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Al Gore: A New Kind of Tipping Point for Climate Action

Much of the discussion in the environmental world focuses on tipping points—beyond which global warming becomes so great it causes ecosystems and economies to collapse. But former Vice President Al Gore thinks we’re reaching a new kind of tipping point, one where climate change action becomes a priority for governments and businesses.

“We are in the process of making a very profound transition,” Gore said. “Climate-related extreme weather events are 100 times more common. Last week in Montpellier [France], they had six months’ worth of rain in 24 hours. People are saying ‘Yeah, we’re going to have to change.’”

Discussions about the “right kind of tipping point” were part of a conversation between Gore and WRI president Andrew Steer last night at the House of Sweden in Washington. The event brought together leaders from business, NGOs, and government to honor Gore, who is retiring from WRI’s Board of Directors after nine years of service.

“He’s been a leader on so many issues and inspired so many people,” said Jim Harmon, WRI Board chairman and chairman of Caravel Management. “He has used science and evidence to make the case, and pressed for global action.”

Climate Change Action Makes Good Economic Sense

Gore said he believes that the world now faces a key moment for that action. He noted that the cost of renewable energy has declined so much that in six years, more than 80 percent of world’s people will live in regions where solar is equal to or cheaper than electricity from coal. There are now more U.S. jobs in the solar industry than in coal, Gore said. And a growing number of companies get most of their energy from renewables.

At the same time, the cost of doing business as usual is becoming increasingly unattractive. Gore compared the world’s high-carbon lifestyle to the sub-prime mortgage crisis. “Seven-and-a-half million mortgages were given to people who had no possible way of paying them off,” he said. “The idea was that the risk could be magically eliminated by lumping lots of them together and selling them into the global market. We now have $21 trillion in sub-prime carbon investments.”

Indeed, research shows that avoiding the worst impacts of climate change means leaving two-thirds of the world’s fossil fuels in the ground. When “unburnable” coal, oil, and gas become “stranded assets,” it creates considerable financial risk.

“We need to start divesting from the most carbon-intensive assets, not to make ourselves feel good, but because it’s the only sane investment strategy for someone who has a fiduciary responsibility to look out for the long-term performance of the portfolio,” Gore said.

A New Climate Economy

Felipe Calderon, the former president of Mexico and WRI Board member, underscored the urgency of Gore’s remarks by highlighting the results of the recent report, Better Growth, Better Climate, which found that the world could achieve economic growth while reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The world is on track to invest $90 trillion in cities, land use, and energy over the next 15 years, Calderon said. Global leaders have a choice: put this capital into low-carbon growth, or continue to invest as they always have.

The low-carbon option can yield considerable economic, environmental, and social benefits over the long-term. Consider some of the report’s findings:

  • Restoring just 12 percent of the world’s degraded land into productivity could feed 200 million people by 2030, raise $35-40 billion annually in farm incomes, strengthen climate resilience, and reduce emissions.
  • The world could save $3 trillion in urban infrastructure investments over the next 15 years if the largest and fastest-growing cities adopted connected and compact rather than sprawled designs.
  • The world could save $5 trillion in reduced fuel expenditures by 2030 by shifting to a low-carbon energy system, fully offsetting the costs of doing so.

Getting to that “Right Kind of Tipping Point”

Of course, it’s important to not lose sight of that other tipping point, the one that brings catastrophic damages to the world’s resources and the economies that depend on them. Just this year, scientists announced that the collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is already underway. But as Gore said, “We don’t have time to get depressed. We have work to do.”

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