Thursday, March 23, 2006

And what if we don't?

Former Vice President Al Gore, in the middle of an emotional talk on climate change last Wednesday at the Beverly Hilton, was referring to a projection of The Blue Marble photo, captured by the three-man crew of the 17th Apollo mission as they sped toward the moon on December 7, 1972.
It is the most widely circulated photograph in history, he reminded the audience.

After 30 years, it's easy to forget how startling it was: The first fully sunlit photograph of Planet Earth, its landmasses familiar from a millennium of maps, its cloud swirls an early indication of what would one day seem commonplace in the age of regional radar. We had seen images of Earth before the Christmas Eve shot from Apollo 8 in 1968 but nothing before or since compared to this perfectly composed glimpse of our own planet emerging into sunlight, with its magisterial sweep of Antarctica's ice at its center, and the Saudi Arabian peninsula orbiting toward night.
Gore told the audience that the image has long hung in his office, but like many of us, he'd grown numb to it over time. So he asked NASA for a new one.
They told me there isn't really another one, he said. It's really the last picture we have of the earth like that, with the sun behind the spacecraft.
The last picture, he added plaintively, of the only home we have.
Gore's multimedia presentation, hosted by the Natural Resources Defense Council for an audience of media and entertainment people, happened on the same day that 141 nations, including Vladimir Putin's Russia and the entire European Union, ratified the Kyoto Protocol to reduce collective emissions of carbon dioxide and other gases known to be trapping the sun's heat on the earth's surface. It was a day, as journalist Amanda Griscom Little pointed out in both Grist and Salon, when environmentalists should have been marching on Washington. Taiwanese environmentalists stripped naked and stormed their Cabinet to protest their country's rejection of the treaty. But in the United States the event barely registered; in the crudités line before the speech, the chatter was not about Kyoto, glaciers or the next weird winter storm that would pound Los Angeles, but of parking problems, post-speech meetups at Trader Vic's and the varieties of the Extreme Makeover experience.
Still, it would have been impossible for even Michael Crichton to watch Gore speak for an hour and not walk away transformed. With graphs, time-lapse photography and red-faced passion unmitigated by political strategy, Gore built a case against greenhouse gases that made your pulse race and your hands tremble. He demonstrated how, in 400,000 years of geological time, the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has always correlated with the temperature of the planet; he unveiled historic shots of retreating glaciers; he told of flycatcher nestlings hatching out of sync with the caterpillars they're born to eat. He unveiled a graph illustrating global temperatures since the Middle Ages - an undulating pattern of heat and cooling until it reaches the end of this century, at which point the graph lurches out steeply, representing the 10 hottest years in history, all of which have happened in the last 15 years.
Those people, the naysayers, they say, this is a cyclical trend, Gore said, mocking the pedants. There was a warming period in the Middle Ages, they say.
Yeah, right. There was. It's right here, he said, and gestured toward a small bump right around the year 1400.
Then came the cascading litany of unfolding catastrophes: unprecedented deadly heat waves, record years of tornados and typhoons, hurricanes landing where they never have before. Polar bears on the brink of extinction, bark beetles devastating pine forests with no hard freeze to slow them down, mosquito-borne diseases marching north.
In 15 years, there'll be no more snows of Kilimanjaro, Gore warned. (The 11,000-year-old ice cap shrank by 80 percent in the last century; most researchers expect it to be gone by 2015.)
There'll be a park formerly known as Glacier National Park.
And eventually there will be no more New Orleans, no more Florida Keys, no World Trade Center memorial - all will disappear under rising seas. Is it only terrorists we're worried about? Gore wondered. We are witnessing the collision of civilization and the earth.
For all the bad news, though, Gore was funny - he was, in other words, what we've now come to know as himself. He gave a geeky, humane, jovially apoplectic speech, one that managed to raise alarm without turning shrill or scolding. It featured a Matt Groening cartoon on which Kristin Gore herself collaborated, and it was full of the kind of jokes - denial is not a river in Egypt - that wouldn't be worth laughing at were it not for the fact that the former vice president of the United States was delivering them. It was endearing.
This Gore has been with us so long that it's sometimes hard to remember the other one, the would-be president who intoned what came off like pre-set sound files on taxes, foreign policy and the death penalty, specially designed to separate him from the man who, as the indefatigable Laurie David said in her introduction to his speech, wrote the book on protecting that planet. (That was a joke, she added after a beat. Because he really did write the book.).
But as Gore segued into the question-and-answer period, picking up speed and fury, it became impossible to forget that, five years ago, when he had access to the most visible public forum in the world - a U.S. presidential election - he scarcely breathed a word about the death of the planet. And now, under the glaring chandeliers of the supercooled Beverly Hilton's Grand Ballroom, we were being told to conserve now or face certain destruction by a man who belongs to a party that consistently refuses to raise the environment as a political issue.
David read a question from the audience on just that point. Gore blamed the media. There is the A list of issues, the B list of issues and the C list of issues, and if a candidate goes out and gives a speech and the media doesn't pick it up, then you've wasted the day. But who compiles those lists? As far as anyone can tell, the Democratic Party has yet to submit the melting polar ice caps for consideration on any of them.
Will that finally change in 2008? Will we finally be so overwhelmed with evidence that we recognize that in our cars and homes we have become our own worst terrorists? Will the Blue Marble make a comeback? Al Gore thinks so. Al Gore - this Al Gore, the one who now insists we have to expand the boundaries of what is politically feasible - is said to be considering another bid for president. With luck, this time he'll pull the Blue Marble off his office wall, take it with him on the road and tack it up on the podium behind him everywhere he goes.
I really believe this: We will find a way, he reassured his audience at the end of his speech.
And what if we don't?
Judith Lewis

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