When you place Al Gore in a room with several hundred high school and college students for an exchange about global warming, as I observed this week, two factors combine to keep the discussion from bogging down.
First, little energy is frittered on the question of whether man-induced warming is a matter of scientific fact; it's a given. Second, solutions that may take several decades to implement are not dismissed as being so distant that they will be the concern of a future generation; the students seem ready to take ownership of the problem.
These days the former vice president and Nobel Laureate gives speeches, promotes his books and drums relentlessly on the issue of climate change, which is what brought him to Cal State Monterey Bay, as part of a forum run by CIA Director Leon Panetta and his wife Sylvia. Gore's message resonates particularly well with teens - a group he is fond of calling "Inconvenient Youth."
Last month Gore's nonprofit, The Climate Project, began sponsoring the website, Inconvenientyouth.org, to "empower teens to address climate change through engagement and leadership opportunities." The name is a play on Gore's 2006 Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth," which served to turn up the heat on the global warming debate - among those energized by Gore's warning, and those opposed to not only his message but the fact that he has profited handsomely from the crusade.
For all his accomplishments in leading the discussion on environment in the decade since his whisker-close loss to George W. Bush and exit from politics ("You win some, you lose some, and then there's that little-known third category"), Gore seems tired and frustrated. He believes powerful business interests are supporting pseudo-scientific research that makes climate change seem more debatable than it is, much as tobacco companies continued to drum up favorable research long after the dangers of smoking became clear.
Those same forces, he insists, are behind lobbying efforts in Washington that have effectively blocked legislation to combat global warming. As a result, America has squandered its leadership role among other nations that are reluctant to embark on costly steps to curb their own carbon emissions in the absence of a more vigorous effort by the U.S.
And unlike, say, the environmental disaster in the Gulf of Mexico, whose effects show up dramatically in news pictures of gushing oil, Gore points out that the ongoing release of C02 "pollution" - 90 million tons per day - is invisible. The planet has, according to scientists Gore cites, perhaps two decades remaining to "bend the trend lines" of global warming.
So while Al Gore continues to speak about harnessing solar power and wind power, the real change he seeks may depend upon harnessing youth power. In announcing the Inconvenient Youth initiative, Gore explained, "It will give this generation, which has a unique stake in this issue, a chance to organize and exchange ideas with other young people who want to do their part to address the climate crisis."
The audience of students at CSUMB seemed particularly moved when the former vice president recounted the challenge issued by President Kennedy, back when Gore was 13, to put a man on the moon within a decade. When the mission was accomplished in under nine years, cheers went up at NASA's headquarters in Houston.
"The average age of those systems engineers at mission control that day was 26," says Gore, "which means their average age when they heard that challenge was 18." That brought the afternoon's biggest applause.
Say what you will about Al Gore's climate crusade, but if he can succeed in motivating a generation that has both the time and energy to actually effect change rather than just argue about it, it will, indeed, be a giant leap for mankind.
Peter Funt may be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.
©2010 Peter Funt. This column is distributed exclusively by Cagle Cartoons, Inc. newspaper syndicate. For info call Cari Dawson Bartley at 800 696 7561 or e-mail [email protected].
Peter Funt is a writer and public speaker. He's also the long-time host of "Candid Camera." A collection of his DVDs is available at www.candidcamera.com.