Al Gore Testifies Before Congress on Global Warming

Through several hours of testimony on Capitol Hill Wednesday, former Vice President Al Gore was sometimes a nerdy science teacher, sometimes a preacher and sometimes a furious grandfather. He told lawmakers if they don't act soon, they should expect their grandchildren to ask angry questions.

"What in God's name were they doing," those grandchildren will demand, he said. "Didn't they see the evidence? Didn't they realize that four times in 15 years the entire scientific community of this world issued unanimous reports calling upon them to act?"

Gore also played the role of historian. He reminded some long-serving members of Congress of the resolve it took to fight Nazism and Communism. He told them that climate change requires the same kind of commitment.

"What we're facing now is a crisis that is by far the most serious we've ever faced," he said.

He asked Congress to set an immediate freeze on emissions of carbon dioxide — that's the main pollutant responsible for trapping heat in the atmosphere. He said they should come up with a plan to slash those emissions 90 percent by 2050. He also called on Congress to ban incandescent light bulbs and require better gas mileage for cars.

Some members of Congress hinted that Gore was assuming the role of Scrooge. Sen. Kit Bond (R-MO) pointed to a large photo of a child.

"This little girl is cold because her family could not afford to pay their heating bills," Bond said.

He said Gore's proposals will make heat too expensive for many Americans.

"Would this little girl have to wear two coats inside?" he asked. "How many millions would suffer her fate of freezing through the winter?"

Gore admitted that slashing emissions of greenhouse gases could cause price hikes. But when pressed on costs, Gore played the optimist.

"It's going to save you money, and it's going to make the economy stronger," he said.

He says that once Congress regulates greenhouse gas emissions, market forces will kick in and American ingenuity will come up with all sorts of cheap ways to slash emissions.

To those who didn't buy the economic argument, he switched to preacher mode and offered a spiritual pitch.

"I believe the purpose of life is to glorify God, and we can't do that if we're heaping contempt on the creation," he said.

This was hardly the first time Gore tried to motivate Congress to respond to global warming. He first held a hearing on the topic more than 25 years ago, not long after he started in the House of Representatives. At that time, he served with another young idealist, Rep. Ed Markey (D-MA). Markey told Gore he was ahead of his time on climate change and other issues.

"What you were saying about information technologies, what you were saying about environmental issues back then, now retrospectively really do make you look like a prophet," Markey said. "And I think that it would be wise for the Congress to listen to your warnings, because I think that history now has borne you out."

If Gore is a prophet, he has a big following these days. Dozens of cameras captured his testimony. And Gore said he had letters from half a million people who want Congress to act.

Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-CA) promised to put the Senate Environment committee to work on many of the initiatives Gore advocates.

Gore on Climate Change: Scientists Respond

Al Gore in 'An Inconvenient Truth.' i

Former Vice President Al Gore has claimed the national spotlight as a champion for climate change issues. Though many scientists appreciate his efforts to raise awareness of global warming, some take issue with his data and conclusions. Paramount Classics hide caption

itoggle caption Paramount Classics
Al Gore in 'An Inconvenient Truth.'

Former Vice President Al Gore has claimed the national spotlight as a champion for climate change issues. Though many scientists appreciate his efforts to raise awareness of global warming, some take issue with his data and conclusions.

Paramount Classics

'An Inconveninent Truth'

Former Vice President Al Gore goes to Capitol Hill on Wednesday to testify on climate change before a joint meeting of two house committees. Gore has championed the issue of global warming for decades; he has books and an Oscar-winning documentary to his credit.

Now that he is firmly in the spotlight on this issue, so are his detractors. They include some scientists who are concerned about climate change, but have raised questions about Al Gore's data and some of his conclusions. NPR's Science Correspondent Richard Harris spoke with Renee Montagne to help sort through some of the questions.

Would you say that Al Gore – given all of his history with this subject – is a credible voice on global climate change?

Gore is a lay person, he is not a scientist, and he's careful to say that. But that said, he does get the big picture very well. Most scientists say he really can see the forest for the trees.

Human activities are contributing to climate change, those changes will become more pronounced as the time goes on, and it is possible that those changes could be severe. But that said, scientists do quibble a little bit about some of the facts that he draws to make those arguments.

Can you give us some examples of some of the concerns that scientists have?

I saw Al Gore give a talk at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco last December. He was cheered by this enormous audience of scientists, who were really excited to hear his message that it's time to take global warming seriously.

But after the talk, a couple of [the scientists] came up to me and said, you know, "He didn't exactly get the science right."

Gore said that Arctic ice could be gone entirely in 34 years, and he made it seem like a really precise prediction. There are certainly scary predictions about what's going to happen to Arctic sea ice in the summertime, but no one can say "34 years." That just implies a degree of certainty that's not there. And that made a few scientists a bit uncomfortable to hear him making it sound so precise.

There are also questions about Al Gore's estimates as to how much the sea levels will rise.

Yes, in fact, in his documentary he talks about what the world will look like – Florida and New York – when the sea level rises by 20 feet. But he deftly avoids mentioning the time frame for which that might happen. When you look at the forecast of sea-level rise, no one's expecting 20 feet of sea-level rise in the next couple of centuries, at least. So that's another thing that makes scientists a little bit uneasy; true, we have to be worried about global sea-level rise, but it's probably not going to happen as fast as Gore implies in his movie.

One other dramatic moment in the film has to do with Hurricane Katrina.

Indeed. Gore implies – he never says, but he implies – that Katrina was due to human-induced global warming. And I think if a scientist were to talk about this, most scientists would say, "These are the kinds of things that we expect to see more of as a result of global warming," but people are careful not to attribute specific storms or events to global warming.

Again, Gore doesn't do that exactly, but he sort of leaves the impression, and it's a very lawyerly way he does this. If you actually read it word for word, you can't say, "This he said wrong." But he leaves the impression that Katrina was [a result of] global warming and I think scientists don't go that far.

Is this partly cultural in the sense that, by nature and by profession, scientists care about all of the details?

I think it's partly cultural, and I think that in that sense, Al Gore is very well attuned to the culture of Washington, D.C. The culture of Washington, D.C. is: "Don't do anything unless there is a crisis." And that's been the problem with global warming for all these years: It's something serious to be worried about – the worst case scenarios are pretty scary – but Al Gore has realized that if you want to get attention, you really have to focus on the crisis. You have to make people worry about things maybe a little bit more than scientists would say.

Is there some element of – if you will – professional jealousy here?

Among the scientists? No. I think the scientists are actually pretty grateful by and large that Gore has succeeded in bringing their issue to the public's attention. But scientists do care very much about how precise the details are. And when it's not exactly right, they bristle a little bit. But, [that's] the difference between a popularizer, like Gore, and scientists, for whom the details really are what's most important.

Comments

 

Please keep your community civil. All comments must follow the NPR.org Community rules and terms of use, and will be moderated prior to posting. NPR reserves the right to use the comments we receive, in whole or in part, and to use the commenter's name and location, in any medium. See also the Terms of Use, Privacy Policy and Community FAQ.