A Moral Moment

The Bible says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish." The Bush administration has no vision. So the people perish.

| Mon Sep. 12, 2005 3:00 AM EDT

The following is a transcript of a speech given by former Vice President Al Gore at the National Sierra Club Convention in San Francisco on September 9, 2005, addressing the challenges and moral imperatives posed by Hurricane Katrina and global warming.

I know that you are deeply concerned, as I am, about the direction in which our country has been moving. About the erosion of social capital. About the lack of respect for a very basic principle, and that is that we, as Americans, have to put ourselves and our ability to seek out the truth because we know it will make us free. And then on the basis of truth, as we share it to the best of our abilities with one another, we act to try to form a more perfect union and provide for the general welfare and make this country worthy of the principles upon which it was founded.

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My heart is heavy for another reason today, and many have mentioned this, but I want to tell you personally that my heart is heavy because of the suffering that the people of the gulf coast have been enduring. The losses that they've suffered in Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, New Orleans in particular, but other cities as well, and rural areas. We are here thinking of them, thinking as well of the many brave men and women who have exceeded the limits of exhaustion as they do their duty in responding to this crisis, to the families of those responders and the families of the victims.

When I received the invitation that you generously extended for me to come and speak to you, I did not at first accept, because I was trying to resolve a scheduling conflict. The Fifty State Insurance Commissioners were meeting in New Orleans, and asked me to speak about global warming and hurricanes.

I was supposed to be there today and tomorrow morning. And of course as we all watch this tragedy unfold, we had a lot of different thoughts and feelings. But then all those feelings were mixed in with puzzlement at why there was no immediate response, why there was not an adequate plan in place. We are now told that this is not a time to point fingers, even as some of those saying "don't point fingers" are themselves pointing fingers at the victims of the tragedy, who did not - many of whom could not - evacuate the city of New Orleans, because they didn't have automobiles, and they did not have adequate public transportation.

We're told this is not a time to hold our national government accountable because there are more important matters that confront us. This is not an either/or choice. They are linked together. As our nation belatedly finds effective ways to help those who have been so hard hit by Hurricane Katrina, it is important that we learn the right lessons of what has happened, lest we are spoon-fed the wrong lessons from what happened. If we do not absorb the right lessons, we are, in the historian's phrase, doomed to repeat the mistakes that have already been made. All of us know that our nation - all of us, the United States of America - failed the people of New Orleans and the gulf coast when this hurricane was approaching them, and when it struck. When the corpses of American citizens are floating in toxic floodwaters five days after a hurricane strikes, it is time not only to respond directly to the victims of the catastrophe but to hold the processes of our nation accountable, and the leaders of our nation accountable, for the failures that have taken place.

The Bible in which I believe, in my own faith tradition, says, "Where there is no vision, the people perish."

Four years ago in August of 2001, President Bush received a dire warning: "Al Qaeda determined to attack inside the US." No meetings were called, no alarms were sounded, no one was brought together to say, "What else do we know about this imminent threat? What can we do to prepare our nation for what we have been warned is about to take place?" If there had been preparations, they would have found a lot of information collected by the FBI, and CIA and NSA - including the names of most of the terrorists who flew those planes into the WTC and the Pentagon and the field in Pennsylvania. The warnings of FBI field offices that there were suspicious characters getting flight training without expressing any curiosity about the part of the training that has to do with landing. They would have found directors of FBI field offices in a state of agitation about the fact that there was no plan in place and no effective response. Instead, it was vacation time, not a time for preparation. Or protecting the American people.

Four years later, there were dire warnings, three days before Hurricane Katrina hit NOLA, that if it followed the path it was then on, the levees would break, and the city of New Orleans would drown, and thousands of people would be at risk. It was once again vacation time. And the preparations were not made, the plans were not laid, the response then was not forthcoming.

In the early days of the unfolding catastrophe, the President compared our ongoing efforts in Iraq to World War Two and victory over Japan. Let me cite one difference between those two historical events: When imperial Japan attacked us at Pearl Harbor, Franklin Roosevelt did not invade Indonesia.

I personally believe that the very fact that there has been no accountability for the horrendous misjudgments and outright falsehoods that laid the basis for this horrible tragedy that we have ongoing in Iraq, the fact that there was no accountability for those mistakes, misjudgments and dissembling, is one of the principal reasons why there was no fear of being held accountable for a cavalier, lackluster, mistaken, inadequate response to the onrushing tragedy that was clearly visible - for those who were watching television, for those who were reading the news - what happened was not only knowable, it was known in advance, in great and painstaking detail. They did tabletop planning exercises, they identified exactly what the scientific evidence showed would take place. Where there is no vision, the people perish.

It's not only that there is no vision; it's that there has been a misguided vision. One of the principle philosophical guides for this administration has been the man who said famously that he wants to render the government of the United States so weak and helpless that you can drown it in a bathtub. There were warnings three years ago from the last director in the Clinton-Gore Administration of FEMA that FEMA was being rendered weak and helpless, unable to respond in the event of a catastrophe. The budget was cut, the resources sent elsewhere.

Carl [Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club] said he was embarrassed. The word is a tricky word. What did you feel after the invasion of Iraq when you saw American soldiers holding dog leashes attached to helpless prisoners, 99% of whom, by the way, were innocent of any connection to violence against our troops, much less terrorism - innocent prisoners who were being tortured in our name - what did you feel? I don't know the words. I don't know the words but I want you to draw a line connecting the feelings you had when you saw the visual images providing evidence that our soldiers, acting in our name, with our authority, were torturing helpless people and that it was a matter of policy - now, they pointed fingers at the privates and corporals that were in charge - but I want you to draw a line between the emotions that you felt when you absorbed that news, and the emotions that you felt over the last ten days when you saw those corpses in the water, when you saw people without food, water, medicine - our fellow citizens left helpless. And of course in both cases the story is complex and many factors are involved, but I want you draw a line connecting the feelings that you had then and now. And I want you to draw another line, connecting those responsible for both of those unbelievable tragedies that embarrassed our nation in the eyes of the world.

There are scientific warnings now of another onrushing catastrophe. We were warned of an imminent attack by Al Qaeda; we didn't respond. We were warned the levees would break in New Orleans; we didn't respond. Now, the scientific community is warning us that the average hurricane will continue to get stronger because of global warming. A scientist at MIT has published a study well before this tragedy showing that since the 1970s, hurricanes in both the Atlantic and the Pacific have increased in duration, and in intensity, by about 50 %. The newscasters told us after Hurricane Katrina went over the southern tip of Florida that there was a particular danger for the Gulf Coast of the hurricanes becoming much stronger because it was passing over unusually warm waters in the gulf. The waters in the gulf have been unusually warm. The oceans generally have been getting warmer. And the pattern is exactly consistent with what scientists have predicted for twenty years. Two thousand scientists, in a hundred countries, engaged in the most elaborate, well organized scientific collaboration in the history of humankind, have produced long-since a consensus that we will face a string of terrible catastrophes unless we act to prepare ourselves and deal with the underlying causes of global warming. [applause] It is important to learn the lessons of what happens when scientific evidence and clear authoritative warnings are ignored in order to induce our leaders not to do it again and not to ignore the scientists again and not to leave us unprotected in the face of those threats that are facing us right now.

The president says that he is not sure that global warming is a real threat. He says that he is not ready to do anything meaningful to prepare us for a threat that he's not certain is real. He tells us that he believes the science of global warming is in dispute. This is the same president who said last week, "Nobody could have predicted that the levees would break." It's important to establish accountability in order to make our democracy work. And the uncertainty and lack of resolution, the willful misunderstanding of what the scientific community is saying, the preference for what a few supporters in the coal and oil industry - far from all, but a few - want him to do: ignore the science. That is a serious problem. The President talked about the analogies to World War II - let me give another analogy to World War II. Winston Churchill, when the storm was gathering on continental Europe, provided warnings of what was at stake. And he said this about the government then in power in England - which wasn't sure that the threat was real, he said, "They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent." He continued, "The era of procrastination, of half measures, of soothing and baffling expedience of delays, is coming to a close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences."

Ladies and gentlemen, the warnings about global warming have been extremely clear for a long time. We are facing a global climate crisis. It is deepening. We are entering a period of consequences. Churchill also said this, and he directed it at the people of his country who were looking for any way to avoid having to really confront the threat that he was warning of and asking them to prepare for. He said that he understood why there was a natural desire to deny the reality of the situation and to search for vain hope that it wasn't really as serious as some claimed it was. He said they should know the truth. And after the appeasement by Neville Chamberlain, he sad, "This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This only the first sip, the first foretaste, of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year - unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigor, we rise again and take our stand for freedom."

It is time now for us to recover our moral health in America and stand again to rise for freedom, demand accountability for poor decisions, missed judgments, lack of planning, lack of preparation, and willful denial of the obvious truth about serious and imminent threats that are facing the American people.

Abraham Lincoln said, "The occasion is piled high with difficulty and we must rise with the occasion. As our case is new, we must think anew and act anew. We must disenthrall ourselves and then we shall save our country." We must disenthrall ourselves with the sound-and-light show that has diverted the attentions of our great democracy from the important issues and challenges of our day. We must disenthrall ourselves from the Michael Jackson trial and the Aruba search and the latest sequential obsession with celebrity trials or whatever relative triviality dominates the conversation of democracy instead of making room for us as free American citizens to talk with one another about our true situation, and then save our country. We must resist those wrong lessons.

Some are now saying, including in the current administration, that the pitiful response by government proves that we cannot ever rely on the government. They have in the past proposed more unilateral power for themselves as the solution for a catastrophe of their own creation, and we should not acquiesce in allowing them to investigate themselves and giving them more power to abuse and misuse, the way they have so recently done. The fact that an administration can't manage its own way out of a horse show doesn't mean that all government programs should be abolished. FEMA worked extremely well during the previous administration.

A hundred years ago, Upton Sinclair wrote, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon him not understanding." Here's what I think we here understand about Hurricane Katrina and global warming. Yes, it is true that no single hurricane can be blamed on global warming. Hurricanes have come for a long time, and will continue to come in the future. Yes, it is true that the science does not definitively tell us that global warming increases the frequency of hurricanes - because yes, it is true there is a multi-decadal cycle, twenty to forty years that profoundly affects the number of hurricanes that come in any single hurricane season. But it is also true that the science is extremely clear now, that warmer oceans make the average hurricane stronger, not only makes the winds stronger, but dramatically increases the moisture from the oceans evaporating into the storm - thus magnifying its destructive power - makes the duration, as well as the intensity of the hurricane, stronger.

Last year we had a lot of hurricanes. Last year, Japan set an all-time record for typhoons: ten, the previous record was seven. Last year the science textbooks had to be re-written. They said, "It's impossible to have a hurricane in the south Atlantic." We had the first one last year, in Brazil. We had an all-time record last year for tornadoes in the United States, 1,717 - largely because hurricanes spawned tornadoes. Last year we had record temperatures in many cities. This year 200 cities in the Western United States broke all-time records. Reno, 39 days consecutively above 100 degrees.

The scientists are telling us that what the science tells them is that this - unless we act quickly and dramatically - that Tucson tied its all-time record for consecutive days above 100 degrees. this, in Churchill's phrase, is only the first sip of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year until there is a supreme recover of moral health. We have to rise with this occasion. We have to connect the dots. When the Superfund sites aren't cleaned up, we get a toxic gumbo in a flood. When there is not adequate public transportation for the poor, it is difficult to evacuate a city. When there is no ability to give medical care to poor people, its difficult to get hospital to take refugees in the middle of a crisis. When the wetlands are turned over to the developers then the storm surges from the ocean threaten the coastal cities more. When there is no effort to restrain the global warming pollution gasses then global warming gets worse, with all of the consequences that the scientific community has warned us about.

My friends, the truth is that our circumstances are not only new; they are completely different than they have ever been in all of human history. The relationship between humankind and the earth had been utterly transformed in the last hundred years. We have quadrupled the population of our planet. The population in many ways is a success story. The demographic transition has been occurring more quickly than was hoped for, but the reality of our new relationship with the planet brings with it a moral responsibility to accept our new circumstances and to deal with the consequences of the relationship we have with this planet. And it's not just population. By any means, the power of the technologies now at our disposal vastly magnifies the average impact that individuals can have on the natural world. Multiply that by six and a half billion people, and then stir into that toxic mixture a mindset and an attitude that says its okay to ignore scientific evidence - that we don't have to take responsibility for the future consequences of present actions - and you get a collision between our civilization and the earth. The refugees that we have seen -- I don't like that word when applied to American citizens in our own country, but the refugees that we have seen could well be the first sip of that bitter cup because sea-level rise in countries around the world will mobilize millions of environmental refugees.

The other problems are known to you, but here is what I want to close with: This is a moral moment. This is not ultimately about any scientific debate or political dialogue. Ultimately it is about who we are as human beings. It is about our capacity to transcend our own limitations. To rise to this new occasion. To see with our hearts, as well as our heads, the unprecedented response that is now called for. To disenthrall ourselves, to shed the illusions that have been our accomplices in ignoring the warnings that were clearly given, and hearing the ones that are clearly given now.

Where there is no vision, the people perish. And Lincoln said at another moment of supreme challenge that the question facing the people of the United States of America ultimately was whether or not this government, conceived in liberty, dedicated to freedom, of the people, by the people, and for the people - or any government so conceived - would perish from this earth.

There is another side to this moral challenge. Where there is vision, the people prosper and flourish, and the natural world recovers, and our communities recover. The good news is we know what to do. The good news is, we have everything we need now to respond to the challenge of global warming. We have all the technologies we need, more are being developed, and as they become available and become more affordable when produced in scale, they will make it easier to respond. But we should not wait, we cannot wait, we must not wait, we have every thing we need - save perhaps political will. And in our democracy, political will is a renewable resource.

I know that you are debating as an organization and talking among yourselves about your own priorities. I would urge you to make global warming your priority. I would urge you to focus on a unified theme. I would urge you to work with other groups in ways that have not been done in the past, even though there have been Herculean efforts on your part and the part of others. I would urge you to make this a moral moment. To make this a moral cause.

There are those who would say that the problem is too big and we can't solve it. There are many people who go from denial to despair without pausing on the intermediate step of actually solving the problem. To those who say it's too big for us, I say that we have accepted and successfully met such challenges in the past. We declared our liberty, and then won it. We designed a country that respected and safeguarded the freedom of individuals. We freed the slaves. We gave women the right to vote. We took on Jim Crow and segregation. We cured great diseases, we have landed on the moon, we have won two wars in the Pacific and the Atlantic simultaneously. We brought down communism, we brought down apartheid, we have even solved a global environmental crisis before - the hole in the stratospheric ozone layer - because we had leadership and because we had vision and because people who exercise moral authority in their local communities empowered our nation's government "of the people by the people and for the people" to take ethical actions even thought they were difficult. This is another such time. This is your moment. This is the time for those who see and understand and care and are willing to work to say this time the warnings will not be ignored. This time we will prepare. This time we will rise to the occasion. And we will prevail. Thank you. Good luck to you, God bless you.

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