About a week ago, USA Today published a piece by Peter Schweitzer, who’s a research fellow at the Hoover Institution. It accused Al Gore of hypocrisy, for asking viewers of An Inconvenient Truth to scale back their lifestyles and carbon emissions while … well, there were a number of charges. According to Schweitzer, Gore owns three homes and stock in Occidental Petroleum, still receives royalties from a zinc mine on his property, does not participate in the green-power option his utility offers in Nashville, and lets Paramount pay for his carbon offsets.

As per standard practice, the conservative media machine spread the charges far and wide — most recently they popped up on Glenn Beck’s show on CNN and, bizarrely, in a recurring poll on AOL’s homepage.

Gore’s communications director, Kalee Kreider, sent a letter to the editor to respond to the piece, but we all know only a fraction of the folks who read the original piece will read the letter.

First things first: I talked to some of Gore’s people today, including Kreider, about the specific charges. Suffice to say, they’re false. Gore receives no royalties from the mine, which shut down in 2003. (USA Today actually printed a correction about this, way down on page 10A.) Gore owns no stock in Occidental, and never has (his father did; it was all sold over six years ago). Gore does in fact take advantage of the green power options his utility offers, and was in the process of adding photovoltaic solar cells to his house when the article came out. He pays for his own personal carbon offsets, in addition to the institutional offsets purchased by Paramount (movie distributor) and Rodale (book publisher), which make both the book and the movie completely carbon neutral.

All that picayune nonsense aside, some might consider it more relevant that Gore has devoted his life to this problem, traveling around for years giving thousands of slideshows, co-founding an investment firm devoted to supporting green companies, making his book, movie, and new TV channel carbon neutral (Current will be carbon neutral by the end of the year), donating all the profits from the movie and book to the global-warming fight, and almost single-handedly raising the profile of the issue higher than it’s ever been.

Also, if we’re talking about hypocrisy, perhaps we should mention that Schweitzer’s Hoover Institution — home to professional climate cranks (and former tobacco cranks) like Fred Singer and Thomas Gale Moore — is funded by the far-right Scaife Foundation along with, you guessed it, Exxon. Schweitzer is paid to launch baseless attacks on Al Gore; Al Gore donates the profits from his advocacy work to the issue he cares about. Who’s being more honest with the public?

In the end, though, none of this matters. This kind of ad hominem back and forth is exactly what Gore’s well-paid conservative attackers want. They want to drag the debate down to this level. It muddies the waters and causes the public to tune out.

The fact is, Al Gore is not perfect, environmentally or any other way. He does not claim otherwise.

Nobody is perfect on climate issues. Why? Because our political and cultural system makes it extraordinarily difficult. That’s the issue: changing the system to make it easier to act in environmentally benign ways, and harder not to. That means pushing our leaders — from the neighborhood level all the way up to the federal level — to change public policy. It means pushing them to partner with business leaders to make eco-friendly products, power, homes, and transportation options more easily and readily available. It means pushing them to take a stand, to marshal the American people behind the grand historical quest to put our society on a sustainable path. It means pushing them to lead.

As I’ve argued again and again and again and again and again and again, the lifestyle choices of any given individual are beside the point. Those who try and fail to be righteous are better than those who are unapologetically wicked. Those who speak the truth and fail to fully live by it are better than those who speak lies. Those who advocate societal changes and fail to make individual changes are better than those who do the reverse, and better twice over than those who seek no change at all.

We need to change our laws, regulations, tax codes, and business practices. We need to change our minds about what is and isn’t acceptable in a 21st century society. If Al Gore can help that process along, that will mean a hell of a lot more than all the carbon offsets and utility bills in the world.