AL GORE, climate change campaigner and former US vice-president, wants to build "a green cathedral". By that he means he wants leaders and their communities to do what the communities in the Middle Ages did when they worked for generations to erect the great cathedrals of Europe.
He wants us to give up short-term thinking and instead turn on the parts of our brains that allow us to react not just to threats we are conditioned to but threats such as climate change that can only be understood through reason.
"Human nature . . . makes us predisposed to short-term thinking and to automatic responses to the threats that our ancestors survived," he explains in an interview about his new book, Our Choice: A Plan to Solve the Climate Crisis. "It means we must use our reasoning capacity to discern more serious threats that can only be understood through analysis. We have a capacity to develop goals based on shared values and stick to those goals."
Gore says humankind has done this in the past: the seatbelt movement, the anti-smoking movement, the abolition of slavery and, of course, those great cathedrals — all achieved over generations working towards shared goals. But climate change — a threat we can neither see nor smell and whose impacts we can only glimpse — requires a special and urgent effort using parts of our brain that we don't usually use.
Gore's new book, the result of more than two years of consultations with leading scientists, technologists, economists and, yes, neuroscientists, is his attempt to lay out a detailed solution to the climate crisis. It is an attempt to spell out in a way that ordinary readers can understand the current state of technology and what still needs to be invented to bring a low-carbon world to reality.
There are passages where it becomes a little dense, but for the most part it is a worthy sequel to An Inconvenient Truth, full of optimism about the promise of science to solve this urgent crisis — although perhaps it skims over the possible changes that we all might need to make to our lifestyles.
While it explores all technologies from nuclear to "clean coal", the book leans heavily towards the renewables such as wind, solar and geothermal energy, arguing that the economics of nuclear and the uncertain viability of carbon capture and storage make them less viable.
If you are looking for tables that offer cost comparisons per unit of electricity generated, this book will leave you wanting. Gore simply asserts that renewables are going to come down in cost, thanks to technological advances.
Gore acknowledges some of the objections to wind power, such as visual impact and likelihood of bird strikes, and tries to put them to rest. He admits to finding wind turbines a "beautiful and appealing addition to the landscape"; but in any event argues that they can increasingly be located offshore, where they are less visible and the wind is more consistent.
As for bird strikes, the book cites a paper from 2002 which says the number of birds killed by windmills is 0.5 per cent of those killed by communications towers and 0.03 per cent of those killed by house cats. This means that the average cat kills the same number of birds as the average windmill.
Gore is also a big fan of geothermal power, arguing that outside the expert community it has largely been dismissed because of the cost and difficulty of tapping into the heat beneath the earth's surface. He provides maps of where the hot zones are around the world, going beyond the ones we know well, such as Rotorua and Yellowstone.
"Assuming appropriate improvements in technology over time, geothermal could provide a significant fraction of US primary energy needs in a sustainable manner for electricity generation and for the heating and cooling of buildings," he argues.
But there is some bad news in the book for those hanging their hats on carbon capture and storage as the means to clean up coal and allow it to continue to be used. Citing work done at MIT, Gore warns that it could be many years before carbon capture can be made viable at the scale required for power stations.
He is also sceptical about the ability to retrofit plants and warns that it will require older power stations to burn a third more coal just to power the compressors that are used to inject the CO2 into the substratum of rock where it is to be stored.
Likewise he is lukewarm on nuclear power, arguing that it is not the silver bullet many people see, in part because of cost but also because it will create a whole new raft of security concerns around the world. At the centre of Gore's vision for a renewables-driven energy future is a "super grid", a new efficient transmission system that will make it efficient to transport electricity from distant solar plants and wind farms without the same sort of power loss that occurs in a conventional grid.
According to Gore's research, the outmoded grid costs $US206 billion a year in the US in lost electricity and outages.
Gore's vision for the grid of the future is one in which solar, wind and geothermal provide the main power, with huge batteries used to flatten out the peaks and troughs caused by cloudy days, drops in wind strength and other fluctuations that are the downside of renewable energy.
As well, Gore sees a grid that allows for and encourages distributed generation, such as photovoltaic cells on the roofs of many houses, hybrid car batteries used to store power at night and community power stations that might use solar or even biomass to generate power.
Gore frankly admits that the battery part of the plan is still a work in progress, but being the optimist that he is, he is sure the battery capacity — at a reasonable cost — is not far away.
"The super grid will create the kinds of markets for electricity generation distribution and storage that the internet created for small devices that process, transmit and store information," he predicts.
Gore's decision to put his money where his mouth is and invest in a small company, Silver Spring, developing smart-grid technology, was cited this week by The New York Times as a conflict of interest. The criticism clearly angered Gore, who hit back at the allegations he is the world's first "carbon billionaire" by saying he is just backing his beliefs.
"In the nine years since I left public service, the vast majority of my investments have been in other areas, but I am proud to have invested in renewable energy and efficient energy strategies and, of course, I invest in keeping with my values and and my beliefs. Were I not to do so these same people would criticise me as a hypocrite," he said in an interview.
One of the more intriguing aspects of the book is Gore's comparison of the campaign against regulation of greenhouse gas emissions with the campaign run by the tobacco industry to defeat the regulation of tobacco.
Citing a study by the Centre for Public Integrity, Gore says there are now four lobbyists for every member of the US Congress working on the issue and the forces seeking to sow doubt about the existence of climate change or defeat plans for a cap-and-trade carbon scheme outnumber the environmental lobbyists eight to one.
Without naming names, he says some of the same lobbyists who worked on the tobacco companies' strategy in the 1970s and 1980s have been brought back in to assist on fighting cap-and-trade.
And the news media have fallen for it, says Gore.
"The carbon polluters' propaganda campaign has had such success in paralysing the political process in part because the news media has abandoned one of their traditional roles — that of refereeing important arguments in the public domain," he says.
He attributes this lack of scepticism by the media to the financial problems of newspapers and the tendency of the media to resort to putting the two views in lieu of analysis.
"On the one hand is the global scientific consensus and on the other — given equal weight — are the crackpot theories of industry-financed deniers," he says. There is certainly evidence that the massive advertising campaign by the coal, gas and oil industries and recent books claiming the earth is cooling not warming, have had an impact. A Pew poll published last week found a sharp decline over the past year in the percentage of Americans who say there is solid evidence that global temperatures are rising. And fewer also see global warming as a very serious problem — 35 per cent say that today, down from 44 per cent in April 2008.
The poll by the Pew Research Centre was taken among 1500 adults reached on mobile phones and landlines. It found that 57 per cent think there is solid evidence that the average temperature on earth has been getting warmer over the past few decades. In April 2008, 71 per cent said there was solid evidence of rising global temperatures.
That will be depressing news to Gore, who has spent the millions from his first book and its movie version on campaigns to take the message on climate change to the American public and the world.
It also does not bode well for the US Congress agreeing on targets ahead of next month's meeting in Copenhagen to establish a new climate treaty.