Al Gore's Our Choice: Progressive Book Club Review

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011
  • Bill McKibben Progressive Book Club

Bill McKibben
Progressive Book Club

There's been a certain amount of debate about whether Barack Obama deserved his Nobel Prize. About Al Gore there is no argument. He singlehandedly managed to wrest the topic of global warming on to center stage around the world. And frankly, he deserved his Oscar just as much, for figuring out a way to dramatize the sometimes complicated science of global warming. He did for climate what Mandela did for apartheid or Gandhi for colonialism--made it an inescapable part of our global political debate.

But if there was a single knock on An Inconvenient Truth, it was that it didn't offer enough in the way of solutions--that the section on What To Do ran hard into the closing credits, and that most of the ideas--lightbulb stuff--didn't rise to the challenge that had just been set out so vividly. That criticism always strikes me as a little dumb--diagnosis and prescription are different skills. But Gore, who is nothing if not dogged, took the criticism seriously, and convened a series of "Solutions Summits" in his Nashville home and elsewhere around the world. To judge from the acknowledgments in his new book, Our Choice, everyone who has ever had an idle thought about the question of how we'll solve the planet's greatest problem came to one of these sessions (me included). Simply the thought of sitting through them makes my rear end ache. But this book shows the effort was worth it. It's the grand compendium of all that we know about how to undertake this most difficult of transitions, from an economy that burns fossil fuels to an economy that lives mostly on the incoming power of the sun in its many forms.

There are extensive, deeply documented chapters on everything you need to know to make sense of our situation: on forests and soils and how they might be made to sequester more carbon. On wind turbines and solar power and geothermal energy (which intrigues Gore) and biomass. He's less sanguine about carbon capture from coal and about nuclear power, as much on the grounds of cost as anything else--but he's careful not to shut the door on any option, which is appropriate considering the scale of crisis we face.

He also writes straightforwardly about the political difficulties hobbling any real action (among other things, there is no Senator so singlemindedly interested in this topic--even John Kerry, whose staff wrote much of the climate change bill recently introduced in the Senate, divides his time between global warming and Afghanistan). He knows that true-cost accounting--making fossil fuel pay the price for the damage it does--will be crucial to finally bringing it under control: "our market economy can help us solve the climate crisis problem if we send it the right signals. We've got to tell ourselves the truth."

Gore has been engaged in that truth-telling for more than two decades, and one mark of his greatness is that he's kept up with the science. Twice in this volume he invokes the figure 350, as in parts per million co2, an inconvenient new truth that our best scientists have been setting forward as the maximum amount of carbon that the atmosphere can safely contain. It would have been easy for Gore to punt on the cutting edge stuff--easier to stick within the safe confines of the UN negotiation process. But he recognizes the need for active, dramatic campaigning on these issues--my only sadness with this book is that he doesn't bring more of that expertise to bear. A man who has run and won national campaigns (even if he didn't get the office to which he'd been elected) has much useful to say about how to drive these points home with ordinary voters.

Gore's new volume is the indispensable one-stop shop for the cutting edge thinking about how we're going to solve this problem. It is remarkably beautiful too--a kind of powerpoint on paper, with great photos and beautiful graphs (and even, for the wonk at heart, exploded diagrams showing how generators work, and so on). Gore has made this greatest of all challenges his life's work; if we're able in any way to slow down the momentum of onrushing climate change he will deserve a great share of the credit, and even if we fail it won't be for lack of his trying. The irony, of course, is that he's endlessly attacked as a political radical. This is a conservative book from a conservative man, who would like the world to remain in something approaching its current shape.

Bill McKibben is an American environmentalist and writer who frequently writes about global warming, alternative energy, and the risks associated with human genetic engineering. Beginning in the summer of 2006, he led the organization of the largest demonstrations against global warming in American history. He is the author of many books, most recently Fight Global Warming Now and Deep Economy.