By Margaret Harris
As we were waiting for tonight’s keynote address by former US vice president and Nobel laureate Al Gore, the man next to me commented that the International Year of Astronomy hasn’t received nearly as much press attention as the 150th anniversary of Charles Darwin’s publication of Origin of Species. Perhaps people can only absorb one celebration at a time, he suggested, and Darwin pipped Galileo to the post.
If it’s true that the public has a limited appetite for scientific anniversaries, then Gore’s speech must have left its audience very full indeed. The beginning of the talk incorporated not only Darwin and Galileo — whose evidence for a heliocentric universe Gore called “the original inconvenient truth” in reference to his 2006 film — but also Sir John Tyndall, who discovered 150 years ago that carbon dioxide in the atmosphere absorbs radiation from the sun.
The remainder of Gore’s address was essentially a statistics-rich tour of climate change and its potentially catastrophic effects on human life. Having seen it, I can understand how “An Inconvenient Truth” struck such a chord with viewers. As a politician, Gore was often lampooned for being humourless and wooden, but his calm, deadpan manner suits his subject matter perfectly: the facts are so striking that they speak for themselves, with no need for histrionics or overt emotion.
Gore now calls himself a “recovering politician” — he’s on Step 9 of the programme, he joked — and he claimed he didn’t want to make a political speech tonight. Yet one of the most optimistic things he had to say was also among the most political. After calling the search for green energy the greatest scientific challenge of our age, he claimed that we nonetheless have everything we need to solve it “except possibly political will — and the United States has just demonstrated that political will is a renewable resource.” If the situation is as dire as Gore’s data indicate, let’s hope he’s right.