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?
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.”
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?
“Yes, we do,” says Gore. “And here’s why: The political system has one thing in common with the climate system. It is nonlinear. The change can seem to be moving ahead at a glacial pace. But the potential for change can build up underneath the surface and then be unleashed suddenly, and with incredible speed.
“Eighty-five conservative evangelical ministers publicly announced they were breaking with the White House on this issue, and they called on their congregations to take on this crisis,” Gore says. “Rick Warren, a close friend of Bush’s, the author of The Purpose Driven Life, is coming to the movie tonight, and promoting the movie to hundreds of thousands of other ministers. Two hundred and thirty cities have independently ratified Kyoto, Republican mayors as well as Democratic mayors. General Electric, DuPont, Duke Energy — companies that a few years ago would not have been caught dead in a meeting with climate change on the agenda — are now leading the charge. And every week now, my office hears from Republican as well as Democratic officeholders who want information on how they themselves can provide leadership in the political system on this issue.”
And after all that, if you still have the nerve to ask Gore whether there’s hope, he will tell you a story, because he can’t resist the joke.
“I used to have town-hall meetings when I was in Congress,” he begins. “And I’ll never forget there was this woman in Lincoln County, Tennessee, down on the Alabama border, and she described some situation to me. And then she ended up saying, ‘What I want to know Congressman, is, is there hope?’
“Honest-to-goodness I deadpanned,” he continues, “and said very seriously, ‘No ma’am. There’s no hope.’?” The man who introduces himself now as the former next president of the United States shakes his head solemnly.
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“So here’s what came next: No one laughed. And I thought to myself, uh-oh. I’m dying here. I’ve never tried that again.”
This may not be the Gore we saw weakly debating Bush or delivering stiff speeches in 2000, but this is the Gore we have now: A kind man, still a statesman, but also a clown. It’s unlikely he’ll backslide; we have this version of him preserved now, on film. And the question now is: Is there a place for this man in politics? A man given to pranks, who does silly voices and talks passionately about pictures of the earth snapped from spaceships?
Gore, who also has a book, published by Rodale Press, coming out to coincide with the film’s opening, won’t admit to anyone that he plans to run for president again in 2008, but many people who think about such things assume he will. He says he had “a fresh start” after the disaster of the 2000 election, another epiphany to galvanize his beliefs. “It allowed me to take this to another level still.”
You can only — dare I say it? — hope that this time people will listen.