STATE OF THE PLANET: Al Gore talks climate at Salk Institute in La Jolla

Gore addresses a packed crowd at the Salk Institute on Dec. 3, alongside the evening’s moderator, UCSD executive vice chancellor for academic affairs Elizabeth Simmons.

Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore delivered a state-of-the-planet address to an audience of 200 science and biotech VIPs on Dec. 3 at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies. He was invited to speak by the American Academy of Arts & Sciences, which organized the event titled “Solving Our Climate Crisis.”

As you might expect, the news in the 13 years since “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Oscar-winning documentary about Gore’s environmental campaigning, has not gotten better.

As Gore pointed out during a slideshow, 152 million tons of carbon dioxide and other pollutants now spew into the atmosphere every day — “faster than at any time since the dinosaurs were wiped out by that asteroid that hit the Yucatan 66 million years ago,” he said.

Because of this pollution, Gore said, the planet is now “out of whack.” This is why, in the last 30 years, San Diego County’s average temperature has gone up 1.7 degrees Fahrenheit and is projected to rise 3 more degrees in the next 30 years, Gore said, adding that every 1 degree increase at the equator causes a 3 degree increase at the poles.

It’s why the frequency and intensity of California wildfires, East Coast hurricanes and African droughts are increasing, and why the sea level in La Jolla is projected to rise 11 inches by 2050. It’s also why almost all the Earth’s glaciers have begun melting, and why the future of all agriculture is gravely in danger.

“We’ve got to stop this,” Gore stated emphatically.

How can we stop it?

Solving the climate crisis, Gore said, boils down to three questions: 1) Do we really have to change? 2) Can we change? and 3) Will we change?

Al Gore was vice president from 1993 to 2001. He ran for president in 2000 and lost in one of the closest races in presidential history.

“Spoiler alert — the answer to the first question is yes,” Gore said to laughter from the audience. “But don’t get too depressed, because the answers to the second and third questions are actually pretty optimistic.”
Gore noted that the world’s switch to renewable energy is outpacing all previous predictions. In Europe last year, he said, 88 percent of newly generated electricity came from solar and wind. In the U.S. last year, he said, solar has now overtaken gas. (To humorously address his point, Gore showed a slide of solar panels that were recently installed on the roof of the Kentucky Coal Mining Museum.)

This is all great news, Gore said, because fossil fuels are “the largest single source by far” of carbon dioxide overload.

“But it’s not fast enough,” Gore added, explaining that it’s not only annual emissions that must come down, “it’s the accumulated amount, because the CO2 stays up there on average about 100 years.”

Gore’s La Jolla connection

Gore — who served with President Bill Clinton from 1993 to 2001— began the program by acknowledging his debt to La Jolla’s science community. He said he had been in the Salk Auditorium “so many times to listen to others make presentations,” that it seemed strange making one himself. He pointed to Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs and his wife, Joan, in the front row, explaining that he felt like he belonged seated next to them.

Scripps Institution of Oceanography Center for Atmospheric Sciences director V. Ramanathan and Qualcomm founder Irwin Jacobs greet each other following Gore’s talk.

He also name-checked Salk president Rusty Gage, Salk genetics researcher Geoffrey Wahl, UC San Diego anthropologist Thomas Levy and Scripps Institution of Oceanography (SIO) atmospheric scientist V. Ramanathan. Then he flashed slides of some friends who couldn’t be there: Salk professor Jean Rivier, who died last month; SIO rock star Walter Munk, whom he called “one of the greatest scientists and human beings”; and UCSD founder Roger Revelle.

Gore singled out Revelle, who taught him as a Harvard undergrad, as his inspiration for becoming a climate-change warrior, saying that “he really opened my eyes in a way that was unique.”

In 1981, Gore said, he organized the first Congressional hearing on climate just so he could call on his old college professor as his lead witness, “naively expecting that my colleagues on the dais would have the same epiphany that I did after a full college course.”

“That was not the dumbest mistake I’ve ever made,” Gore said, “but it was an effort that actually led me, for the first time, to ask myself, ‘How can this great man’s wisdom be translated into terms that are accessible, that will recreate the same a-ha moment that I had as a young student?’

“And really,” he said, “that’s the journey that led me here.”