Al Gore wants you to understand climate change.

Photo: © 2006 Paramount Classics.

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Think you’ve been hearing a lot about global warming lately? If a new climate-focused group hatched by Al Gore has its way, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.

After nine months of behind-the-scenes planning and wrangling, the Alliance for Climate Protection is now nearly ready for prime time. Gore spoke about the alliance in an exclusive interview with Muckraker. He said the group aims to raise big bucks for a single goal: “To move the United States past a tipping point on climate change, beyond which the majority of the people will demand of the political leaders in both parties that they compete to offer genuinely meaningful solutions to the crisis.”

Practically speaking, this means launching a massive media and grassroots education campaign trumpeting the urgency of global warming and targeted at all manner of Americans — “NASCAR fans, churchgoers, labor-union members, small businessmen, engineers, hunters, sportsmen, corporate leaders, you name it,” said Gore — with the assumption that “where public opinion goes, federal policy will follow.”

With a leadership team that includes Brent Scowcroft, national-security adviser to presidents George H.W. Bush and Gerald Ford; Carol Browner, head of the U.S. EPA under Bill Clinton; and other heavies, the alliance could considerably pump up the volume of the green movement’s barely audible public outreach on global warming. It plans to raise “tens of millions at least,” said Browner. The group’s official launch date is not confirmed, but will likely be in the coming weeks. The search for a CEO is under way, and board meetings have already commenced.

By all accounts, the alliance was Gore’s idea, but he is choosing not to take a spot on the board of directors or participate in the governance of the group — in the interest, he said, of avoiding confusion about its political objectives.

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As the buzz intensifies around An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s global-warming documentary that hits theaters on May 24, and a forthcoming book of the same title, so does speculation that he plans to vie for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008. Gore dismissed the suggestion of a link between his public climate activism and a 2008 bid as “totally, totally absurd,” but he knows he can’t dodge his political image.

“As hard as I try, I don’t think I can come off as completely nonpartisan,” he told Muckraker with a knowing chuckle. But the alliance, he said, must be “completely and totally insulated from any political innuendo. I feel very strongly that the climate crisis needs to be redefined as a moral — not a political — issue.”

That may explain why three of the five current members of the alliance’s board of directors are high-profile Republicans — in addition to Scowcroft, they include Lee Thomas, EPA chief under Ronald Reagan, and Teddy Roosevelt IV, venture capitalist and great-grandson of his namesake, the GOP president. “We are very sensitive that this not be misconstrued as a political campaign,” Roosevelt told Muckraker. “[O]ur mission is by no means to endorse legislative solutions or political candidates.”

According to Browner, the board will likely double in size in the coming weeks, adding leaders who will further reinforce the bipartisan nature of the group, representing the interests of labor, science, religion, underprivileged communities, and corporate America.

The More the Merrier

Only one board member — Larry Schweiger, president of the National Wildlife Federation — hails from an environmental organization, and, says Schweiger, no other enviro-group heads will be added to the top-tier leadership. It’s a deliberate and notable shift in strategy given that last year Gore started initial discussions about the alliance with members of the Green Group, a behind-the-scenes coalition of leaders of big national environmental organizations.

Those discussions stirred up tactical disputes among enviros. “There have long been heated debates within the environmental community over how to proceed with a unified climate strategy,” said Browner. “Partnering with a broad spectrum of interests — from national security to labor and industry — has liberated and broadened the discussion.”

Browner declined to get specific about the discussions, but according to other insiders close to the negotiations who requested anonymity, green leaders worried, among other things, that a formal alliance between them and Gore would hamper their ability to reach out to moderate and conservative Americans. Potential funders worried, meanwhile, that leaders of the big national green groups might not be able to make savvy use of tens of millions of dollars earmarked for a climate campaign, given that their public outreach efforts on the issue have produced only lackluster results thus far.

Said Gore, “We came to realize that it was a disservice to the climate campaign to frame [the issue] as an environmental concern, not a universal concern — a fundamental threat to all citizens, not just those who identify with the green movement.”

Carl Pope, executive director of the Sierra Club and a regular participant in alliance leadership meetings, applauds the intent to broaden the alliance beyond the traditional environmental community. “The leadership absolutely benefits from diversity,” he said. “This is one of the most exciting things I’ve worked on in years. It represents progress.”

Schweiger is equally enthusiastic about including folks who aren’t classic enviros. “There are so many people who want to stop global warming for reasons of strengthening national security or protecting God’s creation or promoting new energy markets — not necessarily because they want to join the conservation movement,” he said.

Added Browner, “There’s nobody out there who is weaving all the interests together around a single-focus climate campaign. We are the first.”

Fundraising Awareness

While Gore is distancing himself from the operations of the alliance, he’s diving headfirst into fundraising. “My sole official role will be to help raise money,” he said. “[My wife] Tipper and I will try to be the largest donors.” He has already donated the roughly $250,000 he received as an advance from Rodale, publisher of his new book. And Paramount Classics, distributor of An Inconvenient Truth, has committed to donate 5 percent of the film’s domestic theatrical gross, guaranteeing a minimum of $500,000. Rodale is also rumored to be donating a portion of proceeds from book sales.

Gore and board members estimate that the alliance has lined up millions in funding so far, even before its official launch. “Already we have a lot of major donors who have agreed to bring large sums,” said Gore. One person close to the project, who declined to be named because fundraising specifics are still officially under wraps, said that large contributions are being sought from billionaire philanthropists George Soros and Ted Turner and Silicon Valley bigwigs including Vinod Khosla, cofounder of Sun Microsystems, and Steve Jobs, CEO of Apple. (Gore, it should be noted, sits on Apple’s board of directors.)

The alliance will also seek out modest donations from average Americans. “I think of it as a United Way of global warming,” said Schweiger.

Exactly how this money will be spent remains to be seen, and is a subject of some controversy. Schweiger estimated that “more than 60 percent of the funding will go to national and local media projects aimed at mass persuasion,” and the rest would be allocated to grassroots groups and institutions that are working to educate the public about climate change.

Gore has been a strong proponent of using paid advertising. He and some board members said the alliance could do for climate change what the Truth Campaign, launched in 1999, has been credited with doing for the anti-smoking crusade — trigger a cultural and political shift with print and television advertising.

Jonah Bloom, executive editor of the trade magazine Advertising Age, cautions against such a comparison, noting that the Truth Campaign had the advantage of $2 billion in funding, much of it from a settlement with the tobacco industry, and, perhaps more importantly, had a very simple message: smoking kills. “The difficulty with a climate-change outreach is that it’s a concept that is still very confusing and nebulous to most Americans — you have to at once explain what it is, give it substance, and then caution against it,” he said.

Alliance board members said they have the advantage of leveraging online media — blogging, e-video, viral marketing — to launch an even more sophisticated, and more affordable, messaging juggernaut. Gore argued that the real power of the Truth Campaign was the “extremely clever” design of the ads and the talent behind them, and said that “the most creative people in the American advertising industry have volunteered to help the alliance” with its ads.

Already climate skeptics are mounting an opposition with paid ads of their own. This week, the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank, unveiled two 60-second TV ads pillorying “global warming alarmists.” They’ll air in more than a dozen cities nationwide, timed to coincide with the release of Gore’s documentary.

“We’ll be quick to respond,” said Schweiger, explaining that the alliance plans to issue a request for proposals to major advertising and design-consulting firms in the next few weeks.

Not everybody associated with the alliance supports an ad blitz. “You can’t build social movements with paid advertising,” said one person who has been close to the group’s negotiations, but spoke on condition of anonymity. “That money would go a lot further if it was given to the countless grassroots organizations in cities and states that are already making tremendous local progress but have limited resources.”

What everyone does agree on is the need for a bottom-up appeal to the American masses rather than a top-down campaign focused on leaders in Washington. “The momentum right now has to come from the grassroots,” Gore told Muckraker. “I don’t think it’s gonna come from Washington. In fact, I know it won’t come from Washington.”

“The legislative jujitsu approach has been tried and has failed miserably,” he continued. “The idea that we can tweak a law in a minor way here and call that a solution is delusional. This administration is a subdivision of the polluting interests, which means the incremental approach is actually doing more harm than good because it misleads some people into thinking we are actually making progress, when in fact we are moving in the wrong direction at top speed.”

Reach Out and Teach Me

But can a group dominated by policy wonks really mobilize the grassroots and effectively reach out to new communities?

Gene Case, founder of Avenging Angels, a politically focused advertising firm, said a heavy-hitting climate outreach campaign is much-needed, but will require better branding. “Let’s start with the title of the group — the Alliance for Climate Protection. That’s a branding flaw right there,” he said. “What a snooze! It’s hardly distinguishable from the Environmental Protection Agency. At least they could have picked an acronym that pops.”

The current board lacks representatives of youth groups, ethnic minorities, and other key segments of the American populace — constituencies that would need to be on board to make any large uprising successful.

Browner said this point is not lost on her: “I’m well aware that my 18-year-old would much rather hear [a climate message] from some skateboarding champion than from me.” She said the alliance will partner with youth, environmental-justice, and other groups to help bridge divides and spread the word, and she emphasized that it will diversify as the board grows and a steering committee is formed.

Meanwhile, what the alliance does have going for it is timing. Between record-high gasoline prices, predictions of historic drought this summer, and warnings that another brutal hurricane season could be approaching, the tipping point on climate change may well be nigh.

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