Al Gore's Moral Leadership Lesson
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On Wednesday the Kyoto Treaty on global warming went into effect and for the first time the world united (with the exception of the U.S. and Australia) to begin to address the greatest threat humankind has ever faced.
On that same day, in Los Angeles, former Vice President Al Gore outlined a plan for moral leadership to take on the climate change crisis and to re-engage the world's biggest polluter – the United States of America. He called on George W. Bush to join "the coalition of the willing" and make a commitment to face the problem and take action.
In a preview of his remarks for the press, Gore called the Kyoto agreement "historic." While agreeing with the criticism that Kyoto itself falls far short of the measures that will ultimately be needed, Gore said that the value of Kyoto is that it sends a clear market signal. The cap and trade system for CO2 emissions is already in place in Europe and the response has been robust. He called the formal beginning of Kyoto "a great cause for hope," and said that it was just the beginning of a cascade of actions and policies that will quickly accelerate.
Gore believes that the market will respond because "Business has learned to watch out for bubbles that lead to warped decisions." Bubbles are inflated expectations based on wishful thinking – like the hope that oil will never run out or that pollution won't affect business. Gore said that President Bush inhabits an "un-reality bubble," created by his advisers in the oil and coal industries, that will soon burst.
In business, Gore said, those who are lulled into a false sense of security will lose out to competitors who see clearly and can adapt to new realities. Any firm that wishes to do business internationally will have to comply with Kyoto. Already, he said, companies doing business in China face more environmental restrictions than they do in the U.S.
Gore called Bush's climate change denial a "stunning display of moral cowardice," and said that Bush "has his head in the sand." Weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and Social Security are two false crises that Bush has promoted while he abdicates any leadership on the real crisis of global warming. When asked if he would be getting back into politics to provide the leadership he is calling for, Gore said he would not be a candidate but that he would be very active in other ways. He said he would announce a campaign to get U.S. automakers to drop their lawsuit against California and a number of Northeastern states that are regulating automobile CO2 emissions.
"We are going to call on U.S. automakers to innovate, not litigate, to stop suing the future and start building the future," Gore said. The McCain-Lieberman Climate Stewardship Act came in for praise, as did Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel, a former Kyoto detractor (he called Kyoto a "kooky idea" back in 1999) who now wants to introduce his own legislation to address the problem. Hagel is an example of how minds that were formerly closed could be opened to admit the problem and deal with it.
Gore also mentioned the growing willingness of evangelical Christians to look at the moral issues involved. "It is unconscionable to condemn future generations to accelerated climate change," he said.
While emphasizing the moral dimension, Gore insists that market forces have the power to generate creative solutions for climate change problems. Many environmentalists are uneasy with a reliance on market forces.
For example, UK Guardian columnist George Monbiot said in a recent column: "The denial of climate change, while out of tune with the science, is consistent with, even necessary for, the outlook of almost all the world's economists. Modern economics, whether informed by Marx or Keynes or Hayek, is premised on the notion that the planet has an infinite capacity to supply us with wealth and absorb our pollution. The cure to all ills is endless growth. Yet endless growth, in a finite world, is impossible. Pull this rug from under the economic theories, and the whole system of thought collapses."
But promoting market solutions may be the cleverest method of proceeding. Monbiot is correct that global warming denial is powered by the almost religious belief in a growth economy. Yet, anyone who has studied the way that human beings alter their belief systems has discovered that new beliefs are much more easily adopted if they inhabit the shell of the old. The old Pagan religions of Europe were subverted by a Christianity that built its churches and cathedrals on top of the ancient sacred sites.
To speak of market (read: economic growth) solutions to a problem caused by markets (economic growth) may not be as contradictory as it seems. It all comes down to how one defines growth. It is possible to envision a growth economy that is not based on material growth but rather on cultural and spiritual growth. Services are as much a part of the economy as goods, and a cleaner environment is the most valuable service of all. Al Gore's recipe for leadership recognizes that the initial step toward redefining the economy will take moral leadership and action. In this way, his current campaign draws on the ideas he first presented in his book, Earth in the Balance . There, he said that the preservation of the environment should become the new organizing principle for society. In other words, the new morality.
Unfortunately, Al Gore was denied the chance to exercise moral leadership as president of the United States. As he attempts, nonetheless, to pilot a new moral direction for this country, he deserves our help and support.
Kelpie Wilson is the environment editor of TruthOut.org.