WHEN HISTORY DERAILED THE PRESIDENCY of Al Gore, it may actually have increased his power to save the planet. Freed from the restraints of elected office, the former vice president is now widely regarded as America’s most persuasive and passionate spokesman on global warming. “Rescuing the environment from climate collapse was a – if not the – defining issue of my political career,” says Gore, 57. “And you can be damn sure I’m not giving up on it now.”
No public figure has a deeper working knowledge of the climate crisis. Gore studied the effects of greenhouse-gas emissions at Harvard and held the Senate’s first hearing on the science of climate change. In 1988, when he ran for president at the age of forty, his “primary motivation was to push the global-warming issue.” Four years later, he wrote Earth in the Balance, the best-selling book on global warming. Not long after that, Bill Clinton, who calls Gore “one of the greatest political and scientific intellects of our time,” asked him to be his running mate.
As vice president, Gore was a chief architect of the Kyoto Protocol, the historic accord on reducing carbon-dioxide emissions. But the Senate refused to ratify the treaty, calling the evidence “inconclusive.” Now that the scientific consensus is irrefutable, Gore considers it “damned immoral” that the White House and Congress continue to block action on global warming. “This is an emergency of historic proportions,” he says. “We are in a race against time. There is a brave and hearty band of about two percent of Washington officials who are working on this, but ninety-eight percent are in denial.”
These days, Gore devotes much of his energy to pressuring Washington to act. Since 2001, he has traveled the world giving a riveting presentation titled “Global Warming: A Planetary Emergency,” a lecture and multimedia display that lays out the causes and consequences of what Gore calls “the collision between civilization and the Earth.” And last year, he cofounded an investment firm that supports climate-change initiatives and sustainable development.
For Gore, who grew up on a cattle farm in Tennessee and keeps a picture of environmental pioneer Rachel Carson on his desk, global warming is as much a moral issue as a scientific one. But despite the urgency of the issue, he remains, at heart, more an optimist than a doomsayer. “If Americans act immediately, we can innovate our way out of this problem,” Gore says. “We must use our political institutions, our democracy, our free speech, our reasoning capacity, our citizenship, our hearts and reason with one another, see the reality of this problem and act as Americans.”