Al Gore’s address to the U.N. General Assembly today was a much darker affair than I assumed it would be. Given that the stated goal today is to lay the groundwork for international institution-building and unity of vision, I expected he’d take a more inspirational approach. Instead, about three-quarters of his speech was a thorough enumeration of the effects global warming is already having on the planet.

Included in his litany of woes:

  • The faster-than-expected melting of Arctic ice, the million of years it will take for the caps to reform if they melt entirely, and the pressure the melting puts on the Greenland shelf.
  • The potential six-meter rise in sea levels associated with such melting.
  • Glaciers retreating all over the planet.
  • The total disappearance of Lake Chad.
  • Stronger typhoons, cyclones, and hurricanes making landfall worldwide.
  • Record floods in India, Bangladesh, and elsewhere.
  • 35,000 people killed in 2003 European heat wave.

Goodness.

He referred to his experience in Congress working to limit nuclear proliferation. The military, he said, categorizes conflicts in three ways: local conflagrations, theater wars, strategic global wars. Knowing how to respond in each circumstance is important, but the last category both requires the greatest action and can evince moments of international greatness. (The comparison here was to World War II. Obvious sympathies, yes, but I’ll reserve comment on the broader analogy between mitigating climate change and engaging in international warfare.)

Environmental threats, he said, can be categorized in a similar way. Most of the politics is local, comprised of efforts to clean up polluted water and air in narrow geographical areas. Efforts to combat wider effects like acid rain, he went on, map well with theater conflicts, requiring the coordinated efforts of several countries.

What we need most, though, is what Gore called a “Global Marshall Plan … to link the climate crisis to global poverty,” including a massive institution-building effort by developed nations. He took a sideways dig at the American media here, calling on the press to focus on this issue going into the big climate talks that will happen in December in Bali, even if it would mean forgoing other crucial media hobbyhorses like Paris Hilton and O.J. Simpson. Based upon the laughter and applause, this was, predictably, a hugely popular sentiment.

He closed, as he did before the Congress this past March, by speaking of the future generations who, he said, will ask their parents and grandparents one of two questions: “What were you thinking, didn’t you care about our future?” or “How did you find the moral courage to … solve this crisis?” A note of hope to end an important but terribly depressing speech.