The World Environment
According to Gore
by James Hall
Earth in the Balance
By Senator Al Gore
Houghton Mifflin. 408 pp. US $22.95.
This week's release of a report by scientists of the UN-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change increases their 1995 estimate of global temperature rise as much as 6 degrees Celsius (11 degrees Fahrenheit) in the next century. It also ups the ante for concerted action to slow global warming. As a world leader of the leading producer of greenhouse gases, the next US president will have a prominent role either in dealing with--or failing to deal with--global warming.
It's more than a matter of passing interest, therefore, that one of the candidates in this year's presidential election has written a book on this issue. Almost a decade ago as a US Senator, Al Gore thought that global warming could be the greatest threat to humanity's future. In _Earth in the Balance_ he develops a wide-ranging approach to the Greenhouse Effect that remains as timely today as it was when first published in 1992.
Gore, whose early exposure to ecology came from filling in gullies on his father's farm during the Senate's summer legislative hiatus, writes eloquently in the introduction of his struggle to make the environment a focus of his 1988 presidential campaign, and of his failure to get many voters interested in issues like global warming and the ozone layer. He relates how the near-death of his son in an auto accident became a catalyst for writing a book focused on the Earth's future. But that introduction is the most personal part of a book that, a few stories aside, is focused chiefly on the Earth's environmental problems, particularly the problem of global climate change.
Earth in the Balance is divided into three parts: in Part I, Gore establishes a link between climate change and historical disasters; in Part II, he discusses the environmental problems created by the growth of human population and the technologies we rely on; and in Part III, he offers ideas to reduce and eliminate the threat of global warming and other forms of pollution and build a global framework of social justice, democracy, and the responsible, sustainable employment of free market capitalism.
Though he used a research assistant and submitted chapters to academics and scientists for review, the book is obviously a product of Gore's own hand, even sounding like him in places--sometimes preachy and pedantic, often explaining and telling us more than we need to know. Gore drops the names of his famous Harvard teachers like Roger Revelle, the scientist who originally proposed monitoring CO2 in the atmosphere, and psychotherapist Erik Erikson, whose theories of addiction he employs to explain the compulsions of our consumer society. But despite this self-promotion, Gore at least seems to have been listening in class.
Gore's seven years as a newspaper reporter serve him well in the writing of the book. His prose is clear and journalistic, though when he occasionally tries to elevate his words to make a point, he often fails to bring it off. Fortunately his topics--details of the destruction of our environment--stand out on their own. Gore has a good grasp of the science involved and explains problems well. In fact, should he lose the election, Gore might make a good living writing on scientific or public policy issues.
His analysis of the Earth's environmental problems, while not unique, is organized and well thought out. He uses military metaphors to characterize pollution problems as local (dumpsites and chemical spills), regional (acid rain in the American Northeast, the Aral Sea disaster), or strategic (global warming and depletion of the ozone layer). He notes that while local pollution problems--specific, measurable, localized--are almost always dealt with, regional problems involving the diffuse spread of pollution and numerous governmental entities are more slowly resolved, and strategic pollution problems more difficult yet to solve.
Global warming, as perhaps the most strategic of all forms of pollution, seems to be the most difficult to establish as a problem. Yet Gore does a credible job of handling the evidence, discussing the innate variability of climate, the climatological evidence linking that variability to changes in sun intensity and volcanic eruptions, the disastrous effects of climate change on early civilizations, the unprecedented rise of CO2 levels since the 1880s, and the corresponding increase of temperatures unaccounted-for--unless one factors in human activities.
Gore's solutions to the problem of global warming are broad. He would create a global Marshall Plan, leading developed nations--including the US, EU and Japan--in creating and exporting nonpolluting technologies to the developing world. Third World debt that encourages poor nations to destroy their environments in order to pay it back would be forgiven or converted to ecological advantage by paying or crediting developing countries that preserve and protect rainforest or coral reef environments and develop sustainable local economies. Gore insists that the classical economic method of calculating the GNP of nations fails to take into account the depreciation and destruction of environmental assets as well as the interests of future generations and must be revised to include them.
Population growth is a key factor driving environmental destruction--in the developing world especially--and Gore would use non-draconian measures to halt the billion-people-a-decade increase to Earth's population. Education--especially the education of women--good healthcare, and ubiquitous and cheap birth control are proven methods, when used together, to reduce the growth of populations, even in poor regions like Kerala, India, and a global Marshall Plan would support them.
For the US itself, Gore proposes a Strategic Environmental Initiative (SEI), patterned (ironically) after Ronald Reagan's Strategic Defense Initiative, to build and employ nonpolluting technologies and export them abroad. Such an initiative, which he likens to NASA's Apollo Program, improves existing nonpolluting technologies and helps create new ones. It is here that Gore talks about his standing proposal to set up "information superhighways" (p. 327) to coordinate information, making his famous contribution towards establishing the Internet. (For which he recently received public credit by the Internet's acknowledged technical creators.)
Gore's well-known "carbon tax" (p. 349) is also proposed here, as part of fund that taxes pollution and subsidizes conservation, based on the premise that whatever is taxed is reduced and whatever is subsidized is increased. What Gore's critics generally omit is that Gore would offset his carbon tax by rebates on other taxes to equalize a citizen's tax burden, and then give citizens the opportunity to reduce their taxes further by reducing their individual pollution.
Gore would expand NASA's Mission to Planet Earth program to measure the Earth's climate and the pollution in it, using advanced satellite data but also involving local learning centers--essentially classroom science, with students and teachers measuring and reporting on their local environment, providing data to regional, national and international organizations and teaching youngsters about the importance of their environment at the same time. He believes in the power of science to measure the size of the problem and find solutions, the power of the free market to fund and build those solutions, and the power of democracy to involve each citizen in the solution.
Earth in the Balance is neither a scientific tour-de-force, nor is it a Silent Spring. Al Gore's book does represent well-thought-out public policy; it amply demonstrates the intellect of a leader who is conversant on the issues and aware of environmental nuance. With the world headed towards hotter times, Al Gore's leadership may be needed far more than his written words.
© 2000 James Hall