Former Vice President Al Gore shared his optimism about the "shifting momentum" of the climate change debate with about 500 environmental journalists Friday in Madison.
"We're very close to that political tipping point," Gore said at the Society of Environmental Journalists annual conference at the Madison Concourse Hotel. "Never before in human history has a single generation been asked to make such difficult and consequential decisions."
He said he expects the Senate to pass a carbon emissions reduction bill before a December United Nations conference in Copenhagen, Denmark. The House passed a similar bill in June.
He also said he expects President Barack Obama to attend the Copenhagen conference, which could boost an international framework for emissions reduction. Obama hasn't announced his plans.
"I am optimistic," Gore said. "I think there has been a very powerful recognition, not only in this country, but in many countries, that there is a linkage between the climate crisis and the economic crisis and the national security crisis that is in part derivative of the world's ridiculous over-dependence on carbon-based fuels."
Some who attended the speech tempered Gore's hopefulness, characteristic of his lauded yet controversial effort to educate the public about carbon dioxide emissions and their link to rising temperatures.
"His optimism isn't shared by a lot of other folks," said Tim Wheeler, an environmental reporter for the Baltimore Sun. Gore may have been trying to push politicians to action, Wheeler added.
Conservative groups led by Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow and Americans for Prosperity held a demonstration Downtown that drew about 200 people, including U.S. Rep. James Sensenbrenner, R-Menomonee Falls, who also participated in the conference's panel discussion following Gore's speech. The demonstrators worried Gore's policies would push American jobs overseas.
Gore has been criticized for not publicly debating his position since the release of his 2006 Oscar-winning documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth."
In what organizers said was a rarity, Gore took half a dozen questions from journalists, including one from Phelim McAleer, an Irish filmmaker who asked Gore to address nine errors in his film identified by a British court in 2007.
Gore responded that the court ruling supported the showing of his film in British schools. When McAleer tried to debate further, his microphone was cut off by the moderators.
In a nod to a local supporter, Gore recognized former UW-Madison professor Henry Hart, who attended the speech and at 93 is the oldest person to have been trained to present the climate change slide show featured in Gore's film.
"You are really an inspiration to me," Gore said.