TED2008: Al Gore with solutions

Singer, ukelele player and pianist Nellie McKay gives the impression of the fluttering femme fatale, but she’s got quite a voice. She’s received very warmly by some of the TED crowd, and sends others out of the room. She closes with “Clone Me” – “Mother Nature, don’t you call her phoney – she’s my clone me.”


This is the last TED in Monterey. (No word on whether they’re running away from BIL.) Next year, the conference takes place in Long Beach, and Chris Anderson explains that the desire is to bring everyone together in the same room. He throws the discussion open to the crowd, and the first question comes from Cameron Diaz, who welcomes everyone to her hometown, but wonders, “How are the seats?” Other questions ask about maintaining a simulcast room, possibly creating a room for parents with kids, asking about the ability to have side events at restaurants and elsewhere. There’s enthusiasm from the crowd in Aspen, who are watching this whole conference via simulcast. Anderson explains that he’s amazed that people are willing to spend $3000 to sit for four days in Aspen and watch television…

Could TED hold seats until much closer to the conference, instead of requiring people to sign up almost a year in advance to attend? Chris argues that TED is not a conference, but a community, and that participating the whole year is part of the fun. But he’s sensitive to the idea that some people may not like the Long Beach experience and will find a way to refund the fees for people disappointed by the new event.


Net advertising pioneer Andy Hobsbawm wants us to think creatively about climate change. “Science is clever, but creativity is more magical.” He’s working on an initiative called Do The Green Thing, which has released a very funny video designed to tempt us into walking more… perhaps in the hopes that we can get laid.

Al Gore’s amazing appearance at TED two years ago inspired a number of TED-related activities, and Hobsbawn’s is one of them. Gore takes the stage this morning and thanks half a dozen TED founders and speakers… ultimately blowing a kiss to Tom Rielly, a wonderful reference to Tom’s 2006 conference summary, where he made dozens of Brokeback Mountain jokes featuring himself and the former Veep.

Gore reminds us that “Optimism will not be created by belief alone” – we need to change behaviors as well. “But behavior can be misunderstood – I’m a big advocate of changing lightbulbs, buying hybrids, installing solar panels.” But it’s more important to become involved as citizens. “In order to solve the climate crisis, we need to solve the democracy crisis.”

“There’s a bridge between the climate crisis and the extreme poverty crisis around the world,” he tells us. As a young congressman, he studied nuclear arms control. “There are local battles, regional or theatre wars, and the rare but important world war.” Most environmental issues are local ones. There are a few regional ones, like acid rain. And there is a profound global one that require global movements to solve them. “Martin Luther King said, ‘Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice anywhere.’ In our time, environmental crisis anywhere is a threat to environmental justice everywhere.”

Gore blames climate crisis, in no small part, on “a pattern of consumption that has morphed into overconsumption.” We can continue consumption, but we need less overconsumption… and we can’t build our economy around our capacity to overconsume.

He reminds us of some of the aspects of the current crisis, focusing on the panic on the disappearance of the Arctic ice cap. “The amount of ice cap that disappeared last year was the equivalent of the United States east of the Mississippi.” This disappearance is leading to houses falling into the sea in Newfoundland and Alaska, losing the ice they’ve historically rested on.

Putting global warming in cosmic terms, he shows us Earth and Venus. “Earth and Venus are exactly the same size. And they have exactly the same amount of carbon. On earth, over time, most has been leached out the atmospehre and deposited into the ground. On Venus, it’s mostly in the atmosphere.” And there’s a big difference – on Earth, the average temperature is 59F, while on Venus it’s 855F. And Venus is 3 times hotter than Mercury, which is closer to the sun.

But now over 65% of Americans believe that human activity is responsible for global warming. However, when given a list of challenges to confront, global warming is near the bottom. There’s a missing sense of urgency. He shows us a video that won a competition sponsored by CurrentTV:It features 1.2 billion elephants – symbolic of the amount of carbon dioxide we’re releasing – falling from the sky and crushing people. “It’s time to stop ignoring the 1.2 billion elephants in the room.” (No commentary on whether elephants are somehow symbolizing an American political party.) He tells us that the hundreds of questions asked on Sunday talk shows almost never address global climate change – two questions out of hundreds asked.

The US can’t solve this problem alone. But we need to recognize that “we have given developing nations the technologies and the ways of thinking that have created the crisis.” There’s a simple solution: a carbon tax. “We should tax carbon, not work. A tax on work was started by Bismark, and the world has changed a bit since then.” He believes we need to integrate responses to poverty with responses to the climate crisis.

One solution could be a proposed energy supergrid, a system that connects solar collectors in the developing world with the power grid in Europe. These sort of radical solutions are what are needed, not simply finding oil in new places. “If you’re investing in tar sands or shale oil, you’re investing in subprime carbon assets. You know, junkies find veins in their toes when those in their arms collapse.” He shows some of his own investments – geothermal, advanced photovoltaics, energy efficiency and conservation.

He points out that Australia has now ratified Kyoto – the US is now the only country that hasn’t. Support for Kyoto in Australia came, in part, from a horrible drought. He wonders if we named droughts whether we would have seen more support in the US given the drought we’re facing in the Southeast.

Our enemy now is distraction. He points to Jill Taylor’s speech – “she figured out how to save her life while distracted by her stroke. We need to fight the culture of distraction” and create a sense of cultural mission. He offers images of the US constitutional convention, movements for women’s rights and emancipation of slaves. He challenges us to be the people that are celebrated in song a thousand years from now.

Chris Anderson asks him his opinion on the current Presidental candidates on these issues. He points out that, while all three
have offered leadership, and all three are very different from the current administration, none is proposing truly radical steps like a moratorium on coal plants that can’t sequester their own carbon. He blames a media environment obsessed with Britney and Ana Nicole Smith for weaking our debate and points out that the presidential debates have been sponsored by the “Orwellian-sounding ‘clean coal’ – ‘Now, even lower emissions!'”

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4 Responses to TED2008: Al Gore with solutions

  1. Gore does need some AStronomy lessons. Venus is in fact about 80% the size of Earth. It is also 40% closer to the sun. This means it receives 190% the amount of energy that Earth receives. It also has an atmosphere that is 90 times denser than Earth’s on the surface. Whether or not it was ever earthlike, something happened about half a billion years ago that completely re-did the surface.I doubt it was little green venusians in their SUVs, or even their loudmouthed politicians flying everywhere on jumbo jets to denounce global warming.

  2. Doug says:

    Please tell me that the people in the audience aren’t allowed to vote.

  3. Kara Weber says:

    Great wrap-up, Ethan. The Long Beach decision is mildly perplexing; the evaporation of climate crisis as a topic in political discourse during the primary campaign season is deeply astonishing. Let’s hope we see great change from both in the coming year…

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