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Monday, January 22, 2007

Al Gore brings his take on climate change to Boise today

Al Gore brings his take on climate change to Boise today
By Rocky Barker - Idaho Statesman
Edition Date: 01/22/07
New Year's Eve, 1996: Idaho's rivers carved through homes. Walls of mud and auto-sized rocks slid down mountains through greenhouses, motels and gas stations.The Boise River came within a day of sending floodwaters through million-dollar riverfront homes and Downtown Boise.
The situation for Idaho officials could hardly have been more alarming.
Two weeks later, Vice President Al Gore landed in Idaho, with promises of aid to repair roads, levees and bridges.
But he had another message as well: Get ready for more of the same.
Federal scientists had just released a report that showed a 20 percent increase in precipitation that falls in one-time storm events, he said casually.
"If that trend continues," Gore said, "it will continue to pose problems for our reservoir capacity."
During that visit, Gore played down the dire warnings about climate change and human society's role in global warming that had made his 1992 book "Earth in the Balance" popular and controversial.
He returns to Idaho today with a different message, and he's not holding back. His widely talked-about slide show presentation is the heart of the 2006 documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" and is making waves around the world.
Gore's message must be resonating. More than 10,000 people snapped up every available seat in Boise State's Taco Bell Arena for tonight's talk about global warming, the keynote address for the Frank Church Institute's annual conference.
Since he lost the 2000 election for president, the Tennessean has been as frank and unyielding in his description of the threat of global warming as Winston Churchill was in his warnings about Nazism in pre-war Europe.
Gore is trying to convince Americans and the world that global warming threatens our future; is linked to greenhouse gases produced by fossil-fuel burning; and, most of all, is something we can fix.
In "Truth," Gore warns of ice caps melting and raising ocean levels by 20 feet over a few decades, inundating the homes and cities of hundreds of millions of people worldwide.
Melting ice could change ocean currents and trigger a new ice age in Europe. As invasive species and diseases like West Nile virus move north, entire ecosystems may be threatened, he says.
building consensus
Whether Gore's frightening worst-case scenario will come true remains debatable. But his assertion that humans are contributing to global warming is nearly resolved in the scientific community: Global warming is real, and we're part of the cause.
The issue remains controversial, but political leaders are catching up to Gore.
President George W. Bush has publicly linked global warming to greenhouse gases twice since 2005. Earlier this month, his administration recognized increases in greenhouse gases like carbon dioxide as a contributing cause to the record warming in 2006.
Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne, Idaho's former governor, said in December that climate change caused by increased greenhouses gases was a major reason he proposed listing polar bears as threatened under the Endangered Species Act.
Here in Idaho, scientists say winters are warmer and runoff is coming as much as three weeks earlier, said University of Washington climatologist Philip Mote. He and other scientists predict the average temperature in Idaho could rise 4 degrees in 50 years and up to 8 degrees by 2100.
But winter storms like Idaho's in 1996-97 and Seattle's this year are signs that global warming already is changing the West, Mote said. So are bark beetle infestations and increasingly catastrophic wildfires.
"The warming we've observed is consistent with a climate influenced by human effects," Mote said.
questions linger
Gore's warnings of the gathering storm have brought mocking from his critics.
President George H.W. Bush called him "Senator Ozone" during the 1992 election.
Idaho Republican Sen. Larry Craig, who served with Gore in the House and Senate, remembers Gore's environmental crusades less than fondly.
"The Al Gores of this world will come and go politically, but it's very important we have the best science available to drive the public policy of this country and the world," Craig said.
Craig has become one of the Senate's experts on global warming, conferring regularly with foreign environmental leaders. Craig was convinced by the scientific data he saw in 2000 that the Earth is warming.
He wasn't convinced then — nor is he convinced today — that greenhouse gases are the major cause of climate changes. His doubts have kept him from backing federal legislation to establish a national emissions-trading program aimed at capping or reducing carbon dioxide. He rejects limiting economic growth to reduce greenhouse emissions.
New technologies
But Craig said the science is becoming clearer, and he advocates erring on the side of safety. For him, that means developing an array of energy technologies that reduce or eliminate greenhouse gas emissions — including nuclear power.
Investment in climate-friendly technology has exploded in the past five years, said Lisa Leff, vice president of Trillium Asset Management, a Boise social investment firm. State investment managers, insurance companies and corporations with ties overseas took a leadership role in the tech boom. Now Wal-Mart is pushing customers to use energy-saving fluorescent light bulbs. Google powers its corporate headquarters' roofs with solar panels.
Here in Boise, Banner Bank built an energy-saving building that won national awards. Leff is moving her office there.
"Most Fortune 500 companies now have something to say about global warming," Leff said. "The private sector is ahead of the public sector in this country.
"It taps into what Al Gore's saying," she said. "This is a way to apply American ingenuity to a huge challenge."
If global warming's threat turns out to be as dire as Gore predicts, Craig said he's prepared to support a policy to accelerate reduction of greenhouse gases. Instead of controls, however, Craig wants incentives.
Even the most optimistic observers say with the world population growing and developing nations increasing their standards of living, it may take major breakthroughs in technology to stop or reverse climate change.
"You don't get there with government controlling the marketplace," Craig said. "You ‘incentivize' it in the marketplace."
Craig has not seen "An Inconvenient Truth."
But he isn't surprised by Gore's fervor, and he has his own explanation why Democrat Gore could sell out Taco Bell Arena in Republican Idaho.
"There's been a good deal of Hollywood hype about his movie," the Idaho senator said.
Contact reporter Rocky Barker at
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