FORMER Vice President Al Gore made a speech in Washington last week that laid it on the line for what is left of American spirit and enterprise.
He called for America to get its head out of the sand and embark upon a moonshot-style program to switch from carbon-based energy to clean, cheap, and renewable sources for 100 percent of the nation's electricity, all within 10 years.
In issuing this challenge, Mr. Gore pointed out the geopolitical conundrum that grips the United States: We're now borrowing money from China to buy oil from the Middle East to consume in ways that are destroying the planet.
Anticipating the predictable counter-argument that America could not possibly transform itself so quickly in the face of such a difficult problem, he pointed out - also accurately - that America had responded to President John F. Kennedy's challenge in 1961 to put a man on the moon in a decade by doing so in eight years.
So, according to Mr. Gore, don't talk as President George W. Bush does about doing something about the problem by 2050.
Without being apocalyptic, Mr. Gore stated flatly that the survival of the United States - as we know it - is at risk if we do not end rapidly our reliance on carbon-based fuels such as coal. He said it all has to change by 2018. He doesn't argue for that year as some sort of a magic talisman. He argues, quite realistically, that Americans' attention span is short. Targets 42 years off mean little or nothing.
Mr. Gore's proposal is not crazy. In his speech he cited technologies - solar, wind, geothermal - that are already in use and in development. He did not speak of nuclear power, no doubt aware of the visceral, negative, albeit unrealistic reaction, of many Americans to that source of energy.
He didn't add on many new ideas, in fact. He spoke of the threat of destabilization by "climate refugees," driven from their homes by global warming. He talked about a need for America to develop a Unified National Grid to enable it to move electrical power efficiently from one part of the country to another. He spoke of, but did not harp on, high gasoline prices and the positive effects on employment of the economics of the shift from carbon-based to clean, renewable energy.
He also spoke of the expected resistance to this change by "special interests" - the oil companies, oil-producing countries, and the politicians whose campaigns are financed by those special interests.
Mr. Gore's challenge, as we see it, is entirely on the mark for America. But first it must be accepted both by the people and by a national leadership unafraid to take a risk and see it through to completion.