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Al Gore with students Elise Timtim, Conor Doherty and Noemi Walzebuck.

Following his lecture, former Vice President Al Gore answered questions from students Elise Timtim, Conor Doherty and Noemi Walzebuck. (Photo: L.A. Cicero)

At Stanford, Al Gore connects climate change inaction to political dysfunction

Speaking to a capacity crowd at Stanford's Memorial Auditorium, former Vice President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Al Gore calls for passionate action to reverse "degraded" state of democracy.

"Our democracy has been hacked. The operating system has been taken over." That was the message former Vice President Al Gore brought to Stanford Tuesday night. In a far-reaching, impassioned call to civic and environmental action, Gore warned against a political system that fails to serve the majority's interest when it comes to climate change and other pressing issues.

Gore spoke to a capacity audience at Memorial Auditorium as part of the inaugural Stephen H. Schneider Memorial Lecture, in honor of the Stanford professor and world-renowned climate scientist who died in 2010. Schneider and Gore worked together on several projects and shared, along with Schneider's colleagues on the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for "informing the world of the dangers posed by climate change."

L.A. CiceroAl Gore speaking in Memorial Auditorium

'In order to solve the democratic crisis, you need to become passionately involved in democracy,' Al Gore told the Stanford audience.

On Tuesday night, after a video montage of Schneider, a former senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment, discussing climate change, Gore launched into a discourse that ranged from knowledgeable explanations of ecological cycles to emotional condemnations of the "degraded" state of American democracy.

The 65-year-old paced the stage as he rattled off a litany of dark news from climate change-related superstorms and droughts to the U.S. Senate's failure to pass meaningful gun safety legislation. He offered blunt assessments of the Iraq War, saying it was about "a country that just happens to have a lot of oil." He spoke of the interest in energy-intensive Canadian tar sands oil extraction, the driving force behind plans for the controversial Keystone XL Pipeline. "Junkies find veins in their toes when the ones in their arms and legs give out," Gore said of tar sands oil.

Amid the gloom, Gore offered reasons for hope, such as the fact that global investments in renewable energy have skyrocketed, outpacing those in fossil fuels in 2010. The developing world has the opportunity to "leapfrog" traditional wire grid systems by going straight to wind and solar power, Gore said, drawing a comparison to a similar trajectory that many countries have taken with cellular phones, skipping landlines and going straight to cell.

While prescriptions such as a carbon dioxide emissions tax and the elimination of fossil fuel subsidies are available, Gore said, a more fundamental change is essential. The central issue driving Americans' relative detachment from climate change and other issues, Gore said, is that elected officials are beholden to wealthy corporations in order to campaign effectively via expensive television ads.

Television airtime dominated by special interests and news media that "do not inform people about serious issues" compound the problem, Gore said.

"In order to solve the democratic crisis, you need to become passionately involved in democracy," Gore said. He encouraged audience members to let their elected representatives know about their climate change concerns, and to work hard to re-elect those who vote for meaningful change and help defeat those who don't.

Gore closed his talk by speaking directly to students in the audience. When, in 1969, the first manned spacecraft touched down on the moon's surface, the average age of NASA engineers in the mission control center was 26, Gore said. That meant that they had been 18 – the age of a college freshman – when President John F. Kennedy challenged America to put a man on the moon.

At the time, many Americans had thought a moon landing was impossible, but were proved wrong, Gore reminded the audience. Similarly, he said, rapid and dramatic action on climate change and other issues is possible. "Change often comes quickly when consciousness changes. We have to become conscious of what we're doing so that we can change it," he said.

The lecture was co-sponsored by Stanford in Government, Students for a Sustainable Stanford, Stanford Speakers Bureau, the Haas Center for Public Service and the Stanford Woods Institute. Schneider's widow, Terry Root, a senior fellow at the institute and frequent scientific collaborator with Schneider, organized the event.

Schneider was a leader in science communication and a world expert on interdisciplinary climate science. At the time of his death, he was the Melvin and Joan Lane Professor for Interdisciplinary Environmental Studies and a senior fellow at the Stanford Woods Institute. His most recent work centered on communicating the possible risks, vulnerabilities and impacts of climate change to ensure that leaders were sufficiently informed to apply smart risk management strategies in climate-policy decision-making. Schneider founded the interdisciplinary journal Climatic Change and continued to serve as its editor-in-chief until his death. He consulted with federal agencies and/or White House staff in every U.S. presidential administration since the Nixon era. He was a co-author of the first four assessment reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.