TED 2008 / Day 4 : Al Gore: Let's Be The Generation That 1000 Years From Now Orchestras And Poets And Singers Will Celebrate

08/15/2011 11:50 am ET

(Unedited running notes from the TED2008 conference in Monterey, California)

Last year was quite a year for former US vice-president Al Gore. He was awarded the Nobel prize for Peace (together with the IPCC), won an Oscar for his documentary An Inconvenient Truth and saw the theme of climate change gain center stage in the political and social discussion. He has spoken previously at TED, in 2006 (watch the video).

He has a new speech partially related to his last book, The Assault On Reason, which will also be turned into a documentary.

"I was reminded by Karen Armstrong's presentation that if religion is not really about belief but about behaviour, maybe we should say the same thing about optimism. Optimism is often represented as an intellectual posture -- Gandhi's "You must be the change you wish to see in the world". But when we change our behaviour in our daily lives, we sometimes leave out the democracy and citizen part. In order to solve the climate crisis, we have to solve the democracy crisis, and we have one. There is a bridge between the climate crisis and the crisis of extreme poverty in our world. We have to find a unified Earth theory. The struggles of climate change and extreme poverty and diseases are connected to the problems of overconsumption, wastefulness, economic transformation. We have to approach this as a unified challenge. Local, regional, global conflicts: each level requires a different allocation of resource, organizational model, etc. The climate crisis is the rare and strategic global conflict, we have to organize our response accordingly. What we do with the poorest countries matters to all of us. We have to act. Since that post-war economic boom, one aspect of the engine of economic growth was a pattern of consumption that morphed into overconsumption. The solution to the climate crisis requires that we replace that engine -- consumption without overconsumption. We need a worldwide movement. But the political will needs to be mobilized in order to mobilize the resources.

The majority of Americans now think that climate change is a problem, that warming is real. But there still isn't a sense of urgency. (He shows a video -- a frame at left -- with elephants falling from the sky, "every year the US emits CO2 for the equivalent weight of 1.2 billion elephants: It's time to stop ignore 1.2 billion elephants in the room").

Solution: put a price on carbon. We need a CO2 tax, revenue-neutral, to replace taxation on emplomyent, which was invented by Bismarck and some things have changed since. In the poor world we have to integrate responses to poverty with solutions to the climate crisis.

We heard a couple of days ago about the value of making individual heroism so commonplace that it becomes banal routine. What we need is another hero generation. Those of us who are alive in the US today, but also in the rest of the world, have to somehow understand that history has presented us with a choice. Just as Jill Taylor was figuring out how to save her life while she was distracted by the amazing stroke that she was witnessing.We now have a culture of distraction but we have a planetary emergency. We need to find a way to create a sense of generational mission.   We have the capacity to do it. I'm optimistic, because I do feel very deeply that the kind of moving spirit that is celebrated in so many of the sessions that we've all been moved by here is alive in all of us. I believe we have the capacity at moments of great challenge to set aside the causes of distraction and rise to the historic challenges. Sometimes I hear people respond to the disturbing facts of the climate crisis by saying "this is so terrible, what a burden". Let's reframe that: how many generations in all of human history have had the opportunity to rise to a challenge that is worthy of our best efforts, a challenge that can pull from us more that we knew we could to. We ought to approach this challenge with a sense of profound joy and gratitude that we are the generation about which 1000 years from now orchestras and poets and singers will celebrate by saying: they were the ones that found within themselves to solve this crisis and lay the basis for a bright and optimistic human future. Let's do that."

TED Curator Chris Anderson asks Gore whether he is excited by Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama's environmental plans. Gore: We should feel grateful that both of them and John McCain, all three have a position on the climate challenge, have offered leadership and an approach very different from the current administration. But the campaign dialog -- often sponsored by the "clean coal" industry btw -- has not laid the basis for the kind of bold initiative that is really needed. They're saying the right things, and whoever of them is elected may do the right things. But when I came back from Kyoto in 1997 with a great feeling, and then confronted the US Senate and only a handful were willing to ratify that treaty: whatever the politicians say needs to be alongside what people say. The climate challenge is part of the fabric of our life. Changing the pattern is beyond anything we've done in the past. Change light bulbs, but change the politics too. I do believe that between now and November it is possible that the debate will get bolder. We can change things, actively. What's needed really is a higher level of consciousness, and it's hard to create, but it's coming. As the African say: if you want to go quickly go alone, if you want to go far go together. We have to go far quickly.

TED2008 is over. The next TEDs:

TEDAfrica: Cape Town, South Africa, 29 September - 1 October 2008. Theme: "What If?" Information and registration here.

TED2009: Long Beach, California, 4-7 February 2009. Theme: "The Great Unveilling". It's already sold out.

TEDEurope: Oxford, UK, 22-24 July 2009. Theme: "The Substance Of Things Not Seen". Registrations will open soon. The first TEDGlobal was held in Oxford in 2005.

TEDGlobal: Mumbai, India, November 2009. Details will follow.