Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth was one of the high points not only of the environmental movement but also of the documentary tradition in America. He figured out how to use a new medium, PowerPoint, to take the unavoidably wonkish story of global warming and make it scary, credible and manageable. It was, perhaps, as important as anything he could have done as president, and he deserved not only the Oscar but also the Nobel.
As almost everyone noted at the time, however, there was one problem with the film: the section on what to actually do about the biggest problem we’ve ever faced was remarkably short, both in duration and on plausible ideas. If the world is coming to an end, changing your light bulb doesn’t seem like the obvious response. Or rather, it seems highly obvious but highly insufficient–a gesture, not a solution.
Gore heard those criticisms and spent the next few years convening a series of more than thirty "Solutions Summits" in Nashville and elsewhere, where he picked the brains of virtually everyone who ever thought professionally about climate and energy. He’s taken all those data and all those ideas, and with the help of a capable team of researchers he’s turned them into a book, Our Choice, an ambitious and entirely successful attempt to lay out all that we know about mainstream answers to global warming. (When I say "virtually everyone," I mean it; the acknowledgments take up four pages of agate type and include even me.) He’s got chapters on solar electricity, on wind energy, on biofuels, on nuclear power and even on more recondite topics: geothermal energy, carbon sequestration.
Occasionally, truth be told, the book verges on the nerdy. There are diagrams on topics like "how a turbine works" that could have come from an old-fashioned encyclopedia. Gore has a weakness for statistics: did you know that between 1984 and 1991 nine early concentrated solar thermal power plants were built in the Mojave Desert with a total of 2 million square meters of mirrors? Some of the vast book is taken up with what amounts to more PowerPoint slides–beautiful but stock images of farmers or roaring hurricanes. (If you like gorgeous windmill porn, this is your book.)
Taken as a whole, however, this is the most comprehensive and well-informed survey anyone has ever done of what we need to do to get off fossil fuel. Gore is judicious and reasoned at every turn, and gets most of the calls exactly right. Building more traditional nuclear power plants will be too expensive to provide much help. Ditto carbon sequestration: it’s a good idea to try and take the exhaust from coal-fired power plants and store it underground in old oil wells, but the costs so far seem prohibitive. In fact, to many of these dilemmas Gore applies a wise test: "Put a high price on carbon. When the reality of the need to sharply reduce CO2 emissions is integrated into all market calculations–including the decisions by utilities and their investors–market forces will drive us quickly toward the answers we need."