Then President-elect Obama with former Vice President Al Gore in Chicago, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008.
Then President-elect Obama with former Vice President Al Gore in Chicago, Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008. Charles Dharapak/AP
In an essay in the latest issue of Rolling Stone, Al Gore lets loose a jeremiad on those he blames for the U.S' failure to enact the sort of sweeping changes experts say are essential to slow, if not reverse, global warming.
The former Democratic vice president criticizes Obama for allegedly going wobbly on the issue. The president failed to push hard enough for legislation that would curb greenhouse gas emissions by making polluters pay a price, Gore said.
He also faulted the president for allegedly failing to provide enough high profile forums that might let the overwhelming scientific evidence for the reality of global warming to drown out the deniers.
In one of the piece's pithiest passages, he writes:
But in this case, the President has reality on his side. The scientific consensus is far stronger today than at any time in the past. Here is the truth: The Earth is round; Saddam Hussein did not attack us on 9/11; Elvis is dead; Obama was born in the United States; and the climate crisis is real. It is time to act.
His disgust for the news media have generally handled the climate-change issue is readily apparent. He likens the media to the referee in a professional wrestling match.
The referee — in this analogy, the news media — seems confused about whether he is in the news business or the entertainment business. Is he responsible for ensuring a fair match? Or is he part of the show, selling tickets and building the audience? The referee certainly seems distracted: by Donald Trump, Charlie Sheen, the latest reality show — the list of serial obsessions is too long to enumerate here.
And, of course, the arch villains, as far as Gore is concerned, are those who stand to gain from being able to conduct business as usual, whose profits would be threatened by caps on greenhouse gases or shifting the economy more quickly to renewable instead of fossil fuels. They are the "Polluters" who are abetted by the "Ideologues," Gore said:
Part of the script for this show was leaked to The New York Times as early as 1991. In an internal document, a consortium of the largest global-warming polluters spelled out their principal strategy: "Reposition global warming as theory, rather than fact." Ever since, they have been sowing doubt even more effectively than the tobacco companies before them.
To sell their false narrative, the Polluters and Ideologues have found it essential to undermine the public's respect for Science and Reason by attacking the integrity of the climate scientists. That is why the scientists are regularly accused of falsifying evidence and exaggerating its implications in a greedy effort to win more research grants, or secretly pursuing a hidden political agenda to expand the power of government. Such slanderous insults are deeply ironic: extremist ideologues — many financed or employed by carbon polluters — accusing scientists of being greedy extremist ideologues.
After World War II, a philosopher studying the impact of organized propaganda on the quality of democratic debate wrote, "The conversion of all questions of truth into questions of power has attacked the very heart of the distinction between true and false."
That philosopher, by the way, was Theodor Adorno, a name unfamiliar to me until I googled him.
While casting blame, Gore doesn't deal much, if at all, with some of the challenging and legitimate questions that go beyond the science and into the realpolitik of the global-warming issue.
For instance, let's say the U.S. enacted caps on its greenhouse gas emitters. If China, India and other faster growing economies didn't, what then? Indeed, those nations could even see unilateral U.S. caps as giving them additional room to emit more carbon into the atmosphere.
Also, if caps drove up the costs of U.S. production, wouldn't that put the U.S. at a disadvantage in terms of exports? And if producers passed along their higher production costs to consumers, how would that help an economy struggling to reach higher levels of growth and job creation?
Gore doesn't really deal with these questions.
And while he acknowledges that the Internet has changed the economics of the news business, he mostly glosses over how that sea change has made media outlets rely more on the Trump and Sheen stories to draw audiences to their web sites.
To a large degree, news outlets are responding to their consumers by giving them Trump and Sheen. If global warming stories drew eyeballs to web site like Sheen did, does anyone doubt news sites would be awash in global warming stories?
Ever the politician, Gore doesn't blame the public. He knows the public hates that. The closest he comes to that is a passage in which he cites how much TV Americans watch:
The average American, meanwhile, is watching television an astonishing five hours a day. In the average household, at least one television set is turned on more than eight hours a day. Moreover, approximately 75 percent of those using the Internet frequently watch television at the same time that they are online.
But his point here is really more about the power of TV and the expense of getting one's ideas on TV, a situation which favors the wealthy Polluters and Ideologues, over those without deep pockets.
He argues, however, that there is a role for the public in making things better. His suggestions include:
First, become a committed advocate for solving the crisis. You can start with something simple: Speak up whenever the subject of climate arises. When a friend or acquaintance expresses doubt that the crisis is real, or that it's some sort of hoax, don't let the opportunity pass to put down your personal marker. The civil rights revolution may have been driven by activists who put their lives on the line, but it was partly won by average Americans who began to challenge racist comments in everyday conversations.
Second, deepen your commitment by making consumer choices that reduce energy use and reduce your impact on the environment. The demand by individuals for change in the marketplace has already led many businesses to take truly significant steps to reduce their global-warming pollution. Some of the corporate changes are more symbolic than real — "green-washing," as it's called — but a surprising amount of real progress is taking place. Walmart, to pick one example, is moving aggressively to cut its carbon footprint by 20 million metric tons, in part by pressuring its suppliers to cut down on wasteful packaging and use lower-carbon transportation alternatives. Reward those companies that are providing leadership.
His choice of Walmart is fascinating since the retail behemoth has for years forced its suppliers to reduce packaging, not so much to reduce its carbon footprint as to drive its costs lower. Some would call that "green-washing" of the first order
Also, Walmart isn't usually cited by progressive politicians as an enlightened force. More often, it draws fire from same on controversial personnel issues or for undercutting smaller retailers.
So Gore's positive mention of Walmart in a global warming context is likely to draw notice.