At one point in Al Gore’s movie, “An Inconvenient Truth,” he shows an illustration of a scale with a stack of gold bars on one side and the Earth on the other.
By this time he already has presented overwhelming and frightening evidence of the accelerated effects of man-made global warming. Through photographs, charts and other data, Gore builds a case so convincing that you have to wonder why we continue to feed the forces of our own destruction.
And then you see the gold bars.
But even more frustrating is knowing that very few people directly profit from our retrograde environmental policies. The decision to put short-term interests ahead of the long-term health of the planet, while morally reprehensible, is at least understandable.
Yet the vast majority of those who deny or ignore the reality of global warming don’t have anything to gain from it. They seem to become more outraged at the suggestion that something is wrong than at the actual outrage that is being perpetrated at their expense.
What’s needed, then, is a change in the political calculus that will transform popular opinion and overcome the powerful minority that imposes the status quo.
Gore could do that if he runs for president, and he should.
He begins as the man who should have been president, denied his rightful place in the White House only by the worst decision in the history of the U.S. Supreme Court. And still he maintained his dignity in the face of it.
That Gore was so close to becoming president not only enhances his stature, it implies and begs for a contrast between him and George W. Bush, whose administration has been an uninterrupted string of disappointment and failure. Remember that during the 2000 campaign, the conventional wisdom held that there was little difference between Bush and Gore, so it didn’t matter who was elected. No one would dare make that suggestion again.
For instance, Gore drew distinctions with Bush on the Iraq war from the outset, and the difference in leadership has proved to be the difference between effective military action and the debacle that Iraq has become.
In September 2002 — before the war began — Gore delivered a speech that now seems incredibly prescient.
He said we should keep our focus on Al Qaeda and the terrorists who committed the 9/11 atrocities, instead of shifting our focus to pre-emptively attack Iraq. He did not dismiss the threat posed by Saddam Hussein, but he suggested a multi-lateral approach to contain him.
“I believe that we are perfectly capable of staying the course in our war against Osama bin Laden and his terrorist network, while simultaneously taking those steps necessary to build an international coalition to join us in taking on Saddam Hussein in a timely fashion,” Gore said.
Gore was roundly ridiculed for his remarks, just as when he was among only a handful of Democrats who voted to authorize the first war against Iraq in 1991. But on these and other issues, his judgment and competence was vindicated.
By taking unpopular stands, he also showed that he has the courage of his convictions, in spite of the repeated criticism in 2000 that he was a poll-testing politician who would say or do anything to get elected. And if he appeared stiff and awkward during his campaign six years ago, he is liberated and natural in “An Inconvenient Truth.”
That’s what makes the environmental issue such a strong foundation for a presidential campaign. It’s not a wildly popular concern, but the facts need to be communicated to more people. Gore is uniquely equipped to carry the message because of his tremendous knowledge and genuine passion. Plus he has unassailable credibility as the first politician to call attention to global warming.
Gore’s challenge would be to convey climate change as the existential threat it truly is. Combined with a serious and tough approach toward fighting terrorism — which he is already qualified for and inclined to do — he could focus the nation’s energies toward the most important priorities of our time.
In doing so, Gore could imbue Americans with the sense of united purpose that disappeared after the end of the Cold War. We’ve been distracted by divisive political gamesmanship for too long (gay marriage, flag burning, Terry Schiavo), when there are bigger problems that should be bringing us together (saving our planet for future generations and protecting our democracy from its enemies).
At the end of his film, Gore offers hope by explaining how we can avoid environmental crisis. He presents a blueprint for action, but it will only work if we act collectively and cooperatively. “Political will is a renewable resource,” he adds by way of encouragement.
One can only hope that Gore is alluding to himself.