Al Gore visited Sheffield University yesterday, so I joined the growing number of people round the world who have seen his famous Powerpoint presentation on global warming (to be accurate, he did it in Keynote, being a loyal Apple board member). As a presentation it was undoubtedly powerful, slick, sometimes moving, and often very funny. His comic timing has clearly got a lot better since he was a Presidential candidate, even though some of his jokes didn’t cross the Atlantic very effectively. However, it has to be said that they worked better than the efforts of Senator George Mitchell, who introduced him. It is possible that Gore’s rhetorical prowess was even further heightened by the other speakers who preceded him; these included a couple of home-grown politicians, a regional government official and a lawyer, none of whom were exactly riveting. But, it’s nonetheless an interesting signal that this event attracted an audience of this calibre, including one government minister and an unannounced appearance by the Deputy Prime Minister.
Since a plurality of the readers of this blog are from the USA, I need to explain that this is one way in which the politics of our two countries fundamentally differ. None of the major political parties doubts the reality of anthropogenic climate change, and indeed there is currently a bit of an auction between them about who takes it most seriously. The ruling Labour Party commissioned a distinguished economist to write the Stern Report, a detailed assessment of the potential economic costs of climate change and of the cost-effectiveness of taking measures to combat it, and gave Al Gore an official position as an advisor on the subject. Gore’s UK apotheosis has been made complete by the announcement that the government is to issue all schools with a copy of his DVD “An Inconvenient Truth”. This announcement was made, in response to the issue of the latest IPCC summary for policy makers (PDF), by David Miliband, the young and undoubtedly very clever environment minister, who is often spoken of as being destined for great things in the future, and has been recently floating some very radical, even brave, notions about personal carbon allowances. The Conservatives, meanwhile, have demonstrated their commitment to alternative energy by their telegenic young leader David Cameron sticking a wind-turbine on top of his Notting Hill house. It’s gesture politics, of course, but an interesting sign of the times. The minority third party, the Liberal Democrats, believe they invented this issue long ago.
What does this mean for the policy environment, particularly as it affects science policy? The government’s Chief Scientific Advisor, Sir David King, has long been a vocal proponent of the need for urgent action on energy and climate. Famously, he went to the USA a couple of years ago to announce that climate change was a bigger threat than terrorism, to the poorly concealed horror of a flock of diplomats and civil servants. But (oddly, one might think), Sir David doesn’t actually directly control the science budget, so it isn’t quite the case that the entire £3.4 billion (i.e., nearly $7 billion) will be redirected to a combination of renewables research and nuclear (which Sir David is also vocally in favour of). Nonetheless, one does get the impression that a wall of money is just about to be thrown at energy research in general, to the extent that it isn’t entirely obvious that the capacity is there to do the research.