The Tip of the Melting Iceberg 

25 minutes with Al Gore

Wednesday, May 24 2006

A cool ocean mist drifts in through the open doors of the Promenade Ballroom at Santa Monica’s Shutters Hotel on the Beach. Still, the air conditioning blasts at its programmed afternoon temperature and the room is freezing. I stand in the corner shivering and nibbling at Paramount Pictures–funded fruit when a tall, powerful-looking man strides through one of the doors. He glances my way. I stare back.

“Hi,” he says, a little awkwardly, as he glides past me.

It’s an odd moment, like running into your therapist in the elevator. I’m here with several other reporters waiting for my turn to interview Al Gore about his new movie, An Inconvenient Truth. I’m not supposed to casually run into him. As the fleeting opportunity passes, all the things I would like to have said in that unguarded moment roil to the surface. Among them: Why can’t he do something about the colossal waste of fossil fuels pouring out of the hotel in the form of super-cooled air? In other words, would he get someone to turn down the air conditioning?

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Of course, as I watch the other reporters await their slivers of time with Gore and the film’s director, Davis Guggenheim — who will both, we all suspect, use up most of our interview slots delivering a prepared pitch for the film vetted in advance by publicists — I understand there will be no time for trivia. And so, when I sit down for my 25-minute allotment with the filmmaker and his subject, I ask the question I’ve been saving up since the night in early 2005 when, in place of the wooden stereotype of a politician so many came to think of as Al Gore, I saw this eloquent, goofy and goodhearted man deliver a beautiful but devastating slide show and talk on climate change, the raw material of An Inconvenient Truth. Where, I ask Gore now, was this world-changing argument in 2000, when, as the Democratic candidate for president, he stood on the most visible platform in the country, and perhaps even the world?

“The slide show that you saw over a year ago didn’t exist [in 2000],” says Gore, who wears a suit, a tiny wisp of his characteristic coif flying out of place, while Guggenheim, his hair in a curly mop, dresses more casually. “Or it existed in very rudimentary form. I first started getting a slide show in the late ’80s, but it was rudimentary compared to this.” He denies that the climate discussion was missing from the campaign altogether. The media, he says, just didn’t want to cover it.

“I did numerous events [on climate] during the 2000 campaign,” he insists. “I tried to make them as interesting and compelling and passionate as I possibly could to get the message out. And here’s what would happen: The event would come, and the reporters would come, and as soon as the event was over, they would ask me about prescription drugs, or gasoline prices, or something that was in the news that day. And I’d open the newspapers the next morning, and the story was the Q&A, and the event was completely ignored. There were so many times that happened.

“Remember,” he says,“this is during the same period when more than half of the stories in the press about global warming say that it’s not even real. Secondly, my opponent, then Governor Bush, had publicly pledged to regulate carbon dioxide with the force of law. And so the perception was: (A) This issue is arcane and may not even be a real issue, and (B) There’s no meaningful contrast between the candidates, so it’s not part of the political dialogue.”

Does it matter that no environmental reporter I have asked — and I have asked a lot — remembers a single one of those events? “I think he’s being disingenuous,” Ross Gelbspan, author of two influential books on climate and its politics (The Heat Is On and Boiling Point), told me in an e-mail when I asked him about it. “My feeling is that he ran away from the climate issue during that campaign, and lots of other climate advocates share that feeling.”

And if Gore didn’t exactly run away from the climate issue during his tenure in the White House, he sure wasn’t able to do much about reducing the emissions that cause it. When Gore opens Saturday Night Live pretending to have been the president these past six years and claiming to have stopped global warming, it’s funny in part because of how absurd it is. During the years Clinton and Gore ran the country, Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) standards for passenger cars remained static, General Motors rolled out its first civilian Hummer and the U.S. Senate voted 95-0 not to ratify an international treaty to reduce greenhouse gases called the Kyoto Protocol. The last time the U.S. participated with any sincerity in climate talks, at The Hague in late November 2000, the United States came to the table insisting that its vast forests should count toward the country’s overall reduction of carbon emissions, and the talks fell apart. Although Clinton’s presidency was in its last days and the election was over, the administration’s trees-eat-carbon policy had its roots in Gore’s campaign for the presidency: “[It] was intended as a pre-emptive strike,” wrote an astonished Gelbspan at the time, “calculated to blunt a predictable Republican attack against Gore’s environmentalism.”

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