"Start by Arming Yourself With Knowledge" Al Gore breaks through with his global-warming message By Pat Joseph
Six years after a U.S. Supreme Court decision cost Al Gore the presidency, the politician once universally described as wooden is a genuine celebrity—a regular guest on late-night TV, a best-selling author, even a Hollywood leading man.
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this transformation is that Gore himself hasn't really changed. An Inconvenient Truth, his acclaimed movie about global warming, is a continuation of the work Gore has been doing away from the spotlight for years: delivering slide presentations, for free, to anyone who would listen.
That effort, in turn, grew from the then-senator's 1992 book, Earth in the Balance. Like the companion book to An Inconvenient Truth, it was a best seller—but it also drew ridicule. During the 1992 presidential campaign, George H. W. Bush mockingly dubbed him "ozone man" and said, "This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American."
No plague of owls befell us during the Clinton-Gore years, only prosperity. Still, Gore's environmental passions were kept in check during the 2000 presidential campaign by risk-averse political consultants.
Gore seems looser and more engaging as a private citizen than he did as a candidate, but his recent popularity may have more to do with shifting political tides and a growing awareness that global warming is real and urgent. It's fair to say Gore was ahead of his time in 1992. But no longer.
On the morning of our interview, the phone rings at 7:30. Gore's assistant says, "I have the vice president on the line. Are you ready for him?" I think we finally are.
Sierra: How do you feel about the reception to An Inconvenient Truth?
Al Gore: I'm gratified that the reviews have been 99 percent positive because more people will be exposed to the message. I've seen times in the past when there was a flurry of concern about global warming, and then, like a summer storm, it faded. But this time, it may be different.
Sierra: Jeb and George Bush have said they won't see your film, and I'm sure they speak for many who just don't want to hear your message. How do we get past that resistance?
Gore: That's a question I've been trying to answer for 30 years, and part of the answer is persistence. And part of the answer I don't know yet. I'm encouraged, however, that
we are going to get [the Bushes] to see, if not the movie,
the message, because so many of their core supporters are changing their stance on global warming. For instance, 85 conservative evangelical ministers, and a lot of Fortune 500 CEOs who supported Bush and Cheney, are breaking with them on this issue.
Sierra: In your movie, you cite U.S. determination in World War II as an example of the kind of resolve we need to confront global warming. But it took the attack on Pearl Harbor to galvanize the country. Are we going to have a similar moment in this crisis?
Gore: Obviously, we all hope it doesn't come to that, but for hundreds of thousands of people in New Orleans, that moment has already been reached. And for millions of people in Africa's Sahel, that moment has already been reached with the disappearance of Lake Chad. For an untold number of species, it has been reached. The challenge for the rest of us is to connect the dots and see the picture clearly. H. G. Wells wrote that "history is a race between education and catastrophe." And this is potentially the worst catastrophe in the history of civilization. The challenge now is to seize our potential for solving this crisis without going through a cataclysmic tragedy that would be the climate equivalent of wartime attack. And it's particularly important because, by the nature of this crisis, when the worst consequences begin to manifest themselves, it will already be too late.
Sierra: Could you have expressed that level of alarm from the Oval Office?
Gore: I like to think so. No position comes close to being president in terms of the ability to influence events, but the ability of any president to bring about dramatic change depends on how well informed the citizenry is. I want to create a situation in the United States where whoever runs for president, from either party, will encounter an aroused electorate that demands of the candidates that they make global warming their top priority.
Sierra: Why wasn't the Kyoto Protocol ratified during the Clinton-Gore years?
Gore: When I returned from Kyoto, I could only convince
1 out of all 100 senators to commit to ratifying it. Paul Wellstone was the only one. I was in favor of pushing the process in spite of that, but I couldn't quarrel with the good sense of President Clinton in saying, "Well, look, if there's no more support than that, then this is a quixotic task." That experience was part of what caused me to embark on this effort to change the minds of the American people.
Sierra: Is Kyoto enough?
Gore: It's clearly not enough, just as it was clear that the Montreal Protocol [phasing out ozone-destroying chemicals] was not enough when it was passed in 1987. But it triggered an adjustment process that generated its own momentum. And so three years later, at the London Amendment, where the original treaty was strengthened, some of the leading business and industry representatives who had been vocally opposed to Montreal were singing a different tune. They had learned that it was easier than they had thought, and they were making money at it. Kyoto was consciously modeled on the Montreal precedent.
Sierra: You're suggesting there's money to be made in confronting global warming, but all we ever hear is how costly it will be.
Gore: That's a common misconception, but look at Toyota. It started crafting the Prius a dozen years ago with no expectation that it would be profitable. Now there's a waiting list, and U.S. companies are licensing Toyota's technology in an effort to catch up. It doesn't always happen that way, but it does more often than not.
Sierra: What steps can an individual take in the face of such an overwhelming crisis?
Gore: Become carbon-neutral. Reduce your carbon footprint and then offset what can't be completely eliminated. I'd love to see the advent of a grassroots carbon-freeze movement analogous to the nuclear-freeze movement. But start by arming yourself with knowledge. You'll have the confidence to be a vocal political actor in whatever party you belong to and start demanding that leaders solve this problem.
Sierra: In your new book, you quote Martin Luther King Jr.'s warning that in "life and history, there is such a thing as being too late." Are you confident we'll act in time?
Gore: Yes. I am an optimist, and that influences my answer. I believe we will rise to this challenge. But we have to start very quickly, and we have to make it our priority.
Pat Joseph is current-affairs editor for the Sierra Club's Web site.
ON THE WEB For more information about Al Gore's film and book, An Inconvenient Truth, go to climatecrisis.net.
Photo by Eric Lee/Paramount Classics; used with permission