By Megan Rowling
MADRID, Dec 10 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore urged governments negotiating at U.N. talks in Madrid this week to ramp up their efforts to tackle climate change, saying humanity's future was at stake.
"It is criminally negligent for the generation of leaders in power today to stick their heads in the sand and ignore what the scientists are telling us in ever more dire terms," he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
"We have to stop using the sky as an open sewer for heat-trapping pollution. It threatens the future of human civilisation," said Gore, who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for his work to raise awareness on climate change.
In 2015, almost 200 governments agreed to curb their emissions, to limit the expected rise in global average temperatures to "well below" 2 degrees Celsius, and ideally to 1.5C above pre-industrial times.
But the world has already heated up by about 1 degree, and is on track for warming of roughly 3 degrees, even if countries meet their current targets to curb emissions.
Scientists say such a temperature rise could lead to longer and more frequent heatwaves, widespread crop failures and water shortages, growing forced migration and surging natural losses.
In Madrid, U.N. officials, developing countries, young people and green groups have called on the world's biggest and richest polluters to promise to cut their emissions further and faster in updated climate action plans due by the end of 2020.
Gore said Swedish teen climate activist Greta Thunberg and millions of other young people "are absolutely right when they say not enough is being done, by a long shot".
"They have every right and every justification to demand as loudly as they can that we adopt policies in the world that are worthy of their future," he said.
In the United States, the increasingly evident effects of global warming are "leading to demands for change", he noted.
Those impacts range from destructive fires in California to droughts in Gore's home state of Tennessee, flooded farmland in the Midwest and sea level rise affecting cities such as Miami, Norfolk in Virginia and Galveston in Texas.
As a result, "recently the (political) partisanship has begun to yield a bit", Gore said.
Many Republican college students, for instance, want their party to shift its national position toward one of effective action on climate change, the former vice president said.
"The public is demanding of both political parties that the U.S. adopt better policies to solve the climate crisis," Gore added.
U.S. President Donald Trump, a climate change sceptic, has started the process to withdraw his country from the Paris accord - but it cannot leave until the day after the November 2020 presidential elections.
That suggests any change in U.S. leadership in 2020 could also lead to a rapid shift in efforts to address climate change, Gore said.
"I am hopeful we will see an opportunity for much more progress, including changes in policy at the national level, next year," he said.
He welcomed the emphasis Democratic Party presidential candidates have put on climate change in their campaigns so far, and said if U.S. voters choose a new leader in November 2020, the country could rejoin the Paris Agreement in 30 days.
"The decision is still in the hands of American voters," said Gore, shod in a pair of black cowboy boots, in an interview in Madrid.
FOSSIL FUEL PRESSURE
Gore said that despite Trump's lack of leadership on climate change, many cities and states are continuing to push ahead with efforts to shift to 100% renewable energy.
He called on the United States to stop subsidising the burning of fossil fuels - the main culprit behind global warming - as soon as possible.
Renewable energy from solar and wind is now cheaper than fossil fuels in two-thirds of the world, he said.
"We can save money, create tens of millions of new jobs, clean up the air, save the future - what's not to like about this transition?" he asked.
One of the main obstacles to the shift is pressure on politicians from oil, gas and coal companies that want to maintain their revenue streams and their markets, Gore said.
"Some of the fossil fuel companies are using their wealth and legacy connections with political figures to slow down this transition. That's got to stop," he added.
China also needs to do much more to curb fossil fuel use, by burning less highly polluting coal and ending funding for fossil fuel-powered plants in other countries, even as it boosts renewable energy use, the former vice president said.
The need for rapid global action is urgent because damage worldwide from extreme weather - from huge downpours to fires, floods and stronger storms - and from rising seas is "all happening much more quickly" than expected, he warned.
"Mother Nature has become the most powerful advocate for new policies to limit the impacts of the climate crisis," Gore said.
(Reporting by Megan Rowling @meganrowling; editing by Laurie Goering. Please credit the Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, that covers humanitarian news, climate change, women's and LGBT+ rights, human trafficking and property rights. Visit http://news.trust.org/climate)
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