WASHINGTON — New scientific studies — including one released this week — add urgency to the need to reduce carbon emissions, but the United States can do it in a way that strengthens American economic prosperity and national security, former Vice President Al Gore told a Senate committee Wednesday.
Gore called on Congress to pass President Barack Obama's economic stimulus package because it contains billions of dollars for energy efficiency, renewable energy, an improved national electricity grid and cleaner transportation, which add up to large reductions in carbon dioxide emissions.
Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize for helping the public understand global warming, brought the Senate Foreign Relations Committee up to speed using his trademark slides and short videos. He also urged the U.S. to take three steps: Pass the stimulus plan with its big boost for clean electricity, then pass a law to put a price on carbon emissions and limit them, and then lead all countries to agree to binding reductions under a new treaty — all by the end of this year.
"The scientists are practically screaming from the rooftops. This is a planetary emergency. It's outside the scale we're used to dealing with," Gore told the senators.
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Bold action is needed because the climate that makes human civilization possible is at risk, and decisions about whether to burn more fossil fuel now will have an impact on Earth's climate far into the future, he said.
One of the examples of new evidence Gore mentioned was a report by National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration scientist Susan Solomon that concluded that changes in temperature, rainfall and sea level are largely irreversible for more than 1,000 years after carbon dioxide emissions stop completely.
Heat-trapping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, mainly from the burning of fossil fuels, have caused the Earth's temperature to increase in recent decades, and scientists say that the average global surface temperature could rise by up to another 11 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century if carbon emissions continue unchecked. Carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for centuries, and about 20 percent of it remains for thousands of years.
Solomon's study with Swiss and French partners looked at the consequences of letting carbon dioxide build up in the atmosphere above the current level during this century and then completely halting emissions. It found evidence that there'd be decreases in rainfall comparable to the 1930s Dust Bowl in North America and many other parts of the world that would last for hundreds of years, and that a gradual rise in the sea level over 1,000 years would be locked in.
Solomon said in a statement this week that the study "convinced us that current choices regarding carbon dioxide emissions will have legacies that will irreversibly change the planet."
"It's a sobering warning that the quicker we reduce emissions the better," Gore said when he told senators about Solomon's report and other recent findings, but he added that there was no reason to fear doom or to make what he called a false choice between "our planet and our way of life."
"In fact, the solutions to the climate crisis are the very same solutions that will address our economic and national security crises as well," he said, arguing that renewable energy — sun, wind and geothermal — will create jobs and reduce dependence on oil-powered regimes.
Gore got a friendly reception from Democrats and Republicans alike. None challenged his scientific assessment. Gore at one point noted that he was encouraged when he spoke about warming in Antarctica by nods of agreement from Robert Corell, a climate scientist and oceanographer at The Heinz Center for Science, Economics and the Environment, who was sitting nearby.
Sen. Johnny Isakson, R-Ga., thanked Gore for an informative talk and said he'd never missed one of Gore's presentations.
Isakson asked Gore several questions about nuclear energy and suggested that the federal government could help set up ways to improve the system for financing nuclear power plants.
Gore told Isakson that he agreed that nuclear power should be considered, but that he didn't think there was interest from private investors because of the high costs of nuclear plants.
Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Gore's home state of Tennessee, also thanked Gore for an "excellent meeting." Corker and Sen. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., recently studied the European experience with carbon trading.
Corker said he expected that climate legislation putting a price on carbon emissions was likely this year — "We're now firing with real bullets," he said — and that he wanted to help craft the bill. He argued that all revenue from the sale of emissions credits should be returned to the American people to make up for higher energy costs.
Gore agreed that significant funds should be returned to taxpayers, but said that some money also should go to other needs, such as expanding renewable energy.
The hearing on climate change was the first meeting of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee under the new chairmanship of Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., reflecting Kerry's long-standing interest in global warming science and policy.
The House of Representatives passed the Obama stimulus bill 244-188 Wednesday evening. It now goes to the Senate.
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