By the time Al Gore got to Good Morning America in May, it felt like American journalism had decided to take him down a peg, to punish him for trying to run a campaign of vision instead of a donkey race. It just didn't make sense that an ex-vice president who was so clearly campaigning and so wildly popular-who starred in a movie that won an Oscar, who was up for a Nobel Prize and whose environmental crusade had made him a household name to people who'd forgotten he'd almost been president-would also challenge the idea that partisan victory was the only thing that mattered.
Major news outlets fed off the faux controversy, with Time, The New York Times Magazine, the Los Angeles Times and others running major features in May around the release of his new book, The Assault on Reason, and even running excerpts, but only with billboard headlines that revealed their true obsession: 'Will he run?' The subtext of every interview was: 'You can't be Superman and Clark Kent. You have to choose the realm above or the realm below.' Only if he'd roll in pigshit would they make him king.
And so it wasn't only Good Morning America's Diane Sawyer whom Gore was scolding when she tried to ignore the critical content of his book, peppering him instead with wearying attempts to get him to say something, anything, about the '08 race. Even as Gore protested that this was 'not a political book,' but about 'how can we reinvigorate the role of we, the people, in American democracy... so that those in both parties who are supposed to be making these decisions [regarding Iraq or the climate crisis]... are looking at the facts and not brushing past them,' Sawyer interrupted him a half-dozen times, finally saying:
'I want to get deeper into your thesis, but again, to get back to something not very deep: Donna Brazile, your former campaign manager, says if he loses 25 to 30 pounds, that means he's running. Have you lost any weight?'
'Listen to your questions!' Gore pleaded. 'The horserace, the cosmetic parts of this-while we're focused on Britney and K-Fed and Anna Nicole Smith and all this stuff... our country has made some very serious mistakes.'
Gore is right. American democracy is ill. When I looked at my feet, I noticed I had my pig-barn boots on, too. Who could blame him for skipping the campaign's withering diminution? Or even for believing he can be more effective by staying out of Washington altogether?
Days after the Sawyer interview, he laid out his current platform most succinctly on NPR's All Things Considered: 'I'm involved in a different kind of campaign myself-to make sure that the climate crisis is the number one issue on the agenda of candidates in both parties. And I know that sounds like an unrealistic goal right now, but I will wager that by the time the elections of November 2008 come around, it will be the number one issue in both parties.'
And yes, maybe the only guaranteed way to make sure that happens is to run for president, and Gore has been very careful to leave the door open a crack. Measuring that crack has great entertainment value: In November 2006, Vegas was giving odds of 1,000 to 1 against a Gore candidacy, but by May 2007 they had slimmed to 4 to 1. And so the paradox: As long as he keeps teasing us, he remains most effective both as a Democratic contender and as a global-warming crusader, dragging the media along in his wake. Yet he tells the people in his Alliance for Climate Protection, who are working like devils to make the climate crisis the top issue, that he's not running. He tells this to the armies of people putting together Live Earth, the July 7 concerts taking his message to 2 billion people. He tells it to his wife and kids.
If he doesn't run, the press will shine the spotlight somewhere else. But the media, the candidates and the election machinery is already following the juggernaut that Gore has created out of the global-warming issue, and not only the next president but all of Washington will have to deal with it.
Of course, a global climate-protection movement has been under way since at least the formation of the U.N.-affiliated Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 1988, coming to a first crescendo in 1997 with the signing of the Kyoto Protocol, which set binding greenhouse gas limits for the 173 signatory parties (and which Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush failed to ratify). In the U.S., individual states have been way out front; California Assemblywoman Fran Pavley passed far-reaching tailpipe emissions regulations in 2001 that would cut carbon emissions by 74 million metric tons per year by 2020 and have become a battleground with the auto industry, forcing 12 states to sue the EPA (and thus the Bush administration) all the way to the Supreme Court, where the states won in April 2007.
Before Gore's An Inconvenient Truth, that decision might have gone the other way. He's almost single-handedly flipped the advantage from doubters to believers, stockpiling political and cultural capital and giving millions of Americans a single locus for all their discontent with corporate politics as it exists now-and a clear way to change it.
'Back in 1982, Al said to me that he thought the environment would become the single most important organizing principle of the 21st century. Now, we're darn near close to that,' says Rick Jacobs, former California chair of the 2004 Howard Dean campaign who's worked with Gore in campaigns and in the corporate world. 'I don't think that Al Gore thinks that this is a partisan issue, not for one minute. This is not about ideology, this is not about borders, this is not about one person benefiting and another person not benefiting. It's not a zero-sum game.
'Does he end up using that? I don't think [he] has to,' Jacobs adds. 'With the concerts that are coming up all over the world this summer, the involvement of corporations and individuals, and the kind of hip nature of environmental support, he doesn't have to run for president. I think that what he does with this, it sounds really corny, but I think he saves the planet.'
Gore v. Washington
One look at how Washington works reveals exactly how Gore's vision could be demolished if concentrated there-and maybe was, during his eight years as vice president. Originally, Live Earth was supposed to end with a big show on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. (It'll now happen in New York City). Imagine the impact: Americans gathered there by the hundreds of thousands, showing the world that Washington-not just California, not just Ben & Jerry-really does care.
Instead, a few Republican senators killed it.
John Rego shakes his head and says, 'That's why Live Earth came about: If governments aren't going to act, we need to act.' Rego is in charge of greening the Live Earth experience, along with John Picard, a former member of President Clinton's Green White House Task Force.
Talking to Rego at the Beverly Hills offices of Control Room, the production company putting on Live Earth, a crisis seems imminent, with big countdown clocks on the wall and a kind of rock 'n' roll-in-a-panic vibe. But some in Washington don't share this sense of urgency.
Live Earth's application to use the mall was denied by the National Park Service, because the mall was booked that day. After a lot of wrangling over other locations, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Democrat, and Sen. Olympia Snowe, a Republican, drafted a bipartisan resolution to stage the concert on the steps of the U.S. Capitol Building instead, which faces the mall.
'A small number of senators used parliamentary maneuverings to block it. Chief among them was Senator Inhofe, Republican out of Oklahoma. He, of course, is Washington's denier-in-chief when it comes to global warming,' says Live Earth communications director Yusef Robb. Inhofe's published reasoning was that it was a 'partisan political event.' Sen. Mitch McConnell, the Republican from Kentucky, and others were also against the measure.
Inhofe had been in the room when Gore testified before both houses of Congress in March and didn't like what he heard. With nothing to lose-no favors to repay, allegedly no campaign in play-Gore swung for the fence. He advocated an immediate freeze on CO2 emissions in the U.S. and reducing those levels 90 percent by 2050. (Just for comparison, Bush finally confronted the issue at the G-8 summit in Prague last week and proposed reductions of, ahem, 0 percent.) One way to do it, Gore said, was to kill the payroll tax and impose a 'carbon tax,' thus embedding the cost of pollution in the market. He wants greatly increased gas mileage on cars and a moratorium on new coal-fired power plants except those that can sequester their carbon. In order to get industry on board, he's advocating a cap-and-trade system that would allow heavy greenhouse gassers like coal companies to buy 'credits' from, say, solar producers, thus offsetting the carbon by increasing profits and investment in clean industries, producing a 'carbon neutral' result.
Inhofe was right to be alarmed. Little more than a year before, he could have given this talk a Bush-like brush-off, saying global warming wasn't proven and had little to do with government policy. But in March, he was like the last dinosaur looking for a place to lie down.
'The key to all of this is: How do you tie music to a message? If you can tie the two, you get an emotional transfer,' says Kevin Wall, owner of Control Room and producer of Live Earth. He would know, having produced more than 300 events by artists like Bob Dylan, but also Amnesty International concerts, the Freddie Mercury Tribute Concert for AIDS Awareness at Wembley Stadium in London and the eight-concert Live 8 event, which was meant to force the G-8 countries to confront global poverty. Live 8 brought in pledges of tens of billions of dollars from the world's economic superpowers, but Wall says these shows do more than just raise money.
'In the late '80s, the apartheid issue was not a well-known problem outside South Africa,' says Wall, describing an album project he was involved in with Springsteen guitarist (and future Soprano) Steven Van Zandt called Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid. 'That resulted in a massive event at Wembley Stadium called the ‘Free Nelson Mandela Show.' That show was in 71 countries. That project allowed people to say, ‘Oh, I won't buy from companies that do business there.' Six months later-within six months!-Nelson Mandela was let out of prison.
'And so all those years of great work in South Africa, when tied globally to music and transferring that emotion, there was a change.'
The fact that nations and municipalities have rushed to be included in the Live Earth event may be evidence that, after decades of groundwork, such change is imminent on the global-warming front. Wall and his staff have limited the concerts to nine-in New York, London, Sydney, Rio de Janeiro, Johannesburg, Tokyo, Shanghai, Hamburg and Istanbul-to run consecutively over a 24-hour period. But they've fielded requests from L.A. to Ulan Bator for ways to be involved, and so far the shows will be viewed at more than 200 other public screenings worldwide.
Wall and his staff have also engineered the biggest dog-pile of what's politely called 'media penetration' in history: In the U.S. alone, the show will be on NBC prime time for three hours; seven cable networks for 24 hours; both satellite radio networks, five channels each, for 24 hours; 2,500 radio stations; MSN broadband; and a wireless carrier. Then, there are the other 100 countries. In the U.K., they've got BBC 1, 2, 3 and 4, and the company's letting them rebuild a master control studio to handle the feeds. In Japan they have both NHK and Fuji-TV and a first-time-ever cooperation between commercial and non-commercial stations. Plus a universe of satellite and Internet overlays. Everything's being captured in HD. It just goes on and on.
And there, smack at the focal point of 2 billion eyeballs, is Al Gore, making the logical extension of his humble slideshow that was the inspiration for An Inconvenient Truth. Gore's activist organization, Alliance for Climate Protection, is a key force behind Live Earth (although Wall started Live Earth without him and brought Gore in later), and is the beneficiary of the money raised by the concerts. His message of global climate emergency, says Wall and his people, is the 'ask.'
'This project is a launch event for a several-year campaign that will continue to make movement at the level of governments, the level of corporations and the level of consumers. But this will be a very aggressive, very deep, and very big ask as a beginning,' Wall says.
I was in Lawrence Bender's backyard in Holmby Hills with some people from the Rainforest Action Network in May, thinking about that 'ask.' Bender, producer of An Inconvenient Truth, not to mention most of Quentin Tarantino's films, has been moved by his exposure to Gore and the science to launch a campaign called 18 Seconds (www.18seconds.org)-the amount of time it takes to change out one light bulb for an energy-saving compact fluorescent.
Looking at his posh digs and guests-there was Darryl Hannah, Tom Hayden, actor (and Mr. Charlize Theron) Stuart Townsend, former Assemblymember Fran Pavley, a host of rich neighbors signing checks-one bulb almost seemed like a joke. But that's where I had it all wrong. This is where we misunderstand Al Gore, too: These people are not going to solve our problems with one sweeping gesture or one monster piece of legislation.
Instead, they are changing corporate and governmental behavior by changing cultural behavior, one bulb at a time. Wal-Mart and Yahoo got involved in Bender's campaign, and so far in 2007 they've moved 55,434,116 bulbs, preventing more than 24 billion pounds of CO2 emissions in six months.
'Let's get people to do one thing. And once you do one thing, you're going to feel good, and you're going to say, what else can I do?' says Bender. He thinks of the compact fluorescent light bulb as a Trojan horse, embedding the ask. Hollywood, which has been utterly converted by Gore, is particularly good at that kind of thing: Cameron Diaz is driving a Prius and flying carbon neutral; Leo DeCaprio has produced a feature-length documentary about the climate crisis, The 11th Hour, which is being hailed already as this year's big eco-doc; Brad Pitt's doing spots about how New Orleans needs to be protected from the future effects of climate change. At this year's Oscars, Gore and a dozen other stars pulled up in alternative-fueled cars instead of limos.
'Stockholders are asking their CEOs: What are you doing about this issue? And most major global and national companies are getting asked: What are you doing? People are asking their legislators,' Bender adds.
Live Earth, organizers say, will expose about one-third of the people on planet Earth to a series of similarly simple messages-a kind of at-home, board-game version of the big show Gore laid out to Congress in March. But the genius of this movement, particularly as a political campaign, is that these constitute direct action. The concerts themselves are demonstration projects.
'The venue that puts a smile on my face is Johannesburg,' says Rego, whose background is in advising private industry on these matters. 'The first call to the Johannesburg promoter, he said, ‘Look, I have no idea what greening means'-he understands, but not what it really means in terms of an event-and he says, ‘but I'm willing to learn, and I'm really excited about it.''
Unlike London's Wembley Stadium, which has been catering to carbon-phobic pop stars for years, the Johannesburg site doesn't even actually exist. Maropeng at the Cradle of Humankind is a big grassy field about 50 to 60 kilometers outside Jo'burg with no stage and few facilities other than a nearby conference venue.
Johannesburg is one of the locations where buying power exclusively from renewable sources would be double or triple the normal price and thus impossible for a local promoter to replicate in the future, so they'll likely be using biodiesel generators and buying carbon offsets-the DIY version of cap-and-trade, in which energy users from bands to businessmen pay a kind of indulgence, which is invested in projects like turning cow manure into fuel. Vendors are connected to suppliers of biodegradable corn plastics and composting and recycling. Lighting onstage and in trailers is all LED or compact fluorescents, and even hotels hosting Live Earth artists are being encouraged to swap out for eco-friendly bulbs; non-toxic cleaners will be required of the janitorial crews; signage is all from recycled or agricultural materials. All the Live Earth staff and artist air travel will be offset by carbon credits.
The U.S. Green Building Council, creators of the LEED green building rating system, have helped Rego and others collate best practices into a new set of Green Event Guidelines, which they hope will transform the entertainment industry.
In Sydney, for example, the city created an integrated concert ticket that includes free transit to and from Aussie Stadium. Hamburg has similarly embedded .30 Euros in each ticket for carbon offsets. Rio appointed a special city commissioner to help with the concert, and the big triumph there was to connect the gargantuan waste stream with the traditional community of poor residents who make their money off the city's robust plastic and aluminum recycling programs. Equipment is being set up in the venue to weigh the materials right on site and provide the usual payments.
The 150 bands playing Live Earth receive an 80- to 90-page binder talking all about everything from biodiesel tour buses to carbon offsets to writing up a tour 'eco-rider,' the document that tells promoters what kinds of food and amenities they require. Bands are already ahead of the curve on this, with acts like the Dave Matthews Band traveling biodiesel and carbon neutral since 2001 and green tour marketing companies like MusicMatters reporting a huge recent jump in clients. For many cities, this smells like money; Hamburg's mayor saw Live Earth as an opportunity to sell his town to the green tech industry. Privately, many of the Live Earth venues have confided to Rego that 'they know their venue is going to be the greenest.'
Which brings us back to Al Gore. He is, if you haven't noticed, a very successful capitalist and a gadget nut and has been a leading proponent of using the market to address the climate crisis. That has led to a few slightly embarrassing revelations-like the news that the Gore mansion in Nashville gobbled up 221,000 kiloWatt-hours of juice in 2006, about 20 times more than the nation's average home-but it turns out that Gore can buy offsets for that from his own company, having founded Generation Investment Management LLP in 2004. It's a standard investment firm and hedge fund, co-founded with David Blood, former chief executive of Goldman Sachs Asset Management (hence the cutesy nickname 'Blood and Gore'), which is 'dedicated to long-term investing, integrated sustainability research, and client alignment.' That's Wall Street-ese for: 'boatloads of money off green companies.'
And so it may be that an old world ends-not with a bang or a whimper, but a 'ka-ching!'-and a new one begins. Those in charge of messaging at Live Earth want you to make your presence felt in that market. So, for 24 straight hours, Live Earth viewers will be saturated with simple solutions like:
'SAY NO TO STYROFOAM'
'UPGRADE YOUR PC'
You can bet the Democratic National Committee would absolutely love to add one more, saying:
'ELECT AL GORE'
But that, says Kevin Wall, is not part of the messaging.
'What can I tell you? I think he'd make a great president,' says Wall. 'But I have to go with what he tells me, and he tells me he's not running.'
Man on the moon
New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson is running for president, however, and if you have any question about the viable environmental space Gore and the Iraq war have lent Campaign '08, you might start with the 'man on the moon' energy and climate planks in Richardson's presidential platform. When he announced his candidacy at Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel-in the same room in which John F. Kennedy accepted the 1960 Democratic nomination for president-he compared his climate-protection initiative to the Apollo program, saying, 'When John F. Kennedy challenged this country to reach the moon, he challenged us to get there in 10 years, not 20 or 30 or 40.' He proudly identified his green policy to be the most aggressive of any candidate-with John Edwards and Chris Dodd close seconds-saying, 'We need it much faster and more boldly than people are suggesting.'
People like who, Bush? No, he means just about all other people-except Gore. And the fact that Richardson would step out like this shows how much the issue has changed since he was energy secretary in the Clinton-Gore administration and saw Gore struggle for eight years-and fail-to make anyone in Washington care about it.
The most embarrassing rebuke was the 1997 Kyoto treaty negotiations. Despite being so involved in the issue-he'd already made global warming a plank in his own 1988 run for the Democratic nomination-Gore couldn't muster any serious interest from his own administration. In a May 21, 2007, piece in The New York Times Magazine, Gore refused to blame Clinton for this, but it's clear that presidents are often badly compromised. Every advisor told Gore not to go to Kyoto, but he did anyway and came back with a treaty for Clinton to sign. Bubba did sign it, but he never sent it to the Senate for ratification.
That situation still stands today, with Bush going to the G-8 trying desperately to kill any notion of binding carbon-emissions limits, which German Chancellor Angela Merkel put at the top of the agenda. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, whose gold-plated science Gore (and everyone else) cites constantly, recommends an 80-percent reduction in greenhouse gas emissions by 2050 in order to hold global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. The two most popular carbon-emissions bills in Congress-the Bernie Sanders-Barbara Boxer Senate bill and the Henry Waxman House bill-both go for 80 percent. Gore says 90 percent. Richardson says 90 percent, too.
'Yeah, I talked to him,' Richardson said off-stage, referring to Gore. 'In fact, the day I announced them. We talked briefly on the phone, and I believe he liked it.'
Richardson's plan also reflects the newest iteration of this issue among scientists, pols and activists: Energy policy and climate-change policy are now the same thing.
'It's bigger than Iraq. It's about national security, period,' says Tony Massaro, senior vice-president for Political Affairs and Public Education at the League of Conservation Voters. 'Our polling on Election Night 2006, by a prominent Republican pollster, Frank Luntz, showed that when people were thinking about national security, they were thinking about our energy policy.'
Since that election, Massaro says, Gore's movie helped fuse energy policy and global-warming policy into one issue, and the league is tracking '08 presidential candidates' responses to that issue with their initiative 'The Heat is On' (www.heatison.org), which includes a handy comparison chart. Massaro stresses: 'The most important thing is that those numbers have been driven not by the vice president but by what the science has said is needed.' Science, he says, creates the space for audacious plans like Richardson's, but any enlightened Republican could do the same.
They haven't yet, however, suggesting that Republicans are determined, like Inhofe, to make this a partisan issue. Already in May, 18 months before the election, at least six of the Democratic candidates have detailed their energy and climate plans before taking published policy positions on healthcare, taxes, Iraq or other key issues. Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, Chris Dodd and Joe Biden are backing the Sanders-Boxer bill for 80-percent reduction by 2050, and Dennis Kucinich supports the Waxman bill. On the Republican side, John McCain has sponsored a bill that calls for a 65-percent reduction by 2050, but he's the only one who has an early position. Several other Republicans, such as Sam Brownback, are on record as having opposed carbon-reduction bills and a cap-and-trade system.
Richardson's plan also calls for getting out of a Middle Eastern quagmire by cutting oil demand by 50 percent by 2020. That's only 13 years from now, by which time he wants cars to get 50 miles per gallon (as compared to John Edwards' 40 mpg, or Bush's 35 mpg). By 2020, he would also set standards to reduce the carbon impact of all liquid fuels by 30 percent and require electrical generation to have a 30-percent renewable portfolio standard-an achievable goal, given that 21 states have already adopted robust RPS criteria, but still 10-percent higher than anyone else is proposing.
All this talk would seem as inflated as mid-'90s thinking about dot-coms-except that the energy sector is already there.
Jim Rogers, CEO of Duke Energy, a carbon-belching electric utility headquartered deep in the heart of West Virginia's coal country, has emerged as a leading advocate of a cap-and-trade system for emissions and has challenged Bush and Cheney on their foot-dragging. Big Power evidently agrees, because they selected Rogers to chair the Edison Electric Institute, which represents about 60 percent of the electricity generated in this country, and have begun lumbering toward climate-change goals.
And power companies aren't the only ones seeing the (compact fluorescent) light: Rogers helped start the U.S. Climate Action Partnership-a coalition of serious environmental groups like the National Resources Defense Council and industrial and financial giants including DuPont, Duke, Caterpillar, Alcoa and PG&E, some of which are among the world's largest single carbon emitters-whose purpose is to pressure the Bush administration into building these carbon-reduction costs into the market. Pepsi and GM are recent joiners, and not just because it's the right thing to do; it pays. The visionary Chicago Climate Exchange has already begun to institutionalize emissions and carbon futures trading: Though the system is voluntary and still young, leaders in the Climate Action Partnership foresee an emissions market worth $750 billion-yes, with a 'b'-within 20 years. That's going to power an investment super-boom in clean technologies.
All of which is a sad commentary on the fear and stasis gripping Washington. Obama, for instance, has hedged his bets by backing the Sanders-Boxer bill and co-sponsoring an ugly bill that is a gift to the coal industry, locking the U.S. into a long-term program of deep subsidies and guaranteed purchases of heavily polluting coal-to-liquid fuels.
The climate protection armies are betting he can't maintain that position if pushed by the grassroots, and Gore doesn't have to run to make sure that happens. It's happening now.
'People are getting it,' says Lawrence Bender, who has spoken on the subject to the Conference of Mayors and in the California Assembly. 'As an agent I'm very close to said to me, ‘Lawrence, I'm a Republican. My kids need to live in the same world your kids live in.' It cannot be a one-sided issue, or the problems will never be solved. It's too small of thinking.'