By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
I’m tempted to dig deeper on this issue with Gore — why didn’t the Clinton administration pull off the environmental equivalent of pardoning hundreds of convicted felons and get the treaty through? — but my flicker of time with him precludes any detailed grilling, and 10 minutes into the interview, talking about the past starts to feel inappropriate. Meeting Al Gore these days feels a little like reuniting with an old acquaintance you had a falling out with years ago: As much as you want to hold him to account for all the times he let you down, he’s so different now, so funny, so sincere. Plus, with Guggenheim’s help, he’s made a fine movie. “People who go in will be changed by it,” Gore says, and he’s right. So you try to move on.
And, as I came to understand, Gore is a sensitive man. When he first ran for president in 1988, “partly to try to get more visibility for this issue,” Gore tells me, he remembers George Will commenting pejoratively on his unlikely candidacy. “He wrote a column the week I announced, saying, ‘So this guy thinks he’s gonna talk about global warming in a presidential campaign,’?” Gore recalls, and imitates Will’s arrogant tone by snorting like a self-satisfied grump, “hoh-hoh-hoh!”
Later in the day, however, when I look up the column Will actually wrote in April 1987, I am dumbfounded at Gore’s interpretation of it. In a piece headlined “Albert Gore, Raging Moderate,” Will had written that “the stripling senator from Tennessee is guaranteed to be the only candidate courting Iowa by talking about a village in Patagonia where people are advised to stay indoors during the summer.” He went on to explain to his readers in plain and elegant terms both “the greenhouse effect,” as it was called back then, and the causes of the ozone hole plaguing Patagonians, caused by a buildup of chlorine in the atmosphere. It was a time before climate politics had turned partisan, and Will, now a firm naysayer on climate change, betrayed not a hint of skepticism. The conservative columnist ended with a compliment for the then 39-year-old senator, an “accomplished politician” who already knows how to “distinguish himself from a large and growing field.” Ironically, in 2000, Gore could barely distinguish himself from his reactionary Republican nemesis.
“Look,” says Gore. “I take my share of the blame for not being as effective an advocate as I wish I was. I still feel that I haven’t succeeded in getting this message across. But thanks to Davis Guggenheim, I think the movie captures the slide show and adds a lot of entertaining elements that make it really compelling. And I’m more optimistic today than I have been for years.”
In addition to documenting that slide show with all its charts and cartoons,An Inconvenient Truth follows Gore’s awakening as an environmentalist, under the tutelage of oceanographer Roger Revelle — one of the first scientists to detect and document how greenhouse gases were changing the climate — through Gore’s various political campaigns. Guggenheim has woven Gore’s personal biography through the film in a way that reinforces Gore’s description of his environmentalism as a deepening series of epiphanies, beginning with his father on the family tobacco farm, which Gore Sr. shut down after his daughter — Al’s sister — died of lung cancer.
Big tobacco, of course, sowed doubt over the dangers of smoking just as modern-day climate-change skeptics create suspicions that people like Gore fearmonger for profit. Guggenheim includes a clip of George H.W. Bush in the 1992 campaign against Clinton-Gore claiming that “you’ll be up to your ears in owls and out of jobs” if the Democrats win, and another of Oklahoma’s James Inhofe, a man for whom “senator” seems too honorific a term, repeating his famous quip about climate change being “the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people.”
In a way, the film seems designed to make you understand what Gore was up against in his fight to raise awareness about the climate. It is not an unwarranted defense: Even now, the Exxon- and American Petroleum Institute–funded think tank, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, is producing commercials to counter Gore’s argument. “There’s category-five denial out there,” Gore says.
In 2000, Gelbspan wrote that nature had given Gore the chance to launch a campaign against climate change when a 9-foot-deep hole in the Arctic ice opened up into a mile-wide lake. In 2006, it has given him another chance: Four major hurricanes in 2004, five in 2005, now believed by most scientists to have been fed by unusually warm seas. Baby walruses, separated from their mothers on ice melting too early, have been dying of starvation; New England has flooded. As Gore notes, “There is another voice in this debate now, and that’s Mother Nature. You can’t ignore her.” In fact, she’s been so loud that some people have said we’ve passed the point of no return, and still, the Bush administration shows no signs of regulating carbon dioxide as a pollutant; we still cool our rooms with electricity from coal-burning power plants. Even if we can turn things around, do we have the political will to do it?
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