Former Vice President Al Gore came back to Washington, DC, on Wednesday, not to announce any future election plans, but rather to appear before his former colleagues and testify about an issue he first held hearings on as a congressman from Tennessee 20 years ago: global warming.

Gore spent the morning before a joint hearing of the House Energy and Commerce Committee and the Science and Technology Committee, then crossed Capitol Hill in the afternoon to appear before the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee. His testimony comes as Congress tackles an agenda that includes at least a dozen climate change-related bills.

Gore advised the lawmakers to consider cutting carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and other global warming gases by 90% by 2050 to prevent a worldwide crisis. He said to do that, there should be a ban on any new coal-burning power plants that lack state-of-the-art controls to capture gases. He also foresees growth among small-scale electricity producers to replace coal.

“There is a sense of hope in this country that this United States Congress will rise to the occasion and present meaningful solutions to this crisis,” Gore said. “Our world faces a true planetary emergency. I know the phrase sounds shrill, and I know it’s a challenge to the moral imagination.”

In three pages of prepared remarks, Gore told House members that global warming “is a crisis that is by far the most serious we’ve ever faced.” Among other things, Gore said global warming dwarfs the post-World War II reconstruction of Europe and the rise of Communism. As part of his testimony, he presented the members with boxes holding nearly 516,000 signatures on petitions — on recycled paper — that are “demanding immediate action to solve the climate crisis.”

“A day will come when our children and grandchildren will look back and they’ll ask one of two questions,” Gore said. “Either they will ask what in God’s name were they doing? Didn’t they see the evidence…Were they too blinded and numbed by the business of political life and daily life to take a deep breath and look at the reality of what we’re facing?…Or they’ll ask another question — they may look back, and they’ll say, ‘How did they find the uncommon courage to rise above politics and redeem the promise of American democracy and do what some said was impossible?'”

Some members were skeptical.

“Global warming science is uneven and evolving,” said Rep. Joe Barton (R-TX). Barton questioned Gore’s film, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which last month won an Oscar as Best Documentary Film for 2006. He said the measures Gore was recommending to stem CO2 emissions “fail the common sense test…they provide little benefit at a huge cost.”

Gore raised his arms and shrugged. “The planet has a fever,” he said. “If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor. If the doctor says, ‘You have to intervene here,’ you don’t say, ‘Well, I read a science fiction novel that says this isn’t important.'”

Rejecting opponents’ arguments that the United States should only impose mandatory emission controls if China and India and developing nations agree to do the same, Gore said, “The best way and the only way to get China and India on board is for the U.S. to demonstrate real leadership. As the world’s largest economy and the greatest superpower, we are uniquely situated to tackle a problem of this magnitude.”

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-MO) offered praise for Gore’s testimony and said it was time to take the debate further.

“It’s to the vice president’s credit that he set aside some time to come in and share his views,” Blunt said. “Most reasonable lawmakers and citizens know that there’s a proper balance to be struck between environmental stewardship and economic development. And while Mr. Gore spent much of his time talking about the former, this Congress should not be distracted from considering the serious implications of the latter as well.

“When it comes to measuring economic impact, Congress has a responsibility to consider not only the costs, but the people who will pay the price,” said Blunt. “Increasing what consumers pay to heat their homes and drive their cars represents a form of regressive taxation, and signing onto international treaties limiting the ability of developing nations to provide a better life for their people is a moral authority no country can claim.

“The issue of climate change demands a full and thoughtful study of the facts — both as they relate to the causes and effects of climate change, as well as the consequences of a pell-mell rush to impose unilateral caps on human and economic activity. To the extent that debate was furthered today, and more facts were brought to bear, I consider it a welcome development,” Blunt said.

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