At a meeting full of scientific celebrities, a former politician has proven to be the greatest draw. Of course, Al Gore is no ordinary politician, especially to any scientist interested in climate change. One might say he's a politician turned scientist, and tonight, as an invited speaker, the former vice president sought to reverse the equation: He asked all of the scientists in the audience to get involved in politics.
Gore began by saying that the economic crisis we find ourselves in today is intertwined with the climate crisis. Both, he said, have their roots in our dependence on carbon-based fuels. He even went as far as to compare climate change with the mortgage meltdown. "We now have $7 trillion worth of subprime carbon assets whose value is based on the assumption that it is perfectly all right to put 70 million tons of global warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet," he said.
Then it was on to An Inconvenient Truth territory, with Gore updating the doomsday scenarios he laid out in his book and 2006 movie. The Arctic ice is melting faster than we anticipated, the Maldives is trying to buy itself a country that won't sink, and no one seems to notice anymore when 1 million people are evacuated from New Orleans. "Is this the new normal?" Gore asked.
So what can scientists do?
Educate the public, for one. These days, Gore's number-one enemy is "clean coal." He says the coal industry is spending half a billion dollars to mislead society about the dangers of fossil fuels--much like the tobacco companies whose ads touted the health benefits of cigarettes in the mid-1900s. "When they spend $500 million putting their version of this story in the minds of the American people, it increases the importance of you being willing to speak out," Gore said.
But Gore wants scientists to do more than talk. He wants them to get involved. Science and politics have been separated for too long, he said. "Now that the survival of our civilization is at risk, and now that the solution to this crisis depends on the rapid spread of understanding from the world of science into the world of policy, ... scientists can no longer in good conscience accept this division between the work you do and the civilization in which you live."
Some scientists have already joined the fray, Gore noted, referring to John Holdren, Jane Lubchenco, and other researchers who will advise President Barack Obama. "The policymakers are of you," Gore said. "Keep your connections to them. Become a part of this struggle. We need you."
Judging from the standing ovation, Gore might just have won a few recruits.