It is probably not fair to say that global warming excites Al Gore, but get him going on the subject and he becomes possessed by the spirit of a Holy Rolling preacher, swelling and quaking in his chair, hitting high notes, speaking in tongues. We are meeting in a cramped waiting room outside two TV studios in midtown Manhattan. Gore is spending the afternoon here, knocking off a dozen or so interviews with broadcast outlets across the country, one after the other, intimations of the apocalypse sandwiched between the local-anchor happy talk and car-dealership ads in markets like Houston and Kansas City.
Gore is in the middle of an exhaustive campaign to promote An Inconvenient Truth, a surprise hit that transposes to film a lecture about global warming that he has given more than a thousand times in the past six years. (An accompanying book of the same title is climbing the best-seller lists.) But while Gore’s message may be grim-in a nutshell, a warming climate threatens civilization, and if the human race wants to survive, we’ve got about ten years to start turning things around — Gore himself seems funnier, warmer and more relaxed than he ever did during his political years. You used to think: I wouldn’t mind taking a class from this guy. Nowadays, you wouldn’t mind having a beer with him. His recent appearance on Saturday Night Live, when he addressed the nation as president and boasted that gas prices were so low that the government had to bail out the big oil companies, was the single funniest moment on the show all season.
Gore’s renewed visibility has only fueled speculation that this is all part of a carefully orchestrated plan to launch his third bid for the presidency. Although Gore refuses to rule it out, he suggests that he’s having too much fun, and is too engaged in his various business interests, to subject himself to the endless slog of political life. It’s not unreasonable to hope that Gore runs, but the dream of a Gore candidacy also underscores the pathetic core of today’s Democratic Party: It has become so unusual to hear a mainstream Democratic politician speak from a sense of conviction that when one does, people practically start begging him to run.
But Gore really does seem to have put politics behind him. Whereas his one-time partner Bill Clinton clearly loves the game, Gore speaks of the political process as “toxic” and frames his arguments in purely moral terms. And one wonders: If he does decide to run again, will the New Gore go back to listening to his political advisers, or will he continue to follow his heart?
At the end of the movie, you make it sound like it’s not going to be that hard to stop global warming — we’ll just change our lifestyles and turn this thing around. But isn’t that too optimistic? The scientist James Lovelock says that by the end of this century, most of the Earth will be uninhabitable — the planet’s population will plummet by eighty percent.
Lovelock is truly a visionary. But I disagree with his darker view. He’s forgotten more about science than I’ll ever learn — but I think I know one thing about politics that he doesn’t. Sometimes, the political system is like the climate system, in that it’s nonlinear. It can seem to change at a snail’s pace and then suddenly cross a tipping point beyond which it shifts into a shockingly fast gear. All of a sudden, change that everybody thought was impossible becomes matter of fact. In 1941, it was absurd to think the U.S. could build a thousand air-planes a month to fight the Second World War. By 1943 that was a real small number. Imagine where we would be today if Bush, after properly invading Afghanistan to hunt down Osama bin Laden, had not unwisely invaded a country that had no role in the attack on us. He could have pursued the terrorists and called upon the United States to become independent of oil.
OK, say you’re the guy making that call. What do you ask us to do — trade in our cars and buy a hybrid?
Here’s the essence of our problem: Right now, the political environment in the country does not support the range of solutions that have to be introduced. The maximum you can imagine coming out of the current political environment still falls woefully short of the minimum that will really solve the crisis. But that’s just another way of saying we have to expand the limits of the possible. And that’s the main reason that I made this movie — because the path to a solution lies through changing the minds of the American people. Not just on the facts — they’re almost there on the facts — but in the sense of urgency that’s appropriate and necessary. Once that happens, then things that seem impossible now politically are going to be imperative. I believe there is a hunger in the country to be part of a larger vision that changes the way we relate to the environment and the economy. Right now we are borrowing huge amounts of money from China to buy huge amounts of oil from the most unstable region of the world, and to bring it here and burn it in ways that destroy the habitability of the planet. That is nuts! We have to change every aspect of that.
And that has to be done within ten years?
No, we don’t have to do all of it in ten years — that would be impossible. What the scientists are saying when they give this dark warning is that we may have as little as ten years before we cross a tipping point, beyond which there’s an irretrievable process of degradation. They are saying that we have to make a large, good-faith start — to first reduce the amount of global-warming pollution, and then eventually to flatten it and turn it down. It is very possible to start leveling it out within the next five years.