Long Island's Shoreham nuke was lost when it was abondoned for lack of a suitable emergency evacuation plan. Might these plans be taken out by military action -- much as we're contemplating for Iranian and Korean nuclear processing plants; and as we did, putatively, in invading Iraq to disable nuclear WMDs? How much greater a mistake for building a global sustainable energy infrastructure could those 850 coal plants under construction be? What are we doing about it?

(2) Given understandable concerns about operationary safely, waste disposal and weapons proliferation, current plans to restart nuclear power in the US by this administration, and in the recent MIT study of Duetsch and Moniz, and worldwide, for example, Jim Lovelock's nuclear solution, focus on U-235 burning in "once through" reactors, possibly with a few fuel recycles. But we showed in our '98 Nature and '03 Science papers that we'll need 10-30 TW primary power emission free by 2050 to keep global warming below the 2.5 degrees Celsius that Jim Hansen and others -- yours truly included -- believe would trigger irreversible melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets. Unfortunately, there isn't enough U-235 in indentified uranium resources to generate 10 thermal TW for more than 30 years. This isn't a particularly new new result. We found, as did a landmark global energy analysis by Wolf Hafele at the International Institute of Applied systems Analysis in laxenburg, Austria, in the 70s that only breeder reactors converting U-238 in uranium to plutonium, or throrium to fissionable U-233 could power the planet on times scales of hundreds to thousands of years. This reality is ignored by Gore and others otherwise well informed and well meaning, perhaps because of the general unease over "green nukes." But it's a major issue that has to be addressed now. As with those coal plants, it could be tragic to rediscover this result after hundreds of billions are sunk in the wrong kind of nuclear power infrastructure, and just as the impacts of global warming become catastrophically evident to everyone.

(3) The renewables path, may personal favorite, of which terrestrial solar and wind with appropriate transmission and storage and space solar power (SSP) for sufficiently low cost access-to-space, are the most promising, is also fraught with to-be-dealt-with-now infrastructure issues. As with coal gasification & nuke breeder plants cited above, an appropriate global renewable energy infrastructure has to be built now to meet the objective of a sustainable & CO2-emission free global energy system by mid-century, even as global GDP continues to grow ~ 3%/yr. Denmark's 20% penetration of wind-powered electricty for example, is often cited as a renewable energy success story, which it is. Less well known is that it's only possible by employing Norway's 100% hydropower system as pumped storage backup. The Scandinavian regional grid penetration is only ~ 4%, and even that is overwheming utility operators ability to manage loads. We need an electric grid infrastructure in the US and worldwide to handle intermittant distributed renewable inputs on Earth's surface today (yesterday would have been better). But deregulation of the electric utilities has made this virtually impossible because no one has an economic interest in doing this, not to mention the breath of understanding to realize it's the most important issue for the future. Space solar power, of course, has no dedicated funding or program in the US, the spacefaring country most able to implement it though it's a direct competitor with fusion for base load power. In fact, SSP is farther along technically than fusion -- tokamaks are yet to attain a self sustaining plasma burn from hot alpha particles -- a scientific proof of principle that is the objective of ITER.

Bottom line: We're still asking the wrong questions and thrashing around looking for the right problem to work on. Meanwhile the issues of infrastructure for coal, nukes and renewables, vital to avoiding catastropic global warming by midcentry or earlier, seem not to be on any politicians radar screen. Worse, their not on the radar screen of DoE managers of the Climate Change Technology program, for lack of champions in the agency. Maybe APRA-E (for energy) proposed by the NAS will get to them -- I hope not too late. We have a window of opportunity, but not a huge amount of time to set the course for the rest of the century in energy. I can think of no more important problem. We in the alternate energy community, if we can get our act together, might be able to bring these issues to the attention of Al Gore and like-minded politicos. But we have to get on the same page ourselves first.

I hope we make Al Gore's film -- based on his terrific PowerPoint presentation (on a Mac, by the way) -- the opening wedge of a serious discussion about what is to be done to make the energy revolution we need happen by midcentury.

Marty Hoffert

Posted by: Marty Hoffert on 27 May 06

Arthur: I couldn’t agree more with Marty – “Yours is a terrific piece of reportage”. It’s wonderful to see so many outstanding scientists engaging in this critically important discussion. I would modify the notion that the solutions are likely to come from informed citizenry: it is more likely the solutions will come from a combination of unfettered scientific progress by tens of thousands of independent investigators and thousands of small businesses that leverage government support with market-driven realities. Marty suggested we look to the Manhattan project or the Apollo project for models. I suggest we look to the unprecedented advance in medical technology over the past two decades for an even better model, being both more recent and better suited to such a complex, multi-faceted challenge.

I suspect the advances in medical sciences and technologies over the past two decades have far exceeded the predictions of expert forecasters of twenty years ago in hundreds of areas. I can certainly testify that that is the case in my own primary areas of expertise – MRI and NMR – and in several other areas I’ve had some contact with. These advances have occurred because the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and to a lesser extent the National Science Foundation (NSF), have given tens of billions of dollars over the years to hundreds of thousands of individual researchers in rather small aliquots (current average grant may be ~$200K) and tens of billions of dollars to thousands of well run research organizations.

What has made NIH and NSF successful, in stark contrast to the DOE, is that most of these grants are, for all intents and purposes, UNSOLICITED. Basically, the NIH and NSF say, “send us proposals of high scientific quality, and we’ll make sure it gets to a qualified review board that will compare its scientific merit to all other proposals currently before that committee. We’ll fund the best 20% (ok, maybe it’s down to 12% now).” The DOE, on the other hand, generally says “We need a particular widget for a particular gadget. Tell us how you’ll make it for less than it costs and which congressional district will get the most jobs.”

The NIH and NSF are quite content to fund lots of ideas that will never amount to anything. They know their review committees are comprised of imperfect scientists who don’t have complete information on the proposals under review – or the time needed to be completely sure the research will be worthwhile. But they know the scientists doing the review are highly competent, take their responsibility seriously, and most of the time render good judgments.

There can be no doubt which process works and which doesn’t. Look at the astounding advances we’ve made in medicine and science over the past two decades, compared to the paltry progress we’ve seen in energy technology. Those in power at DOE will argue that the energy challenges are in a completely different class, and individual investigators in small businesses are less qualified than the energy gods at DOE. But they’ve had their chance. They’ve spent tens of billions on big science. Fusion is still at least 40 years away (if ever). Advanced recycling options for fission cycles are still not being tested.

Big science in energy has totally failed and cannot be salvaged in its current form. It’s all going in dead-end directions. Ray Orbach (Director, Office of Science, DOE) is a brilliant physicist, but he hasn’t a clue about any real solutions to our energy problems. It’s time the physics community admit this and recommend that he be replaced with someone who understands that spending tens of billions more on upgraded versions of the super toys that enthralled and inspired us physicists forty years ago won’t do a thing to help address humanity’s greatest challenge – dramatically reducing our CO2 emissions.

On the other hand, there are hundreds of well run small businesses out there (employing thousands of extremely competent energy scientists) that could each put half a million dollars to very good use on real solutions – every year. It’s time we give any proposal that is scientifically compelling a chance – solar hybrid vehicles, hydrogen-powered motorcycles, tidal power, fertilizers from wind, ethanol from wind, high-voltage DC underground power grid, advanced vehicle engine concepts, etc. And yes, there will need to be some larger grants to larger firms with a proven track record, but there should be a hundred $1M grants for every $30M grant – and no grants over $100M.

(And by the way, check out Paul Krugman’s latest column in the NYT, in which he turns his sharp focus to the subject of Al Gore’s film.)

F. David Doty

Posted by: David Doty on 27 May 06

We're building another coal fired plant here in Colorado. And yet, we have a citizen mandated renewable portfolio standard. 10% of a bigger number doesn't get you very far.

After hearing about the planned 850 coal fired plants, I really need to drink more.

Surely Gore is aware of these coal plants? I cannot fathom a strategy that gets everyone "aware" but does nothing to address the problem.

Even our existing installed base of coal is unacceptable. Technology is great, but in the mean time there needs to be a moratorium on any more fosssil fueled plants.

Unrealistic? Most probably. But it has to be said as co2 takes 100 years to flush out of the atmosphere.

Posted by: t on 27 May 06

Marty, your list of necessities is almost exactly what I've been blogging since Feb 2004.

Need a policy guy?

Posted by: Engineer-Poet on 27 May 06

Hey, that's cool - of course I should have expected not to be the only "Worldchanging" person at Gore's presentation :-)

Marty - not sure you'll see this comment here so I'll send it by email too...

First, thanks for the praise - and as usual your cogent comments!

However, on the uranium fuel cycle, Ken Deffeyes in "Beyond Oil" had some graphs of uranium ore concentrations from his own early studies of the matter about 40 years ago. It's true that reserves are limited at the ore concentrations currently considered profitable to mine. However, the claim is that there's something like an order of magnitude more uranium available if you can profitably mine ore at 1 tenth the current typical concentration, and even more if you go to lower quality ores. Now the lower quality ores lead to higher uranium prices, and at some point fuel costs will price the fission option out of the market. But I'm no longer convinced that once-through is doomed to less than a century - we could have several centuries at reasonable costs.

Of course fission has all its other problems that may lead you to avoid it. But is fuel supply really one of them?

Posted by: Arthur Smith on 28 May 06

Marty and Engineer-Poet,

I'm thinking much the way you do except one point and that being the nuclear stuff. Where are the ethical and moral aspects? Even if you could get several centuries of power from these reactors, do you really want it? As pyhsicists you know that entropy always wins and you don't want to have the nuclear waste of hundred times the number of todays reactors spreading mainly over the surface of the planet.
And even if ITER and DEMO will be successfully finished within the next 50 years there are simpler, cheaper and more intelligent solutions for saturating the energyhunger of humanity. As in many other fields you should prefer the simpler (and modular) solutions to complex ones - every software programmer will tell you that :-)

But being in this field for only a few years I fully respect and acknowledge your opinions and only want to give you some thoughts.
I myself am going to start studying physics the next semester. I hope that my horizon won't be that limited that it has been for many student generations before me which didn't even notice the existance of alternatives to these really complex fusion and fission reactors. From the Physics Journal I get the feeling that even in the physical community there is a really big inertia when it comes to the future energy supply.
But there are some physicists (I only know German ones (Dürr, Weizäcker, Schmidt-Bleek)) who got it and after several decades of research in the particle sector go to promote a sustainable and more self sufficient way of living. They give me hope and have influenced my decision towards studying physics.

Greetings, Daniel

Posted by: Daniel on 29 May 06

"Gore mentioned his plans to train 1000 people to give his slideshow presentation, which he is planning to share under a "creative commons" license."

MAYBE THE MOST IMPORTANT SENTENCE IN THE ARTICLE>>> I'm sure there'd be 10,000 willing to do it! The movie has tremendous power to motivate us to action. I've organized parties of friends to see it three times already and will keep taking people to see it as often as I can. And many people I know would be honored to give their services to this cause for free. So how? where? when? SIgn ME up! Please give us more information.

Alan Green

Posted by: Alan Green on 30 May 06

WOW!! “undisputed????” While Canada drills 100 miles east of ANWR and is pumping thousands of barrels a day and while Cuba & China are co-drilling in the Gulf of Mexico; and Vicente Fox is drilling in the Gulf off the coast of Mexico, Sierra Club Gorions are fretting over global climate change. If fossil fuels cause global climate change, you all are doomed once China & India start driving cars en masse even if we go back to bicycles. (BTW, they are EXEMPT from Kyoto and any such restrictive measures). Perhaps the minor change in global temperature over the past 50 years is due to increased solar activity. Get it, the sun warms the planet so it is logical to first look there for any causes surrounding temperature change? Or perhaps you forgot several years ago when people where bemoaning global warming causing El Nina/Nino? Ooops! They discovered that it was due to increased under ocean volcanic activity - “Ring of Fire”!!!!
Don’t change however. I like you the way you are. Just like your air-head parents ranting about global cooling causing a next ice age back in the 70’s.

Posted by: yao zmen on 30 May 06

"Hansen compared the "Ozone success story" to the disaster we have had with global warming; with ozone, scientists, the media, government, and even industry eventually joined in working out the solution and making it happen" -- emphasis mine.

In this context, what is the most significant difference between CFCs and CO2? Taxes. Government makes billions of dollars per week on CO2 emissions; it had no such stake in footdragging a freon ban.

So what's with "even industry"? They're not the ones most profiting from the fossil fuel status quo. (Hansen may have thought he was "not speaking as a government employee", but he certainly seems to have the blind spot of one.)

And talk of revenue neutrality in the introduction of a carbon tax misses this point. Not to have the underhanded opposition of a very large and influential fraction of tax takers, it would have to continue to be revenue neutral as fossil fuel end-users strove to get out from under it by burning less, all their savings on carbon tax being immediately cancelled by upward adjustments of the social security payroll taxes that were reduced at its onset.

--- G. R, L. Cowan, former hydrogen fan
Try boron for intermittent distributed renewable inputs

Posted by: Graham Cowan on 31 May 06

Now they've got me doing it. Reality distortion ...

I foolishly wrote, "introduction of a carbon tax". That boat has sailed. The only thing now really being discussed under that heading is the substantial increase of already heavy carbon taxation.

Posted by: Graham Cowan on 31 May 06

"I'm carbon neutral, and so's my family, so are both of my businesses. Becoming carbon neutral is really not that hard. It's surprising." Quoted by Al Gore for Seattle Times interview.

Does anyone know what Al Gore's Carbon foot print is so we can verify this?

thank you

Posted by: MNWalleye on 1 Jun 06



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