Tracking Gore's Path

Christopher Joyce tracks Al Gore's interest in climate change from his days as a wide-eyed college student and crusading member of Congress to Oscar winner and Nobel Laureate. He's attracted critics along the way, but Gore may be one of the few vice presidents not only to be remembered by history, but with a legacy of his own making.

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When former Vice President Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize yesterday, he joined the likes of Teddy Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter, American politicians honored by the Norwegian Nobel Committee. Gore didn't win it for diplomacy though but for being a sort of hybrid, part-advocate, part-science teacher.

NPR's Christopher Joyce has this look at the course of Gore's education in the arcane world of climate science.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: Al Gore was a Tennessee boy who went to Harvard and got a good dose of science. Among his first professors was Roger Revelle, an atmospheric scientist who suggested that human activity - burning coal and oil, especially - might be making the planet warmer.

Gore chose politics rather than science as a career. He went to Congress. And during the 1980s, he was well-known as a defender of the scientific method and for talking about this strange new idea called climate change.

In 1989, he had these words of support for a government's climate scientist who complained that he was being muddled by the George Bush Sr. administration.

Vice President AL GORE: I just want to tell you that if they attempt any kind of retribution in return for candor, they will have on their hands the congressional equivalent of World War III.

JOYCE: Gore wasn't a friend of every new scientific trend. He was an early critic of genetic engineering and skeptical of scientists eager to manipulate plants and animals and treat patients with genetically engineered cells.

But when it came to climate, Gore encouraged the government to spend more money. Then, as vice president, he got his big climate moment. In 1997, nations of the world met in Kyoto, Japan, to forge an agreement reducing their emissions of these so-called greenhouse gases that warm the planet. Delegates were stalemated. The U.S. was pushing for a modest emission cuts. European nations argued for what many thought were impossibly steep cuts. Gore took the stage and gently chided the European delegations.

Vice Pres. GORE: The imperative here is to do what we promised rather than to promise what we cannot do.

JOYCE: The speechmaking, coming from the most senior government official of any country at the conference, seemed to jog delegates out of their entrenched positions. So remembers Robert Watson, the scientist at the Kyoto Conference who would later lead the U.N.'s panel of climate experts.

Dr. ROBERT WATSON (Scientist): And Al Gore flew in and actually made a very, very passionate statement but built on solid knowledge - don't misunderstand me - which was really one of the key speeches arguing for the Kyoto protocol.

JOYCE: Gore also took a poke at the U.S. delegation as well.

Vice Pres. GORE: And after speaking on the telephone from here a short time ago with President Clinton, I'm instructing our delegation right now to show increased negotiating flexibility.

JOYCE: The stalemate broke and the first treaty limiting emissions of greenhouse gases was drafted after an overnight session. Gore took a break from his climate campaign to run and lose another campaign - for president. He got back to climate, though. He went on the road with a splashy stage show - part lecture, part stand-up comedy.

He made a movie with the help of some Hollywood hands who knew how to put some zing behind the speaker whose presidential campaign was sometimes called wooden. The movie was "An Inconvenient Truth."

(Soundbite of documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth")

Vice Pres. GORE: If you look at the ten hottest years ever measured, they've all occurred in the last 14 years. And the hottest of all was 2005.

JOYCE: Gore's documentary drew raves from the chic and glittery at the Cannes Film Festival, and it won an Oscar last year in the documentary category. The scientists whose work Gore drew on for all of these cringed at some of the liberties he took with their findings, but they didn't mind the fact that their message was getting out.

Here is climate scientist Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University.

Dr. MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER (Lead Author, Third Assessment Report, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change): Who would have thought five years ago that a movie focused around a lecture series and a slide show would do anything but put a lot of people to sleep, but instead, the movie packed them in.

JOYCE: Oppenheimer is one of the scientists who works for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N. agency created in 1988 to collect and synthesize everything scientists published about climate change. The IPCC, as it's known, share the Nobel Prize this year with Gore.

Oppenheimer says they needed Gore as much as he needed them.

Dr. OPPENHEIMER: One organization of scientists churning out reports is simply not enough to make this issue resonate with the public.

JOYCE: Gore says he will contribute his share of the price money to an advocacy group that disseminates information about climate change. As for the IPCC scientists - there are some 2,000 of them - no word on yet on how that money will be doled out.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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