Al Gore writes climate poem

Monday, December 7, 2009 - 2:18pm

In his almost 30 years of crusading against global warming, Al Gore has worn a variety of hats. In roughly chronological order these include: congressman, senator, author, vice president, traveling evangelist, filmmaker, investment adviser, and Nobel Peace Prize winner. Now, with the publication of his new book, Our Choice, Gore has unveiled a fresh and most unexpected talent: the book's opening chapter of concludes with a poem he wrote-21 lines of verse that are equal parts beautiful, evocative, and disturbing.

Here is how the poem begins:

One thin September soon
A floating continent disappears
In midnight sun

Vapors rise as
Fever settles on an acid sea

It's odd that none of the reviews of Our Choice have mentioned this poem. Even my old friend Bill McKibben, the dean of America's climate journalists, didn't see fit to mention it, though Bill himself wrote a column a couple of years ago pleading for poets, musicians, and other artists to bring their talents to bear in the climate fight. Reviews of Our Choice have instead focused on the meat and potatoes of the book-its exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) survey of the best available solutions, technological and political, to the climate crisis.

Our Choice devotes entire chapters to a range of various solutions, from solar, wind, and energy efficiency to agriculture and forestry policies that actually reverse global warming by sucking carbon dioxide from the air and storing it in soil and plants. In these chapters, we find much the same Al Gore who in 1992 published the best-seller Earth In The Balance: a science wonk who has plainly done lots of research and deep thinking and wants to share every last bit of it with you. It's a valuable service, especially these days, when every week seems to bring developments in green technologies. Still, the level of detail and the sheer complexity and length of many of Gore's sentences will doubtless lead many readers to skim these sections.

Not so the poem. Gore wrote it, I'm told, because his editor nixed his request to include a separate chapter on the impacts of climate change. After all, Our Choice is supposed to be about solutions, not gloom and doom. (The most common criticism of An Inconvenient Truth, the documentary that won Gore an Oscar in 2007, was that it was silent on what to do about global warming.) Undeterred by his editor's ruling, Gore re-imagined his impacts chapter in poetic form.

The result is a surprisingly accomplished, nuanced piece of writing. The images Gore conjures in his (untitled) poem turn a neat trick: they are visually specific and emotionally arresting even as they are scientifically accurate.

Snow glides from the mountain
Ice fathers floods for a season
A hard rain comes quickly

Then dirt is parched
Kindling is placed in the forest
For the lightning's celebration

Another reader-friendly feature of Our Choice is the multitude of stunning photographs it contains. There are actually more pages of photos than of text. The shots range from a thousand solar panels atop the Vatican to a worker standing amid blackened, dead fish after a sewage spill near Rio de Janeiro, to a close-up of George W. Bush receiving a kiss on the cheek from Saudi King Abdullah after Bush was awarded the King Abdul Aziz Order of Merit in 2008. (Who says Gore lacks a sense of irony?)

It's usually a mistake to read too much literal meaning into poetry. But the final lines of Gore's poem certainly apply to the governments that will gather in Copenhagen from December 7 to 18 for what is regarded as humanity's last chance to avert absolutely catastrophic climate change.

The shepherd cries
The hour of choosing has arrived
Here are your tools

Is Gore himself that shepherd? No matter. What counts is that the hour of choosing has indeed arrived and, as documented in Our Choice, we do have the tools to survive-if we choose to employ them.

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