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Former Vice President turned documentary filmmaker Al Gore returned to Washington Wednesday as a star witness in congressional hearings about global warming.

“America is the natural leader of the world, and our world faces a true planetary emergency,” Gore told a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee’s subcommittee on energy and air quality and the House Science Committee’s energy and environment subcommittee Wednesday morning. “The entire relationship between humanity and our planet has been radically altered.”

Gore, who left Washington as a defeated presidential candidate in 2000, cited a fourfold increase in human population the last century, technologies that are more powerful than ever before and a “short-term” focus in both economics and politics as factors contributing to what he described as a global-warming crisis.

He challenged Congress to transcend party lines and pull together as Americans to save the environment, just as the nation’s leaders did in earlier generations to respond to challenges like World War II and communism.

“What we’re facing now is a crisis that is by far the most serious we have ever faced,” Gore said. “The way we are going to solve it is by asking you on both sides of the aisle to do what some people have begun to fear we don’t have the capacity to do anymore. I know they’re wrong.”

Gore offered several specific policies for Congress to consider. They included creation of an “Electranet,” similar in concept to the Internet, a “smart grid” providing incentives for homeowners and small businesses to generate solar electricity and sell it without utility companies artificially capping their profit.

He urged “de-facto compliance” with the Kyoto Protocols, while recognizing the current pact opposed by the Bush administration “as a brand, if you will, has been demonized.”

He also called for taxing of companies that pollute, raising fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles, rewarding homeowners for improvements to make them more energy efficient and setting a date for a future ban on energy-wasting incandescent lights, giving the industry time to adapt.

Gore said his Web site received 516,000 responses over the last few days to e-postcards urging Congress to act against global warming, a rate of 100 contacts per second.

“This is building, and it’s building in both parties,” Gore said, “the faith community, the evangelical communities, the business leaders.”

“I promise you the day will come when our children and grandchildren will look back and they’ll ask one of two questions,” he said. “Either they will ask: ‘What in God’s name were they doing? Didn’t they see the evidence? Didn’t they realize that four times in 15 years the entire scientific community of this world issued unanimous reports calling on them to act? What was wrong with them? Were they too blinded and numb by the busyness of political life or daily life to take a deep breath and look at the reality of what we’re facing? … Did they think all the scientists were wrong? What were they thinking?”

Or, Gore said, they may look back and ask another question: “How did they find the uncommon moral courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy and do what some said was impossible and shake things up and tell the special interests, ‘OK, we’ve heard you and we’re going to do the best we can and take your considerations into account, but we’re going to do what’s right?'”

Yesterday afternoon Gore addressed the Senate Environment Committee. The ranking Republican, Oklahoma Sen. James Inhofe, a leading environmental critic, challenged claims by Gore that there is scientific consensus about global warming.

“When I talk about skeptics I am talking about scientists who believe the science is not settled,” Inhofe said. “When I say alarmists, I’m saying they’re the ones that think it is settled.”

“When the debate is balanced,” Inhofe said, “the skeptics win, the alarmists lose.”

Inhofe cited a recent debate in New York about whether global warming is a crisis.

“Prior to the debate, the hand-wringers, the alarmists, your guys in the audience, outnumbered those who didn’t think it was a crisis two-to-one,” he said. “After the debate, it completely reversed. That shift mirrors a larger one taking place in the scientific community.”

Inhofe said compliance with Kyto standards would result in increased taxes, with the greatest burden falling on the poor. “The poor have to pay for it, the science isn’t there, and it’s just something that we can’t do to America, Mr. Vice President, and we’re not going to do it.”

That wasn’t the only partisan wrangling, but other Republicans were more cordial. One GOP Congressman ribbed Gore, a former member of both the House and Senate, about being a “movie star.”

“Rin-Tin-Tin was a movie star,” quipped Gore, whose global-warming documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” won two Oscars. “I just have a slide show.”

Gore said recent studies about melting of polar icecaps and increased glacial earthquakes in Greenland suggest the globe is warming even faster than previously believed.

“There are many signs that we do not have time to play around with this,” he said. “We do not have the luxury of making it a political football and exercising politics as usual.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

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