Friday, June 02, 2006

"Ozone man" and the mainstreaming of green

Perhaps the most astonishing political moment of 2006 occurred back in January, during the State of the Union speech, when President Bush suddenly started talking like some kind of dreamy-eyed tree-hugger, as he extolled the virtues of hybrid cars, wind technologies, wood chips, and switchgrass.

All that green stuff sounded a tad odd rolling off the tongue of an ex-oilman -- he reminded me of Frank Sinatra back in the '60s, when Ol' Blue Eyes sought to stay hip by crooning a few Beatles tunes -- but Bush's rhetoric was significant. It was a recognition that the environment was gaining ground as a cutting-edge political issue, and that the administration knew it needed to get hip really fast -- in order to dispel the widely held perception that the White House, and the GOP, are allied with the global warmers.

Now comes Al Gore's global-warming documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which I caught at a screening last night, and it's doubly clear what many Republicans (and their energy industry patrons) are worrying about. The film is not perfect -- it skirts a questionable episode in Gore's personal history; it is far stronger on dire predictions than on realistic political solutions -- but, as pure cinematic argument, it is powerfully effective. And, despite its largely non-partisan tone, it offers the perpetually wayward Democrats a campaign issue on a silver platter.

This explains why conservative critics have been working so hard to discredit the film. It has not been an easy task, particularly since global warming - and man's role in causing it - is now considered a settled issue by, among others, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the National Academy of Sciences (in conjunction with its counterparts in Britain, China, Germany, and Japan), the American Geophysical Union, the American Meterological Society, the National Climactic Data Center, and 928 peer-reviewed scientific papers. Even the Bush administration's Climate Change Science Program concluded in May that it had found "clear evidence of human influences on the climate system."

Faced with such sentiment in the reality-based science world, and realizing that many once-skeptical Americans might well conclude that Gore was actually a far-sighted guy with a prescient message, the opposition has sought to undercut the message by personally assailing the messenger. In recent days, I have been compiling a list. Some highlights:

1. Al Gore is "crazy," with his "long slide into insanity." (Patrick Hynes, at
2. "Wild-eyed" Al Gore is a "zealot" and a "nut." (Tucker Carlson, on MSNBC)
3. Al Gore is "clinically insane." (Ann Coulter)
4. Al Gore is "one slice short of a loaf." (Syndicated columnist Kathleen Parker)
5. Al Gore, in so many words, is a fraud: "After all, some people do believe in the DiVinci Code, so some will believe the DiGore Code." (Steve Forbes, the ex-GOP presidential candidate, on Fox News.)

None of those putdowns can compete with the prizewinner, uttered in 1992 by President George H. W. Bush, who said of Gore, "Ozone Man, Ozone. He's crazy, way out, far out, man...(If Gore gets his way), we'll be up to our neck in owls and outta work for every American." But the sheer vehemence of the insult campaign suggests fear in certain quarters that the film -- and environmental issues more generally -- could resonate widely if left unchallenged.

The film is being inadvertently aided, however, by those who seek to dismiss it. A group called the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which is heavily financed by the oil industry, notably ExxonMobil, has crafted a pair of TV ads that appear to have been written by the parodists on Saturday Night Live. In one ad, seeking to preempt the film's evidence that rising levels of industry-generated carbon dioxide are trapping excessive amounts of heat in our atmosphere, CEI's narrator intones, "They call it pollution. We call it life."

A second CEI ad declares that ice in the Antarctic is actually getting thicker, not thinner as Gore suggests; for evidence, it cites a study by University of Missouri scientist Curt Davis. The problem with the ad is, Curt Davis has denounced it. He released a statement the other day saying that the ad distorts his findings, and that, overall, both ads "are a deliberate effort to confuse and mislead the public..."

These attacks are playing into Gore's hands, because he addressed his critics in the film, contending that "their objective is to reposition global warming as theory rather than fact," and noting the similarities between that strategy and the tobacco industry's long campaign to dispute the link between cigarettes and cancer. He cited an old line from a Brown & Williamson document: "Doubt is our product."

Because the attacks have been so crude, the film seems almost saintly, and impervious to criticism. Actually, it is not impervious. While drawing parallels between the tobacco industry and the oil industry, it also dwells on a painful episode in Gore's past, the 1984 death of his older sister Nancy from lung cancer. She had been a smoker, and Gore the narrator mentions that after she died, the Gore family farm stopped growing tobacco. (Cut to shot of abandoned tobacco shed.) The film fails to mention, however, that Gore didn't cut his ties to tobacco farming until 1991, seven years after Nancy's death; and that in 1988, while stumping for votes among tobacco farmers, he bragged about how he'd grown it, "shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it."

And on global warming itself, Gore skates past certain issues. He mentions that the U.S. is one of the few western nations not to sign the Kyoto Protocols, and we are left to assume that this is Bush's fault, since Bush opposes ratification. But he omits the fact that Kyoto was rejected in the Senate by a vote of 95-0 during the Clinton-Gore era. He's also short on specifics about what proposals to halt global warming might be realistically feasible in polarized Washington (a modest carbon tax, at least for starters? caps on greenhouse gas emissions?), and especially at the state level (as a safety measure, would he propose mandatory curbs on shorefront development-- which no doubt would be denounced as an attack on free enterprise?).

I am not a scientific expert, but I also got the feeling that Gore was loading his entertaining presentation with a lot of worst-case scenarios, just to ensure that public apathy is sufficiently dispelled; in fact, he has implied that he did so. In one recent interview, he stated:

"Nobody is interested in solutions if they don't think there's a problem. Given that starting point, I believe it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations on how dangerous it is, as a predicate for opening up the audience to listen to what the solutions are, and how hopeful it is that we are going to solve this crisis."

But it's tough for his opponents to attack him, even for that, because of their own credibility problems. Gore occupies the high ground on the global warming issue in part because the Bush administration has done so little. It hired Philip Cooney, a former oil industry lobbyist, a guy who lacked scientific training, to run the White House environmental program; in that capacity, he watered down scientific reports on global warming, at one point writing in the margins that the conclusions were "speculative findings/musings." The White House has also sought to muzzle NASA's top climate scientist from speaking out against global warming (the scientist, James Hansen, complained publicly about the muzzling effort in January).

Hence, the political opportunity for Democrats. Dick Morris, the ex-Clinton pollster who has also worked for Republicans, wrote a column this week on the topic. He argues that voters are beginning to see the environment and national security as facets of the same issue -- that our oil dependence (a) harms the earth, (b) leaves us vulnerable to high gas prices, (c) and finances our enemies abroad. Morris says that Gore's movie "threatens the Republican grip on Washington" because climate change is now being linked "to a broader public anger..."

Goaded by the Gore movie, Democrats might arguably embrace the environmental issue, not just on its merits, but as way to draw clear contrasts with the GOP. There was a time, back in 2000, when candidate Gore's strategists didn't want him talking about the environment, figuring that only the lefty greens cared and that those folks were already in his camp. But today, with the scientific community now having reached consensus on global warming, the environment seems poised to be a swing voters' issue in the years ahead.