Al Gore added a new satellite photograph to his now-famous slide show when he showed it to U.S. senators on Wednesday.

It showed that the glaciers of the Himalayas, the primary source of fresh water for much of southern and central Asia, are shrinking.

Gore rattled off the names of the great rivers that carry Himalayan snowmelt to the teeming populations of China, Pakistan, India and other parts of southeast Asia, and to the farmlands that feed them.

“When the glaciers disappear, the source of the water will disappear,” Gore told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

(Click here for Gore's testimony.)

Added to the list of the region’s troubles — which include deep poverty, persistent pollution, religious extremism and sectarian violence — will be a new source of strife: thirst.

The prospects of water wars, mass migrations of refugees and starvation in Asia are but some of the dangers posed by global warming that now command the attention of President Barack Obama and the Democratic-controlled Congress in Washington.

The nation’s new leadership is arriving at a policy consensus that could result in federal caps on greenhouse gas emissions. It also could encourage U.S. participation in a new international accord mandating reductions of carbon dioxide, to be hammered out by the nations of the world in Copenhagen in December.

The potential hurdle is political, and it was evoked in the first question shouted at Gore by waiting reporters as he arrived at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing room: Can the U.S. afford to make the wrenching move away from carbon-based fuels in a time of dire economic straits and increased joblessness?

“What do we do about India and China?” asked Sen. Ben Cardin, a Democrat from Maryland, when his turn to question the former vice-president came. “Does it put our manufacturers at a disadvantage?”

How does he persuade hard-pressed families, asked Sen. Chris Dodd, a Democrat from Connecticut, that emission caps are not “the economic equivalency of wearing a hair shirt?”
The Nobel laureate’s answer was frank, and unequivocal.  Coal miners, and other workers in carbon-based industries, will lose their jobs, Gore said.

But this is not a choice between prosperity and the environment, he told his former colleagues. America’s prosperity in fact depends on its willingness to lead an economic revolution and replace carbon-based fuels with alternative energy sources.

Gore reminded those in the room of how the technology boom of the 1990s, and much of the country’s economic success since, was triggered by a similar technological revolution. “The introduction of the Internet kicked off a huge burst of jobs, income and economic activity,” Gore said.

If the U.S. invests in the green revolution, he promised, Americans looking for work and profits “will have all they can handle, and more.”

The greater risk is not to act, said Gore, and thus guarantee that more Americans will lose their livelihoods as other nations take the lead.

The first step is to invest in a new “smart” electric grid that can convey power to where it is needed from far-off wind farms and solar thermal installations, Gore said, and then to adopt a “cap-and-trade” system that caps emissions and offers financial incentives to companies that do so. And then to take what the title of the hearing promised: “The Road to Copenhagen.”

Gore, once a lonely prophet, seems now to be singing to the choir. All the questions in his three-hour appearance before the committee were on how to save the Earth’s climate — not why or whether.

The chairman, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, warned about the “tough slog” ahead. “We still have naysayers,” he said. “The politics of getting this through are complicated.” But his Republican counterparts seemed to acknowledge that the time has come for Congress to act.

“The stars have lined up,” said Republican Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee. “I think, candidly, we will act this year.”

Obama is certainly not waiting. In his first 10 days in office, the new president kept a campaign pledge and put massive subsidies for alternative energy, conservation and other green technology into the proposed $825 billion stimulus bill.

He ordered the Environmental Protection Agency to reconsider the Bush administration’s refusal to allow California and other states to set tough limits on automobile emissions, and he told the Department of Transportation to start moving the U.S. auto industry toward a 35 miles-per-gallon fuel efficiency requirement.

Major U.S. corporations have seen their European counterparts contain emissions with no devastating repercussions. And now those corporations — looking for certainty in a confusing regulatory landscape in which other nations, as well as some U.S. states and cities, have outpaced the U.S. governments’ regulations — are urging Congress to establish clear rules. Three California lawmakers — led by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — are in key leadership positions in the new Congress, ready to act on an issue that has significant support in their state.

And at the State Department this week, Secretary Hillary Clinton named Todd Stern, a global warming expert who served as an American negotiator for President Clinton in the Kyoto talks a decade ago, to be a new special envoy for climate change.

“It is at once an environmental, economic, energy and national security issue,” Clinton said. “No solution is feasible without all major emitting nations joining together.” She did not need to note that the Bush administration did not sign on to the Kyoto protocol, nor publicly recognize the dangers posed by man-made climate change until 2004.

“Our scientists are telling us emphatically that the rate at which we are warming the planet is unsustainable and will cause vast and potentially catastrophic damage,” said Stern, leaving no doubts on where he stood.

The final nay-saying, as Kerry described it, will come from coal miners in West Virginia, Ohio and Poland; industrial managers building coal-fired plants in China; oil and gas companies in Texas, and other stakeholders in the energy debate. 

Gore’s agenda may be too big for Congress, and all the world’s nations, to enact during a worldwide recession.

But Obama has vowed to push for change and announced on Monday,  “The days of Washington dragging its heels are over.”

More GlobalPost dispatches by John Aloysius Farrell:

Obama and the world

The day the world changed

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