Al Gore's Excellent Timing

The former vice president holds a series of climate presentations amid a rash of floods, droughts, heat waves, and hurricanes

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Al Gore hasn't always demonstrated impeccable political instincts, but his timing was right as rain this week when he organized a worldwide extravaganza on climate change.

Gore coordinated a global daylong series of 24 presentations exploring the links between the concentration of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and the wave of extreme weather buffeting countries across the globe. The presentations began on Wednesday night in Mexico City and proceeded westward, with one occurring each hour in the next time zone--everywhere from Boulder, Colo., and Canberra, Australia, to Beijing, New Delhi, Istanbul and London. Gore was slated to close the series on Thursday night in New York.

The presentations--updated and localized versions of the Gore climate slideshow memorialized in the film An Inconvenient Truth--came at a moment when the adjective "unprecedented" has become routine when talking about the weather. Consider some of the recent developments in the U.S. alone.

  • The National Climatic Data Center reported that Texas this summer endured the highest average three-month temperature ever recorded for any state in the history of government records dating back to 1895. With an average statewide summer temperature of 86.8 degrees, Texas exceeded the previous record held by Oklahoma at the height of the Dust Bowl in 1934. (Oklahoma also bested that record this year, with an average summer temperature of 86.5 degrees.)
  • For the nation overall, this was the second-hottest summer ever recorded, according to the data center, trumped only by 1936. Six of the 10 hottest summers on record have occurred since 2001.
  • Drought this year has covered about one-third of the United States, according to federal figures. Southwestern states, including Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico, are experiencing droughts more intense, though not yet as long-lasting, as epic shortfalls in the 1930s and 1950s. Texas this year is suffering through its worst drought ever, receiving just one-fifth of its average annual rainfall.
  • Meanwhile, other areas have been hit by record deluges. Washington last week experienced widespread flooding after being submerged by a week of rain so intense it seemed as if the capital had been transported to Mumbai. "I can't recall flooding like this," one Virginia official told The Washington Post. "This is unprecedented."
  • When Hurricane Irene slammed the East Coast in late August, it became the 10th natural disaster this year that caused at least $1 billion in damages. That marked a single-year record, according to federal figures. From 1980 through 2001, when measured in inflation-adjusted dollars, the nation experienced 54 separate disasters costing $1 billion or more. It has experienced 55 just since 2001.

As Gore noted in an interview, the developments in other nations are as tumultuous. Recent months have brought "historic floods in Pakistan, displacing 20 million people from their homes; the historic drought and fires in Russia; and the great Australian flood that covered an area the size of France and Germany combined; and in China many large floods and droughts [simultaneously], the same as in the U.S."

Not all of these developments are easily linked to climate change. In particular, climate scientists have not established a connection between growing concentrations of greenhouse gases and tornadoes, which have accounted for some of this year's most violent destruction. Shifting patterns of residential settlement also affect the aggregate level of weather-related financial losses.

But changing patterns of drought and deluge, more-intense hurricanes, and of course rising temperatures in many areas are all trends predicted by climate-change models. Most scientists remain reluctant to attribute any individual weather event to the atmospheric buildup of greenhouse gases, but the sheer frequency and scope of extreme weather suggests to many that the odds are shifting-against us. As Gore puts it, "We are not only loading the dice; we are painting more dots on the dice. We are not only more likely to roll 12; we are now rolling 13 and 14, and we soon will be rolling 15s and 16s."

Gore has no illusions about the political challenge he's facing, particularly during the most sustained economic downturn since the Depression. Rejection not only of efforts to control greenhouse-gas emissions but of the very idea that they are changing the climate has become a litmus test for Republican presidential candidates. President Obama himself has always seemed ambivalent, at best, about this cause. Polls show that a declining percentage of Americans believes that human activity is changing the climate.

These reversals have forced Gore back to basics; he's shifting his efforts toward defending the basic science of climate change. (Tellingly, he's changed the name of his organization to the Climate Reality Project.) And he's not expecting imminent political breakthroughs. But he remains convinced that the U.S. eventually will confront these issues--if only because ignoring them will grow increasingly intolerable. "Change will come," he says. "It has to. Because reality has a way of insinuating itself into our awareness, and Mother Nature is speaking very loudly right now."

If you can hear her over the rain or the eggs frying on the sidewalk, that is.

Image credit: AP