Climate Change Messengers in China: Al Gore Brings His Lecture to Beijing

Former Vice President Al Gore launched his Climate Project’s lecture program in Beijing June 10, personally devoting an entire day to training 300 Chinese in how to give his famous lecture. The event was striking for the diversity and the quality of the participants. His partners in China’s Ministry of Science and Technology and the China Agenda 21 Sustainable Development Office invited participants from all over China, including scholars, government officials, corporate middle managers, independent entrepreneurs, NGO staff and students. There was a surprisingly broad range of ages from high school students on up. Rarely does one see officially-sponsored events with so much mixing between official and unofficial climate communities, between those working in the field and those with an interest from other walks of life.

For those who haven’t seen Vice President Gore give a training session, it is an extraordinary demonstration of dedication and attention to detail. He gave advice on how to present stories and scientific concepts, even suggesting graphical arrangements to keep the audience visually stimulated. He encouraged questions from the audience and answered them in detail.

Filled with amazing visuals, both those made familiar in the film “An Inconvenient Truth” and intriguing and disturbing new images, such as an animation of CO2 emissions from the United States over a 24 hour period and photographs of recent floods and droughts around the world, the slide program is quite different from what one generally sees in a discussion of global warming in China. In addition to higher production values, the content is quite different. There was much more of a discussion of the documentation of global warming and its impacts, and a lower fraction of the discussion on how to implement low carbon strategies.

Vice President Gore interwove Chinese examples into his whole presentation, while continuing to have a global focus. He showed the importance of Himalayan glaciers (“the third pole”) to the seven major rivers of Asia, while also discussing glaciers in other parts of the world. He mentioned recent Chinese floods, droughts and typhoons. But he also commended China’s leadership in incorporating climate change into its five-year planning process, building renewables and setting vehicle efficiency standards.

There are difficult questions, which undoubtedly remain in his audience’s mind. As Vice President Gore noted, Chinese audiences are comfortable with the scientific consensus on the fact of climate change, but there are questions on specific impacts and on mitigation. A number of questions focused on what equitable burden is for developing countries in mitigating climate change. Gore suggested that developed countries have a responsibility to move first, but that there is a need for China as the world’s largest emitter, even if it is not as large a historic or per capita emitter, to show that it is moving, too. Others questioned the amount of carbon embodied in Chinese exports and suggested that Western consumers should pay for the mitigation. And others questioned how much attention should be put on climate change versus development. There seemed to be a real desire for more detail on win-win solutions that promote both better environmental results and smarter development.

Vice President Gore acknowledged the complexity of these problems. He suggested that an international agreement is the best way to address equity issues and ensure everyone pays for mitigation. Summing up his invigorating message he said, “The key point is this: Just because it is complicated, and just because it is difficult, does not give us an excuse for not solving the crisis.”

Finally, Vice President Gore urged the group to go out and to feel they can make a difference. A number of the students, especially the high school students in the audience had asked what they personally could do. He described President John F. Kennedy’s challenge to the U.S. in the 1960s to put a man on the moon within 10 years and how the US had succeeded in 8 years and 2 months. At that time, he said, the average age of the staff at Mission Control in Houston was 26, meaning they had been just 18 when President Kennedy made his challenge. “Never doubt,” he said, “that young people can change the world.” He urged his audience to go out and transform political will not just in China, but throughout the world.