The Paradox of Al Gore

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A DeSmogBlog exclusive weekly column by best-selling author and science writer, Chris Mooney.
 

When Al Gore won the Nobel Peace prize last Friday–along with the very deserving U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change–the fulminations predictably followed. Previous victims of what Paul Krugman calls “Gore Derangement Syndrome” had new flare-ups of the disease, often in the most embarrassing of places. There was a rash of bad science reporting, suggesting that Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth (the film version) is somehow much more inaccurate than it actually is.

And then came the powerful defenses of Gore, the skewerings of the Gore deranged, and just general voicing of reason. Alas, the Gore defenders, while being broadly accurate about Gore’s “broadly accurate” film, also seem to have missed some key matters that bear addressing.

So let’s add some needed perspective here.

First of all: Al Gore eminently deserves the Nobel Peace prize. He deserves this highest of honors because as a communicator and as a leader, he has done a truly remarkable thing: Transformed the global warming issue, thereby making it much more likely to be solved, thereby potentially saving the world massive grief.

In case you hadn’t noticed, today it is pretty much a foregone conclusion that we are going to take serious action to curtail human-induced greenhouse gas emissions pretty soon. Denial has gone out of style. There is still much work to do, to be sure, and we are far from being saved–we need, among other things, a new U.S. president first–and most troubling of all, it’s probably too late to avoid at least some serious alterations to the planet. But nevertheless, you’d have to be blind not to notice that the politics of this issue are really, finally changing.

Media attention to climate change is at an all time high. Legislation is being drafted en masse in Congress. Major corporations are coming around, and in fact, demanding regulatory action. Another core part of the traditional U.S. Republican base–evangelicals–are also awakening on the issue. Indeed, not even President Bush can deny the science and obfuscate any longer–and neither, to a large extent, can Republican presidential candidates. Much as I hate to admit it (as the author of The Republican War on Science), the issue is becoming less officially partisan, as major states with Republican mayors like California and Florida swing into action.

In short, momentum is building for a change on climate change–and Gore has been a tremendous part of that. His film, his book, his congressional testimony, his Oscar, and now his Nobel…With ample and much needed help from Hollywood, in the last year and a half Gore has grown into a media and communications juggernaut, a personage and a public intellectual who is now more or less synonymous with this new period of heightened attention to climate change. Given the incredibly powerful and yet also extremely fickle nature of the modern media, to triumph as a communicator on so complex and difficult an issue, on so massive a scale, really does merit an award as prestigious as the one that Gore has now been granted.

And yet we must–must–include some caveats along with these statements. Gore’s film–the front wedge of his communications juggernaut–is indeed broadly accurate, and yet most emphatically not perfect. What documentary is?

There has been a lot of silly talk of alleged “errors” in the film; many of the charges, however, are either dubious or irrelevant to the big picture. To be sure, and as I’ve explained previously, there are certainly things I would have done differently had I been the auteur behind An Inconvenient Truth. For example, I would have included many more scientific caveats, particularly when it comes to knotty issues about the relationship between climate change and weather events. But I am not going to take Gore unduly to task over this here; to do so would be both perverse and unproductive. Inevitably, the Gore deranged are much more misleading about climate science than you could ever accuse Gore of being. So I refuse to play their game and take potshots at someone whom they themselves have no business criticizing.

Let them tend to their own houses first.

However, there’s one arena in which we seriously ought to criticize the Gore communications juggernaut–it just isn’t the realm of scientific accuracy. Rather, the true issue is the one that Matthew Nisbet has been highlighting, and what I might term the “Gore paradox”: Gore is our top mass media communicator on climate change, and yet Gore turns off many audiences that we definitely need to reach. This fact puts anyone who cares about the climate issue in an awkward position: On the one hand, we must applaud Gore for drawing dramatic new attention to the crisis; and yet at the same time, we must lament that too many Americans distrust Gore and simply won’t listen to him.

Because while it’s funny as hell to talk about “Gore Derangement Syndrome,” the truth is that we need the people who currently suffer from this malady to join the climate cause. And Gore, because of his immense political baggage, because of the many preconceptions that persist about him, seems unable to reach them.

The data on this are clear and stark. As Nisbet explains: “Despite Gore’s breakthrough success with Inconvenient Truth, public opinion today is little different from what it was in May 2006 when the movie was released.” Gore is mobilizing the base, and Gore is generating tremendous media attention, but he doesn’t seem to be winning converts. A huge gap still exists between the two parties’ rank and file in terms of how seriously they take the global warming threat.

And that should hardly be surprising: As Nisbet further notes, thanks largely to our partisan politics and in particular to the bruising 2000 election and Florida recall, only half of the U.S. public has a favorable opinion of Gore, while only 24 percent of Republicans think he deserved the Nobel Peace Prize. If you think about it, that makes perfect sense: Millions of conservative Americans spent the 2000 election season bitching about Gore on a daily basis, and then vigorously pulled their levers against him, and then bitched some more about why he wouldn’t step down and let Bush be president during the Florida recall.

Fair or unfair, right or wrong, on some level Gore may never be able to overcome that political baggage.

That’s the Gore paradox, and it may be the Gore tragedy as well. He is awesome, he is a hero, he should have been president–and yet thanks to our goddamn partisan politics, when it comes to communicating on global warming he still may not be good enough.

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