Al Gore's Climate-Change Evolution

Al Gore steps onto the portico of his century-old white colonial, its stately columns framing him and the black Lab mix, Bojangles, that he and his son rescued from a shelter as a birthday present for Tipper. Dressed in blue jeans and a button-down shirt open at the collar, Gore looks younger than his 61 years: the mountain-man beard he grew in the wake of the Florida recount debacle of 2000 is long gone, and the extra weight, which hung on several more years, is nowhere in evidence. Nor are the trappings of office, unless you count an electronic gate at the bottom of his circular driveway in the wealthy Nashville neighborhood of Belle Meade. When he travels—as he does about one quarter of the time, often to train volunteers to give the slide show that formed the core of An Inconvenient Truth—it is with no more than one aide, and he pulls his own luggage.

Despite the grueling pace, Gore is pumped on this warm October afternoon. I am there to talk about his latest literary project, and he's ready, launching into a house tour that revolves around his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis(printed on 100 percent recycled paper for a savings of 1,513 trees and 126,000 pounds of carbon dioxide; all associated CO2 emissions offset through the CarbonNeutral Co.; all profits to the Alliance for Climate Protection, which he founded in 2006 and to which he donated his 2007 Nobel Peace Prize money). Here in the dining room, he says with a wave, he papered the walls with giant 20- by 23-inch Post-its, covered with his notes. "Stacked on the floor all around the walls were these thick notebooks from the solutions summits," he says with a chuckle. The pool table was conscripted to hold material for more chapters. There was method in the chaos, but just barely. Most books take 12 months to produce from the time the author delivers the manuscript to the publisher; Gore, with two research assistants, was still writing in August, imperiling the Nov. 3 release date.

But Gore, former newspaper reporter that he is, made the deadline. Out on the patio, Gore reminisces about how he wrote. He gathered experts at half a dozen of those solutions summits—unpublicized, invitation-only, and off-the-record—in New York, Nashville, and three other cities beginning in 2007, where he listened to presentations on, among much else, renewable energy, nuclear power, energy efficiency, and the "smart grid." He also "circled back to do in-depth one-on-one interviews" with dozens of scientists and technology experts, picking their brains and getting their latest results. By the end, he says, "I had a 40-page outline, really encyclopedic. There were really about 10 books in there."

And one has absolutely no trouble—none, zero, nil—believing him.

Our Choice is Al Gore at his best and his worst. It is authoritative, exhaustive, reasoned, erudite, and logical, a textbooklike march through solar and wind power, geothermal energy, biofuels, carbon sequestration, nuclear energy, the potential of forests to soak up carbon dioxide, energy efficiency, and the regulatory tangle that impedes the development of a super-efficient, continent-wide system of transmission lines. It is, thank goodness, no "50 things you can do" primer. To the contrary. Although Gore hopes laypeople will exert political pressure for what he calls "large solutions," he told me last week in a call from Cairo, Our Choice reflects the experience of someone who knows that it is lawmakers and business leaders who can implement the "laws and policies we really need, including getting a global climate treaty."

Despite suffering one of history's worst political fates, Gore has by no means given up on politicians. Behind the scenes, he takes calls from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid and strategizes with Sens. Barbara Boxer and John Kerry, sponsors of the Senate climate bill. Although he applauds President Obama's speech last week announcing $3.4 billion in stimulus money for work on a smart grid and the Environmental Protection Agency's decision to regulate carbon-dioxide emissions, he falls short of a full-throated endorsement. "I'm optimistic they'll get legislation out of the Senate," he says, "but the jury is still out on the effectiveness of the approach they're taking" on negotiations for a climate treaty, which begin in Copenhagen next month.

To anyone with bad memories of how Gore's fact-filled debate performances against George W. Bush in 2000 failed to connect with voters, it may come as no surprise that Our Choicehas a graphic on "how a wind turbine works," and a long section that begins: "Conventional hydrothermal plants are built according to one of three different designs. The steam can be taken directly through the turbine and then recondensed … " But because of one sentence, and one chapter, it does surprise. The chapter is an astute analysis of the psychological barriers that keep most Americans from taking the threat of climate change seriously, his acknowledgment that emotion, not just reason, drives the decisions people make. The sentence is this: "Simply laying out the facts won't work."

Asked how he reconciles that realization with the wonkish content of the book, Gore at first seems stymied. But then, when I prompt him, he points to pages on the spiritual dimension of climate change, the idea that God gave man stewardship over the earth, and that preserving it for future generations is a sacred obligation. Then he opens his laptop to show a commercial by his Alliance for Climate Protection, in which the Revs. Al Sharpton and Pat Robertson make an odd-couple plea for "taking care of the planet." Gore allows that he's been tailoring the slide-show training he gives to faith-based volunteer groups. "I've done a Christian [-based] training program; I have a Muslim training program and a Jewish training program coming up, also a Hindu program coming up. I trained 200 Christian ministers and lay leaders here in Nashville in a version of the slide show that is filled with scriptural references. It's probably my favorite version, but I don't use it very often because it can come off as proselytizing."

The book's most significant concession to going beyond "laying out the facts" comes in the final chapter. Here, Gore imagines a future generation asking how we averted catastrophic climate change. He paints a scenario in which the U.S. passed climate legislation this year, a global treaty was negotiated, and the world was "pleasantly surprised that so many of the changes [in energy supply and use] were not only inexpensive but actually profitable," he writes. "We should have known we were capable of coming together in supporting such an urgent cause … With God as our witness, we made mistakes. But then, when hope seemed to fade, we lifted our eyes to the Heavens and saw what we had to do."

Gore comes by his optimism honestly: it reflects the three years of research he did for Our Choice, centered on those summits. Energy experts at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers, the venture-capital firm where Gore became a partner in 2007, identified many of the invitees, especially in the business world. For the rest, Gore tapped his decades-old network of climate scientists and renewable-energy buffs, landing what former Department of Energy official Craig Cornelius calls "all the superstars," from the CEO of French nuclear giant Areva to renewables guru Amory Lovins. This, after all, is the man who researched his senior thesis at Harvard, on "The Impact of Television on the Conduct of the Presidency, 1947–1969," by interviewing presidential aides Bill Moyers and Jack Valenti and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr.

Gore assigned each speaker at the summits a half dozen or so questions: Is nuclear power a viable solution? How can new photovoltaic technologies enter the market? He moderated every discussion, and no one remembers him ever glancing at his iPhone during even the most eye-glazing PowerPoint slides ("differentiation of value chain strategies"). Every panel at the New York meetings ran late, recalls Joseph Romm, who oversaw the Department of Energy's renewables program from 1995 to 1998, as Gore asked question after question. "It was a fire hydrant of information," says Romm, and it taught even experts things they didn't know "about the latest technologies and strategies for clean energy." Gore also hosted a reception afterward, where he betrayed no doubt that everyone would find everything as fascinating as he did. "Have Tim tell you all about soil carbon!" he said to one scientist. "Gore bothers to come talk to us," says climatologist Gavin Schmidt of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "Most other politicians are too busy: 'Just give us the talking points.' He's the only politician who's interested in the nuts and bolts of the science—and the only one who knows what a hydroxyl radical is."

By all accounts, Gore was open to changing positions he brought to the summits. He originally thought that concentrated solar thermal power, in which the sun heats liquids that then power an electric generator, is superior to photovoltaics, in which sunlight produces electricity directly (PVs are the solar panels sprouting on rooftops these days). But "the PV industry surprised people over the last three years with the speed at which costs dropped," says Cornelius, who is now at Hudson Clean Energy, a private-equity firm. Gore came around. "We are at or near a threshold beyond which photovoltaics will actually have a cost advantage" over concentrated solar as well as fossil fuels, Gore writes. He likes the fact that they can be deployed in small installations—those rooftops—whereas solar thermal projects are immense; he's impressed that the price of photovoltaics is dropping while their efficiency is rising, thanks to new materials and manufacturing techniques. "Photovoltaics are a prime example of where the developmental pathway had a big impact on my conclusions," Gore said at his home last month. "The rate of cost reductions and increases in efficiency for PVs is very impressive. PVs probably overtakes concentrated solar thermal within the next half year."

In the obligatory chapter on wind, he writes that it is cheaper and faster-growing than any other renewable except geothermal, and competitive with fossil fuel in some places and for some uses. (Wind supplies just over 1 percent of U.S. electricity, but the DoE projects that could easily reach 20 percent by 2023.) Gore doesn't try to pick winners, instead taking an "all of the above" approach. He is predictably bullish on efficiency, noting that McKinsey & Co. released a report in July concluding that replacing inefficient motors, windows, and other energy guzzlers with high-efficiency ones could cut U.S. energy use 23 percent by 2023.

So, if efficiency is so great and saves so much money (leave aside the CO2 part), I ask, why don't businesses do it? "You know, I was raised in an Enlightenment-influenced family," Gore says. "Both my parents were such believers in the preeminence of reason, and I still believe all that." Other people, not so much. Gore offers a disquisition on how U.S. utility regulations make it more profitable to waste two thirds of the energy in the fuel they burn than to capture waste heat and make it move electrons. But there is also the irrationality factor, which drives him crazy. In a poll, he says, 80 percent of CEOs and CFOs said they would not spend money to make their factories more efficient and save money in the long run if it hurt their next-quarter bottom line. "That," says Gore, "is functionally insane."

If a good gauge of Gore's enthusiasm for something is how voluble and technical he gets, then you can be sure that he loves biofuels. There is some irony in that, since biofuels were the subject of his worst political mistake on the environment. As vice president, he cast the tie-breaking vote in the Senate in 1994 to institute an ambitious federal ethanol program even though, he admits in the book, "there were already ample warnings" that production of corn ethanol is responsible for more greenhouse gases than the gasoline it displaces. But next-generation biofuels are a different story, he says. "The pathway that I think is likely to be the winner is enzymatic hydrolysis, which essentially uses engineered enzymes to break down the cellulose, the lignin, into fermentable compounds that would then yield many more liters per hectare than any of the first-generation ethanol options," Gore tells me. "I think it's going to play a significant role … One of the many advantages of third-generation biofuels is that they can yield fuels like biobutanol that don't have any blending problems. You just burn them directly. Enzymatic hydrolysis, if I can make another point about that: there is no theoretical upper limit to how efficient they can become. So I think there might be some pleasant surprises on enzymatic hydrolysis."

Gore loves plants and soils as only a former farm boy can (well, a summertime farm boy: as a kid he spent the school year in Washington, where his father was a senator). He regales you with numbers: more CO2 is emitted from burning and destroying forests—20 to 23 percent of the annual total—than from all the world's cars and trucks; only by the 1980s did CO2 from fossil fuels overtake that from deforestation, which accounts for 40 percent of the CO2 increase since the 1800s.

The potential for soils to absorb more of the CO2 that our utilities, factories, and vehicles spew poses a dilemma for Gore, one of two where his scientific and political instincts collide. With better management, soils could sequester much more carbon than they do now. The question is how much more. Soils scientist Rattan Lal of Ohio State University was surprised to get a call last summer ("Vice President Gore would like to talk to you") that began, "I have 15 or 20 questions about soils and climate for you." Lal calculates that if more farmers adopted mulching, no-till farming, and the use of cover crops and manure, 3,700 million acres worldwide could sequester 1 gigaton per year of CO2, roughly 12 percent of annual global emissions. Other experts are even more sanguine. "If we feed the biology and manage grasslands appropriately, we could sequester as much carbon as we emit," says Timothy LaSalle, CEO of the Rodale Institute, who presented at two summits. The political clash is this: if you tell people soils can be managed to suck up lots of our carbon emissions, it sounds like a get-out-of-jail-free card, and could decrease what little enthusiasm there is for reducing those emissions—as one of Gore's assistants told LaSalle in asking him to dial down his estimate. (He didn't.)

To his credit, Gore sides with the science, letting the political chips fall where they may. He writes that soils could sequester an additional 15 percent of annual global CO2 emissions from fossil fuels. That could cut 50 parts per million of CO2 from the atmosphere over the next 50 years. (We are now at 387, up from 280 before the industrial era, with 450 ppm or even less a dangerous level.) To encourage changes in agriculture that would foster carbon sequestration, Gore advocates moving away from price supports and toward paying farmers for "how much carbon they can put into and keep in their soil," he says. Paying farmers to sequester carbon might jump-start the use of biochar, which Gore calls "one of the most exciting new strategies for restoring carbon to depleted soils, and sequestering significant amounts of CO2." Biochar, which he learned about during a 1989 trip to the Amazon, is basically porous charcoal. Made by burning switch grass, corn husks, and other waste, it can absorb CO2 like a charcoal filter in a cigarette absorbs gases. Gore estimates that biochar could sequester 40 percent of annual CO2 emissions.

The other issue where science could be an inconvenient truth for climate politics is the basic question of what is causing the greenhouse effect. Earlier this year Gore phoned two scientists at NASA's Goddard Institute, which is above the Manhattan coffee shop where the Seinfeld characters hung out. Drew Shindell, Schmidt, and colleagues run state-of-the-art computer calculations on how much various greenhouse gases contribute to global warming. The relative impact of each, they were finding, was different from what simpler models had suggested. As they reported last week in Science—findings that Gore got hold of last spring—methane accounts for about 27 percent of the man-made warming so far, largely because of how it interacts with atmospheric aerosols. Halocarbons have caused 8 percent of the warming; black carbon (sooty emissions from burning wood, dung, and diesel), 12 percent; carbon monoxide and volatile organics, 7 percent—and carbon dioxide, 43 percent.

Depending on your bent, you can append an "only" to that last number. On the one hand, the NASA calculations provide a glimmer of hope. Reducing CO2 emissions strikes at the lifeblood of the global economy—namely fossil fuels, which provide 86.5 percent of the world's energy. But targeting other greenhouse gases is "likely to be much more cost-effective than CO2-only strategies," the NASA team writes in Science. For example, methane emissions could be cut by changing farm practices and by capturing the huge quantities that are flared at oil wells. And "removing one ton of black carbon will have the same [climate] effect as removing 2,000 to 3,000 tons of CO2," says climatologist Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, who talked to Gore for hours about it. "The technology is there—you can buy a $250 diesel filter for your Mercedes—and the beauty of black carbon is that if you cut it today, it's gone in a month because rain causes it to fall out. [CO2 stays up for decades.] By going after other greenhouse gases we can buy the planet time, postponing by 30 to 50 years the day when warming exceeds 2 degrees." At 2 degrees, sea-level rise, droughts, floods, and other climate disasters will likely kick in with a vengeance.

On the other hand, the prospect of what Schmidt calls "this low-hanging fruit, which may be bigger than we think," could—like biochar—diminish enthusiasm for cutting CO2. Does that worry Gore? "Over the years I have been among those who focused most of all on CO2, and I think that's still justified," he says on his patio. "But a comprehensive plan to solve the climate crisis has to widen the focus to encompass strategies for all" of the greenhouse culprits identified in the NASA study.

Critics will find much to attack in Our Choice, most likely for downplaying the barriers to a low-carbon economy. Gore was pilloried for supposed errors in An Inconvenient Truth. The Web site of one climate skeptic lists 35, but they're points of scientific dispute, such as the extent and timing of sea-level rise. The only outright mistake is in verb tense: Gore says some Pacific islanders "have all had to evacuate to New Zealand" due to sea-level rise, but that is a projection, not a current fact. For Our Choice, he has scientific backing for every chapter, albeit not unanimous backing.

Gore is a canny-enough politician to know that change of this magnitude takes time, and that politics tends to trump science. A new poll by the Pew Research Center found sharp declines in the numbers of Americans who believe there is solid evidence that the world is warming (57 percent, compared with 71 percent in April 2008), and in how many believe it is because of human activity (36 percent vs. 47 percent). Gore blames this on the boatloads of money the coal and oil industries have spent to muddy the science and confuse the public. (Disclosure: in the book, he praises NEWSWEEK for a 2007 story on greenhouse deniers.) His favorite quote in Our Choice is from the philosopher Theodor Adorno (1903–1969): "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power … has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false."

"You know, the political system is [like climate] also nonlinear," Gore says. "I've been waiting a long time for that tipping point," when politicians and the public recognize the threat of climate change and act to avert it. "But I think we're closer than ever. Reality does have a way of knocking on the door."

Walking back through the house, I ask Gore again whether he believes the sanguine vision of Our Choicewill come to be. He points to solar panels on his roof, and to his driveway, 300 feet beneath which seven geothermal wells gather the planet's warmth to heat and cool his house. "I have to," he says.