Gore urges scientists to warn public about global warming

Global warming is going on, says Al Gore, and scientists need to help spread the word. Video: Is the government censoring science? Video: Former VP on American media consumption

SAN FRANCISCO--Scientists need to come forward and help communicate to the public about the dangers of climate change, former U.S. Vice President Al Gore told an audience of scientists Thursday.

"It is time for the scientific community to consider playing a more active communications role," Gore told an audience of a few thousand at the American Geophysical Union, a weeklong scientific conference taking place here. "We have to find a way to connect the dots and make clear and compelling the basis for dramatic change."

Climate change presents an unusual, and dire, set of circumstances, he noted. For one thing, the effects of global warming appear to be accelerating. Just this week, a report released at the conference predicted that the permanent arctic ice sheet could nearly melt away by 2040. (The earlier estimate was 2060.)

"If we let it go, it won't come back in any time scale relevant to the human species," he said. "I was shocked that (researchers') horizon is now 34 years."

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Getting the public to understand the problem, though, and then act upon it is not easy. Humanity will essentially have to make large changes in how it consumes natural resources, and instilling massive societal changes is difficult. Typically, reform movements only begin after an irrefutable disaster.

To top it off, society has become more short-term in its thinking, he asserted. Television has crimped the attention span of the average person. Politicians now concentrate on overnight polls, and financial analysts look at shorter and shorter time horizons. The future doesn't get a lot of attention, he said.

"We have somehow persuaded ourselves that we don't have to concern ourselves much about what we are doing to future generations," said Gore.

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He particularly criticized the role of TV. In the past, individuals did more reading, and the printing press allowed a marketplace of ideas to flourish, he said, noting that many of America's Founding Fathers stayed up on the latest scientific advancements. But TV functions differently than print. TV stations, for example, tend to be controlled by a handful of individuals, and that old marketplace of ideas has given way to sitcoms.

"The well-informed citizenry has become the well-entertained audience," he said. "The age of print that began with Gutenberg essentially ended."

He later added: "The Internet, for all of its limitations, is growing, and it offers a hope of a meritocracy of ideas accessible to all," he said.

Gore also told the audience that scientific research appears to be under attack. The Environmental Protection Agency has resisted attempts by Congress to give the public access to files concerning pollution and global warming. A new federal directive will force some scientific research to be submitted for political review, a move that some researchers have compared to censorship.

The general public, he said, is becoming "desensitized" to the issue of scientific censorship.

But the speech wasn't a complete downer. Gore opened up with some jokes. He told a story about how a Nigerian news reporter mistakenly reported that he and his wife, Tipper, were going to open a Shoney's restaurant. (Shoney's is a chain of Denny's-like restaurants, mostly in the South.) Gore also did a short, but fairly spot-on imitation of former President Bill Clinton.

And he concluded by noting that climate problems can be tackled.

"In the U.S., the will to act is a renewable resource," he said.

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