Image: Al Gore
Paramount Pictures Classics via AP
Al Gore, seen here in a clip from the documentary "An Inconvenient Truth," is urging the next president to get the nation on a clean energy diet.
updated 7/17/2008 5:19:15 PM ET 2008-07-17T21:19:15

Just as John F. Kennedy set his sights on the moon, Al Gore is challenging the nation to produce every kilowatt of electricity through wind, sun and other climate-friendly energy sources within 10 years, an audacious goal he hopes the next president will embrace.

The Nobel Prize-winning former vice president said fellow Democrat Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global warming.

Rising fuel costs, climate change and the national security threats posed by U.S. dependence on foreign oil are conspiring to create "a new political environment" that Gore said will sustain bold and expensive steps to wean the nation off fossil fuels.

"I have never seen an opportunity for the country like the one that's emerging now," Gore said ahead of a speech on energy and climate Thursday in Washington.

In his speech, Gore said some of the nation's biggest success stories have come from making commitments to goals well beyond the next election, citing the Marshall plan for rebuilding Europe, Social Security and the interstate highway system, in addition to putting a man on the moon.

"A political promise to do something 40 years from now is universally ignored because everyone knows that's meaningless," he said. "Ten years is about the maximum time that we as a nation can hold a steady aim and hit the target."

He said it also coincides with experts' predictions that unless dramatic changes to reduce global warming pollution are made within the next decade, "our ability to ever recover from this environmental crisis" may be lost.

Gore said the single most important policy change would be placing a carbon tax on burning oil and coal.

He received encouraging words from Obama. "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," Obama said in a statement.

"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," he added. "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."

But Robbie Diamond, president of Securing America's Future Energy, a bipartisan think tank, said weaning the nation away from fossil fuels — coal, oil and natural gas — can't be done in a decade.

"The country is not going to be able to go cold turkey," Diamond said. "We have hundreds of years of infrastructure with trillions of dollars of investment that is not simply going to be made obsolete."

Estimated price: up to $3 trillion
The Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan group that Gore chairs, estimates the cost of transforming the nation to so-called clean electricity sources at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money.

But he said it would cost about as much to build coal plants to satisfy current demand. "This is an investment that will pay itself back many times over," Gore said. "It's an expensive investment but not compared to the rising cost of continuing to invest in fossil fuels."

Called an alarmist by conservatives, Gore has made combating global warming his signature issue, a campaign that has been recognized worldwide — from starring in the Academy Award-winning "An Inconvenient Truth" to sharing the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. He portrayed Thursday's speech as the latest and most important phase in his effort to build public opinion in favor of alternative fuels.

He said he knows politicians fear to act unless voters are willing to sacrifice — and demand new fuels.

"I hope to contribute to a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do," Gore said. "But the people have to play a part." He likened his challenge to Kennedy's pledge in May 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.

Gore narrowly lost the presidential race in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a campaign in which his prescient views on climate change took a back seat to other issues. While dismissing a suggestion that he pulled his punches eight years ago, Gore said his goal now is to "enlarge the political space" within which politicians can "deal with the climate challenge."

To meet his 10-year goal, Gore said nuclear energy output would continue at current levels while the nation dramatically increases its use of solar, wind, geothermal and so-called clean coal energy. Huge investments must also be made in technologies that reduce energy waste and link existing grids, he said.

Gore's electricity mix
Gore's proposal would represent a significant shift in where the U.S. gets its electric power. In 2005, the United States produced nearly 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, with coal providing slightly more than half of that energy, according to government statistics. Nuclear power accounted for 21 percent, natural gas 15 percent and renewable sources, including wind and solar, about 8.6 percent.

Coal's share of electricity generation is only expected to grow come 2030, according to Energy Department forecasts, while renewable energy would still only provide 11 percent of the nation's power.

If the nation fails to act, the cost of oil will continue to rise as fast-growing China and India increase demand, Gore predicted. Sustained addiction to oil also will place the nation at the mercy of oil-producing regimes, he said, and the globe would suffer irreparable harm.

Government experts recently predicted that, at the current rate, world energy demand will grow 50 percent over the next two decades. The Energy Information Administration also said in its long-range forecast to 2030 that the world is not close to abandoning fossil fuels despite their effect on global warming.

While electricity production is only part of the nation's energy and climate change problem, Gore said, "If we meet this challenge we will solve the rest of it."

The environmental community was quick to embrace Gore's idea.

"Climate change and energy security are not just threats — they are opportunities," said Jonathan Lash, head of the World Resources Institute. "We need to change the debate in this country from what we can’t do to what we can do. America has led every major technological shift in the last 100 years, and we can lead the next one as well. The problem is not technology, it is political will."

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Video: Gore sets renewable energy goal for 2018


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