Gore Rings a Green Alarm

Former Vice-President Al Gore's return to Congress to urge immediate action on global warming drew a mix of applause and strong criticism

Former Vice-President Al Gore received as close to a red-carpet welcome as its gets on Capitol Hill on Mar. 21, as he pressed Congress to pass legislation to curb greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change. Gore, who organized the first congressional hearings on climate change 30 years ago, stressed before a joint hearing of the House of Representative's Science & Technology committee that there is no time to waste in addressing what he called a "planetary emergency."

"Global warming is real and human activity is the main cause," he said in written testimony. "The consequences are mainly negative and headed toward catastrophic, unless we act."

Urging Aggressive Steps

Gore, who won an Oscar last month for his film about global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, appeared calm and confident as he laid out an urgent call-to-arms to address the "scientific consensus" of the climate crisis. Though there has been speculation he'll run for President in 2008, he outlined 10 proposals that promise to be wildly unpopular politically. First, he called for an immediate "freeze" on the level of U.S. carbon dioxide emissions, followed by mandatory reductions.

He went on to list a series of aggressive steps, including taxing pollution while lifting employment and production taxes, raising even further the fuel-economy standards for cars, having the U.S. craft a new international global-warming agreement, requiring companies to disclose carbon emissions in SEC filings, and banning the construction of new coal-fired power plants unless they capture and store carbon pollution. Gore assured Congress that he understood these policies will face opposition, especially in "tough districts." But he said he's calling on lawmakers to be courageous and "walk through that fire."

On what he said was an "emotional occasion," Gore stressed the need for bipartisan cooperation to address a threat he likened to Fascism during the last century. He also called for long-term thinking that he said flies in the face of the short-term mentality that has taken hold in the markets. "These are not normal times," he said, and lawmakers need to look beyond special interests and have the "moral imagination" to take political risks.

An "Assault" on Fossil Fuels?

"We do not have time to play around with this, and we don't have time to make a political football of it as we play politics as usual," said Gore, pointing to reports that radical action must be taken within 10 years before climate change becomes irreversible.

In the question-and-answer period that followed, Gore encountered words of admiration from both skeptics and supporters, but was not spared from the critical fire he acknowledged others would face.Representative Ralph Hall (R-Tex.) was one of the harshest critics. He said Gore's proposals mark an "all-out assault on all forms of fossil fuels," and emphasized their potential cost to the economy. "If we allow this attack on energy to go unanswered, and have it result in lessening our domestic reliance on fossil fuels, we will force a reliance on OPEC from a dangerous 60% to a recklessly dangerous and likely 80% of our total energy supply," Hall said. Other critics voiced concern that if the U.S. curbs emissions without the cooperation of India and China—which is starting up the equivalent of one coal-burning plant every four days—U.S. business will be at a competitive disadvantage.

Representative Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) said the U.S. needs to make more use of nuclear energy and asked for Gore's thoughts on the controversial issue. The former Vice-President said he is "not reflexively against" nuclear power and "not an absolutist." However, he said that the tremendous cost and lengthy construction times for nuclear plants can be a hindrance. "They only come in extra large," Gore said.

President George W. Bush and other Republicans remain opposed to a mandatory cap on carbon dioxide emitted from cars, power plants, and other human activities, arguing that it will harm the economy. The Chamber of Commerce and National Association of Manufacturers are among groups that oppose mandatory limits on carbon emissions, citing competitive reasons.

Industry Support Builds

But major players in the business community are coalescing around calls for a federal cap in greenhouse emissions, stressing the need for both a uniform regulatory environment, as well as a reduction in the risks global warming poses to their businesses. In January, the heads of 10 large U.S. corporations, including Alcoa (AA) and General Electric (GE), said they supported mandatory caps. Last week, General Motors (GM), Ford (F), Chrysler (DCX), and Toyota North America (TM) endorsed a mandatory economy-wide emissions cap.

And on Mar. 19, a coalition of more than 50 institutional investors, including the California Public Employees' Retirement System (CalPERS) and Merrill Lynch (MER), called on Congress to take a leadership role in cutting emissions and setting federal standards on the issue (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/19/07, "Investors Call on Congress to Go Green"). A day later, some of the U.S.'s top utility chiefs told a House hearing that they don't oppose one .

After his morning appearance in the House, Gore testified before the Senate Environment & Public Works committee during the afternoon. Democratic leaders in Congress, including Presidential candidates (and Senators) Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama, have said that passing legislation to address the threat of global warming is a top priority. Five bills in Congress currently call for a national cap on greenhouse gas emissions, which is now mandated in a handful of states and U.S. cities. On Mar. 20, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) used his moment at the mike to introduce the Safe Climate Act, which calls for 80% cuts from 1990 emissions levels by 2050.

Meanwhile, Gore's time in the spotlight isn't likely to end soon. He's now helping plan a number of worldwide rock concerts to be held on July 7 to raise public awareness of climate change. The question remains as to how effectively he can exploit his status as a politician-turned-celebrity to convince more American consumers, business leaders, and politicians that sacrifices today will mean great benefits in the future.