Al Gore’s inconvenient truth
The former vice president talks to SN&R about his new documentary and the threat posed by global warming. ‘We didn’t ask for it,’ he says, ‘but here it is.’
The climate around climate change has changed. • Sometime during the past year, by means both obvious and mysterious, the issue of climate change has taken hold with the public as never before, and the citizens and communities and corporations of California and elsewhere seem to have reached a solidified level of awareness and concern about the grim realities, implications and challenges of global warming. • Public awareness and action on the subject promise to reach even more heightened levels with the release of former Vice President Al Gore’s new documentary on global warming, An Inconvenient Truth, now playing in select cities and scheduled to open at Tower Theatre in early June. In advance of the movie’s opening, and the release of a companion book by the same title, SN&R had an opportunity to view the film and sit down with the man behind it, a fellow who can wryly but accurately introduce himself as someone “who used to be the next president of the United States.”
When driving into Washington, D.C., a good strategy for getting around town is to park at the Union Station parking lot and hop on the town’s clean, reliable Metro subway system. But on this pleasant April day during 2006 spring break, like locusts there’s a merciless number of tourist buses filling the structure and not a single space to be had. The unexpected obstacle results in a mean rush across town, as one doesn’t want to be late for a meeting with a former vice president, a person who, however unlikely, is still credibly mentioned as someone who could one day be president.
A hotel parking structure at 15th and K streets, right in the heart of the capital’s lobbying enterprises, seems close enough, the astronomical parking price a pittance compared with the cost of missing the appointment. Running toward the selected setting at 17th and L streets, suddenly and unexpectedly, there it is, of course: 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, the White House. The street in front of the White House is now closed to traffic, paved over as a promenade for pedestrians. On this weekday mid-morning, there are as yet only a few tourists peering through the black metal bars of the gate surrounding the White House. Mostly passing by are the well-dressed “public affairs” executives speaking intently into their ear-held cell phones and secretarial assistants rushing to and fro with their cartons of coffees. There’s only time now for a quick impression: Somehow, for some reason, on this day, the White House seems very small—small and, even from up close, very distant.
Arriving at the appointed setting, everything is calm in the cool, textured lobby of Generation Investment Management LLP, “an investment management firm dedicated to long-term investing, integrated sustainability research, and client alignment.” Al Gore is one of six partners and chairman of the firm, founded in 2004, with the other partners being former top Goldman Sachs managers and Peter Knight, Gore’s former chief of staff. According to their Web site, they invest in global companies for “superior returns,” with sustainability research “playing an important role in forming our views on the quality of the business, the quality of management and valuation.” Five percent of their profits are donated to “non-profit sustainability initiatives.” Doing well and doing good at the same time seems to be the idea, and one that, as it turns out, underlies Al Gore’s approach to global warming.
There are only two other reporters present, both from area colleges. An odd feeling arises when, by dint of both age and representing a free weekly newspaper, one is the most senior and prestigious representative of the media preparing to interview a former vice president. The oddness of the feeling is only reinforced during the course of the interview when one of the college reporters uses the opportunity to request some inside dish on the former vice president’s appearance on Futurama, an animated cartoon show on Fox, now moved to the Cartoon Network. “There are a good number of people your age who don’t necessarily know that I was vice president of the United States,” Gore will tell the reporter from the George Washington University Hatchet. “But they do know that I said, ‘I have ridden the mighty moon worm,’ during the appearance of my disembodied head on Futurama.” Gore’s comment will arrive as a shock, not because of the exaggerated modulation of his voice as he performs the cartoon statement, but because he’s right about the generational disconnect: An 18-year-old freshman in college this year would have been only 12 years old when Al Gore left office in 2000.
But before Gore arrives on the scene, the reporters are led into a conference room and introduced to Davis Guggenheim, the film’s director. Guggenheim is a handsome, modishly coifed man, the black frames of his glasses countering any suggestion of a lack of seriousness emanating from his relative youthfulness or his Hollywood career. He had the good fortune to work on Sex, Lies, and Videotape, as his first job, and the more mixed fortune of Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead as his second. Now that he’s working primarily as a television director, with the pilot episodes of HBO’s Deadwood to his credit, filming the documentary on global warming is a kind of homecoming for Guggenheim. His father, he explains, was Charles Guggenheim, a famous documentary filmmaker, nominated for 12 Academy Awards and winner of four of them, including one for Robert Kennedy Remembered, which first aired at the 1968 Democratic Convention.
Just the day before, Guggenheim visited the old Georgetown offices of his father, who died in 2002. “My father always emphasized the need for film, even a documentary, to tell a story, a story about a person up on the screen, and their struggle. That very much guided me in making this film.”
The person whose story Guggenheim tells in this documentary now arrives. Al Gore picks up a soft drink and makes his way over to the conference table, sitting across from the three reporters. Worries that feelings of intimidation in the face of the famous and powerful will cripple the interview immediately dissipate. This is partly a credit to Gore, whose demeanor is as friendly and relaxed as could be asked. It’s also partly a consequence of being displaced by another unavoidable feeling, one imbued with sadness for what might have been for this man, and also for what might not have been for the nation and the world.
But there’s something else that has taken the air out of all the conscious and unconscious concerns about status and stature. The prior screening of the film has done its work: Global warming and the future of the planet are at issue, and everything else seems to naturally descend to its petty place.
We didn’t ask for it
An Inconvenient Truth is a film of Al Gore presenting his slide show about global warming to an audience. Wrapped around this presentation is Gore’s own story, of how he first became aware of the issue as a college student during the 1960s, how he pressed the issue as a congressman and senator, how he was attacked for his environmental concerns as “Ozone Man” by then-President George Herbert Walker Bush during the 1992 election, how family tragedies illuminated and reinforced his self-knowledge about what was important, and how the 2000 election setback helped lead Gore to deliver his slide show on global warming to more than 1,000 audiences around the world and to the making of the film.
Gore’s slide-show presentation, and the film of it, are nothing less than devastating to any remaining doubts or denial about the science demonstrating global warming and its impacts. Gore begins with the famous view of the Earth taken from space, and one quickly understands the absolute necessity and incredible vulnerability of the relatively thin layer of atmosphere that permits life—all life—to exist on the planet.
As Gore comes down to Earth and shows the melting of the glaciers all around the world (“within the decade, there will be no more ‘Snows of Kilimanjaro’”; Glacier National Park will become glacierless), the true global nature of global warming hits home. When Gore brings the Himalayas into focus (“40 percent of all the people of the world get their drinking water from rivers and spring systems that are fed more than half by the melt-water coming off these glaciers”), one realizes that there is much more at stake than the loss of sightseeing opportunities.
The presentation documents that the loss of water for drinking and irrigation, the sea rise and flooding and the heat waves, among other global-warming-induced changes, threaten the dislocation of hundreds of millions of people around the world. While the exact timing and location of extreme weather and extreme weather events cannot be predicted, it is also clear from Gore’s presentation that no place is exempt. Hurricane Katrina, which Gore shows hitting Florida as a Category 1 storm and then picking up moisture content and energy from the warmer waters it crossed before hitting New Orleans as a Category 5 storm, makes that clear.
The correlation between an increase in greenhouse gases, and especially carbon dioxide, in our atmosphere and a rise in temperatures is now no longer in scientific dispute, Gore shows. With ice-core samples providing scientists with the ability to measure greenhouse gases back to 650,000 years ago, Gore shows that the scientists can confidently demonstrate that carbon dioxide has “never gone above 300 parts per million,” and today is “way above where it’s ever been, as far back as can be measured.”
The melting of the Arctic and Greenland ice sheets, and the effects of that melting on the oceans, is also shown in the film with a power that literally stuns the viewer. “A friend said in 1978 that if you see the breakup of the ice shelves along the Antarctica peninsula, watch out, because that could be seen as an alarm bell for global warming,” Gore explains to his audience. He then tells about and shows ice shelves in Antarctica larger than the state of Rhode Island breaking up.
“Making mistakes in generations and centuries past would have consequences that we could overcome,” Gore says in the course of the film, and then he continues: “We don’t have that luxury anymore. We didn’t ask for it. But here it is.”
Truth and consequences
The power of the movie’s depiction of irreversible consequences provides the interview session, and just about everything else, with its proper context. Gore addresses his thoughts on that power during the interview. “I think that the real power of the movie comes from Davis Guggenheim’s skill in putting it together,” he said. “But the power of the message that’s conveyed by the movie and the slide show comes from the reality that’s out there, that’s changing, speedily, and demanding our attention. The reality [of global warming] is continuing to get louder, knocking on the door.” He backs up his statement with a mention of Australia recently having had three Category 5 cyclones in a month.
Asked why Americans, at least so far, seem to be lagging in their grasp of global warming as a serious concern, Gore points to both the comforts of life in the United States and concerted efforts by certain industries to confuse people. “We’ve adapted to a way of life that makes us less willing to contemplate some changes that might be inconvenient,” he concedes. “But I also think that there has been a determined strategy on the part of a well-financed group of companies and lobbyists that spend full time trying to confuse the American people about the truth concerning global warming. That’s not a conspiracy theory. It has been elaborately documented by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Ross Gelbspan, and recently Mother Jones magazine had a very large investigative report on one of the companies that has financed, directly or indirectly, 40 different front groups that put out false information about global warming.”
Gore then tries to bring the actions of these companies and their campaign of confusion into perspective: “I think that over the years some businesses have gotten the impression that the best way to prevent any kind of regulation or law that they don’t like is to try to stop any discussion of the basis for the concern. What develops is a kind of ‘us and them’ mentality that sometimes overtakes common sense and causes them to do things that in retrospect they’ll look back on and think and feel badly about themselves, the way tobacco companies must feel now for what they did in the ’60s [denying the 1964 surgeon general’s report linking smoking and lung cancer]. It’s the same thing.”
While there is an upsurge of new industries and companies that are claiming to have a technology or service that can provide part of the solution to global warming, there’s one old industry whose stake to a claim is controversial: the nuclear-power industry. The power industry is campaigning for a “nuclear renaissance,” partly based on nuclear power’s absence of greenhouse-gas emissions. Just last week, President Bush himself gave a speech explicitly linking greenhouse-gas emissions and a need for new nuclear plants.
But there are also some leading environmentalists, such as Stewart Brand, the founder of the Whole Earth Catalog, and Patrick Moore, one of the co-founders of Greenpeace, who have publicly endorsed nuclear power as a needed substitute for the nation’s coal plants, which account for 30 percent of the carbon-dioxide emissions from the United States. (Moore, funded by the nuclear industry itself, has teamed up with former Bush Environmental Protection Agency head Christine Todd Whitman to promote new nukes.)
Gore is more than skeptical, though, about the prospects for nuclear power, and he expounds on the reasons for that at some length. “I do think nuclear will play a role, but I don’t think it will play a much larger role than it does now,” he says. “The problems are not limited to the ones that are usually discussed. Long-term waste storage hasn’t been solved yet. … The vulnerability of nuclear plants to terrorist attack is an issue. But let’s assume that both of those can be solved. There are still other problems.
“During my eight years in the White House [1992-2000], every nuclear-proliferation problem that we dealt with was linked to a civilian reactor. For years, the ideology has been that they’re completely separate: There are atoms for peace and atoms for war. That’s true. But the scientists and engineers who know how to do one have a pretty easy time doing the other. … That’s happened all over the world.
“If we’re going to use nuclear to substitute for a large percentage of coal plants—and coal is the main issue, over time—then you’ll have to put them everywhere, including in lots of countries that you don’t want to have them.
“You’re also going to run out of uranium, which is in much shorter supply than oil. Much. You’ll run out unless you go to a breeder cycle, which produces large volumes of weapons-grade nuclear material, greatly easing the burden for making bombs—everywhere. It’s not what we want.”
What we want
If there is an area where Gore has drawn criticism from friends and allies, though, it is precisely in this realm of “what we want.” The slide show and the film suggest little in the way of “solutions” to global warming. Gore claims in his movie presentation that “we already know everything we need to know to effectively address this problem.” “Efficiency, renewables, carbon sequestration” are mentioned, but, beyond that, nothing. Experts, though, say that carbon sequestration—pumping carbon dioxide into emptied oil wells or other underground caverns—is still not a large-scale, proven option. And there is no one who yet claims to have the ultimate solution to petroleum-based transportation. A May 20 op-ed column in The New York Times by science writer Katherine Ellison assaults Gore by name for endorsing nothing bolder than a Senate bill that calls for reducing emissions to 2000 levels by 2010.
Disappointingly, during the interview, Gore stays within these conservative boundaries when pressed for his program to address global warming. “The most effective short-term solutions involve conservation and efficiency. We waste almost 90 percent of all the energy we’re using. There are some very simple things that can be done to change that. We should cap carbon emissions and allow the trading of carbon emissions, because that will allow us to use the market system as an ally in allocating money to the most efficient ways to reduce carbon dioxide. I’ll start with that.” Then, as a quick afterthought, he adds, “We should also raise the mileage requirement for cars and trucks.” And he stops with that.
The tight boundaries that Gore places around his cautious program for addressing global warming—seemingly so at odds with the severity of the problem as he himself has demonstrated it—suggest several things. Perhaps, most importantly, as regards the issue itself, there is no single solution; there is no obvious quick fix. Everyone and every activity in a fossil-fuel-based global economy is implicated. Think about going to the grocery store or to go see the new Al Gore documentary on global warming, and most likely you’ll be thinking about getting in your carbon-dioxide-emitting car. The solutions to global warming will need the involvement of everyone.
Gore and many others are convinced that the necessary transition to a non-carbon-based economy will require the support of the business community and the capital and innovations that it can bring to bear in shifting and shaping the market. His chairmanship of Generation Investment Management LLP is no accident. The revolution will be financed.
But Gore’s approach also is grounded in his perception of what’s needed now, at least in terms of the role that he can play. As he previously told writers for Vanity Fair and Wired, he views the mission of this film as getting the message about global warming across, communicating the problem and raising it to a new level of understanding among the broad public.
Does this also imply, as many in the media have already wondered, that Gore is getting ready for another presidential campaign? Is the programmatic timidity really an avoidance of conflict that could complicate another presidential run? This question is unavoidable, even in as amiable a setting as one where his appearance on Futurama is of interest. “I don’t intend to be a candidate again,” he states. “I consider myself a recovering politician. I’ve made four national races: twice for vice president, twice for president. I was in the political orbit for 24 years, and as a child I grew up in a family where my father was a candidate every two years. I have found other ways to serve, and I enjoy them.”
This statement, of what he “intends,” of course, doesn’t shut the door to another presidential run. Certainly, he has friends and supporters who remain active “Gore for President” promoters. It’s impossible to believe that if a clear path opened up for Gore to obtain the key to the house two blocks from this interview, he would turn it down. But before he’s done with the subject, Gore adds a dimension that speaks both to the issue of his personal position and to the problem of adequately addressing global warming.
“I also believe that we as Americans sometimes put too much emphasis on a single election and too little emphasis on the health of our democratic process. Because if we have the same Congress and the same K Street [lobbying powers and practices] and the same money-dominated political system, then whoever is elected in 2008 will have the same constraints and limits.
“Leadership can always make a difference, but within boundaries. We have to change those boundaries. The limits of what’s considered possible now are way too confining. Solutions to this crisis require us to expand the limits of the imaginable in our political system.
“I’m choosing to spend my energy trying to change the nature of the political dialogue and to push and pull the country past a tipping point beyond which both parties will have to deal responsibly with this issue, and both parties will have to put forward candidates who will compete on the basis of offering genuinely meaningful solutions.
“I think that’s a way to serve that may be better suited to my abilities and talents.”
The pale blue dot
Toward the end of the film of his slide-show presentation on global warming, Gore posts another picture of Earth, the pale blue dot taken from 4 billion miles out in space. “Everything that has ever happened in all of human history,” he explains, “has happened on that dot. All the triumphs and tragedies, all the wars and all the famines, all the major advances. That is what is at stake—our ability to live on planet Earth, to have a future as a civilization.”
Concluding, Al Gore states what planners and scientists and activists in California or anywhere else grappling with the dilemmas posed by global warming are already haunted by: “Future generations may well have occasion to ask themselves, ‘What were our parents thinking? Why didn’t they wake up when they had the chance?’ We have to hear that question from them now.”
But can we? And even if we can hear that question from the future, how willing are we to respond—to really respond?
Leaving the interview and heading back to the parking lot, the White House is necessarily passed again. Now there is quite a crowd of tourists hanging on the black metal bars of the fence, especially mothers and their children and visitors from other countries, smiling and giggling and taking pictures of each other with their digital cameras. The White House appears even smaller than before.
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