Sunday, June 11, 2006

Al Gore's Convenient Truth

If Al Gore, the former "next president of the United States," has been so concerned about climate change since the 1960s -- as we're told in the new documentary "An Inconvenient Truth" -- then why was so little progress made in slowing or stopping global warning during the eight years he was in power as vice president during the Clinton administration?

That nagging thought made it difficult for me to appreciate director Davis Guggenheim's (director of episodes of Alias and 24) dramatic film version of the Power Point presentation that Gore has given thousands of times around the world since his defeat at the hands of the Supreme Court. That, and the adoring portrayal of Gore that makes him out to be a prophet, or rock star. While the clips of natural disasters and the rising roller coaster representations of statistics make an imressive and persuasive case for the devastating consequences of global warming, the documentary's primary focus is Al Gore and his future more than the environmental message he's bringing.

I suspect that Gore is positioning himself to compete with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for President in 2008. If that's so, then this adulatory video is convenient way for him to return to the political stage. But will it save the world from destruction at the hands of global corporate thugs? I doubt it. Certainly Gore offers no particular political strategy, and the suggestions, along with the film's closing credits, that individual choices will make a difference is insulting to intelligent environmentalists who know that only large corporations and courageous politicians can save us this time. Curbside recycling is a drop in the bucket; closing down large-scale polluters and finding a substitute for the use of oil might help.

In the first place, there is little information that is new in "An Inconvenient Truth." The rise of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere from the burning of fossil fuels has led to an overall rise in temperature which has resulted in the melting of polar ice and glaciers, the prediction of an eventual (perhaps catastrophic) rise in sea levels, and the production of more hurricanes and tornadoes (which are stronger and more fierce). Only the ideological right (which includes our current government) remains unconvinced by the scientific evidence, and they'll never see this film. Glenn Beck, host of CNN Radio's Headline News, accused Gore of mixing untruth with truth, just like the Nazis. The documentary will undoubtedly find a comfortable audience only among the already converted.

So will Al Gore as president save us? Here the evidence is not persuasive. Gore is the scion of an illustrious family of wealthy politicians. His father was also a senator from Tennessee. Progressive curmudgeon Gore Vidal is a distant cousin of Albert, and is not very fond of his kin. "I've always thought he was absolutely pointless as a politician. He's just another conservative Southerner," according to Vidal. For much of his political career, Gore has been pro-life and anti-abortion. He was also openly anti-gay, calling homosexuality "abnormal" and "wrong," and he was a strong supporter of the gun lobby. Vidal described his relative as "another border-state, southern lover of the Pentagon...there was never anything the Pentagon asked for that Cousin Albert wasn't down there giving it to them; he voted for the first war in the gulf," one of only ten Democrats to break with the party.

In 1988, Gore made an unsuccessful run for the presidency. In 1992 he published Earth in the Balance, which summed up his environmental ideas and made a strong case for protection of the environment. We learn in the documentary that Gore, as a Harvard undergraduate, had studied with Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to predict that rising levels of human-produced emissions would lead to climate change. That same year he was nominated for the Democratic ticket with Bill Clinton and after their election many people expected him to be able to turn his ideas into action at the federal level.

But little changed, and why that is so is absent from "An Inconvenient Truth." Politics and corporate interests got in the way. In Al Gore: A User's Manual, written in 2000 by Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, the authors skewer Gore for his hypocrisy and for his ties to moneyed interests.
Like a street mountebank fluttering a handkerchief to distract attention from his sleights of hand, Gore has always used his proficiency with the language of liberalism to mask an agenda utterly in concert with the Money Power.

Nowhere is this truer than in his supposed environmentalism, which nicely symbolizes the chasm that has always separated Gore's professions from his performance. He denounces the rape of nature, yet has connived at the strip-mining of Appalachia and, indeed, of terrain abutting one of Tennessee's most popular state parks.
Cockburn and St. Clair claim Gore denounces vouchers while sending his kids to private schools, argues against the nuclear arms race while supporting the MX missile, praises civil liberties while turning a blind eye to censorship, smoked dope when younger but later advocated harsh penalties for marijuana use. Others have argued that Gore is beholden to Occidental Petroleum and helped secure oil drilling rights for that firm in the Elk Hills National Petroleum Reserve near Bakersfield, the largest turnover of public lands to a private corporation in American history. Despite protests from native peoples, many archaeological sites were destroyed. In 2000, Gore defended Occidental's plan to drill for oil near the sacred grounds of the U'wa tribe in Colombia.

Johann Hari, columnist for the Independent in London, says that Gore's speeches on global warming "are terrifying, true -- and contain a hole bigger than the old Ozone hole he spent decades warning against."
When Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in the White House, their environmental record was abysmal. They pushed through NAFTA, a free trade area for the Americas, which defined environmental regulation as an illegal "market distortion" which must be struck down by the courts. They allowed dioxin dumping in the oceans. They were the main international drivers between the World Bank and IMF, which have systematically smothered tentative environmental regulations in the developing world. They oversaw the largest slashing of publicly owned timber in US history. I could go on. And on.
The problem, Hari says, is that the fossil fuel industry pays the bills for politicians in America, Democrats as well as Republicans. And without that money, you can't get elected. Twenty-eight gas and oil companies gave to Gore's failed election campaign. "These companies own the American political process," according to Hari, and if Gore wants to run for president again in 2008 "he will have to plunge back into the petrol tank to grab some campaign funds." The only solution to this impasse, according to Hari, "is for the American people to reclaim their political parties from corporations and start paying for their parties themselves, out of general taxation." But this idea is about as popular as one nationalizing the banks, or the oil companies.

"Other than his alleged environmental convictions," writes author Joshua Frank, "Gore was politically timid when push came to shove in Washington." During the 1992 campaign, he promised supporters in Ohio that Clinton's EPA would never approve a hazardous waste incinerator near an elementary school. Three months after Clinton took office the incinerator was approved; its owner was one of the top campaign contributors to the Clinton/Gore campaign. Under Clinton/Gore, the Interior Department approved a destructive deal with sugar corporations in Florida which doomed vast portions of the Everglades. Gore's successful efforts to secure an Endangered Species Act waiver for the Tellico Dam on the Little Tennessee River paved the way for the gutting of the act, according to the late David Brower. A "salvage rider" bill pushed by the timber industry directed the Forest Service to cut old-growth timber in the Pacific Northwest. The administration, under Gore's watch, eliminated a regulation that had prohibited cancer-causing pesticides to be put in our foods, and cut a deal for the use of Methyl Bromide despite its reported contribution to ozone depletion.

While vice president, Gore did little stop global warming. The administration made it easy for Bush and Cheney to back out of the Kyoto Protocol by undermining the agreement in the late 1990s. Gore championed a "pollution credits" system at the Kyoto conference in 1997. But he opposed the watered down version of the Protocol, despite loopholes that would allow corporations to continue business as usual, because he feared alienating labor organizations that worried new environmental standards would shift jobs to developing nations with weaker regulations. "So while Al Gore flies a polluting jet around the country and overseas to preach to the masses about the dangerous effects of global warming and its inherent threat to life on earth," writes Frank, "you may want to ask yourself whether the hypocritical Gores of the world are more a part of the problem than a solution to the dire climate that surrounds us all."

Even if a U.S. government with a backbone solved the global warming problem by restricting corporate abuses and developing new systems of energy, the environmental crisis would be far from over. Out-of-control climate change is only one issue, albeit a crucial one. There are many others. For example, since World War Two a proliferation of chemicals in the environment (over 75,000 new compounds, at one count) parallels a drastic rise in cancer and other environmentally caused diseases. On a graph the huge jump in chemicals and cancer is remarkably similar to the jump in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and global temperatures. Wherever you look, humans are fouling their nest. Liberal optimists like Gore believe there is no conflict between the public welfare and corporate welfare. They see science as our savior and believe that technology can solve the very problems that it created in the first place.

But just as the United States seems unable to clean up the mess it made in Iraq, American science and industry may never be able to keep up with the unfortunate unintended consequences of technological innovation. This is nothing new. Goethe wrote about it in Faust and Walt Disney portrayed it in The Sorcerer's Apprentice.

1 comment:

The Geezers said...

I agree with your assessment of Gore and this movie. Still, I can't help hope that he takes another run in 2008. Hillary doesn't seem ready to me, and moreover, I fear she is not electable.

Great Blog, by the way. A pleasure to see another male voice interested in the same things. Keep it up.