What brought them together was being involved with Global Warming, and seeing the Man Who Invented Their Internet, Al Gore, who has achieved iconic status as Algore, one word that sounds as if he were star in the firmament above the hole in the ozone layer, named by a long forgotten Arab astronomer. Al Gore put in quite a performance and made a convincing case for Global Warming, but the night truly belonged to Silicon Valley. Can the Ethic of Innovation and Faith in the Future prevent a catastrophe in the making by using Science and Technology to overcome the Tyranny of Inertia and the Arrogance of Power? Can the Crusade of the Valley Boys recapture the Holy City (Washington) from the Jihad of Big Oil? Read on ...
The evening began with a series of presentations in a large auditorium. Dinner for a small group was set for 8 pm. The first two speakers went swimmingly. Terry Tamminen, head of the California EPA, gave a rousing warm-up to the main event, and we all wondered how Al Gore would do. He was so wooden in the 2000 election, the joke went: "If Al Gore fell in a forest, would it make a sound?" The event had started a bit late, and we anxiously glanced at our watches (a mixture of cheap digital and expensive Swiss watches, given this audience), wondering when we would get a chance to eat that night. If Al got on a roll, we could be there all night.
Well, he was superb. Superb! If he had spoken during the election like he did that night, he would have won a majority of the vote! Wait a minute, he DID win the vote! We should all remember to tell our kids about their duty to vote. Sometimes even one vote can make the difference. Of course, it helps if you are on the Supreme Court ...
(I must confess that I always vote, considering it a civic duty. The authors of Freakonomics would have us believe it makes little sense to vote, except for whatever social benefit comes from wearing the "I Voted" sticker afterwards and showing off our civic pride. They got a few other things wrong in their book, too. It is just that cynical attitude of non-involvement that landed us in the fix we are in with respect to Global Warming. It is that other attitude, of civic responsibility, that led to this event on this night - the Silicon Valley Billionaires have already changed the world through their wonderful toys and inventions, and now they wish to do it again on Matters of Great Importance. Good on them!)
Al laid out the case in favor. He started on the right note, showing the picture of the world from the moon, after the Apollo 8 capsule did the first orbit and came around from the dark side, on Christmas Eve 1968.
As Al put it, this picture catalyzed the environmental movement. It showed the Earth as a little blue ball in a vast emptiness. When we conquered the frontier in the 1890s, and had killed off the buffalo and diminished vast numbers of beaver, wolves and other animals, the ethic changed to one of conservation. National Parks were created, and our responsibility began to shift to Husbanding the Land, not exploiting it. Now that we have conquered the Moon, the ethic has begun to shift again, to Husbanding the Planet. For those who have not kept close to these issues, it is appalling how we have vacuumed the oceans, and lost whole ecosystems through over-farming (Anchovies off Peru, Shrimp off New Orleans, Cod off Boston). We have now begun to have a negative impact at Global Scale.
And yet, the world seems so vast, and has lasted so long - through many worse disasters than what we have begun to cause - why the sudden call for Global Warming? The skepticism runs deep. Global Warming seems tailor-made to be a "wedge issue" to allow a bunch of environmental wackos and latter-day socialists to re-regulate private enterprise. Tree huggers stop logging. Snail darters stop development. Great sums of money get spent on frivolous and fraudulent projects. We could end of letting the UN, or worse, the French, set policy on carbon emissions and stifle the growth of the US economy!
Al laid out the case against the skeptics:
- Almost 1000 peer-reviewed articles by scientists on this topic - and not one dissent. And this from the one wing of Academia not yet captured by Political Correctness.
- Carbon dioxide (CO2) levels way beyond where they have been for at least 650,000 years, as far back as we can measure with ice cores - beyond the fluctuations that led to ice ages and thaws in between. CO2 levels can be directly correlated to temperature. It is, after all, the paradigmatic Greenhouse Gas.
- Temperature levels much higher than for at least 1000 years - and much higher than the Medieval Warm Period often touted by skeptics as a reason not to worry. The hottest year on record is 2005. The second hottest is 1998. The rest of the top 10 have happened in the last 10 or so years.
- Oceans beginning to warm up and turn into deserts. The ocean is the largest repository of excess CO2. Yet it is beginning to shows signs of fizzing - too much CO2 causes acidization, and acidic areas have been poisoning coral reefs to a stunning degree. (I am not sure Al's science is sound here ...) The oceans may have hit their absorption capacity.
- Gulf Stream rapidly decaying - now 30% weaker than a few decades ago. This threat was sensationalized in a recent movie The Day After Tomorrow, and like many preachy movies, probably caused more skepticism than belief. Yet the Gulf Stream has turned off in the past, to devastating effect over Europe, in as little as 10 years. Europe would turn into Greenland. Madrid, after all, is at the same latitude as NYC; London, the same latitude as the middle of Canada. Only the warmth of the Gulf Stream keeps Europe livable.
- Tundra melting. From 225 tundra frozen days a year to fewer than 100, in a few decades. Glaciers disappearing. Artic ice cap shrinking. Antarctic ice shelves calving into the ocean.
- Hurricanes. We may have had killer storms in the past, but not this many, and not this late in the year.
I have long been a Global Warming skeptic. The environmental movement as recently as the '80s had been warning of Nuclear Winter, based on their climate models. Well, a few new variables, and it is Global Warming! Many of the examples of excess weather in the past have fallen within the range of normal global fluctuation. Large forest fires can throw out more CO2 than industry. An average volcano can blanket the air with more particulants and noxious fumes than all the SUVs from Detroit. We have more trees now than 200 years ago. Indeed, better to use paper, not plastic, since demand for paper causes more trees to be planted, and these are the fast-growing, oxygen-producing trees that absorb more CO2, not those relatively dead old-growth trees so beloved by tree-huggers. And I know these people. Some of them truly do have dreams of the socialist revolution being reborn, now under the Green, not Red, flag. The Revolution may not be televised, but it will be on the Internet.
I am no longer a skeptic. What has changed in the past decade is that we have begun to run outside of historical ranges of global fluctuation. Temperatures are higher, and well above the Medieval Warm Period. CO2 is higher, and well above the highest levels of parts per million of the past. The evidence is overwhelming. Worse, I am now becoming convinced of the urgency of Global Warming. Once we get outside of normal ranges - outside the band that is self-correcting by natural forces - we enter a danger zone of non-linearity. This means the effect can happen much faster than imagined. Perhaps 10 years seems a long time, but could all of Europe retool for living in a continent as cold and ice-covered as Greenland in just ten years? If a chunk of ice slips off Greenland, or the landed part of Antarctica, seas levels would rise - like a tsunami. And massive ice chunks could slip off the land. They have in the past. As I write this, the melting water in Greenland is going under the ice, creating a slippery lubricant between ice and ground that is finding its way to the ocean. The ice sits as a giant cube on top. Could we evacuate the whole of lower Florida in time? We did such a good job with New Orleans.
Al made his case, but he was preaching to the converted. The opposition to Global Warming has little to do with logic and science, and a lot to do with power and motivation. International cooperation is key, and yet that requires the US to give up sovereignty. We have done it in the past, and many times, with a complex web of treaties; but we seem to be in a retro political period where we have decided to be above many of the rules and institutions we created in the period after WWII. The Kyoto treaty did not help - it was poorly designed and singled out the US - but we should have stayed at the table and continued negotiating. We now have returned to the table, but with a toady from the Oil Industry who has every motivation to trash a new treaty.
The Silicon Valley Boys fervently believe in Science, and Technology, and the power of reason. The culture of the Valley is an engineering culture, where logic and invention can be proven, not just argued. This is a very powerful culture with a lineage back to the Enlightenment and the Age of Reason. It believes that others can be convinced as well, once shown the same logic, the same facts. It has been a largely Republican culture, looking askance at grandiose schemes coming from government (other than funding research, of course), and believing in the power of the individual to get ahead by effort and smarts alone. But it is rapidly going through its own process of Political Warming, being more and more distressed by the rampages of the current administration, and its ravaging of actions dictated by logic and scientific expertise.
When Al finished his presentation, he got the standing ovation he truly deserved. It was a magnificent performance, and he was momentarily forgiven for having flubbed the 2000 debates with the current President, a man considered so dim by Silicon Valley culture that it is doubted whether he could even recite the alphabet all the way to his letter (W).
We then wandered over to dinner. Ironically for an event entitled "The Heat Is On: Silicon Valley Takes On Global Warming," we walked outside during one of the coldest evenings of the year, and sat in a fairly open dining area wearing overcoats as we ate. Between shivers we listened to the Silicon Valley elite add their views to the debate. The issue was how to spread the word? How to take the logic, and facts, and convince the skeptics?
The group waxed enthusiastic about how the truth has its own force, and will set us free. Then, fatefully, a voice of doubt was heard, and Al Gore stood up and seized the podium. As he began speaking, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Algore came out.
He began ok, stumbling a bit with Satyagraha, a Hindu word that means Truth-Force, famously used by Gandhi to describe his politics of non-violent change. Fortunately there were enough Indian entrepreneurs in the audience to correct him! (Something like 30% of all start-ups in the Valley are run by Indian CEOs.) But he kept going, and going, to the Enlightenment, to Jefferson, to popular culture and the changing of network news into entertainment, and to occasional barks that had the hint of the infamous Howard Dean yell. Our shivering turned to shudders of dismay; we liked Al Gore scripted much better than Algore raw.
It was as if we had been watching a high-quality documentary on The Discovery Channel, or Animal Planet, and had suddenly been switched to a political diatribe on Algore's new cable channel Current, an attempt to counter the many conservative talk shows on TV and Radio. Men in suits began to leave (the few Republicans in the crowd?). Heads were bowed. People fidgeted. Mercifully it came to an end. While his formal presentation focused on logic and scientific facts, this extemporaneous exchange appealed to emotion, and was much less successful.
Al Gore has found his passion, and the wooden caricature of Saturday Night Live is no more. ("Lockbox!") He deeply fears that we will hit the Global Warming Tipping Point in our lifetime, and leave to our children a much diminished planet and ecosystem. He hints at the book Collapse, which looked at how past civilizations had collapsed after passing their own environmental tipping point (who cut down the last tree on Easter Island and doomed the population?). He rails against the take-it-now culture that is borrowing against future generations to ride their SUVs today and stiff their children with the consequences tomorrow. But will logic and reason prevail?
The Silicon Valley Boys certainly believe so. The big announcement at this event was that five environmental groups of great integrity have banded together to work on this issue, funded by the Billionaires - bringing the message and the solutions to the masses. Palo Alto will now become the center of the fight against Global Warming. Education is only a part of it; cleantech investments are another part, as are international cooperation and grass-roots organization. The movement finally has a cause worthy of the great causes of the past - democracy, slavery, woman's suffrage, totalitarianism, and now global warming.
Is this enough? Clearly the problem is not one of Science alone. The skeptics are not skeptical due to the science - they barely focus on the papers except to come up with one or two counterpoints to cling to. They are skeptical due to the motivations of the environmental movement, and the consequences of the purported solutions. They are right to be so skeptical. It will be difficult for the environmental movement to escape its past. To win them over. the movement will have to appeal to the interests of the skeptics, not just to logic, or emotions.
What would help is a way to exaggerate the denial of the skeptics, in order to help them to get past it. In the mid-'60s, at the height of the Cold War, when we dug fallout shelters and held air-raid drills, the movie Dr. Strangelove transformed the atomic bomb into something to belittle, not fear. The very logic of that time was called MAD - mutually-assured destruction. After that movie, it could no longer be taken seriously.
The very madness of our time is called SUV. One of the telling factoids dropped by the good Al Gore is that even China has higher goals for fuel efficiency in cars than the US. And this accommodation is to help our car industry?? GM is close to bankruptcy precisely because it tooled to build big, gas-guzzling vehicles, and once again has been caught with the wrong cars and the wrong bet on the future. What we need now, to appeal to the interests of Big Oil and Big Power and Big Autos, is to push the Cleantech Gap! Like the Missile Gap after Sputnik (as satired by the Mine-Shaft Gap at the end of Dr. Strangelove), we need to call Big Industry to action to overcome the Cleantech Gap with China, and France, and other bugaboos in the Age of Global Warming. Or something like that.
Skeptics are driven by financial considerations, so we need to show them that good environmental policies actually foster good business economics. Cleantech is one of those technologies that create a virtuous circle - more energy efficiency leaves more profit in business & more disposable income in households, driving demand for even more cleantech. The Silicon Valley Boys may have more impact with their new cleantech toys than with all the speakers and events and logic they can throw into the public discourse.
As I walked out into the chill of the night under a canopy of stars, I looked around for a suitable stellar object to rename Algore. He is certainly shining brighter now, while the Al-Dubya is dimming. Mars was there, bright and red. A suitable candidate? A planet once possibly blue and watered, now dusty and dead? On reflection, perhaps not. We should not look to the stars for our fates, but to ourselves.