Points of View

An Inconvenient Truth, A Firm Commitment

NOV . 24 2008

On the 16th November 2008, Mr. Albert Arnold Gore Jr. gave a lecture to Peking University’s professors and students at Chen Shouren Center for International Studies.

 

 

Mr. Gore started his presentation by showing us a picture of the Earth free of cloud cover taken from space. By comparing the Earth to Venus, its so-called “twin planet,” Mr. Gore explained that it is the Earth’s atmosphere and its function of trapping heat is what makes all the difference. But the atmosphere is so thin that we are capable of changing its composition, and that said Mr. Gore, brings up the whole basic science of global warming.

 

In order to explain what the issue of global warming is and how severe the problem is, Mr. Gore recalled the significant work of his much respected instructor in college, Professor Roger Revelle, who was also the first person to propose measuring carbon dioxide in the Earth’s atmosphere. Mr. Gore, basing his observations on Professor Revelle’s work, charted the dramatic growth of carbon dioxide emissions. And by introducing his friend Lonnie Thompson’s field work in the Antarctic, Mr. Gore displayed the astounding pattern of global warming, duplicating precisely the growth in carbon dioxide emissions. With this pattern developing exponentially, Mr. Gore warned us of the possible temperature increase the Earth would experience in the immediate future, and of all the effects that this warming has already had on the real world.

 

The ice cap on Mount Kilimanjaro is disappearing, with a last sliver of one of the world’s mighty glaciers being all that is left; the glaciers in Grinnel Glacier National Park are fading away; Columbia Glaciers are retreating every single year; the same story is also happening from the Alps in both Italy and Switzerland to glaciers in Peru and Argentina. Illustrating each of these tragedies vividly by unbelievable but true photographs he has taken and collected worldwide, Mr. Gore pointed out in particular the problem emerging in the Himalayas. The glaciers of the Himalayas feed more than half of the world’s rivers and spring systems and supply 40% of all the people in the world with drinking water. Within this next half century, because of the massive melting, this population will face a very serious shortage.

 

“If we look at the ten hottest years ever measured in the record of this atmosphere, they have all occurred in the last 14 years,” said Mr. Gore, pointing to the data on the screen. He urged us to imagine what the Earth’s temperature would be like when we students are at his age.

 

And the growing warmth is not just melting the glaciers. It is also warming the seawater and bringing more and stronger typhoons, hurricanes, and tornados from the surface of every ocean. When water passes through the warm oceans, it increases in temperature, and the winds subsequently increase in velocity and in moisture content. Mr. Gore said that these conditions require that even the textbooks be rewritten because they say that it is impossible to have a hurricane in the South Atlantic–in 2004 the first hurricane ever hit Brazil.

 

Global warming also causes more precipitation, and paradoxically, more droughts. China once witnessed a severe drought in one area while the neighboring province was flooding. Because warmth creates more evaporation off the oceans to seed the clouds, it can also draw more moisture out of the soil. And soil evaporation increases dramatically with the higher temperatures. Mr. Gore showed us one of the pictures of Lake Chad, once one of the largest lakes in the world, which has dried up over the last few decades to almost nothing.

 

The two most serious alarm bells, according to Mr. Gore, are the problems in the Arctic and the Antarctica, where faster effects from global warming are being detected. We can see from Mr. Gore’s slide show that trees in Arctic area are leaning over, houses have collapsed, and roads are no longer suitable for traffic. All of these untoward conditions are due to the thawing of the permafrost. Polar bears and walruses are drowning because of the loss of habitat. “How could the Arctic ice cap actually melt so quickly?” Mr. Gore asked this question, and he explained that when the sun’s rays hit the ice, more than 90% of it bounces off right back into space like a mirror, but when it hits the open ocean, more than 90% of it is absorbed. As the surrounding water gets warmer, it speeds up the melting of the ice. And the consequence of this process, as Mr. Gore describes, is like a time bomb that requires us to defuse it. The Earth’s climate is a nonlinear system, which means that the changes are not all just gradual. And the changes in climate also affect the disposition of the seasons where again millions of ecological niches are disrupted. Mr. Gore had much evidence showing the various dangers being faced by birds, reptiles, and shellfishes, while pests such as mosquitoes with many vectors for infectious diseases are rampant, expanding their range because of the warmer nights and winters. More than thirty new diseases such as SARS have caused tremendous problems, and even some diseases that were once under control have reemerged. “I wish I could communicate this crisis more effectively. I wish I could find the way. Can you help me?” asked Mr. Gore. Facing this enormous challenge, he asked us to join him in finding a solution.

 

The second alarm bell is set off by the Antarctic land-based ice, where the habitats of the penguins are also threatened. Mr. Gore took the Larson B ice shelf as an example. In a period of 35 days it completely disappeared. Global warming is also breaking up the West Antarctic. If it were to disappear, Mr. Gore said, sea level worldwide would rise twenty feet. If Greenland, the same size as the West Antarctic, were to suffer the same fate, the sea level would also rise almost twenty feet. Mr. Gore predicted that under these circumstances, the maps of the world would have to be redrawn. Cites such as Beijing and Shanghai would inundated by rising seawater and the homes of hundreds of millions of people would be devastated.

 

“We are witnessing a collision between our civilization and our earth, with three primary factors precipitating this collision.” Mr. Gore began his analysis in a calm, solemn tone. The first factor is population. The fast growing population, most of which is in the poorer nations of the world, is putting more and more pressure on the Earth. The increased demand for food, water, and vulnerable natural resources, is forcing people to over-exploit the environment. The second factor is the scientific and technological revolution that in itself is a great blessing, but this new power requires that we understand our own new responsibilities in thinking about its consequences. Mr. Gore brought up two formulas to illustrate this point: “Old Habits + Old Technology = Predictable Consequences” and “Old Habits + New Technology = Dramatically Altered Consequences.” As the shovels get bigger, fishnets get wider and nuclear power is expanded, the new technologies have so completely transformed the consequences of the old habits that we cannot just mindlessly continue the patterns of the past. The third factor is the way we think. Mr. Gore used the metaphor of a frog in a cup of water that is lukewarm but gradually increasing in heat to describe our collective nervous system that cannot respond and react quickly to a gradual danger even if it is really happening quickly. Just like when the Colorado River gradually dried up, it would be of no use for us to apologize to nature once we have become aware of it when none of us can correct the mistake.

 

After identifying the three factors that cause the problems, Mr. Gore pointed out three misconceptions in particular that bedevil our thinking. The first one is “Isn’t there a disagreement among scientists about whether the problem is real or not?” Responding to this misconception, Mr. Gore convinced us that there was a massive study of every scientific article in a peer-reviewed journal written on global warming for the last ten years. While as a political issue there might be some opponents that try to “reposition global warming as a theory rather than a fact,” there is a consensus among scientists. “We are not in the same country, but we face the same challenge. That is why I am here.” said Mr. Gore.

 

The second misconception is that many people think they will have to choose between the economy and the environment. At this point in his slides, Mr. Gore showed an image of a scale with gold bars on one side, and the Earth on the other. By such an interesting image, we can see how ridiculous the choice is. “If we do the right thing, we are going to create a lot of wealth, and a lot of jobs,” concluded Mr. Gore, who convinced us that environmental protection can also stimulate the economy. And he told us that the next American President, Barack Obama, has decided to regulate the emission of carbon dioxides, and will give it number one priority.

 

The last misconception is “If we accept that this problem is real, maybe it is just too big to do anything about.” Mr. Gore showed strong confidence in our ability to make a difference. He immediately suggested several possible solutions to reduce the carbon emission such as electricity end-use efficiency, passenger vehicle efficiency, renewable technologies, carbon capture and sequestration and supply efficiency. Since all the technologies required are available, “we just have to have the determination to make them happen”, said Mr. Gore.

 

At the end of his lecture, Mr. Gore called on all of us together to show commitment in addressing global warming. “Are we capable of doing great things even though they are difficult? Are we capable of rising above ourselves and above history?” he asked, and he encouraged. As the 54th Vice President of United States, Mr. Gore recalled a series of significant achievements that Americans have made, where the record indicates that Americans do have that capacity for change. They once abolished slavery, fought for women’s right to vote, and worked against racial discrimination. They have even solved a global environmental crisis before — the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer. Now, more and more American cities are pledging to take on global warming and 884 of them supporting the Kyoto Treaty. As the largest developed country with the greatest carbon emissions in the world, the United States, together with China, the largest developing country with the similarly great carbon emissions, should take on the greatest responsibility of facing the challenge posed by global warming together.

 

“You see that pale blue spot?” asked Mr. Gore, pointing to a picture on the slide show. It is a photograph took by a spacecraft from four billion miles out in space. “It is our only home. And that is what is at stake. We have to save it.”

 

 By Wang Chanjuan