Saturday, October 13, 2007

Ozone Man's Vindication

Al Gore's award as co-winner of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, is a worthy vindication for a man who has promoted environmental issues from his early years in politics.

In the 1992 presidential campaign, President George H.W. Bush nicknamed Gore, then Bill Clinton's running mate, "Ozone Man" and portrayed him as a threat to Americans because of his perceived wacky positions on the environment. Eight years later, Gore was contesting the presidency against Bush's son and "misunderestimated" him to use a Bushism.

American columnist Charles Krauthammer wrote in 2004: Upon losing a game at the 1925 Baden-Baden tournament, Aaron Nimzowitsch, the great chess theoretician and a superb player, knocked the pieces off the board, jumped on the table and screamed, "How can I lose to this idiot?"

Within months of Gore's searing loss of the presidency as decreed by the Supreme Court, President George W. Bush exempted the US from emission targets that were set by the Kyoto Protocol of 1997.

For many, the new president confirmed the view that he was an idiot. Bush in fact wasn't exactly the Neanderthal that his poorly communicated position suggested - see letter of March 13, 2001 to US Senators. A President Gore would also have had a serious challenge in selling climate change to the Republican controlled Congress at that time.

Al Gore Nobel Peace Prize Press Conference

Gore like the superrich Irish rock musician Bono, has been successful as an advocate. Advocacy however, is only the start of the process of reaction and it's the easy part.

Wealthy celebrities can promote their cause, without in any way risking their lifestyle and they often enhance their earning power. The New York Times says that Gore is a multimillionaire who has built a media and high-tech empire around himself and his environmental work. He is an adviser to Google, sits on the board of Apple and is the chairman and cofounder of Current TV, a cable network with 38 million subscribers. He receives up to $175,000 per speaking appearance, although he waives or reduces his fee for some non-profit companies and schools. Fast Company magazine has estimated his net worth at more than $100 million.

The rich like Bono and Gore can buy conscience salving carbon credits and solutions for climate change would be painless for them.

For others, the hard part is ahead.

The jump in the price of oil in the 1970's coinciding with environmental concerns moving up the political agenda in the rich world, ushered in significant advances in technology that has reduced both pollution and increased oil use efficiency. The emphasis on climate change will bring forward a technology leap in decades ahead that will prepare the world for a time when oil will be more costly and harder to extract - e.g. from tar sands - than it is conventionally.

The difficult choices ahead are exemplified by the impact of the ramping up of biofuel production has had on in pushing up grain prices in the US and the warning this week that India and China will face water shortages if they go ahead with their biofuel plans.

The poor of the poor in places like Africa may face the biggest threat from climate change but some remedies may hit them in the here and now. Where does most of the wheat for the World Food Program come from?

Politicians have had little to say on expected lifestyle changes ahead if any, so far and in Ireland, Green Party minister Eamon Ryan has called for a cross-party consensus on climate change measures, suggesting a reluctance to make hard choices. In an ideal world, it would be nice to get all politicians to agree on proposals that would sacrifice short-term popularity. However, where parties in power take credit for everything of a positive slant, apart from the weather,
Ryan's spread the responsibility strategy, will hardly work.

Al Gore Debates Global Warming

Ryan's ministerial colleague John Gormley does not engender much optimism either given the muddle that he has made of waste management policy. He plans to spend millions in hiring international experts to advise him, even though he has already set forth various versions of his own position.

Ireland is a very small part of the climate change issue and the people in Emerging Economies have much further catch-up in spreading the conventional carbon-rich first world lifestyle. More cars, more air conditioning, more showers, more clothes washing, are just part of the emerging scenario.

Just consider how hard it is to get a global trade agreement.

The first world could impose carbon taxes on imports from poorer countries but wasn't it precisely the deflationary impact of those imports that has kept our interest rates in the first world at single digits for the past two decades?

To borrow the words of Winston Churchill in November 1942: this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning

So let's give two cheers for Al Gore's prize!

Related articles on climate change can be found on the lower end of the right-hand column of the Finfacts home page.