Our Choice: A Review

Our Choice is as much a reference book as a call to action. In an unexpected poem (Al Gore writes poetry!?) that closes the introduction to the new book, he writes: "The Hour of choosing has arrived / Here are your tools." The tools he offers in the four hundred pages that follow are a detailed and lushly illustrated look at the solutions to the climate crisis, and the social and political barriers that are standing in our way.

Like the moon mission or the civil rights struggle, these are challenges that can bring out the best in all of us and make possible rapid and fundamental changes. As those examples suggest, Our Choice is also a call for the United States to regain faith in its ability to create positive change. But even for non-American readers, like myself, the book contains a wealth of information on what is possible.

Renewable Abundance
Most greenhouse gas emissions can be traced back to our use of fossil fuels, and energy is the core of Gore's analysis. Reading his account of Solar, Wind and Geothermal it's hard to understand why we are still at such an early stage of the shift to green energy. For one thing, there is just so much of it:

-- Geothermal resources globally are equal to 280,000 times the annual consumption of primary energy in the world. Accessible geothermal in the United States is equivalent to a 30,000 year supply of energy at current rates of consumption.

-- Available wind resources in the US are equal to ten times annual American electricity consumption.

-- "Even taking into account all of the technical difficulties in capturing and using solar energy, it would take only seven days' worth of sunlight hitting the earth to meet the annual energy needs of the planet."

Also – while peaking petrol supplies will drive oil prices higher – renewables are only going to get cheaper. Technological advances have already cut the cost of renewable power technology. Once a real economy of scale develops, Gore argues, they will come down even faster. It will be Moore's Law all over again, only for energy this time, not computing power. Bundled in with all this are the millions of jobs that can be created building new smart grids, installing local decentralized renewables, and retrofitting existing homes and buildings.

Missing the Mark
So what gives? America, he makes plain, is lagging. It is being held back by inconsistent federal policies and regulations, and incentives that come and go depending on the price of oil and the politics of the White House. A brief lead resulting from efforts following the 1970s oil crisis has been squandered, and by comparison even China comes out looking pretty good (especially for developing solar industries and smart grids).

He points to the success of state level policies, like those in California, that require utilities to supply a certain percentage of renewable electricity. But these are not enough. It is time to correct the market and put a proper price on carbon through either cap and trade or a carbon tax. ( Although there is strangely little discussion of the carbon markets that are already up and running in the US out of Chicago and along the Eastern seaboard.) Not doing comes at great economic risk.

The Subprime Carbon Bubble
He draws an analogy here to the recent collapse of the subprime mortgage market: "We now have several trillion dollars' worth of subprime carbon assets owned by individuals, pension funds, and other institutional investors in the form of companies whose value is artificially inflated by dishonest misrepresentations concerning the need to sharply curtail the burning of carbon fuels .... [When] the appropriate actions are taken to curtail emissions have begun, the oil and coal "bubbles" are likely to burst. The long we wait, the bigger those bubbles will grow." All the more reason to begin the shift now, build an economy based on renewables and put a price on carbon to spur economic and technological innovation and an environmental recovery.

Power of Us
Beyond his business plan for the future, Gore offers an account of the multi-million dollar effort to mislead the public on climate change that will make your blood boil. The unified and successful campaign of American automakers and oil companies to shift media coverage and public perception on the issue is more than shameful. (ExxonMobil, for example, offering $10,000 a pop for any papers disputing the scientific consensus on climate change.)

But he uses this story about a public mislead to segue into a discussion of the strength of the internationally linked grassroots movements that have sprung up to fight for action: "The lesson we should take from looking at the way carbon polluters hijacked the political process on global warming is that grassroots activism is essential to building a base of support strong enough to overcome well-funded opposition. That is the political task at hand for anyone who wants to be part of the solution to the climate crisis."

Our Choice
The one most welcome difference between this book and it's precursor - An Inconvenient Truth – is the recognition that this is about more than policy, politics and energy. In it's closing sections, Our Choice points out that we are all far more than consumers. It draws our attention to the truly meaningful connections that we have with each other and our environment, whether those links are based on spirituality, community, or family. It is the strength of those ties, and the collective action that they make possible, that will allow us to successfully face down this challenge. But it is also from the strength of those ties, and the deep meaning that they hold for all of us, that we will find the resolve and motivation that we need to create truly fundamental change.

This combination of almost encyclopedic coverage of the science, technology and politics of climate change with a deeply felt call to action makes for a strange read at times. But the book provides much of the information needed to turn passion and commitment into effective action. Action that goes beyond changing light bulbs to changing laws. For a concerned public often left asking “but what can we do?” Our Choice answers “a whole lot, and we'd better start now.”


2 Responses to "Our Choice: A Review"

Akhila Vijayaraghavan said... 13 November 2009 at 11:51

Hi Alex, You left a comment on my blog and I couldn't find the link you posted. Also trying to follow your blog - can you add me on your list?

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This is a blog for news and views on the future of sustainable cites. A major revamp is in the works. Until then I am keeping this version up as an archive of my past writing.

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