The Big Idea

Warming to Gore

The loser of the 2000 election may yet be the winner.

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Al Gore in An Inconvenient Truth

The outcome of the 2000 presidential election looks increasingly like not just a fiasco, but a tragedy. Whether or not one concurs with the judgment of the historian Sean Wilentz that he may be the “worst President in history,” George W. Bush has already done enough damage to America’s position in the world and its economic future to earn a spot on the bottom tier. And whether or not Al Gore would have been a successful president, it’s improbable that he could have made any mistake as disastrous as Bush’s unplanned, go-it-nearly-alone occupation of Iraq.

Gore is clearly savoring his moment of vindication as he tours on behalf of his new film An Inconvenient Truth. At each stop, he entertains questions about whether he might run again in 2008. Gore at first acts coy, feigning annoyance with his questioners’ focus on “politics” while he is merely trying to save planet Earth. He then offers a calibrated demurral that does nothing to damp down speculation. At a post-screening party in New York last week, he said he’s happy being out of politics. He has no plans to run but he doesn’t rule out doing so. The premise of the exchange was that we made a big mistake not electing him the last time, and we’d be lucky if he gave us another chance.

I couldn’t agree more with the first statement. About the second, I continue to have my doubts. The recent, carbon-neutral Gore boomlet misses a curious aspect of his political career. As his movie unintentionally illustrates, the farther the former vice president gets from electoral politics, the more he seems to accomplish in his principal cause, raising the alarm about global warming. If you care about this issue—and the film makes an overwhelming case that everyone must—you should hope he continues his crusade from outside the White House.

An Inconvenient Truth is flawed in a number of ways. For those who have read a substantial book on the subject, such as Tim Flannery’s The Weather Makers or Elizabeth Kolbert’s Field Notes From a Catastrophe, it will contain little that is new. It is afflicted with a number of inconsistencies and exaggerations, such as the suggestion that polar melt could cause sea levels to rise 20 feet and leave much of Manhattan underwater. It suffers from Gore’s labored, condescending manner and is cast too much in terms of his highly polished personal “journey” for my taste.

It is, nonetheless, fully successful in its effort to explain a tricky, technical issue of the greatest imaginable consequence. Gore’s real talent has always been for popularizing science. His illustration of consequences we may face—drought, famine, and a mass exodus of refugees in South Asia, epidemics, catastrophic storms, drowning polar bears, and the possibility of a new ice age in Europe—are vivid and terrifying. “A nature hike through the Book of Revelation,” he calls it at one point. One cannot leave the theater without understanding that climate change is real, man-made, and an urgent threat to everything we value.

Gore has done more than any other person to forge a public appreciation of these points. An irony of his career is that he has produced more movement on the issue as a freelance professor than as a politician. Gore has been on to the problem of carbon emissions since studying with the pioneering scientist Roger Revelle at Harvard in the late 1960s. He held the first congressional hearings on the subject in 1980 and used his long-shot 1988 presidential bid to draw attention to it. After he lost that election, Gore wrote his book Earth in the Balance, which was one of the first attempts to explain the issue to a mass audience. He also began presenting a slide-lecture version of the keynote presentation (not PowerPoint—he’s a Mac man) that grew into An Inconvenient Truth.

Yet when he ran in 1992 for vice president, Gore made very little of the greenhouse effect. It was the Republicans who raised the issue, to tease him as an environmental extremist. Climate change was not a major theme of the Clinton years, and little progress was made while Gore served in the White House. His only significant act over eight years was to help negotiate a Kyoto treaty that the Clinton administration never submitted to the Senate for ratification. One might argue that the problem was Gore’s limited power within the administration. But a better explanation is probably that Gore was too worried about his own future to press the case harder. Running for president in 2000, he downplayed environmental concerns in general, for fear of again being caricatured as “ozone man.” Faced with what his political consultants viewed as a potential liability, he abandoned the cause nearest his heart.

With his political career seemingly finished after 2000, Gore returned to the issue with pedantic passion, lugging his laptop through airports and presenting his slide lecture—more than 1,000 times, he claims. This advocacy, which is both depicted and captured in the film, has, with the assistance of scientific unanimity, helped to transform public consciousness in a way Gore never accomplished in elective office. Because of this not-yet-triumphant crusade, Gore may eventually have the last laugh, coming to be seen as a more important leader than our 43rd president and perhaps even than our 42nd. He may one day be regarded as the political hero of his era—a man who saved the world not by winning the presidency, but because he lost it.