Photo: The House Policy Committee.
Al Gore, once derided by the right as a stiff, wooden Ozone Man, is now recasting himself as the fiery, headstrong Climate Avenger — a blunt and passionate spokesperson about what he calls “a collision between our civilization and the earth.” He is currently in negotiations to play a starring role in a big-budget, feature-length documentary on climate change.
Last Saturday in San Francisco, the self-described “guy who used to be the next president of the United States” delivered an hour-long multimedia presentation on the scientific evidence of global warming to hundreds of guests crammed into a tent for the culmination of the city’s five-day-long U.N. World Environment Day celebration. The audience, peppered with celebrities, members of Congress, U.N. officials, and dozens of mayors from around the world, erupted into a standing ovation when Gore wrapped up his quasi-evangelical call to action.
Thrusting his fists skyward, he rattled off the seemingly insurmountable challenges civilization has overcome in the past — slavery, communism, restricted suffrage, segregation, disease, apartheid — and roared, “So now we are called to use our political institution, our democracy, our free speech, our reasoning capacity, our citizenship, our hearts, and talk with one another, reason with one another, see the reality of this problem, act as Americans, and understand that it’s a different issue than any we’ve ever faced.” Then the crescendo: “We have to make our stand!” he thundered. “This is our home! We must keep our eyes on the prize! Help solve this problem!”
Not all of the speech was so histrionic. There were frequent moments of comic relief, including parodic animation from the producers of The Simpsons about how global warming works. And Gore succeeded in telling the climate-change story with surprisingly good narrative rhythm and in accessible terms rather than overly wonky or academic language — something few public figures have managed, or even attempted, to do.
Take the moment when Gore was trying to shed light on climate skeptics’ denial of scientific fact: “When I was in 6th grade studying geography, one of my classmates pointed to the outline of the east coast of South America and the west coast of Africa, and said, ‘Did the continents ever fit together?’ The teacher said, ‘That’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard!’ That child went on to become a drug addict and a ne’er-do-well. That teacher went on to become a science adviser in a presidential administration.” He capped off the vignette with a paraphrased Mark Twain aphorism: “What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know, it’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Other highlights of the presentation included a gasp-inducing photo montage of the “drunken” forests, collapsed homes, and ruptured highways that are among the casualties of melting permafrost, and detailed scenarios about the cities that would be lost given various potential changes in sea levels. When showing downtown Manhattan submerged, with the World Trade Center among the casualties, he alluded to the Sept. 11 attacks: “Never again, we said.” Then added, “Is it only terrorists that we’re worried about? Is that the only threat to the future that is worth organizing to respond to?”
Perhaps most persuasive was Gore’s argument that mandatory caps on planet-warming emissions can give countries a big economic advantage in the 21st-century global marketplace, by driving innovation and boosting demand for hot new technologies related to renewable energy and efficiency. “We cannot even sell our cars in China because we don’t meet their emissions standards!” he cried.
Google cofounder Sergey Brin, whose company was a World Environment Day cosponsor, reinforced this point later in the evening with a speech asserting that the coming paradigm shift toward clean technologies is an industrial movement that will dwarf even the digital revolution in terms of economic potential and historical meaning.
Cocktail hour commenced after Gore’s presentation, and guests buzzed about the performance. “If only Gore had been that fired up in 2000!” said Janet O’Connell, a Bay Area attorney, while sampling organic wine and bruschetta. “It wasn’t as though there were facts I’d never heard before, but the sum of all the evidence combined with the visuals just bowled me over,” said Stephen Neely, a Silicon Valley executive. Former Republican Rep. Pete McCloskey said the performance was “Dynamite! If that isn’t the kick in the pants that will galvanize the American public, I don’t know what is.” Culinary celeb Alice Waters added, “It should be required viewing for every person in this country.”
That’s precisely what Hollywood producer-cum-eco-activist Laurie David aims to make happen. On Saturday, before the event, she met with Gore and a team of directors to discuss hitherto undisclosed plans to make a feature-length film out of his climate-change presentation. “It’s a documentary of this brilliant briefing that he’s been crisscrossing the country to deliver, with his own personal story woven through,” David told Muckraker. “The idea is to make it as much a wake-up call on the climate crisis as it is a window into Al Gore and his 20-year commitment to this issue.” She describes the stylistic approach as “equal parts Fog of War and Bowling for Columbine.” If the deal goes forward — and all the funding has been secured, so it’s looking like a go — David hopes to have the documentary released by December, in time for Academy Awards consideration.
After guests settled into their seats for dinner at tables with ice-sculpture globe centerpieces (that, appropriately, melted into ambiguous orbs by the end of the evening), San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom got up to lead yet another round of applause for the former veep. “I’ve had literally dozens of people come up to me and ask, ‘Where can I get a copy of that presentation?’” he said. At which point Gore, who was seated next to David, leaned over and whispered to her, “Looks like you’ve got the right idea!”