Last night, in Oslo, Al Gore delivered a simple, powerful message. It's a familiar message to anyone who has watched him speak since 2000, or watched his movie, or read his books. It's simply a call for nothing more or less than the need for all of us to accept responsibility for the effects of our actions:
So today, we dumped another 70 million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow, we will dump a slightly larger amount, with the cumulative concentrations now trapping more and more heat from the sun.
As a result, the earth has a fever. And the fever is rising. The experts have told us it is not a passing affliction that will heal by itself. We asked for a second opinion. And a third. And a fourth. And the consistent conclusion, restated with increasing alarm, is that something basic is wrong.
We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.
All that Gore is asking is that people accept responsibility for the consequences of their actions. We - particularly those of us in the industrialized world - are the ones responsible for climate change. It is only fair for us to accept the responsibility for mitigating the problems that we have caused. It may cost us something to do that. It will not be easy for us, and it may well require each of us to make some sacrifices.
But nobody ever said that accepting responsibility is supposed to come without costs.
It's somewhat ironic that most of the political opposition to taking action on climate change comes (at least in the United States) from the conservative side of the political spectrum. Some of the most vocal opponents of taking action to mitigate our impact on the climate are some of the same people who have, time and again, castigated their political opponents for being unwilling to subject people to the consequences of their actions. They are big on making other people accept the alleged consequences for their actions (many of which involve such heinous deeds as daring to be poor), but when it comes time to face up to things that they have been involved in, they take refuge in the claim that their responsibility has only been proven beyond reasonable doubt - but it hasn't yet been shown to be beyond unreasonable doubt.
That claim was addressed (indirectly) by R. K. Pachauri, Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, in his own Nobel Lecture last night:
The IPCC produces key scientific material that is of the highest relevance to policymaking, and is agreed word-by-word by all governments, from the most skeptical to the most confident. This difficult process is made possible by the tremendous strength of the underlying scientific and technical material included in the IPCC reports.
. . .
Science tells us not only that the climate system is changing, but also that further warming and sea level rise is in store even if greenhouse gases were to be stabilized today. That is a consequence of the basic physics of the system. Social factors also contribute to our future, including the 'lock-in' due, for example, to today's power plants, transportation systems, and buildings, and their likely continuing emissions even as cleaner future infrastructure comes on line. So the challenge before us is not only a large one, it is also one in which every year of delay implies a commitment to greater climate change in the future.
Change is happening, and it will continue to do so as a consequence of our actions even if we manage to level emissions tomorrow. True adults accept responsibility for their actions, even when the consequences are unpleasant. At the moment, unfortunately, we are being lead by children. They're standing in the kitchen. They've got chocolate on their fingers, and crumbs around their mouths. And they're crying because grown-ups want to dock their allowance to pay for the broken cookie jar on the floor.