Presidential Timber

Will Al Gore's green vision lead him to the Oval Office? Knock on wood.

Aug 1, 2000
Outside Magazine
GORE HAS TAKEN A LOT OF FLACK for his tireless crusade to warn Americans about the threat of global warming. On the stump in 1992, President George Bush mockingly dubbed him Ozone Man, and the Wall Street Journal's editorial page and other conservative voices were witheringly dismissive of his concerns during the first Clinton-Gore term. But over time Gore's position has moved into the mainstream, a fact of which he is proud. He devotes much of the new foreword of Earth in the Balance to charts and emerging data that essentially say I told you so. Yet there's still a certain sci-fi surrealism to hearing the vice-president of the United States talk about the environmental future with near-apocalyptic alarm, as I discover when I ask him about the threat of dramatic global climate change.

"In our time, the CO2 graph is just going right through the roof," he tells me, eyes widening as he leans forward in his chair. "For 400,000 years, as far back as we can measure, these CO2 and temperature levels have gone up and down in lockstep, and now we're pushing the world over the brink of a new reality—CO2 levels not seen in tens of millions of years. The magnitude of changes now in prospect are far larger on the warm side than the changes on the cold side that produced ice ages. The increasing frequency of violent weather events is in keeping with the volatility that scientists have told us to anticipate with global warming. Stronger storms, melting ice, rising sea levels."

As staffers and lobbyists know, such disquisitions are an occupational hazard of coming in contact with a brainiac. "It's always a challenge to brief him," says George Frampton. "He's the only elected official I've met who can go two or three steps ahead of you on something you think you know a lot about."

Gore knew going in that Clinton, a prodigious wonk, could match him chart-for-chart. As the administration took office in early 1993, the vice-president fought for and won a much-prized weekly luncheon slot with his new boss and worked hard to keep it on the commander-in-chief's schedule for seven years. In each meeting, Gore attests (and others confirm), the vice-president would brief Clinton on an important environmental issue.

In December 1997, the president sent Gore to lead the U.S. delegation to the Global Climate Change conference in Kyoto, Japan. Going to Kyoto was risky for the future presidential candidate: Big-city mayors and big businesses were already squawking about an EPA push for tougher air pollution standards, and there was dissension in the White House over whether the U.S. should even participate in the conference. Gore took a chance and returned from Kyoto having signed a stronger commitment—a 7 percent reduction of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions from 1990 levels—than the Clinton administration had originally conceived. "It was the most courageous and important thing that Al Gore has ever done," NRDC's Director of Programs Greg Wetstone told a reporter not long after the Kyoto summit. Congress, however, considered the proposal dead on arrival and refused to hold powerful industries to stricter air pollution standards. Gore has repeatedly vowed to make Senate ratification of the Kyoto agreement a key goal if he is elected.

Though the vice-president can cite a long list of environmental accomplishments over the last eight years, some critics charge that the list is short on substance. "The Clinton-Gore administration simply hasn't been an environmental administration," says Brent Blackwelder, president of Friends of the Earth, a group that endorsed Bill Bradley during the primaries. "For the most part they've been an environmental rhetoric administration. When we look at key areas like ozone layer protection, trade agreements, Clean Water Act protection, fuel economy standards, and mountaintop-removal coal mining, the Clinton-Gore administration's record is poor at best." Others rap Gore as a politician who will take on easy battles—as in 1997, when he and Clinton pledged $50 million to clean up Lake Tahoe—and let harder ones fall by the wayside. Moderates, however, tend to give Gore credit for helping to hold off GOP assaults on existing environmental laws in the mid-1990s. "It was like performing brain surgery in the middle of a hurricane," says Sierra Club political director Daniel J. Weiss. Even Blackwelder has at least a few kind words: "To be fair, the administration has enacted key land protection measures and helped to safeguard our national monuments and national parks."

Most important, Gore won over a major convert to the green cause: Bill Clinton. The legacy-conscious Clinton has pushed Congress in the last four years to protect 81 million federally managed acres against intrusion from chainsaws and bulldozers. That's spitting distance from Jimmy Carter's record of protecting 100 million acres, which he accomplished through a sweeping lockup of Alaskan forest, mountain, and tundra. According to Frampton, after years of lunchtime learning, Clinton now mentions the global warming crisis in every meeting with a foreign head of state and cites it along with education and race relations as one of the three things he wants to work on for the rest of his life. And that's because of Al Gore.


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