Campaign on climate gives Gore a new voice
Posted on Thu, May. 04, 2006
Campaign on climate gives Gore a new voice
BY WARREN CORNWALL
The Seattle Times
SEATTLE - Former Vice President Al Gore looks like he's back on the campaign trail.
Actually he is. It's just a campaign of a different sort.
The man who narrowly missed becoming president in 2000 finds himself in a new role: elder statesman and itinerant preacher about the dangers of global warming.
Just this year, Gore has been on the covers of Vanity Fair and Wired magazines. In March, more than 500 people at Seattle's Benaroya Hall saw a computerized slide show about climate change that Gore has been giving all over the world. The next day, Gore headlined an event about Seattle's efforts to reduce greenhouse gases.
He was back in town this week for an invitation-only screening of a documentary film chronicling the presentations and his other work on global warming. "An Inconvenient Truth," which received standing ovations at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, opens in Seattle in June. A book of the same name is set to be released this month.
"I think he's found a new voice, as it were," said professor Edward Miles, a political scientist and a leader of the University of Washington's Climate Impacts Group. "And certainly he's much more comfortable with himself in that role than he was in the campaign."
But that new prominence is also making him a target of skeptics of global warming, who have accused him of scaremongering.
True, Gore is no newcomer to the climate-change debate. As a congressman, then a U.S. senator, then Bill Clinton's vice president, he made environmental issues, including global warming, a focus.
"It is truly his passion," said Rosina Bierbaum, a top environmental adviser to the Clinton administration who is now dean of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and Environment.
"If he can fit a climate talk in wherever he's going, he does it."
But as the Democratic presidential nominee, that side of him didn't receive a lot of attention.
There's disagreement whether Gore actually emphasized it less, or the media just ignored it. But Eileen Claussen, a former top environmental official in the Clinton White House who now heads the Pew Center on Global Climate Change, said she thinks Gore let it go for a while.
"He really didn't come back into this issue until much more recently," she said.
Now, however, Gore has been taking his computerized slide show on the road - with a vengeance.
"You get a sense from him that this is one of those moments in his life where all the work that he has been doing for 30 years on this is coming to a head," said Davis Guggenheim, who directed the new documentary. "The issue is getting more and more urgent. The writing is on the wall."
With his reputation for being stiff and wonky, the idea of Gore giving a slide show easily could be fodder for jokes. Even Guggenheim conceded that he initially dismissed the idea that it could make for a good movie.
But the presentation is complete with video clips of melting glaciers crashing into oceans, animated explanations of how global warming works and carefully orchestrated punch lines. And people who have seen it say it's science with an emotional punch.
"It was a masterful exposition of the science and ethics of climate change, better than anything I've done myself or seen anyone else do," said Washington state climatologist Philip Mote.
Like some preachers, Gore turns to old-fashioned fire and brimstone. He calls climate change a moral issue, and likens it to the threat the world once faced from fascism before World War II.
The risks, Gore said, include droughts, melting ice caps, rising sea levels, more intense hurricanes and wildly fluctuating weather around the world.
Civilization, according to Gore, is in the balance.
That has opened him to critics who charge he is overstating the impacts of climate change.
"I think that there's some big logical leaps from `There's a consensus that scientists think that climate change is happening and that human beings are playing a part in it' to `The world's about to end,'" said Myron Ebell, of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market think tank based in Washington, D.C.
The new attention on Gore may have less to do with him than the fact that the public is paying more attention to climate change.
Mainstream magazines recently have been discussing global warming more as a fact rather than a disputed theory. "Be worried. Be very worried," said a recent Time magazine cover for an issue focusing on climate change.
More than 200 U.S. cities have signed on to a promise to comply with the international Kyoto treaty that calls for reducing greenhouse gases that contribute to climate change. The United States has refused to sign on.
Natural disasters such as Hurricane Katrina have made discussions about possible impacts of global warming seem more real, said Bierbaum, the former Clinton adviser.
"I think we've just kind of reached the tipping point, and Mr. Gore has the best and most accessible presentation on it," she said.
Lately, there has been talk that Gore could be eyeing the White House again, though he has not announced plans.
"He's not running," said Guggenheim, the filmmaker.
But while climate change may put Gore's face on magazine covers, it's not necessarily an issue that wins elections.
"If you were looking for a springboard to office," said Mark Mellman, a prominent Democratic pollster, "it's not clear this is it."