While Barack Obama has been busy passing a stimulus bill and making “downpayments” on campaign promises this past week, Congress has kicked off the new presidential era with a series of landmark hearings. Just yesterday, Senator John Kerry, a clean energy champion and the newly-appointed Chariman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, called on former Vice President Al Gore to testify about the domestic and international implications of the upcoming Copenhagen climate talks this year.

You can watch a video of the hearing here.

Significantly, Gore’s testimony was the first hearing of the committee since Obama was inaugurated a week ago, indicating that climate change — and specifically the global politics of the issue — is on the top of the agenda. Indeed, Obama based nearly a third of his campaign on creating a new clean energy economy that begins to address the issue of global warming, creates jobs, increases national security, and reengages the US in the international community.

Senator Kerry kicked off the hearing with an eloquent opening statement that called on the US Congress and President to take action on climate change as soon as possible, citing floods, droughts and resource scarcity, along with fossil fuel dependence as serious national security threats. “

“Quite simply, these conditions would result in a world we don’t recognize – a ravaged planet in which all of us would be less secure.” Instead of business-as-usual, Kerry called for the “greening of Foreign Policy,” and a domestic cap-and-trade program.

Gore kicked off his testimony with a review of recent climate science, showing updated slides from his Inconvenient Truth series, all of which pointed to the fact that he science is not getting better — it’s getting worse.

“If global emissions of greenhouse gases continue to rise at current rates, global average temperatures could rise 11 degrees Fahrenheit,” Gore said. “This would bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten life everywhere on Earth – and this is within the century,”

In addition to adopting an international plan that helps countries like the Maldives, Bangladesh, and much of Sub-Saharan Africa adapt to the already changing climate, we must also cut carbon emissions quickly and deeply in order to stave off potential catastrophe.

Following up on his earlier statement about targets at the UN climate conference in Poznan, Poland last month, Gore seemed even more convinced that the appropriate target for global carbon emissions should be 350 parts per million:

“If we are already at 380 now and the entire north polar icecap is completely melting in the next five years and both Greenland and West Antarctica are now clearly at risk, obviously we need to be below the level we are at now…

The more the evidence comes in, the more we see 350ppm is the appropriate goal”

After a number of good questions from both Democrats and Republicans on the committee, he closed his remarks with a plea for urgency:

“And this treaty must be negotiated this year. Not next year. This year,” he said. “A fair, effective and balanced treaty will put in place the global architecture that will place the world – at long last and in the nick of time – on a path toward solving the climate crisis and securing the future of human civilization.”

Obama has already shown leadership in changing some of Bush’s bad climate policies, such as reversing the California EPA waiver decision that lets states regulate tailpipe emissions, increasing vehicle fuel economy standards and appointing climate champions to influential government positions.

Gore’s testimony was the opening salvo in a congressional battle over domestic and international climate legislation that will no doubt rage over the next two years. It’s up to us, the grassroots and community climate activists, to make sure our leaders, from members of congress to MPs, from Senators to Prime Ministers and Environment Ministers sense the urgency of the issue and take action.

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