Drawing parallels with America's successful efforts to land on the moon four decades ago, Al Gore called for America to abandon electricity generated by fossil fuels by 2018, instead relying on wind, solar, and geothermal energy.
Speaking in Washington's Constitution Hall, the former vice president and Nobel laureate said that "the survival of the United States of America as we know it is at risk" if bold action is not taken. A full text and video of the speech is here.
Mr. Gore's speech is something of a rhetorical departure from his previous ones, in which he emphasized that climate change is a planetary emergency requiring drastic action. This time, he says that the country faces myriad problems, including a faltering economy, high gas and electricity rates, the mortgage crisis, and reliance on foreign oil, as well as extreme weather in the United States.
Yet when we look at all three of these seemingly intractable challenges at the same time, we can see the common thread running through them, deeply ironic in its simplicity: our dangerous over-reliance on carbon-based fuels is at the core of all three of these challenges - the economic, environmental and national security crises.
We're borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Persian Gulf to burn it in ways that destroy the planet. Every bit of that's got to change.
But if we grab hold of that common thread and pull it hard, all of these complex problems begin to unravel and we will find that we're holding the answer to all of them right in our hand.
The answer is to end our reliance on carbon-based fuels.
The way to pay for this, says Gore, is to impose a carbon tax, combined with a sharp reduction in payroll taxes. "We should tax what we burn, not what we earn. This is the single most important policy change we can make."
The Associated Press reports that Gore's advocacy group, The Alliance for Climate Protection, estimates that the cost transforming America's energy infrastructure at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. Gore says that it would cost about as much to build coal plants to satisfy the country's electricity demand.
Gore's speech was light on details, so talk about base-loads and kilowatt-hours will wait for another day.
But questions are already arising as to whether such a transformation is is politically feasible. The Hill, a daily newspaper that covers the US Congress, reports that some Democrats are finding Gore's timing to be inconvenient, as Americans seem to be more concerned about rising energy prices.
"I think the American public will be much more receptive to arguments about climate change when gas prices aren’t so critical,” Ohio Rep. Zack Space told the paper.
Adding to this uncertainty are the results of a May Pew survey that showed that only 47 percent of Americans believe that humans are responsible for climate change.
"For decades, Al Gore has challenged the skeptics in Washington on climate change and awakened the conscience of a nation to the urgency of this threat. I strongly agree with Vice President Gore that we cannot drill our way to energy independence, but must fast-track investments in renewable sources of energy like solar power, wind power and advanced biofuels, and those are the investments I will make as President. It’s a strategy that will create millions of new jobs that pay well and cannot be outsourced, and one that will leave our children a world that is cleaner and safer."
John McCain's website has not yet posted a statement about Gore's speech.
"John McCain has been a leader in the fight against global climate change, working with Democrats on this issue since 2003, but no one has more successfully recruited Americans into this effort than Al Gore. This is a key issue, and John McCain has put solutions over partisanship to pursue meaningful, market-driven cap and trade legislation aimed at drastically reducing harmful carbon emissions."
The Associated Press quotes McCain saying of Gore's plan: "If the vice president says it's doable, I believe it's doable."