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Gore's RSA talk updates 'Inconvenient Truth'

As he closes this year's RSA 2008, former Vice President and Nobel Laureate Al Gore redoubles his efforts to warn the planet about global warming.

Robert Vamosi/CNET Networks

SAN FRANCISCO--Global warming is real, and new evidence shows it may be worse than we previously thought, former Vice President Al Gore said during an RSA keynote address on emerging green technologies Friday.

The talk, which ran 45 minutes and closed the conference here, updated the presentation used in his Academy Award-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth.

Friday's talk was similar to one Gore delivered in February at the annual TED conference, but without the slides. During the speech here, the 2007 Nobel Laureate was interrupted by hecklers three times; each was removed by security.

In an arrangement with RSA, Gore specifically requested that members of the press not be allowed inside the talk. And throughout the speech, security guards did their best to keep people from holding up cell phones and other photographic equipment, although no one was asked to leave for taking a picture.

Individual attendees of RSA are allowed to blog their personal experiences, and RSA also allows them to photograph almost anything they want in exchange for being photographed by the conference for future marketing use.

Gore arrived to a standing ovation. He thanked the audience, and said he had respect for the people sitting in the auditorium and for the conference itself. He then opened with a joke about he and wife, Tipper, buying and running a franchise fast-food restaurant.

He drew a quick comparison between computer security and the global threat presented by global warming. He said most computer network threats are silent threats, like carbon dioxide. He said to make CO2 visible, he'd like governments to stop taxing employees and instead tax companies for their carbon footprint.

Gore then launched into new research on global warming. As a senator, he said, he specialized in nuclear warfare and had occasion to talk with military generals. He said he learned that each level of conflict--local, regional, and the rare global--required "a different allocation of resources, a different mix of tactics and strategies, a different way of conceiving the overall problem."

The environmental challenge is roughly the same, he said. Most of us have to deal with local problems such as clean water. Then there are regional problems, such as acid rain. And finally there are global concerns, such as global warming.

Gore then talked about a tale of two planets, Venus and Earth. He said that Venus wasn't 877 degrees Fahrenheit just because it's closer to the sun; he said it's because it's covered in carbon dioxide gas, which absorbs infrared radiation. "It's not complicated; it's physics," he said. In all of human existence, carbon dioxide never went above 300 parts per million. "This year," he said, "it's 385 parts per million."

Gore talked about Antarctica, and the effect of all that new carbon dioxide. He said the north polar icecap is normally the size of the lower 48 states, "give or take an Arizona." He said that in the summer of 2005, we lost the equivalent mass equal to the entire region east of the Mississippi river. Then in 2007, another large chunk broke off, or, as the scientists explained to Gore, "it fell off a cliff." He said that some scientists he's talked to now believe that within the next five years, the north polar ice cap will cease to exist during the summers.

Protesters make their voices heard
After talking for about 20 minutes, the first of three hecklers stood. A young woman started challenging Gore to admit he wanted to depopulate the Earth. She stood, taunting for about a minute before several security guards arrived to escort her out. As she was removed, a young man and a young woman toward the back stood up and began singing loudly. They, too, were removed. Then, after several minutes of silence from the audience, a middle-aged man stood up and started yelling that Gore was lying to the audience. He got the boot, as well.

Focusing on technology's role, Gore said that we have automated the process of converting carbon into CO2. "Most of it is waste." He said the amount of energy we actually use from carbon is a very small amount, "which posses a great challenge and a great opportunity."

Gore cited his friend Amory Lovins of the Rocky Mountain Institute, a nonprofit energy policy institute, who told him that people often assume that when we change technology there will be a loss.

Gore then recounted a business example. He talked about how a company in Canada was using environmental unfriendly chemicals to clean circuit boards and wanted to phase out the use of these chemicals in its business. The company first asked, "what alternatives are there?" and pursued that line of thinking for a while. Then one day an engineer asked a new question: "How do the circuit boards get dirty in the first place?" That question, and the resulting answer, created a new type of circuit board that has proved immensely profitable to the Canadian company.

Returning to his reason for speaking at RSA, Gore said that "because CO2 is invisible, we need information technology to track it." Specifically, Gore said we need to track the efficiency of technology we already use.

Citing Lovins again, Gore said the Colorado-based scientist had looked at how much energy was useful in a gallon of gasoline. Lovins found that only 1 percent is useful in moving a car from point A to point B. The rest, 99 percent, is waste, according to Lovins, "because the process, which is more than 100 years old, is incredibly inefficient," Gore said.

Learning to ask the right questions
Gore asked the audience, "How can we change old technologies to be more efficient?" The answer, he said, is in learning to ask the right question. "Most of the productive questions are going to be in the second or third order of asking."

Gore said that if we look at the true cost of carbon, we're going to find that new technologies (such as solar energy) "are going to be much more useful to us now than they have been in the past."

He then left the audience with a question: "How will future generations look back on us at the turn of the 21st century?" He said they could ask, "What were they thinking?" But, Gore, being Gore, said he was confident that instead they would ask, "How did they find the moral courage to do what they did?"

Gore left the stage to thundering applause.