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Sierra Magazine
The Great Green Hope

He's the most knowledgeable environmentalist ever to reach such a high office. But is that enough?

By Paul Rauber

Vice President Albert Gore may be the first national leader for whom Saturday Night Live was a significant influence. In his book, Earth in the Balance, Gore supplements references to Aristotle and chaos theory with mentions of the comedy show's "Yard-a-pult," a device for launching garbage into the neighbor's yard. In his public displays of humor, Gore relies on a very modern sense of self-irony, milking his stuffed-shirt persona for laughs. (How do you tell Al Gore from a roomful of Secret Service agents? He's the stiff one.)

Another topic of vice presidential humor is Gore's well-known desire to be president. He likes to dwell on the brief delay in Bill Clinton's second inauguration. "For five minutes I was president of the United States," Gore declares. "It was an important time for me and my family, and, if I may be so bold, for the country..."

An eventual Gore presidency is perfectly plausible, if not as inevitable as it seemed immediately following last November's election. His pristine reputation has since been tarnished by revelations of questionable fund-raising practices, causing his popularity to plummet nearly 25 points over three months. Of course, he can still recover before November 7, 2000, and many environmentalists fervently hope that he does. A typical view is expressed by the Sierra Club's political director, Dan Weiss. "Gore is the best we could ever hope for," he says. "It's hard to imagine a more pro-environment president ever being elected."

After all, he did write the book. Earth in the Balance, a 1992 best-seller (250,000 hardcover copies at last count), laid out the stark realities of deforestation, water pollution, overpopulation, and especially global warming. "I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action," the then-senator wrote. "We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization."

You just don't hear stuff like that from Bill Clinton or presidential hopeful Dick Gephardt. Indeed, many environmentalists have endured the indignities and disappointments of the Clinton era happy in the belief that Gore's turn is next, that someone who shares our sense of urgency about healing the earth would soon have the power to turn his ideals into action.

But will he? Gore was unavailable for interview for this article, and isn't even saying at this early date whether he'll run. But we can judge what kind of president he might make by what kind of vice president he is, and what kind of legislator--and environmentalist--he's been in the past.

Before he became an environmentalist, Al Gore was a politician. His father, Albert Gore, Sr., represented Tennessee for 14 years in the House and 18 in the Senate, so you could say Al Jr. was born to the role. (Garry Trudeau once satirized him in Doonesbury as "Albert, Prince of the Tennessee Valley.") Gore Sr. was a brash, outspoken populist, best known nationally for his opposition to the war in Vietnam. Despite his own antiwar views, Al Jr. served a tour of duty in Saigon as an Army reporter, largely because he knew it would be political death for his father if he avoided service. (Self-sacrificial loyalty is a constant in Gore's career.) In 1970, Al Sr.'s principled position cost him his seat anyway. After stints as a reporter for the Nashville Tennessean and a law student at Vanderbilt, Al Jr. followed his father, first to the House in 1976 and then to the Senate in 1984.

The young Gore's legislative record was slight; he was better at raising issues than seeing them through the process. In the Reagan era, he became an expert on nuclear disarmament, mastering the minutiae of throw weight and megatonnage, but never transforming his expertise into legislation.

Surprisingly, Gore's environmental voting record in Congress was less than stellar. The League of Conservation Voters accorded him a mere 60 percent rating for his service in the House, and 73 percent for the Senate. In the House, he held hearings on hazardous-waste dumping, taking on home-state companies and helping to bring the issue national attention. Yet his courage failed when it came to confronting two environmentally disastrous projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority, the quasi-governmental public-power and development agency championed by his father.

The Tellico Dam was a classic TVA pork-barrel project, justified less by flood control and hydropower needs than by the number of construction jobs it would bring to Tennessee. Tellico became a national issue after biologists discovered that it would cause the extinction of the snail darter, a tiny fish that lived in the Little Tennessee River, making the dam a test case for the Endangered Species Act. Then-Representative Gore was among those voting successfully to exempt the dam from the ESA. "It was unfortunate that the controversy over the snail darter was used to delay completion of the dam after it was virtually finished," he wrote a constituent. "I am glad the Congress has now ended this controversy once and for all." (The snail darter was relocated to the Hiwassee and Holston rivers, where it apparently flourished.)

Another TVA boondoggle that won Gore's backing was the $3 billion experimental nuclear "breeder" reactor at Clinch River, which its promoters claimed would spin straw into gold by making more fuel than it consumed. Such reactors are far more dangerous than the conventional sort, and have yet to function reliably anywhere in the world. Despite Gore's support, the Clinch River project was killed in 1983. (From 1977 to 1984, Gore voted with the nuclear industry 55 percent of the time. Nuclear power receives scant attention in his book; Gore says only that further research should focus on safe plant designs and a "scientifically and politically acceptable means" of nuclear-waste disposal.)

By Gore's own account, his interest in the environment was focused by tragedy in 1989 after his son, Albert III, was struck by a car and nearly killed; Gore says he started writing Earth in the Balance in the hospital room. The accident, he wrote, "caused me to be increasingly impatient with the status quo, with conventional wisdom, with the lazy assumption that we can always muddle through."

Gore's reassessment of his priorities was surely also influenced by his failed presidential bid in 1988. He had run as a centrist "New Democrat," previewing the same fiscally conservative, tough-on-defense yet socially progressive approach that would click for Clinton four years later. In the early days of the campaign, he often spoke out on environmental matters--to the general ridicule of the pundits and his opponents, one of whom famously suggested that he sounded as though he were running for "first scientist." The media were similarly blasé; after the ozone hole was discovered over Antarctica, Gore made a major campaign speech about restricting chlorofluorocarbon (CFC) gases that was totally ignored by the press.

So he stopped talking about the environment. But that did little to help his campaign, and he soon dropped out of the race. Gore later chided himself for abandoning his environmental message. "I have become very impatient," he wrote in Earth in the Balance, "with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously."

That tendency has been the hallmark of Gore's political career. "To call Al Gore a cautious politician," The New York Times wrote recently, "is greatly to understate the case. The vice president is a man so pinched in public that he uses the passive voice to issue a call to action." Although associates say he's funny and engaging in private, Gore remains a wooden and pedantic speaker. Many observers see his wariness as a reaction to the shoot-from-the-hip brashness of his father, whose strong opinions, often undiplomatically phrased, eventually cost him his job. By contrast, Al Jr. meticulously researches issues and then cautiously positions himself, aided by a small circle of longtime staff.

A case in point is his carefully cultivated public image as Mr. Environment (or "Ozone Man," as George Bush derisively called him in the 1992 campaign). Building this persona involved staking out the territory; on Earth Day 1990, for example, he started making speeches on the East Coast in the morning and worked his way west, speaking at some six events in every time zone. Cementing his reputation, of course, was the publication of Earth in the Balance.

The book is Gore's attempt at a passionate polemic. At times he succeeds, as when he talks about his family or the role of religious faith in shaping a new environmental consciousness. More often, however, in his eagerness to establish his scholarly bona fides ("This phenomenon of interdependency is probably best illustrated by what scientists call positive feedback loops . . ."), his message is obscured.

Earth in the Balance belongs on the catastrophist shelf of environmental literature, along with Jonathan Schell's The Fate of the Earth and Bill McKibben's The End of Nature. Gore persuasively warns of a wide variety of grim eventualities if present trends continue in everything from overpopulation to loss of genetic diversity of food crops. "A nonstop string of gloom and doom, the world is coming to an end, and the sky is falling," said the review in the journal BioScience. "How inconvenient for humankind that these predictions are all well backed by science."

Gore's primary concern is global warming, a subject that he has followed closely since his undergraduate days at Harvard under Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to recognize the harmful effects of rising levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Gore recounts how small shifts in atmospheric temperature in the past have triggered massive social disruptions: volcanic eruptions in Iceland and Japan in the 1780s, for example, led to crop failures and social unrest in France, setting the stage for the Revolution. Today Gore warns that "our civilization is creating dramatic changes in global climate patterns, likely to be many times larger than any experienced in the last 10,000 years, [yet] we are doing nothing to address the principal causes of this catastrophe in the making."

He spares no mercy for those who know better, but fail to act: "This point is crucial: a choice to 'do nothing' in response to the mounting evidence is actually a choice to continue and even accelerate the reckless environmental destruction that is creating the catastrophe at hand." (Emphasis in original.)

Unlike many books by prominent political figures, this is not the work of a ghostwriter. At times it hardly seems to be the work of a politician, since it not only invites accountability but demands it. "This is not a book by a politician who worries about a paper trail," wrote The New Republic.

Earth in the Balance was published in January 1992. Ten months later, Al Gore was elected vice president.

 

The environmental ups and downs of the first Clinton/Gore administration are already well known to readers of this magazine. Largely because of Gore's place on the ticket, Clinton won the Sierra Club's endorsement, and the initial expectations of the environmental community were sky-high. In the early days, these hopes were rewarded with the elevation of strong environmentalists to key posts: Katie McGinty (who handled environmental affairs in Gore's Senate office) was selected to head the Council on Environmental Quality, and Carol Browner (his former chief-of-staff) found herself presiding over the Environmental Protection Agency, tapping in turn the Sierra Club's directors of legislative and political affairs, David Gardiner and Reid Wilson respectively, for high posts in the agency. Environmentalists were exultant, correctly assuming that Clinton had delegated all matters environmental to Gore.

Everything, that is, except for the power to make decisions. Early on, when Clinton caved in to western governors and senators and backtracked on grazing and mining reform, Gore took the heat from his environmentalist allies. "Remember," he told the troops, "I'm just the vice president."

It was a curiously difficult period for environmental issues. With both the public and the press assuming that Gore had everything under control, scrutiny and interest slipped. On two occasions Gore requested time at the National Press Club to make major addresses on the environment, and was refused. "They turned down the vice president of the United States," says a key aide, still incredulous.

The vice president wasn't making much progress at the White House either, where he was pushing an energy tax designed to encourage energy efficiency while simultaneously reducing CO2 emissions and the deficit. This was just the sort of market-based approach advocated in his book, but it went nowhere. Bob Woodward quotes Gore in The Agenda, his account of Clinton's first year in office, arguing steadfastly against claims that the BTU tax would be viewed as a burden on the middle class: "If you're bold," Gore says (sounding like Sierra Club icon David Brower), "people will come around." Clinton lacked Gore's faith, and dropped the tax.

Clinton did not, however, drop his faith in Gore. The two are extraordinarily well matched: centrist Southerners with penchants for collaborative, technocratic solutions and total personal loyalty to each other. This bedrock trust led Clinton to deed several major portfolios to Gore--a host of international and technology issues in addition to the environment--which have made him, according to University of Virginia political scientist Larry Sabato, "one of the two or three most involved vice presidents in American history." A private lunch meeting with Clinton every Wednesday gives Gore the opportunity to keep the environmental bug in the president's ear.

"After his first year," notes a key congressional aide, "Clinton was badly spooked by environmental issues--largely by his own doing. Gore deserves the credit for keeping them alive."

Resuscitation was an especially stiff challenge in the grim days after the disastrous midterm election of 1994, which swept in a new, zealously anti-environmental congressional leadership. Clinton seemed ready to compromise with Newt Gingrich on major parts of the Contract With America, and might well have done so had it not been for Gore. At a White House Christmas party on December 22, 1994, the vice president tapped Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope and a number of other heads of environmental organizations to meet privately with him to plot an explicitly pro-environment strategy. Armed with polling data showing overwhelming popular support for environmental protection, Gore was able to convince Clinton to stand and fight. By March, Clinton signaled his unwillingness to bargain on the Republican majority's environmental proposals, calling them "extremist." On Memorial Day, acting on the advice of Dick Morris (who has never been accused of being an environmentalist), Clinton took a major environmental address Gore was to have made and delivered it himself, blasting congressional Republicans for "aligning themselves with special interests and trying to undo key environmental safeguards."

Since Clinton's green stance was based on expedience, not principle, it lasted only until someone else got his ear. The very next month he signed the disastrous salvage-logging rider, over the objections of the environmental community and the vice president, who lobbied strenuously against it behind the scenes. Afterward, Gore scrambled to mend fences with outraged environmentalists, calling the move the administration's "biggest mistake."

By year's end, Clinton climbed back on the bandwagon, allowing the entire federal government to shut down twice rather than accede to legislative riders that would permit drilling in Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and cuts in the EPA's power to enforce tough environmental health standards. "Our issues went down to the wire," says EPA Administrator Browner. "They were the last ones on the table. With everything else worked out, the president and the vice president said, 'Absolutely not, we want those riders out.' The rest of the government was hanging by our issues, but they held firm."

Unfortunately for Gore, his environmental influence is exercised largely behind closed doors at the White House, and is generally invisible to the public. When he does successfully lobby the president--as he did in getting him to designate the 1.7-million-acre Grand Staircase­Escalante National Monument in southern Utah--the credit accrues to the person lobbied, not to the lobbyist.

"It would be hard to overstate how powerful his shoulder has been," says a former White House staffer privy to the inner-circle debates. "He's the 800-pound gorilla. Cabinet secretaries in the Clinton administration cannot just willfully neglect the environment. They realize that someone is going to say, 'What the hell are you doing?' And that someone is Al Gore."

A classic example of Gore at work is the new environmental-diplomacy program at the State Department, unveiled this past Earth Day, which seeks to incorporate environmental health into the country's definition of national security. Foreign policy, Gore wrote in the introduction to the program's first annual report, must consider "damage to the world's environment that transcends countries and continents." Beyond the paperwork, the State Department is to establish a dozen "environmental hubs" around the world to foster regional cooperation on water, forestry, and biodiversity issues.

Browner boasts that her former boss has raised environmental issues to the top of the national agenda. "In no other administration have environmental issues been in the top tier except on an occasional or sporadic basis."

 

It would be nice to think that the administration ranked green concerns up there with trade, the economy, and defense, but the White House has thus far rarely expended much political capital on the environment. (Shutting down the government, while ostensibly risky, actually worked enormously to Clinton's political advantage by finally drawing a bright line between him and Newt's legions.) "Gore has his sphere of influence," says a former White House staffer, "and uses his power for the environment very aggressively--but only within a safe zone."

One of the boundaries of this safe zone is international trade-"the administration's obsession," a senior congressional staffer says. "While they talk the good talk about side agreements on labor and the environment, there's really very little that's done." As time has shown (see "Ways & Means"), the Sierra Club's fears that the North American Free Trade Agreement would lead to more pollution at the border were well justified. Even so, the administration is trying hard to extend free trade to Chile, and at the time of this writing it is an open question whether Clinton will insist on any environmental side agreements at all.

Trade also takes precedence over the environment in the case of dolphin-safe tuna. Since 1990 it's been illegal in the United States to sell tuna caught using fishing methods that incidentally kill dolphins. This annoys Mexico and other countries with large tuna fleets, which have challenged U.S. law under the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade. In an effort to avoid the public-relations disaster of a U.S. environmental law being overruled by an international trade body, the Clinton administration--with Gore playing a strong role--has campaigned for a substantial weakening of the standard, one that would no longer guarantee the safety of dolphins. Even for Gore, says the congressional staffer, "When it comes to a choice between jobs and the environment, or trade and the environment, the environment gets in a lot of trouble real fast."

The most troublesome conflict for Gore is, ironically, global warming, a subject on which he is regularly briefed by the nation's leading climatologists, and which he has mastered at least as thoroughly as he did nuclear disarmament in the 1980s. In addition, Gore has criticized in the strongest possible terms those who would take half measures. "Today the evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht is as clear as the sound of glass shattering in Berlin," he wrote in Earth in the Balance. "How much more evidence is needed by the body politic to justify taking vigorous action?"

Environmentalists might well ask that question of the Clinton/Gore administration, whose efforts to slow global climate change have been anything but vigorous. The single biggest step the White House could take to reduce global warming would be to mandate stricter standards for fuel efficiency of cars and trucks. "It makes little sense to continue manufacturing cars and trucks that get 20 miles per gallon and pump 19 pounds of CO2 into the atmosphere per gallon," Gore once wrote. Yet the administration has stubbornly resisted raising auto fuel-efficiency standards, even when it had the unilateral power to do so. As part of its War on the Environment, the 104th Congress revoked that power last year, and a new bill to take it away permanently has not been contested by the White House.

Katie McGinty, head of the Council on Environmental Quality, describes efforts to increase fuel economy as "tilting at windmills." The vice president's favored solution, she says, is the Partnership for a New Generation of Vehicles, a joint program with the Big Three automakers that commits them to "their absolute best efforts" to produce a commercially viable, fuel-efficient vehicle. But the partnership only requires them to produce a single prototype by 2006, and there's no penalty for failure.

"Gore's vivid language in describing environmental problems is almost never matched by equally passionate advocacy for a solution," writes reporter Timothy Noah in U.S. News and World Report, "particularly when powerful economic interests are at stake. Conservative critics who brand Gore an 'ozone man' have it wrong. On the environment, Gore favors extreme rhetoric but only incremental solutions."

This disparity was obvious in his major address on global warming delivered in Tokyo last March, where he presented the latest scientific findings and laid the groundwork for the final international talks on climate change this December in Kyoto, Japan. "While industrialized nations are responsible for the lion's share of greenhouse-gas emissions in the atmosphere today," he said, "we must keep in mind that the future growth in emissions will come largely from the developing world." (Typically, the content of the speech was largely ignored, although The New York Times did make fun of his stilted manner of delivering it.)

Then it was on to China and his famous half toast with Li Peng. Gore was unhappy about being photographed with the man responsible for the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the awkward incident further depressed his presidential stock. Barely noticed, however, was the cause for the toasting: a $1.5 billion deal between China and General Motors to produce 100,000 Buick Centurys and Regals for the burgeoning Chinese auto market. One difference between these and American Buicks: the Chinese versions will not have pollution controls.

All eyes now are on the climate-change summit in Kyoto, where the developed nations will meet to sign a binding climate treaty. According to the Climate Change Action Plan negotiated by the Bush administration (and criticized by Gore for being too little, too late), the United States voluntarily committed to reducing its greenhouse-gas emissions to 1990 levels by the year 2000. In fact, because virtually nothing has been done to achieve this goal, CO2 levels today are 15 percent above 1990 levels. At Kyoto, the United States is expected to propose delaying achievement of the 1990 level until 2010, or maybe even 2015. And even this extremely modest goal (the Sierra Club has long called for reductions of 20 percent below 1990 by 2005) is likely to be riddled with loopholes such as "borrowing from the future," which would allow countries to emit more now in return for promises to emit less in the future. Also likely is a proposal for "joint implementation" between countries. If General Motors, say, wanted to increase emissions, it could pay China to plant a forest. No offset would be required, however, for the 100,000 new Buicks.

Given his interest and expertise in climate change, Gore can be expected to take a leading role in the Kyoto negotiations. It will be a pivotal moment for him, a contest between his political caution and environmental passion. As a former White House staffer put it, "You can't write a book saying the earth is about to crash and then lowball your response." In Kyoto, Gore could take the bold leadership needed to deliver a strong, mandatory plan that will reverse the thermometer's upward climb, or he could bow to political reality as defined by the fund-raisers and CEOs and focus groups. In Kyoto, it will be Al in the balance.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.


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