ASPEN - He may have been preaching to the choir, but former Vice President Al Gore stirred an Aspen audience Friday with a passionate speech about the effects of global warming, at one point pounding his fist on the podium and declaring it "a moral issue."
Gore, 62, delivered a 50-minute keynote address for a symposium on "Forests at Risk: Climate Change and the Future of the American West." The event, hosted by the local nonprofit For the Forest, was held in the Doerr-Hosier Center at The Aspen Institute.
Gore told the standing-room-only audience that his remarks on global warming, and the presentations throughout the half-day symposium, should not be taken as merely "interesting" or "an intellectual exercise."
"It is a call to action," he said, "if you love these forests, if you think for a moment about the obligation we have to those who come after [us].
"This is a forest issue. It's a political issue. It's an economic issue. It's a national security issue. It's a jobs issue. But at bottom, it is a moral issue," he said to widespread applause. "And we have to be willing to stand up and do the right thing."
Gore spent much of the first half of his speech discussing the loss of millions of acres of forests in Colorado and elsewhere in the Rockies, connecting that decline to various factors such as pine-beetle infestations and wildfires.
Global warming has helped to accelerate the losses, he said. Through a slide show, he displayed charts created through scientific data that show the correlation between rising temperatures and an increase in wildfires.
Warmer temperatures have promoted the beetle problem in many ways, Gore said. Because of higher winter temperatures, a large percentage of the beetles are surviving, returning during warm months to wreak havoc on trees. Also, the trees aren't as strong as they used to be, having been weakened by years of drought conditions, making them easy targets for the beetles.
Gore's slideshow contained Google Earth software maps that clearly showed the rapid decline of Colorado's forest lands over the last decade. He then returned to a more general discussion of global warming. His work to promote efforts to recognize global warming and combat it by reducing the world's carbon footprint led to a Nobel Prize in 2007, an honor he shared with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. In 2006, he was the subject of an Academy Award-winning documentary on global warming, "An Inconvenient Truth," which was based on his book of the same name.
According to Gore, 90 million tons of pollution that contribute to global warming are sent into the Earth's atmosphere every day. The time has come for not just Americans, but the world at large, to make a conscious decision to tackle the problem, he said.
Gore acknowledged that there are skeptics and cynics, but said an overwhelming consensus of the world's top scientific organizations now recognize the causes and effects of global warming. It should no longer be a partisan issue, he said.
Gore said he agrees with U.S. Sen. Mark Udall, D-Colo., on the point that "global warming shouldn't be a conservative or a liberal issue to the extent it is. It shouldn't be a Republican-Democratic issue, but one thing it is for sure - it is an issue for anyone who loves the forest."
During a question-and-answer session, the former vice president spoke about the intense opposition to the very idea of global warming.
He said many global corporations base their profit margins on the ability to pollute. They have banded together and spent billions of dollars in the media and in political campaigns, even hiring "four anti-climate lobbyists for every member of Congress."
"And they said, if the public becomes convinced that this is what the scientists say it is, then it's 'game over' for us," Gore said.
Their objective, he said, was to transform global warming into a theory rather than a fact. And so the opponents of the effort to recognize climate change embarked upon a "dedicated, cynical, lavishly funded strategy," utilizing conservative talk radio, commentator Rush Limbaugh and his many imitators, the Wall Street Journal editorial page, Fox News and other right-wing outlets.
It didn't help, Gore said, that the scientific community committed some "self-inflicted wounds." That was a reference to mistakes and misstatements in an IPCC report four years ago that led to a large amount of political debate and media attention.
"I think the mistakes were blown way way out of proportion," Gore said. One reason for the mistakes, he said, was that a defensive culture developed among some scientists because they were "harassed on a regular basis" by opponents of the concept of global warming.
"But the general consensus [recognizing global warming] is so strong, and so firm, and so widely shared now, that it is clearly the basis for action that the rest of us ought to take," Gore said.
He was asked about the popular confusion surrounding the topic. For instance, when winter weather turns extremely cold, many people question the concept of global warming.
"With global warming, since the manifestations are distributed globally, it masquerades as an illusion," Gore said. "It could be a cold winter in one geography while the world as a whole is continuing to get warmer. There can be more extremes of both heat and cold. There can be more volatility in weather patterns."
Gore quoted comedian and political commentator Bill Maher, who recently said on his HBO program that "believing that winter disproves global warming is like looking outside and concluding that the sun has gone away and disappeared because it's night."
Gore said human nature tends to discount the notion of global warming because "the length of time between causes and consequences is somewhat longer than we're comfortable dealing with, in the normal way we think about things."
But, he added, it's also part of our human nature "to use abstract reasoning, and form values-based goals, and stick to them for a long period of time. We have demonstrated that in the history of humankind on many occasions."
Gore, a Democratic U.S. representative and senator from Tennessee in the 1980s and early 1990s, served as vice president to Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001. In the controversial 2000 presidential election that ended up being settled by the U.S. Supreme Court, he was defeated by Republican George W. Bush, even though Gore won the popular vote by more than a half-million votes.