Al Gore captivates audiences even as he foresees a dire future, but is the inconvenient truth that he is preaching to the converted? Adam Morton reports.
AS MOST of Melbourne slept, business leaders, politicians and green campaigners queued on a Docklands wharf in the pre-dawn cold yesterday to hear a man say what he has said many times before.
Notionally, they were there for the launch of Safe Climate Australia — an apolitical organisation that hopes to plan a future without greenhouse gas emissions. But few braved the chill to hear about a new non-government organisation, no matter how impressive.
They were there to hear Al Gore, in Melbourne for a whistlestop 30 hours of training climate activists and delivering his well-honed message. Those hoping for insight into global negotiations on a new climate deal, or an intervention into the Australian climate change debate, would have been disappointed. In its place they got a practised summary of the climate problem, and hope that a solution is within grasp.
"We can see that we are standing in front of a fork in the road," Gore said. We can take one of two different directions. "We can say to the scientists, 'We don't want to listen to you. We would prefer to seek out the 1 or 2 per cent of the naysayers who stand against this growing and building consensus.' If we continue on that path it leads towards a catastrophic outcome. It is difficult to ignore that the cyclones are getting stronger, that the fires are getting bigger, that the sea level is rising, that the refugees are beginning to move from places they have long called home.
"So what should we do? We should respond not only to the danger, but also to the opportunity, because we face this crisis at a moment when the world is in an economic crisis as well, and the economists tell us the obvious response is to find opportunities to invest sensibly in the building of new infrastructure that can make our countries stronger and put people to work and give them money that they can spend to get the economy moving again."
Beyond the content there was the charisma; the intangible pull of a celebrity who is famous for what he does, not who he is, and is renowned as an inspiring speaker.
For the hosts — Safe Climate Australia — his presence transformed an earnest gathering of the usual green suspects into an A-list environmental event. "There are not many things you get out of bed that early on a Monday morning for," says Mark Lister, group manager corporate affairs with Szencorp, a designer of environmentally friendly commercial buildings. "Having some people who know some people who know Al Gore is very, very helpful and it makes a big difference because people look to opinion leaders like him … Having someone like that endorse what you're doing speaks volumes."
Bob Welsh, chief executive of VicSuper, says Gore is a "bit of a rock star". "What I like about it is he has been on this sort of pathway for about 30 years. He's not a Johnny-come-lately, he's a deep thinker about these issues and passionate about humanity picking up the challenge."
Gore's method is to create a sense of unified hope in the face of a divisive and seemingly hopeless task. Before his arrival in Australia there was speculation within the environmental movement over whether the former US vice-president would back the Rudd Government's climate policies. Gore is a strong supporter of a campaign to reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide to at most 350 parts per million — seemingly at odds with Canberra's ambition of a global deal to stabilise at a comparatively dangerous 450 parts per million.
But the man behind An Inconvenient Truth — the world's only successful movie based on a PowerPoint presentation — gave pragmatic support for the Government at a press conference on Sunday, reckoning it was better to pass what was politically possible than hold out for something perfect. He reiterated yesterday: "The changes that must take place follow the old maxim that we must walk before we can run, and beginning to act can build confidence that we can act more boldly and more effectively."
Many who stood alongside Gore would vigorously oppose this view, but breakfasters who spoke with The Age afterwards left feeling he had reinforced their own opinion.
Lister says the ability to bring people together is a significant part of the Nobel laureate's appeal. "His political skill is being able to give everyone a nod, and not claim that he's supporting one or the other, and actually leave everyone feeling like he's on board with what they're doing," he says.
'HE told a couple of gags that I've heard him tell before (that he is on stage nine in a 12-step recovery program from politics, for example), so he probably needs to sharpen up his material in that area would be my only advice. Not that he needs my advice; he's still got the ability to inspire people."
It was a similar story at the United Nations climate summit in Poznan, Poland, last December. The key note speaker after a fractious two weeks of negotiations, Gore spoke with such inclusive warmth — embracing the oft-criticised Chinese regime by listing the steps it was taking to move to a clean energy supply — that he received a standing ovation for more-or-less telling delegates that they weren't doing their job properly.
In Melbourne, his message was littered with well-rehearsed illustrations of the problem. In 1900 the planet was home to 1.6 billion people, but today there are 6.78 billion — a quadrupling in the space of a century. Even more significantly, is the advent 150 years ago of the first oil drill and, shortly afterwards, the widening use of coal to drive machinery. As a result of these changes, Gore says, the planet has a fever. If a doctor told us our child had a fever, and we got a second opinion and received the same diagnosis, would we continue not to act? This was effectively what the world had done in ignoring four reports by "the leading experts from more than 100 nations" — the UN's Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
Gore's key message was of opportunities being ignored. "This climate crisis presents not only the most dangerous threat we've ever faced in civilisation, but truly the greatest opportunity that we have ever confronted as well," he said.
"I place my hope in you. When political leaders and nations around the world are trying to decide whether or not it's politically safe for them to move beyond what the pollsters say is safe, one way that political leaders in every nation can get the backbone to step up to this is if the leaders of society take time to learn for themselves and speak up and say, 'I understand that we in this generation have a obligation to those who come after us.' "
It is a message that is gradually being embraced in business circles. Bob Welsh has seen VicSuper slowly shift its investment strategy towards environmentally friendly ventures since 2001. It now invests in two funds run by Generation Investment global equities fund, which is chaired by Gore, that invest respectively in the large companies that exhibit the best sustainability credentials and in venture capital start-ups attempting to create the technologies needed to move to a low-carbon environment.
It is, Welsh says, a gradual shift to the fund being more sustainable.
"It is not an ethical thing, it is not a socially responsible thing, it's fundamentally about risk moving forward," he says. "How do you invest in a way to create wealth for the current generation, while creating opportunity for the next generation? It's a challenge, but so far it has worked for us."
One of the key questions raised by Gore's visit is: does the message break through beyond the converted into the wider community? Yesterday's breakfast was accompanied by protesters bearing placards condemning "junk science" and wearing T-shirts bearing the slogan Carbon Really Ain't Pollution — CRAP.
Inside was Family First senator Steve Fielding, whose recent fact-finding mission to the US led to him becoming a climate sceptic. He was attempting to arrange a meeting with Gore to discuss the scientific evidence. Gore's speech appeared to be "preaching the science".
While Gore listed a number of climatic changes that scientists have linked to greenhouse emissions, including ocean chemistry harming coral reefs and summer sea ice in the Arctic retreating at unprecedented rates, Fielding was unconvinced: "It could be an inconvenient fact that greenhouse gas emissions have risen and global air temperatures haven't risen in the past 15 years."
Despite polls regularly finding that more than 70 per cent of Australians are concerned about climate change, Lister suspects acceptance of the science and the ramifications is not well developed. Gore's visits are part of an educative process.
"There is a long way to go before people are willing to change on this stuff. There is a huge resistance. But someone with a profile standing up and saying this stuff, it gets coverage and people digest it and absorb it," he says.
Adam Morton is environment reporter.