Ten years ago, when Al Gore first published his book on the environment, Earth in the Balance, some of his Senate colleagues believed it was so radical that it would ruin his career. President George H.W. Bush called him "ozone man," and claimed, "This guy is so far out in the environmental extreme, we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American. He is way out, far out, man."
Gore took nothing but grief for calling the internal combustion engine a "mortal threat" to human civilization that should be made obsolete in 25 years. His insistence that global warming was a serious and growing crisis was also greeted with Bronx cheers, as conservatives insisted that global warming was a fiction conjured up by extremist environmental groups. Columnist George Will declared the book "a jumble of dubious 1990s science and worse 1960s philosophy."
Eight years later, the book was still a favorite Republican prop for Gore-bashing. On a campaign stop in Michigan, George W. Bush held up a copy and declared that Gore "calls autoworkers his friends, but in his book, he declares that the engines that power your cars are his enemy." Republican fact sheets declared that, "Like Gore's nearly quarter-century of public life, Earth in the Balance is plagued by a combination of liberalism, elitism, hypocrisy, and hyperbole, punctuated by an unhealthy extremism."
Gore parried by saying that he wore the attacks like a badge of honor. And then he went down by technical knockout, losing the election to the most anti-environmental candidate since Ronald Reagan. In a bittersweet epilogue, however, Gore's environmental manifesto was finally vindicated. In April this year, with 50 mpg Japanese hybrid electric cars selling in the United States like hotcakes, and Detroit years away from producing its own, Michigan's Republican Gov. John Engler -- who not so many years before had branded Gore a threat to the auto industry -- announced the creation of a state-funded $700-million energy research center. Engler conceded that the center's research would eventually make the internal combustion engine obsolete.
A month earlier, in an alarming harbinger of the seriousness of global warming, the 12,000-year-old Larsen B Antarctic ice shelf, the size of Rhode Island, collapsed into the sea -- 30 years before scientists had expected it to. And in June, George W. Bush suffered a minor public relations debacle after his own Environmental Protection Agency released a report declaring conclusively that not only is global warming real and ongoing, but that it is also caused by human activity. The report, which directly contradicted Bush's position that the jury was still out on the issue, might be called "Al Gore's revenge." The Bush administration had to release the report because it was mandated by a 1992 international climate agreement that Gore helped negotiate as a senator.
Say what you want about Al Gore, but when it comes to complex matters of public policy, he has an impressive record of calling it right when others called it wrong. As a senator, Gore was the only Democrat to vote in favor of the Gulf War. He didn't "invent" the Internet, but he did sponsor the congressional spending bill that allowed it to expand beyond the Pentagon. He was one of the hawkish members of Clinton's inner circle whose early advice to bomb Slobodan Milosevic in Bosnia and Kosovo to stop ethnic cleansing was both morally and strategically right. He was also a fiscal hawk who argued that cutting the deficit would lower long-term interest rates and lead to prosperity -- a policy that worked beyond everyone's wildest expectations. He headed up a commission on airline security, whose recommendations, had they been followed, might have helped prevent September 11.
But more than anywhere else, it is on the environment that Gore can claim to have what every leader needs but few possess: vision. Before the rest of the world had ever heard the term "global warming," Gore was holding the first congressional hearings on the subject -- in 1980! While Republicans like George H.W. Bush were denying the existence of global warming, Gore was helping gather evidence. While researching his book, Gore took a trip to the North Pole on a nuclear submarine and realized that the U.S. Navy had 40 years' worth of data on the thickness of the Arctic ice cap. Recognizing the untapped potential in the vast and largely unused information, he brokered a deal to release it to civilian scientists, who discovered that the ice cap had thinned by 40 percent just since 1970. It was a story that made world headlines.
The only thing more amazing than Gore's command of environmental issues is his almost complete failure to use it in the 2000 presidential race. After months of rehashing the Florida recount, revisiting that race is tiring, to say the least. Because the race was so close, with 20/20 hindsight, you can pick almost any factor that might have turned the tide in Gore's favor. But his inability to exploit his biggest strength and Bush's biggest weakness stands as one of the least appreciated screw-ups of that whole period.
As political strategist Dick Morris writes in his recent book, Power Plays, "This was truly amazing. Al Gore, who had boldly staked out the environmental turf 15 years earlier, had gained no advantage over Bush on the issue. It was as if Richard Nixon had received no credit for a tough stand on law-and-order, or Reagan was bested on the issue of tax cuts."
It was a screw-up in which Gore had help from all the forces that have long made the Democratic party dysfunctional: environmental groups who portrayed Gore as a sellout; big-money donors with conflicting agendas; consultants peddling a paint-by-numbers populist message that focused only on the dangers and not the opportunities inherent in running on his trademark issue. Still, Gore made the final decisions, and it was his legendary caution that led him to stifle an issue that, in retrospect, could have won him the White House.
This political Shakespearean tragedy is not just a matter for historians. Thanks to George Bush's highly unpopular anti-environmental agenda, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has declared the environment is one of the top three or four issues Democrats will campaign on this fall. It's a wise strategy, given that polls consistently show that almost 90 percent of Americans deeply distrust congressional Republicans on the subject. Likewise, nearly every Democratic presidential hopeful is pushing a pro-environmental agenda and attacking Bush.
Gore is showing every indication that he plans to run again in 2004, and if current polls are any indication, he is likely to win the Democratic nomination -- a prospect that fills many Democrats with dread. Like global warming, Gore's candidacy is huge, scary and probably inevitable. But if he can be persuaded to talk smartly and passionately about the environment, he could turn out to be the best hope the Democrats have in 2004.
From Ozone to No-Zone
In 2000, Earth in the Balance was reissued with a new introduction tied to the election. It includes a tremendous list of Gore's accomplishments on the environment while in Congress and the White House. In a de facto stump speech, he writes, "We're cleaning up the great American rivers. We've strengthened the Superfund to clean up hazardous chemical waste sites. We refused, despite all the special-interest lobbying of Congress, to let up on big polluters who have a responsibility to clean up hidden poisons in our neighborhoods and on land where our children play... We have seen in the past seven years greater gains for land conservation than at any time since Theodore Roosevelt."
He notes that all this progress occurred during the longest economic expansion in American history -- proof positive of his long-held view that prosperity and environmental protection need not be mutually exclusive.
Finally, Gore plants the flag, declaring his intention to make the environment the centerpiece of his campaign: "I believe the environment should be a central issue in the year 2000, because, like it or not, the environment will be a fateful issue in the next decade and the new century."
Yet the passionate and decisive Al Gore found in Earth in the Balance remained tucked safely inside the pages of the book during his campaign for the presidency. As early as 1997, people inside and out of the White House were urging Gore to steer clear of contentious environmental issues as he positioned himself to run for president.
As Clinton's former Undersecretary of State Tim Wirth explained recently in the Harvard International Review, "Global warming was an issue best kept off the political stage in the view of many, if not most, in the White House."
That view dominated the campaign, where Gore's advisers feared that making the environment an issue would scare off business supporters and detract from his centrist "New Democrat" image. One of Gore's campaign consultants, Carter Eskew, concedes that the candidate wanted to talk about the environment far more than his advisers were willing to indulge. "We felt as though we had other business to do," he says. "From a political standpoint, the environmental commitment was already established."
But the most compelling reason for Gore to create his own terrain on the environment was that Bush was so clearly vulnerable on it. Texas, with less than 7 percent of the nation's population, is responsible for a seventh of its carbon emissions. Of the 50 largest industrial companies in Texas, 28 violate the Clean Air Act. Texas also ranks first in the nation in cancer-causing toxic air emissions from industrial facilities. As governor, Bush only made it easier for those companies to do business as usual, and those same companies smogging up Texas repaid the favor by bankrolling Bush's presidential campaign.
Faced with the issue on the campaign trail, the visionary environmentalist looked like a deer in the headlights. Gore rarely attacked Bush on the environment in any pointed fashion. Paralyzed during the debates, he failed to win a single point on the environment, sticking to vague references about "big oil" that made him sound like an old man railing against the Rockefellers.
Part of the problem was that Gore's approach was conspicuously tepid -- two sentences here, a minute there, mixed in with endless speeches about putting Social Security in a lockbox. He could have taken a play from George H.W. Bush, who sank Michael Dukakis in part by standing in front of the polluted Boston Harbor and accusing the governor of failing to clean it up. Unlike the elder Bush, who had a terrible environmental record himself, Gore would have been on moral high ground if he had, say, taken a well-publicized stroll through the toxic morass of Texas's Refinery Row. There, he could have surrounded himself with poor Hispanic children stricken with asthma and other pollution-related illnesses and demanded to know why Bush was willing to sacrifice the children for oil profits. The image would have stuck with people, especially critical Hispanic voters, and shown a powerful difference between the two candidates. And the media would have eaten it up.
Bush was worried about such attacks -- so worried, in fact, that shortly before one of the September presidential debates, he released a proposal for mandatory reductions in carbon emissions that was more significant than anything Gore had done. (Of course, Bush promptly reneged on it once in office.) But he needn't have bothered. Instead of hammering away on Bush's record, Gore nattered on about his allegiance to "the people not the powerful," while sidestepping specific environmental issues that would have rallied his base.
Long-time Gore supporters were mystified. Leon Panetta, a former White House chief of staff and strong Gore supporter, told the press that the environment is "a gut issue" for the vice president, who shouldn't "tiptoe around these issues. He ought to make this part and parcel [of the campaign]. This is who he is."
In downplaying the environment, both Gore and his advisers ignored Lyndon Johnson's famous rule of politics: It's better to have your adversaries inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in. Bush had learned this lesson the hard way, watching his father lose in 1992 to Bill Clinton after being assaulted from the right by fundamentalist Christians who thought he was ignoring their interests. When Bush entered the race, he made sure that he reined in the more unruly fringes of the GOP, cutting deals with Christian conservatives and bringing them into the tent with the unified goal of simply winning the election.
Gore and his camp may have factored in Jesse Jackson, but they made no such calculations when it came to environmentalists. As a result, they were completely unprepared when a lot of them began dampening his tent. Environmentalists had been mounting increasingly heated attacks on Gore during his last term in office for failing to do more on climate change. In 1997, the Sierra Club ran TV ads in early primary states urging Clinton and Gore to "stand up to the special interests" and push for stronger clean-air rules.
Gore campaign staffers and Clinton administration officials suggest that the environmentalists bear much of the blame for putting Bush in office. At the grassroots level, many activists showed little understanding of the compromises needed to get one of their own elected. Some went on to protest Gore outside the 2000 Democratic Convention, and often only grudgingly gave their endorsement.
Ralph Nader pounced on Gore's vagueness as proof that there was very little difference between Gore and Bush on the environment -- a perception Bush happily capitalized on. Gore advisers believe that the environmental groups allowed that impression to stand until the very end of the campaign, when the race came down to razor-thin margins. But by then it was too late. As one Gore campaign consultant laments, "The environmentalists blew it giving Gore a hard time. It's a case study in how interest groups often don't know what's good for them."
Much has changed since Al Gore conceded the election in December 2000. If the environment wasn't a top-tier issue then, it certainly will be in 2004, if only because George Bush has made it one. Barely a year and a half into office, Bush proposed abandoning stricter regulations for arsenic in drinking water and scrapped plans to limit snowmobiles in Yellowstone Park, even as photos of park rangers wearing gas masks flickered across the airwaves. He's pushed for opening the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other sensitive areas to oil drilling, gutted EPA's enforcement budget and the Clean Air Act, pulled out of the Kyoto agreement on global warming, reneged on an agreement with the auto industry to raise fuel efficiency standards and allowed Enron to write the administration's energy policy.
Even without Bush's agenda, the environment has emerged as a pressing concern again simply because the public is starting to realize that something is seriously wrong with the way the earth is supposed to work. As Tim Wirth puts it: "We're frying."
The public didn't need the recent National Academy of Sciences' report, or the EPA assessment to the United Nations, to confirm their suspicions that global warming is not only happening, but also that humans are playing a huge role in it. Just since the beginning of the year, the media have produced a litany of foreboding stories about the strangely behaving global climate. The year 2001 was the second-hottest year on record, behind 1998. The East Coast this winter resorted to water rationing on the heels of a four-year-old drought. Olympic athletes in Salt Lake City held global-warming education rallies as they realized that the Winter Olympics was an endangered species.
In Alaska, where the average temperature has risen about seven degrees since the 1970s, roads are buckling, spruce forests have been wiped out by beetle epidemics, fires are raging across the state, and entire coastal towns may soon have to be abandoned or moved inland because of rising sea levels. Even the Trans-Alaska oil pipeline is in danger of collapsing into the melting permafrost. Taken together, these phenomena have been so disturbing that even one of Congress's most anti-environmental senators is now talking about the reality of global warming. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) admitted recently to The New York Times that, "Alaska is harder hit by global climate change than any place in the world."
The newspaper reports are eerily familiar, having been largely predicted in Al Gore's book a decade ago. "Everything we've learned since then has just reconfirmed what we knew in the 1980s," says Dr. Robert Watson, the former chair of the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. He notes that not only is the science more solid, but the projected temperature increases are now actually higher than they were when Gore wrote Earth in the Balance.
The observable evidence of global warming on the planet has convinced the rest of the industrialized world to move forward with a sense of urgency to address the problem. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has come out as one of the world's most forceful leaders on climate change, and his country's emissions have dropped by 5 percent since 1990; Germany's emissions fell by 19 percent, even as U.S. discharges went up 18 percent during the same period. The E.U. and Japan have ratified Kyoto, and Russia is slated to do the same by the end of the year. A handful of multinational corporations, including BP, Shell, Toyota and DuPont, have begun making voluntary reductions in their emissions, in part because they realize that otherwise they won't be able to compete in a post-Kyoto world. "Most people are getting it, except the U.S. administration and U.S. Congress," says Watson.
Al Gore understands these issues more than just about any politician alive, and if he chooses to run in 2004, he has much to gain and nothing to lose from campaigning on them. Bush and the Republicans may have worked hard to brand Gore as an extremist for his environmental views, but the polls also say that nearly everything Gore supports, the public does, too.
Overwhelming majorities of Americans believe the federal government isn't doing enough to protect the environment. Even higher percentages favor higher emission and pollution standards for industry, stronger enforcement of environmental regulations, and higher auto emission standards for cars. And despite Gore's advisers' fears that the public would view his support of Kyoto as a liability, after Bush pulled out of the treaty negotiations, 61 percent of Americans told ABC News pollsters that they thought the United States should sign it.
Should he run in 2004, Gore will not be able to nickel-and-dime his way to beating Bush, who in 2000 successfully blurred the distinctions between the two candidates on issues like Social Security and Medicare, and managed to portray himself as a moderate on the environment. Gore has a natural, authentic advantage on the environment, but only to the extent that he makes an issue out of it. He'll have to do it boldly, taking on a few choice, controversial issues in a way that cuts through the media chatter. He should remind the public at every possible turn that the current president is the same man who, when running for Congress in the 1970s, said, "There's no such thing as being too closely aligned with the oil industry in West Texas."
If this plan seems too radical, Gore should recall his own words on global warming from Earth in the Balance, in which he predicted that "proposals which are today considered too bold... will soon be derided as woefully inadequate."
Stephanie Mencimer is an editor of The Washington Monthly (www.washingtonmonthly.com), where this article first appeared.