By David Morris
Al Gore is our generation's Paul Revere. Riding hard through the country, he warns us of the impending arrival of climatic disaster. He's proven an astonishingly effective messenger. An Inconvenient Truth may receive an Oscar for Best Documentary. Overflow crowds greet his presentations with standing ovations.
Which, come to think of it, is odd. When has someone ever delivered such an ominous message to such tumultuous applause? (Aside from those who insist we are in the end times and the rapture is near.)
In a recent speech to a standing-room-only audience at the New York University School of Law, Gore declared, "We are moving closer to several 'tipping points' that could -- within as little as 10 years -- make it impossible for us to avoid irretrievable damage to the planet's habitability for human civilization." The audience cheered wildly. Presumably audiences are not cheered by the prospect of imminent catastrophe. So what is going on here?
"We wish our governments to pretend to act," he writes. "We get the moral satisfaction of saying what we know to be right, without the discomfort of doing it. My fear is that the political parties in most rich nations have already recognized this. They know that we want tough targets, but that we also want those targets to be missed. They know that we will grumble about their failure to curb climate change, but that we will not take to the streets. They know that nobody ever rioted for austerity."
Austerity? Hold on. Al Gore and the rest of the U.S. environmental movement never utter the word "austerity." Their word of choice is "opportunity." The prospect of global warming, they maintain, can serve as a much-needed catalyst to spur us to action. A large dose of political will may be required, but we need not anticipate economic pain. We can stop global warming in its tracks, expand our economy and improve our quality of life. We can, in other words, do good and do quite well. A leading environmentalist, for whom I have a great deal of admiration, summed up his position to an interviewer, "I can't stand it when people say, 'Taking action on climate change is going to be extremely difficult.'"
And there's the rub, as dear Hamlet would say. By claiming we can solve the problem of climate change painlessly, environmentalists confuse us. They offer stark and rigorous presentations terrifying us about the near-term, dire consequences of global warming. And then they offer generalized, almost blithe assurances about how we can avoid these dire consequences without great sacrifice. We are horrified and soothed at the same time. It's a dangerous strategy. Many who focus on the catastrophic present-day images of An Inconvenient Truth believe we have gone beyond the point of no return, which leads to cynicism and passivity. Those who are spurred to action believe that buying a hybrid car or taking an eco-vacation will address the problem.