Gore's Convenient Technofix Solutions Do Nothing To Address His Inconvenient Truth

Monday, October 23, 2006

Written by Scott Gilbert

Al Gore’s film An Inconvenient Truth is an excellent summary of the status of the global warming issue. He does a good of job showing why it is truly a serious threat facing life on earth, and not simply a debate between leading scientists. However the film ends on a surprisingly lighthearted note, leaving viewers with a long list of what people can do. It suggests that using more energy efficient light bulbs or buying a hybrid car can largely solve the problem of climate change. These top solutions are so inadequate and being advocated far too late that it reflects poorly on his understanding of the urgency of the issue.

Although Gore purports to be against coal fired power plants, he campaigned for election in 2000 with the support of “clean coal”. Clean coal is the new buzz word that the coal industry propagandists derived to justify the opening of new coal plants in the near future as oil supplies become scarce. Inevitable carbon emission caps are set into law and the need for energy continues with coal being the last significant energy resource in the US. The 2006 book by author Jeff Goodell called Big Coal: the dirty secret behind America’s future outlines in detail how clean coal, although less polluting than “normal” coal plants, is still incredibly worse than numerous other reliable sources of energy.

The fact of the matter is that there is a lot of money behind Big Coal and the industry has an incredible amount of sway in Washington. In 2000, Gore most certainly bent over backwards to support the coal industry, despite the fact that the carbon emissions generated by even one new plant would dwarf the positive effects of millions of new energy efficient light bulbs and tens of thousands of new hybrid cars on the road.

The simple reality that modern economic thought requires continued growth is enough to cancel out just about all the carbon savings of Gore’s recommendations. Scan the business section of any newspaper since the film was released and you will see that there are no incredible spikes in the sale of energy efficient light bulbs or hybrid cars. The few people that have made the choice to switch to these practices since seeing the film are likely left with the false sense of security: “All I have to do is drive my new car instead of my old one and make sure to buy these new light bulbs and my children won’t have to deal with global warming. Yay!”

To be fair, Gore did advocate energy conservation, carbon sequestration and other methods for reducing the overall emissions, but the likelihood of all major carbon emitting countries around the world taking precisely the same actions in enough time is minimal at best.

Further, An Inconvenient Truth entirely omits the issue of dwindling petroleum supplies. A discussion of global warming without a discussion of peak oil is not only shortsighted, but borders on negligent. Even if it were possible to get support from the United States for a reduction in energy consumption – through conservation measures or otherwise – we must consider that the fuel choice of the not-so-distant future in the US will be coal, not natural gas or oil.

The carbon emissions per kilowatt-hour coming from a coal plant dwarf that of a natural gas plant so by so tremendous an amount that reductions in energy usage will be required even to sustain current levels of carbon emission. The point made so eloquently in a recent book by James Howard Kunstler called The Long Emergency is that when we hear people like Gore speak about what options we have to deal with global warming, the solutions are almost always based on the underlying assumption of an everlasting, reliable supply of cheap oil. All the financial forecasts and resource and time requirements are based on our current situation.

Leading experts agree that the peak for global oil production will likely be hit within the next 10 years (if not already). Even if we were able to extract every last drop of oil on the planet and never used more than we are using today, we have less than 35 years of use remaining. You need natural resources to make a hybrid car. Most of the stronger parts of a car are resources that require mining. What will we do when the vehicles currently used for mining no longer have any fuel? We will have to make new ones that can run on liquid coal and electricity. How will we mine the material to build the new machines?

While I commend Gore on making an effort, I fear that instead of tackling issue head on he has propped up the status quo while suggesting actions that will the smallest of dents in the overall problem. It baffles me why he does not make suggestions along the lines of stopping the construction of new roads, diverting some of the Pentagon’s enormous budget to mass public transit initiatives or encouraging municipalities to plan for walkable communities and localized organic food sources.

The film The End of Suburbia, while focusing more on peak oil than global warming, actually offers – in my view - better solutions to the global warming catastrophe than does Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth. Either way, we have some serious changes ahead of us, and even our major academic institutions are doing next to nothing to address them. For a university whose president said he wanted this institution to be the “moral and social conscious of society”, it is surprising that the University of Guelph refuses to commit to an energy retrofit, and doesn’t even turn off the lights at night, let alone make any attempt to meet its share of Canada’s Kyoto commitments. Its pathetic and we will all suffer the consequences of our collective inaction.

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