WASHINGTON (AP) - Just as John F. Kennedy set his sights on the moon, Al Gore is challenging the nation to produce every kilowatt of electricity through wind, sun and other Earth-friendly energy sources within 10 years, an audacious goal he hopes the next president will embrace.
The Nobel Prize-winning former vice president said fellow Democrat Barack Obama and Republican rival John McCain are "way ahead" of most politicians in the fight against global climate change.
Rising fuel costs, climate change and the national security threats posed by U.S. dependence on foreign oil are conspiring to create "a new political environment" that Gore said will sustain bold and expensive steps to wean the nation off fossil fuels.
"I have never seen an opportunity for the country like the one that's emerging now," Gore told The Associated Press in an interview previewing a speech on global warming he planned to give Thursday in Washington.
Gore said he fully understands the magnitude of the challenge.
The Alliance for Climate Protection, a bipartisan group he leads, estimates the cost of transforming the U.S. to clean electricity sources at $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion over 30 years in public and private money. But he says it would cost about as much to build greenhouse gas-polluting coal plants to satisfy current demand.
"This is an investment that will pay itself back many times over," Gore said. "It's an expensive investment but not compared to the rising cost of continuing to invest in fossil fuels."
Called an alarmist by conservatives, Gore has made global warming his signature issue. He portrayed Thursday's speech as the latest and most important phase in his effort to build public opinion in favor of alternative fuels.
Gore knows politicians fear action unless voters are willing to sacrifice ‚Äî and demand new fuels.
"I hope to contribute to a new political environment in this country that will allow the next president to do what I think the next president is going to think is the right thing to do," Gore said. "But the people have to play a part." He compared his challenge to Kennedy's pledge in May 1961 to land a man on the moon by the end of the decade.
Gore narrowly lost the presidential race in 2000 to then-Texas Gov. George W. Bush after a campaign in which his prescient views on climate change took a back seat to other issues. In the 2008 presidential race, both the Republican and Democrat candidates support action to curb the gases blamed for global warming.
While dismissing a suggestion that he pulled his punches eight years ago, Gore said his goal now is to "enlarge the political space" within which politicians can "deal with the climate challenge."
To meet his 10-year goal, Gore said nuclear energy output would continue at current levels while the U.S. dramatically increases its use of solar, wind, geothermal and clean coal energy. Huge investments must also be made in technologies that reduce energy waste and link existing power grids, he said.
Gore's proposal would represent a significant shift in where the U.S. gets its power. In 2005, the United States produced nearly 3.7 billion kilowatt hours of electricity, with coal providing slightly more than half of that energy, according to government statistics. Nuclear power accounted for 21 percent, natural gas 15 percent and renewable sources, including wind and solar, about 8.6 percent.
Coal's share of electricity generation is only expected to grow come 2030, according to Energy Department forecasts, while renewable energy would still only provide 11 percent of the nation's power.
Without action, the cost of oil will continue to rise as fast-growing China and India increase demand, Gore said. Sustained addiction to oil also will place the U.S. at the mercy of oil-producing governments, he said, and the globe would suffer irreparable harm.
Government experts recently predicted that, at the current rate and without an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, world energy demand will grow 50 percent over the next two decades. The Energy Information Administration also said in its long-range forecast to 2030 that the world is not close to abandoning fossil fuels despite their role in global warming.
While electricity production is only part of the nation's energy and climate change problem, Gore said, "If we meet this challenge we will solve the rest of it."