A Crisis of Democracy

AlGore_03 This past Saturday, I packed into a small Unitarian church with 500 other people to catch a glimpse of former Vice President Al Gore. He came to Harvard Square to discuss his new book, Our Choice, which is a follow-up to  An Inconvenient Truth. With only one short month before Copenhagen, I  jumped at the opportunity to see the Nobel Prize and Oscar winning former Vice President and the de facto leader of the current environmental movement give a speech on the politics of climate change.

While waiting outside for the doors to open, several environmental organizations, including members of the 350 campaign and the newly formed Repower America, worked the crowd. This appropriately foreshadowed Gore’s lecture on the need for more grassroots involvement in the climate change debate (more on this later). The fact that the lecture was taking place in a church seemed oddly appropriate. The audience was undulating with excitement as they waited. As Gore took to the stage, he received a standing ovation – before he even uttered a word. Gore then took his rightful place behind the pulpit, ready to preach to the masses on his favorite topic – climate change.

With all analogies aside, Gore’s new book provides two things that are often missing from the climate change debate: a strong political voice and actual policy prescriptions. As Gore admitted during the lecture, An Inconvenient Truth was more about the science and impact of the climate crisis, whereas Our Choice is mostly about how to enact policies to change the direction of the climate crisis. What I found refreshing was that Gore, ever the consummate politician, strayed from the normal political rhetoric that discusses the issue without ever coming to any sort of conclusion. This is exactly the type of rhetoric that President Obama offered during his speech at M.I.T. Instead, Gore was hard-hitting and focused as he laid out what he sees as the main crises in the current climate change debate, which include the following: a carbon crisis, a national security crisis, an economic crisis, and a democracy crisis.

While the book gives equal weight to each of the issues, Gore’s lecture focused on the last crisis. This is what Gore described as a crisis of democracy. What is meant by this term is that America has strayed from the type of democracy that our founders had originally intended to take shape. This is a result of several factors, but the most dangerous, according to Gore, are the special interests and political organizations that know it is more profitable to waste energy than to become more energy efficient. As a result, they wield their power to deter necessary action in order to improve their bottom line.

Gore clearly noted several times during the speech that the incentives are distorted in the current market system, which coupled with the lack of political will, has led to stalemate on climate change policies. His answer to overcome this stalemate is simple: there needs to be a change in our thinking and it needs to be supported by fervent grassroots support that is initiated by the younger generation. To those naysayers who believe that a bottom up approach will never work to change the political system, Gore shot back with the story of JFK’s ambitious plan to put a man on the moon. At that time, it was deemed impossible. Yet, it happened. When it happened less than a decade later, the average age of the engineer that worked for this first mission to the moon was just 26. The point being that change is possible, and when it happens, oftentimes it happens because of the innovation and determination of young people.

The conclusion of the speech resulted in Gore asking the audience to imagine two outcomes. The first outcome is that decades from now it turns out that we have failed to address climate change. In this future, we have to explain to our children and grandchildren why we did not care enough to make a change in our behavior. In the second outcome, we have succeeded in limiting CO2 and are living in a more sustainable and equitable world. In this scenario, our grandchildren ask how it was that we had the will and tenacity to change our lifestyles and re-chart the trajectory of our world. According to Gore, the second outcome is not only the most desirable for obvious reasons, but it is a real possibility. As Gore stated, “we have the technology and ability to solve 4 climate change crises, but the good news is that we only need to solve one.”

Click HERE to watch a similar speech given at last year’s TED conference!

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