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Protecting Waukesha County's Natural Resourses since 1978

Ozone Man

By David Remnick

The New Yorker

Monday 17 April 2006

The imminence of catastrophic global warming may be a subject far from the ever-drifting mind of President Bush - whose eschatological preoccupations privilege Armageddon over the Flood - but it is of growing concern to the rest of humanity. Climate change is even having its mass-entertainment moment. "Ice Age: The Meltdown" - featuring Ellie the computer-animated mammoth and the bottomless voice of Queen Latifah - has taken in more than a hundred million dollars at the box office in two weeks. On the same theme, but with distinctly less animation, "An Inconvenient Truth," starring Al Gore (playing the role of Al Gore, itinerant lecturer), is coming to a theatre near you around Memorial Day. Log on to Fandango. Reserve some seats. Bring the family. It shouldn't be missed. No kidding.

"An Inconvenient Truth" is not likely to displace the boffo numbers of "Ice Age" in Variety's weekly grosses. It is, to be perfectly honest (and there is no way of getting around this), a documentary film about a possibly retired politician giving a slide show about the dangers of melting ice sheets and rising sea levels. It has a few lapses of mise en scène. Sometimes we see Gore gravely talking on his cell phone - or gravely staring out an airplane window, or gravely tapping away on his laptop in a lonely hotel room - for a little longer than is absolutely necessary. And yet, as a means of education, "An Inconvenient Truth" is a brilliantly lucid, often riveting attempt to warn Americans off our hellbent path to global suicide. "An Inconvenient Truth" is not the most entertaining film of the year. But it might be the most important.

The catch, of course, is that the audience-of-one that most urgently needs to see the film and take it to heart - namely, the man who beat Gore in the courts six years ago - does not much believe in science or, for that matter, in any information that disturbs his prejudices, his fantasies, or his sleep. Inconvenient truths are precisely what this White House is structured to avoid and deny.

In the 1992 campaign against Bill Clinton, George H. W. Bush mocked Gore as "ozone man" and claimed, "This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme we'll be up to our necks in owls and outta work for every American." In the 2000 campaign, George W. Bush cracked that Gore "likes electric cars. He just doesn't like making electricity." The younger Bush, a classic schoolyard bully with a contempt for intellect, demanded that Gore "explain what he meant by some of the things" in his 1992 book, "Earth in the Balance" - and then unashamedly admitted that he had never read it. A book that the President did eventually read and endorse is a pulp science-fiction novel: "State of Fear," by Michael Crichton. Bush was so excited by the story, which pictures global warming as a hoax perpetrated by power-mad environmentalists, that he invited the author to the Oval Office. In "Rebel-in-Chief: Inside the Bold and Controversial Presidency of George W. Bush," Fred Barnes, the Fox News commentator, reveals that the President and Crichton "talked for an hour and were in near-total agreement." The visit, Barnes adds, "was not made public for fear of outraging environmentalists all the more."

As President, Bush has made fantasy a guide to policy. He has scorned the Kyoto agreement on global warming (a pact that Gore helped broker as Vice-President); he has neutered the Environmental Protection Agency; he has failed to act decisively on America's fuel-efficiency standards even as the European Union, Japan, and China have tightened theirs. He has filled his Administration with people like Philip A. Cooney, who, in 2001, left the American Petroleum Institute, the umbrella lobby for the oil industry, to become chief of staff for the White House Council on Environmental Quality, where he repeatedly edited government documents so as to question the link between fuel emissions and climate change. In 2005, when Cooney left the White House (this time for a job with ExxonMobil), Dana Perino, a White House spokesperson, told the Times, "Phil Cooney did a great job." A heckuva job, one might say.

Last week, Gore dropped by a Broadway screening room to introduce a preview of "An Inconvenient Truth." Dressed in casual but non-earth-tone clothes, he gave a brief, friendly greeting. If you are inclined to think that the unjustly awarded election of 2000 led to one of the worst Presidencies of this or any other era, it is not easy to look at Al Gore. He is the living reminder of all that might not have happened in the past six years (and of what might still happen in the coming two). Contrary to Ralph Nader's credo that there was no real difference between the major parties, it is close to inconceivable that the country and the world would not be in far better shape had Gore been allowed to assume the office that a plurality of voters wished him to have. One can imagine him as an intelligent and decent President, capable of making serious decisions and explaining them in the language of a confident adult. Imagining that alternative history is hard to bear, which is why Gore always has the courtesy, in his many speeches, and at the start of "An Inconvenient Truth," to deflect that discomfort with a joke: "Hello, I'm Al Gore and I used to be the next President of the United States."

Those inclined to be irritated by Gore all over again will not be entirely disappointed by "An Inconvenient Truth." It can be argued that at times the film becomes "Death of a Salesman," with Gore as global warming's Willy Loman, wheeling his bag down one more airport walkway. There are some awkward jokes, a silly cartoon, a few self-regarding sequences, and, now and then, echoes of the cringe-making moments in his old campaign speeches when personal tragedy was put to questionable use. (To illustrate the need to change one's mind when hard reality intrudes, he recalls helping his father farm tobacco as a youth and then his sister's death from lung cancer.) But in the context of the larger political moment, the current darkness, Gore can be forgiven his miscues and vanities. It is past time to recognize that, over a long career, his policy judgment and his moral judgment alike have been admirable and acute. Gore has been right about global warming since holding the first congressional hearing on the topic, twenty-six years ago. He was right about the role of the Internet, right about the need to reform welfare and cut the federal deficit, right about confronting Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo. Since September 11th, he has been right about constitutional abuse, right about warrantless domestic spying, and right about the calamity of sanctioned torture. And in the case of Iraq, both before the invasion and after, he was right - courageously right - to distrust as fatally flawed the political and moral good faith, operational competence, and strategic wisdom of the Bush Administration.

In the 2000 campaign, Gore was cautious, self-censoring, and in the thrall of his political consultants. He was even cautious about his passion, the environment. That caution, some of his critics think, may have cost him Florida, where he was reluctant to speak out on the construction of an ecologically disastrous airport in the middle of the Everglades and Biscayne National Parks. But since the election - - especially since emerging from an understandable period of reticence and rebalancing - Gore has played a noble role in public life. It's hardly to Gore's discredit that many conservative commentators have watched his emotionally charged speeches and pronounced him unhinged. ("It looks as if Al Gore has gone off his lithium again," the columnist and former psychiatrist Charles Krauthammer wrote after one such oration.)

It may be that Gore really has lost his taste for electoral politics, and that, no matter what turn the polls and events take, an Al-versus-Hillary psychodrama in 2008 is not going to happen. There is no substitute for Presidential power, but Gore is now playing a unique role in public life. He is a symbol of what might have been, who insists that we focus on what likely will be an uninhabitable planet if we fail to pay attention to the folly we are committing, and take the steps necessary to end it.