On Wednesday, March 21, 2007, prodigal son Al Gore returned to Washington, D.C. to testify in front of both House and Senate panels investigating the threats of global warming and how such worldwide challenges might be averted or mitigated. It was buried on C-SPAN-3 which hides in plain sight on the higher end of most cable dials. Apparently Alberto Gonzales and Iraq war funding were deemed more newsworthy. And I knew that news coverage of Gore would be sixty seconds at best (and the most incendiary sixty at that, not the most eloquent), so I resolved to watch the entire hearing and see how Gore did without the slide show and against some hostile questioners.
The former Vice-President made many of the same points in both sessions, deftly positioning the fight against the multiple impacts of warming as a moral imperative. He took us into the world our grandchildren will inherit, and asked if they would ever forgive us if we dropped this “hot potato.” Most of the Democrats fawned over him as they might if Angelina Jolie testified about genocide in Darfur. One Democrat, John Dingell of Michigan, was so inscrutable that it was actually difficult to determine if he still had an active pulse. (Dingell’s constituency includes the beleaguered American automobile industry, which fears that heightened emission controls will sink them ever further behind foreign imports.) But Gore even managed to get a raised eyebrow from the almost comatose Michigander when he effusively praised him for his service as a member of the “Greatest Generation” in World War II.
“The Goracle” delivered the message we had all hoped he would deliver seven years ago. “The planet has a fever,” he said. “We don’t have much time left.” Gore presented some practical plans on how we could meet this growing crisis by shifting around taxes and creating investment incentives for alternate energy technologies. He was comfortable in his own skin, fresh off a Best Documentary Oscar for An Inconvenient Truth.
The Texas Congressman Joe Barton tried to trip him up in the morning session, but didn’t do a particularly effective job at it. But the real confrontation would occur in the afternoon session, when the Senate had its turn. The Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works had once been chaired by global warming skeptic James Inhofe, a Republican from Oklahoma, but he lost the chairmanship (and considerable clout to squelch nascent global warming legislation) to the junior Democratic Senator from California, Barbara Boxer, in the 2006 elections.
Perhaps Inhofe and Boxer deserved each other. They were both listed on RadarMagazine’s list of the “Ten Dumbest Congressmen.” They lived up to their billing on this afternoon, wrangling about whether they should have three or four minutes to question the witness. Inhofe asked Gore a few hostile questions, and then brayed like a bull elephant when Gore tried to answer him civilly. He demanded more time to pontificate, at which moment Boxer picked up her gavel and announced “You’re not the chairman anymore. Elections have consequences.”
Gore stated that there was now a scientific consensus on warming and the human contribution thereto, citing a study that analyzed some 2,000 peer-reviewed articles over the last few years, virtually all of which embraced the global warming paradigm. He mentioned the new report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change and the Stern Report, which assesses the economic impact of global warming in our future. Inhofe’s response was to post a chart (reminiscent of Joe McCarthy’s “secret list” of communists) purporting to be 3,000 scientists who are contrarians, or skeptics.
Then it got personal. Inhofe mentioned that Gore had a number of residences and jetted all over the world, implying that Gore was a hypocrite, wanting to reduce everyone else’s footprint, while retaining his own. Inhofe even seemed to have dug up the Gores’ energy bills, because he suggested that Gore had used more energy in 2006 than in 2005. Then, acting like a controlling prosecutor, he asked if Gore would take a “Personal Energy Ethics Pledge.” This was the dumbest Senator’s carefully-laid trap. The pledge read:
As a believer:
that human-caused global warming is a moral, ethical, and spiritual issue affecting our survival;
that home energy use is a key component of overall energy use;
that reducing my fossil fuel-based home energy usage will lead to lower greenhouse gas emissions; and
that leaders on moral issues should lead by example;
I pledge to consume no more energy for use in my residence than the average American household by March 21, 2008.
Inhofe pointed out how fair he was being, giving Gore and his family a full year to make the adaptation. But Gore failed to take the bait.
Gore responded with standard answers about how he had purchased carbon credits to offset his emissions, and had taken many other steps, like replacing incandescent light bulbs, etc. Then Gore did a very wise thing, something I have difficulty imagining the candidate Gore doing. He reminded Inhofe that they had a mutual friend, and suggested that the three of them sit down in private over breakfast or lunch and discuss these issues. Inhofe had been grandstanding all afternoon, and it would have been easy to dismiss him with righteous anger, but Gore realized that the only way global warming predicaments can be solved is if the partisan rancor is removed from the equation. In the rarefied politesse that passes for Senate etiquette, Inhofe agreed to have such a meeting, but looked like he had ants in his pants as he did it.
Gore knew he cannot change Inhofe, a denizen of an oil-producing state. But he did something more important. He demonstrated that commitment to an issue trumps macho breast-beating and gesticulating. When other Republicans like John Warner of Virginia got their turn, they were much more conciliatory. Gore was back in his old element, like a star athlete returning to the high school where he is now revered. Only this was no ordinary high school; this was a collection of the most powerful (and ego-driven) political operatives in the country. And none of them, on either side of the aisle, have ever mastered enough of the basic science to even know the right questions to ask. Gore has bridged the gap between science and policy, with his movie, his two books, and his newly-found prophet-in-the-wilderness persona.