Al Gore is a busy man and my request for an interview during his visit to Johannesburg is declined. But I and 900 people worried about climate change still get to listen to him for an entire day in a cavernous hall at the Sandton Convention Centre – it’s like sitting through his 2006 film An Inconvenient Truth, and then have him explain it all to you again in detail, just in case you missed something.
Gore is the former US vice-president turned warrior for a habitable planet. His roving Climate Reality Project is here in Johannesburg to train lots of people to become effective advocates for stopping climate change, and the variety of people attending is remarkable: school children and professionals, small business owners and idealists mingle with NGO workers, government officials and Bantu Holomisa (MP, and leader of the small Eastern Cape-based United Democratic Movement).
What’s changed since Gore’s Powerpoint presentation-turned-movie An Inconvenient Truth won a Oscar in 2007? For one thing, the film’s prediction of the possible flooding of New York came true – far earlier than expected – in 2012 during Hurricane Sandy’s assault on the US east coast.
Many other instances of extreme weather have assaulted humanity – pushed by an atmosphere now an average 4% more humid than it was just 40 years ago. The hydrological cycle is on steroids, worsening droughts, rain, floods and storms. Gore first reminds us that we live on a tiny planet with a very thin, fragile atmosphere, then spends an hour or more showing us the damage we’ve caused so far, before turning to solutions.
One history of the planet might be that life has spent three billion years sucking carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere, turning it into fossil fuels and limestone, and slowly converting a planet with a Venus-scale greenhouse effect (the surface temperature on Venus is 467 degrees C) into an environment sufficiently gentle to allow our fragile civilisation to develop. Now the human love for mechanical slaves fueled by coal and oil is putting much of that carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at an incredible pace.
There are many shocks. We learn that Syria is in part a climate war – drought between 2006 and 2010 turned 60% of the country’s farm land into desert and killed 80% of cattle. The conflict in Darfur was probably started by forced migration following the disappearance of Lake Chad. Our neighbours in Botswana have succeeded in making Gaborone, of all places, the world’s eighth most polluted city.
Extreme temperature events are now 100 times more common – Australia has had to add new colours to its weather maps to indicate previously unheard-of temperatures.
We’ve already warmed the world by nearly a degree, and another degree of warming, which could arrive as soon as the 2060s, might destroy up to 80% of African croplands, even as the continent’s population more than doubles.
So where is the hope? The renewable energy revolution is but creeping ahead in South Africa, hamstrung by an often rapacious and unprincipled private sector happy to satisfy government’s anachronistic love for filthy energy.
But in 79 other more fortunate countries around the world, solar electricity is now the cheapest mode of generation.
Global investment in renewable energy has exceeded investment in fossil fuels since 2012. Apple has converted almost entirely to renewables because they’re more reliable than coal. Actual investment in wind and solar energy has far outstripped the most optimistic predictions from a decade ago, and the cost of renewable energy technology, echoing the cellphone and computer revolutions, continues to plummet, while coal and nuclear become ever more expensive. Not that you would know this from our government’s investment priorities…
There is hope from other parts of Africa as well. Renewable energy development in Kenya is ahead of South Africa; the country is committed to restoring forest cover to 10% of land area, particularly in watersheds that feed its vulnerable supply of hydropower.
What might happen here in South Africa if communities followed the example of outraged Italians, who last week pushed authorities into closing a coal-power plant and investigating the management for manslaughter – over 400 premature deaths caused by air pollution? Eskom should be shivering. Gore shows us mindbogglingly filthy skies in Beijing, but doesn’t know that European scientists last year discovered the world’s most polluted air in Witbank.
The evidence for humanity being the cause of global warming is overwhelming. Gore systematically eviscerates the misinformation often circulated by deniers in all too many letters to South African editors. Where does the confusion come from? Mostly, it starts with fossil fuel companies, which now use many of the same tactics and sometimes even the same people as the tobacco companies before them, to create a fog of lies and confusion around the science. Among genuine scientists, there is no longer any significant doubt that climate change is real, scary and caused by us.
For a non-scientist, Gore is a master of compelling and minute technical detail. An actual climate scientist is on hand to offer support, but the poor man hardly gets the chance to justify his carbon footprint, speaking for barely two minutes during Gore’s total six- to seven-hour marathon.
There are problems. His account of the solutions for dealing with climate change feels quite narrow, focusing almost entirely on the possibilities of renewable energy. There is no detailed discussion of our distorting measures of economic progress (GDP does not account for environmental damage) or our democracies in hock to vested interests (though he concedes that the US state is now “owned” by fossil fuel companies).
Hyper-consumption by the wealthy, capitalism run amok and the now well-established links between inequality and environmental abuse are not mentioned. Though technology is always a double-edged sword, he frames solutions almost entirely in technological terms. Though the presentation is intended to motivate people to action, at times the appalling catalogue of climate damage brings one very close to despair. In the end, we must perhaps return to the hope he offered us at the beginning: “We will win this struggle against climate change because the choice to save the habitat of this beautiful earth for human beings is clearly right.”