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Monday, November 23, 2009

Al Gore to techies: Shake off the lethargy

Gore to techies: Shake off the lethargy

Future generations will ask: Were you watching "Dancing with the Stars?"

During the Tech Awards in San Jose on Thursday night, Former Vice President and Nobel Prize Winner Al Gore was given the Global Humanitarian Award 2009 for his work drawing attention to the global warming crisis.

In his acceptance speech, he emphasized that climate change is already affecting many parts of the globe, and that fundamental shifts in policy and personal behavior are required to stave off environmental disaster.
Here are highlights from Gore's more than 20-minute talk at the black tie gala:
What does it mean to be a human being? One of the secrets of the human condition is that suffering binds people together. ... Outside the environment of this wealthy and fantastic city, this successful and inspiring valley, there are a billion people who live on less than $2 a day and there are many people who are already suffering the consequences of the climate crisis.
In Bangladesh, one the countries with low lying delta areas vulnerable to even the small sea level increases that have already occurred and more vulnerable still to the horizontal magnification by storm surges of that sea level rise and the stronger storms empowered by the warming oceans as a result of global warming.
It's hard for us to bind ourselves to them in their suffering. There have always been flood events and disruptions there and for many of them, the pattern has been to rebuild their lives on average every 20 years. But now they have to rebuild their lives on average every four or five years. So in large numbers they are leaving the places they long called home and are moving to cities and the refugee flood has begun. Concertina barbed wire has gone up on sections of the border between Bangladesh and India.
You may have noticed three weeks ago, the president and cabinet of the Maldives had a cabinet meeting in scuba gear under water. And there was some humor in that but also some pathos, because they were trying desperately to get the attention of the rest of the world. Last year, they added a new line item to their budget, entitled, "fund to purchase a new country."
Not to be out done, the cabinet and head of state in Nepal, two weeks after, had a cabinet meeting at the base camp on Mt. Everest, because the ice and snow of the Himalayas is melting extremely rapidly, partly because of the warming of temperatures, partly also because of the enormous amount of black carbon or soot that are emitted in the subcontinent and in Southern China that settles on the surface of the ice and snow, darkening its surface and transforming the amount of solar radiation that is absorbed and accelerating the melting process.
The seven great rivers of Asia, the Indus, the Ganges, holy to the Hindu religion, Brahamaputra, going down through India and Bangladesh, the Salween or Irrawaddy, the Mekong, down through Indochina, the mighty Yangtze in Southern China, and the historic Yellow River to the north.
All seven originate in the ice and snow of the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau. Forty percent of all the human beings that live on this planet get 50 percent of their drinking water and agricultural water from the seasonal melting from those large amounts of ice and snow. The flows are increasing now, but they will not increase for long.
What does it mean to be a human being and be aware that 40 percent of our fellow human beings and their children and grandchildren are in imminent danger of losing their water? Each one meter of sea level rise, puts 100 million climate refugees on the move. Where do they go? While the Maldives might buy a new country, Bangladesh cannot.
Gore then discussed a group of Australian firefighters who have been battling unprecedented blazes following extended periods of high temperatures and Canadian doctors researching the recent spread of tic-borne diseases into Canada. Both are calling for stronger government policies to address global warming.
What we are facing is completely without any precedent in the entire history of human civilization, our circumstances have been radically transformed. We've quadrupled the population of our planet in less than 100 years. Far more importantly, technology has been placed in the hands of people throughout the world, with good intentions, but with unanticipated side effects.
Compare the power of a bow and arrow to the power of a nuclear weapon, the power of Mendel's experiments to the power of genetic engineering, the power of smelting to the power of molecular design. And it can be exciting and even intoxicating and technology has brought us blessings beyond imagination. But we do become sometimes so taken with the Promethean power that comes out of these new tools that we blind ourselves to the consequences that are sometimes distributed so widely and globally that they masquerade as an abstraction. And the length of time between the cause and the consequences extends over a longer period than we are used to thinking about, much less responding to, because the way we think has been shaped by the challenges that our ancestors survived.
And our world is very different from the world in which they lived, but our way of thinking is all too similar to the way they thought. The visceral response that is automatically triggered if we see other humans with weapons or fire or a club is automatic. But if we are required to use the reasoning capacity in our prefrontal cortex to understand and then respond to a much larger threat that affects the living beings who live all over our planet, we are challenged because that process, by which a consensus is formed, by which long term goals are set based on deep values that are important to us, by which commitments are (formed) that empower us to stay the course for the long term, that process is not automatic. It requires an exertion of will, it requires a feeling in our hearts that connects us to others who we may not know, who live in places far distant, who are part of generations yet to come and yet to be human means to care about them as well.
This generation faces a set of responsibilities that are also radically different from the responsibilities faced by any prior generation, because we have now come to a point -- after putting 90 million tons of global warming pollution into the atmosphere, every single day, 25 million tons into the oceans, every single day -- that we have actually had such a large impact that we have exceeded the impact of any force of nature. Are we capable of recognizing, absorbing and then responding to the responsibility that is on our shoulders? Because this is the moment when we have to bring about significant change.
...Inertia locks us in to those tools that have become a part of our consciousness and we have to awaken sufficiently, to make a conscious choice to change in ways that will solve this crisis.
...A day will come, a day of reckoning, a day of accountability, when a future generation looks back at these first years of the 21st century and asks one of two questions. If they look around them and see the polar ice caps melting, the North polar ice cap gone, Greenland, West Antarctica causing catastrophic sea level rises, spreading drought, desertification of Eastern Europe, tropical diseases moving north, stronger storms coming off the oceans and all the other consequences that the scientists have been saying we must anticipate unless we change, then they would be fully justified in looking back at us and asking of us: What were you thinking? Were you watching "Dancing with the Stars"? Did you think about your connection to us, did you care?
But if they look around them and see a world in renewal, with new technologies that are bringing about a shift from dirty, expensive, vulnerable, dangerous, volatile, carbon-based fuels, to new fuels that are free forever, if they see a world that has a sense of shared purpose and a feeling of hope that each new generation has a better prospect for the future, I want them to look back at us and ask: how did you find the moral courage to shake off the lethargy, to break the trends, to see the responsibility and act in time to solve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve. We have everything we need, as I have said many times, with the possible exception of political will. But political will, especially in the United States of America, is a renewable resource.
Posted By: James Temple (Email, Twitter) | November 20 2009 at 12:35 PM

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