4. The Really Inconvenient Truth

If we save the living environment, the biodiversity that we have left today, then we will also automatically save the physical environment. If we only save the physical environment, then we will ultimately lose both
— Edward O. Wilson

Former Vice President Al Gore changed my life. It was his slide show that stopped me dead in my technical career track to change course and devote the rest of my life to environmental causes. It was a cold evening in December of 2005 when I came to a warm home in New Jersey, switched on Link TV[1], a public service channel on our satellite dish, and watched Mr. Gore present his slide show before a small audience in San Francisco. This was a few months before his Oscar winning documentary made such a splash worldwide, and someone had captured it with a hand-held camera. Despite the simple production of the video, I was so shocked by what he was showing that I told my wife that if even half of that was true, we were wasting our time at our start-up trying to create new technology and ultimately, accumulate more wealth for our future. What was the use of leaving our children a pile of money when the planet itself was going to be desolate and unfit to live in if we don't solve the climate crisis? A few months later, after poring through the environmental and scientific literature, I came to the conclusion that the situation was actually far worse than what was portrayed in the slide show. Then we closed our start-up and I wrote to Mr. Gore offering to help in any way I can. This is how, in December of 2006, I became one of a few thousand trained presenters of his slide show and I went around presenting it in New Jersey and India over the next year on behalf of the Climate Project[2], a non-profit that Mr. Gore founded to raise awareness on the climate crisis.

The Oscar winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth[3]," (AIT) based on Mr. Gore's slide show was released in mid-2006 and it raised the profile of the climate crisis in the world at large and won Mr. Gore the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007, jointly with the scientists at the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change[4] (IPCC). Through the skillful use of animations, movies and imagery, AIT conveyed the scientific view that the world was experiencing increasing fires, floods, droughts, hurricanes, tornadoes, ice-melts, loss of arctic ice and sea level rise due to the accumulating greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, especially carbon dioxide (CO2), spewed out mainly by the fossil-fuel based energy infrastructure of the industrial world. The increasing concentration of greenhouse gases was trapping more of the solar energy falling on Earth and heating it up rapidly. But AIT left the impression that we can resolve these issues if we only had the will and the wherewithal to deploy clean, renewable energy solutions for the world's ever-increasing energy needs. Today, I believe that Mr. Gore was more on the mark when he wrote in his book, "Earth in the Balance[5]" in 1993, that "The more deeply I search for the roots of our environmental crisis, the more I am convinced that it is an outer manifestation of an inner crisis that is spiritual." And such a fundamental, inner crisis cannot be fully solved merely with external technological deployments. Nevertheless, for a while after being trained by Mr. Gore, I conveyed the impression to my audiences that technological solutions do exist for our predicament.

I hope that they will accept my apologies now.

Both Mr. Gore's slide show and the IPCC reports are mainly conservative and portray a best-case projection because the process of achieving scientific and political consensus tends to gloss over and under-report extreme future scenarios. The Earth's climate system is a discontinuous, chaotic process and all indications are that the discontinuities add to our discomfort, while most scientific projections assume a continuous model for climate change. It is hard to predict when certain tipping points that can catastrophically accelerate climate change occur and the IPCC analyses assume that these tipping points are not reached. In particular, the IPCC report is hammered out with scientists and political representatives from 192 nations reaching consensus over the content. Can you imagine the Saudi Arabian delegation, for instance, agreeing to scientific data on climate change that is not iron-clad, since the economic health of their country and the political health of its leadership rests on the world's continued dependence on fossil fuels?

During the Climate Project training, Mr. Gore told us to be careful not to deplete the "Hope Budget" of our audience. The key was to keep the audiences convinced that their present lifestyles will be preserved as the climate crisis gets solved. They must leave with the impression that modern industrial civilization as we know it will continue, but with wind turbines and electric cars replacing coal power plants and gas guzzling SUVs.

But audiences, above all, deserve to be told the truth as the speakers see it. A talk by my colleague, Dan Miller, entitled "A Really Inconvenient Truth[6]," where he lays out the actual worst-case, nominal and best-case scenarios that would be unfolding due to climate change, is one of the most widely viewed presentations on Fora.tv. But Dan's presentation deals only with climate change and doesn't consider the other environmental crises that are unfolding on the planet, the nitrogen cycle disruption, chemical pollution, radiation leaks, species extinctions, etc. Modern industrial civilization is already on life-support as it has come to depend upon extreme sources of raw materials with all the attendant risks of mega disasters. Two such mega disasters occurred in the past two years with the British Petroleum (BP) Gulf Oil Spill of 2010[7] and the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011[8] disrupting millions of human lives in the US and Japan. The repercussions of the spilled oil in the Gulf of Mexico and the radiation leaks from Fukushima will be felt for decades to come as these pollutants are processed through the biosphere of the planet over time. And so will the repercussions from future accidents at the thousands of other extreme technology sites that modern industrial civilization has deployed throughout the world. Fukushima Daiichi and the BP Oil Spill were "explosive" events that caught peoples' attentions, while the steady release of greenhouse gases and pollutants from coal power plants, automobile exhausts and animal agriculture are drip, drip, drip events that don't trigger the threat response from human beings, even if they pack a bigger punch on a long-term scale.

In a tacit admission that AIT and the Climate Project have failed to sway America, Mr. Gore recently renamed his non-profit as "The Climate Reality Project[9]" and delivered a shorter, punchier slide show to turn things around. However, the term, "Climate change" no longer invokes a sense of urgency in the American public. The opposition has cleverly co-opted this phrase by pointing out that the climate is always changing. So what's the problem? The rise in temperature due to climate change does not seem to bother Americans so much. Their air-conditioners may have to work a little harder if the temperature gets too hot, but as long as the utility companies continue to supply electricity into the homes, what's the problem?
The sea level rise that Mr. Gore showed in AIT seemed speculative, too far out and too gradual to get people to act now. Americans can always pick up and move if the ocean starts lapping at their door step. Or if they live in a city, they can always build a retaining wall. Isn't the Netherlands already way below sea level and haven't the Dutch managed to keep the sea out of their land? So what's the problem?

The opposition likes to portray AIT as scare mongering. More intense hurricanes, more heavy downpours, more floods, more droughts, all more of the same natural forces that people have lived with for ever. So what if the minimum volume of ice in the Arctic has diminished by more than half in the past 5 years alone[10]? Even this Arctic melting may not be so dire for the polar bears after all, as they seem to be resourceful enough to adapt their food habits. Besides, the Arctic melting opens a Northern route for shipping and allows the erection of oil drilling platforms in the Arctic to meet the rising energy demands of the world. If the Arctic becomes ice-free in summer in 20 years as the scientists are now predicting, then that's surely great for world commerce as New York and London become so much closer to Tokyo and Beijing for shipping traffic.

So what's the problem? At the opening of a recent shale-gas conference[11], Karl Rove, the keynote speaker said, "Climate is gone!" He assured the attendees that they won't need to worry that the new Congress will consider any legislation on the environmentally destructive practice of "fracking" to extract natural gas from formations such as the Marcellus Shale in Pennsylvania. There were cheers all around. On the policy front, the new US Congress seems to want the country to rapidly backpedal on all its environmental obligations, including long standing ones stemming from the Clean Air Act and the Clean Water Act of the 1970s. It has now added exemptions to these environmental laws to promote fracking and thus facilitate the unconventional extraction of oil from the Tar Sands of Alberta, Canada[12].

In hindsight, even if the policy prescriptions in AIT had been widely adopted, they wouldn't have succeeded because: 1) AIT focused on a symptom and not the disease, 2) it misdiagnosed the root cause and 3) it glossed over the deep cultural changes required to address the root cause.

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[1] http://www.linktv.org/

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Climate_Project

[3] Vice President Al Gore, "An Inconvenient Truth," http://www.amazon.com/Inconvenient-Truth-Al-Gore/dp/B000ICL3KG and Vice President Al Gore, "An Inconvenient Truth," http://www.amazon.com/Inconvenient-Truth-Al-Gore/dp/B000ICL3KG

[4] http://www.ipcc.ch/

[5] Al Gore, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit," Plume Publishers, January 1993. http://www.amazon.com/Earth-Balance-Ecology-Human-Spirit/dp/0452269350

[6] Dan Miller, "A Really Inconvenient Truth," http://fora.tv/2009/08/18/A_REALLY_Inconvenient_Truth_Dan_Miller

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Deepwater_Horizon_oil_spill

[8] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fukushima_Daiichi_nuclear_disaster

[9] http://climaterealityproject.org/

[10] An excellent distillation of the University of Washington's PIOMAS data can be found in http://neven1.typepad.com/blog/volume-and-concentration/ .

[11] http://thinkprogress.org/politics/2010/11/04/128346/rove-climate-is-gone/

[12] Information on the Canadian Tar Sands can be found on the National Geographic web site at http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2009/03/canadian-oil-sands/kunzig-text