Speaking before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday, VP-turned-climate-guru Al Gore urged lawmakers to move quickly on both the economic-stimulus package and a cap-and-trade climate bill. His testimony — which included an updated version of his Inconvenient Truth slide show, now with even scarier data — was warmly received by Republicans as well as Democrats.

“I urge this Congress to quickly pass the entirety of President Obama’s recovery package,” Gore said. “The plan’s unprecedented and critical investments in four key areas — energy efficiency, renewables, a unified national energy grid, and the move to clean cars — represent an important down payment and are long overdue.” He said he favors the House version of the bill (passed Wednesday afternoon), which includes more funding for efficiency, renewable energy, and mass transit.

This was the first major hearing of the 111th Congress for the Foreign Relations Committee, whose new chair is Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). By shining a spotlight on Gore and climate change at the hearing, Kerry sent a clear message about his priorities.

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“Frankly, the science is screaming at us,” Kerry said. He cited a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, MIT, and the Heinz Center that found that even if the world aims for the highest goals currently on the table — including Obama’s call for an 80 percent reduction in greenhouse-gas emissions from 1990 levels by 2050 — carbon dioxide in the atmosphere would still far exceed safe levels. “If every nation were to make good on its existing promises, we would still see atmospheric carbon dioxide levels well above 600 parts per million — 50 percent above where we are now. … And no one in the scientific community disputes that this would be catastrophic.”

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“Some may argue that we cannot afford to address this issue in the midst of an economic crisis,” Kerry continued. “Those who pose that question have it fundamentally wrong. This is a moment of enormous opportunity for new technology, new jobs, and the greening and transformation of our economy.”

Gore echoed that point, emphasizing that we can’t wait to act on climate change, which is intertwined with other key national challenges. “We must face up to this urgent and unprecedented threat to the existence of our civilization at a time when our country must simultaneously solve two other worsening crises. Our economy is in its deepest recession since the 1930s. And our national security is endangered by a vicious terrorist network and the complex challenge of ending the war in Iraq honorably while winning the military and political struggle in Afghanistan,” said Gore. “As we search for solutions to all three of these challenges, it is becoming clearer that they are linked by a common thread — our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels.”

Looking to Copenhagen

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Gore argued that the U.S. needs to take serious action against climate change before December, when a new international climate treaty will be hammered out at a U.N. summit in Copenhagen. “If Congress acts right away to pass President Obama’s recovery package and then takes decisive action this year to pass a cap-and-trade system for CO2 emissions — as many of our states and many other countries have already done — the United States will regain its credibility and enter the Copenhagen treaty talks with a renewed authority to lead the world in shaping a fair and effective treaty,” said Gore.

“And this treaty must be negotiated this year,” he continued. “Not next year. This year.”

Gore said the United States must take a leadership role in international climate negotiations. “I do think it’s objectively true that our country is the only country in the world that can really lead the global community,” he said.

He argued that world leaders should aim to reduce the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, repeating a point he made at the December 2008 climate summit in Poznan. “The more the evidence comes in, the more it appears that 350 is the appropriate goal,” he told the panel.

Gore outlined five key elements for what he would define as a successful agreement in Copenhagen:

  • strong targets and timetables for industrialized countries to reduce emissions, and differentiated but binding commitments for developing countries to reduce theirs
  • measures to address deforestation
  • inclusion of carbon sinks, like soils on farm and grazing land
  • adaptation assistance for developing countries
  • a strong compliance and verification regime

Gore was optimistic that developing countries have warmed to the notion of a binding climate treaty. The hope is that this will allay American critics who have said the U.S. should not sign on to a treaty that doesn’t include China, India, and other big emerging economies.

“Developing countries that were once reluctant to join in the first phases of a global response to the climate crisis have themselves now become leaders in demanding action and in taking bold steps on their own initiative,” Gore said, pointing to Brazil’s work on deforestation and recent remarks by Chinese leaders.

Coal and nuclear power

Gore tried to inject realism into discussions about coal. “I think it’s quite responsible to support robust research into whether or not it might, in the future, become possible to safely capture and sequester CO2 from coal plants, but we should not delude ourselves about the likelihood that that’s going to occur in the near term or even the mid term,” he said. “It is extremely expensive. There is not a single large-scale demonstration plant anywhere in the United States. The one plant was canceled by the Bush-Cheney administration.

“Research is one thing, but we must avoid becoming vulnerable to the illusion that this is near at hand. It is not,” he continued. “And as a result, I believe that we must not have any more conventional dirty coal plants that do not capture and sequester CO2.”

Gore was nearly as pessimistic about nuclear power, which several committee members brought up as their preferred solution to energy concerns. “I have grown skeptical about the degree to which [nuclear power] will expand. I’m not opposed to it, but there is now in the industry absolutely zero ability to predict with any confidence what the cost of construction is,” he said. “The nuclear waste storage problem will undoubtedly be solved, but there are other problems. They only come in one size: extra large.”

Sen. Bob Corker (R-Tenn.) — who has called for climate change to be addressed with a carbon tax that would be refunded directly back to consumers — questioned Gore about why he wants a cap-and-trade plan. While Gore agreed that a tax “would be the most direct way to do it,” he added, “I think we need both” a carbon tax and a cap-and-trade plan. A cap-and-trade plan could be implemented globally, Gore said.

Corker seemed to think progress could be made in 2009. “We are now firing with real bullets,” he said. “The stars are aligning, and my sense is this year something may actually occur.”

Action can’t come soon enough for Gore. If humanity continues emitting greenhouse gases at current levels, Gore warned, “[t]his would bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth.”