As fate would have it, the same week Al Gore was testifying before Congress, I was doing a little testifying myself. Admittedly, there were a tad fewer paparazzi in the Madison, Wis., classroom where I was giving a talk on global warming (sponsored by Collegians for a Constructive Tomorrow, or CFACT). The debate in Washington offered some familiar echoes.
One student asked a long and rambling question that went basically as follows: He understood why I think Al Gore is dishonest and misleading. But how can I criticize Gore when all he wants to do is make people change their behavior and take care of this planet?
Translation: Gore is on the side of the angels and therefore it's mean-spirited to throw inconvenient truths back at the Oscar winner for "An Inconvenient Truth. "Yeah, exactly," the kid responded when I rephrased the question thusly.
The press and the Democrats seem to share this kid's sensibility. Covering Gore's congressional testimony, The Washington Post's Dana Milbank portrayed Gore as a man of science versus a bunch of creationist nutjobs. Milbank wrote: "... instead of giving another screening of 'An Inconvenient Truth,' the former vice president found himself playing the Clarence Darrow character in 'Inherit the Wind.'" It's an unintentionally accurate comparison, because the movie completely distorted the reality of the Scopes trial. The real Clarence Darrow contentedly lost the open-and-shut case after a nine-minute jury deliberation. The movie was about something bigger than the facts. So is Al Gore. And that's why his fans love him.
Gore says global warming is "a crisis that threatens the survival of our civilization and the habitability of the Earth." It's graver than any war. He compares it to the asteroid that allegedly killed the dinosaurs.
But here's the thing. If there were an asteroid barreling toward earth, we wouldn't be talking about changing our lifestyles, nor would we be preaching about reducing, reusing and recycling. We would be building giant wicked-cool lasers and bomb-carrying spaceships to go out and destroy the thing. But Gore doesn't want to explore geo-engineering (whereby, for example, we'd add sulfate aerosols or other substances to the atmosphere to mitigate global warming). Why? Because solving the problem isn't really the point. As Gore makes it clear in his book, "Earth in the Balance," he wants to change attitudes more than he wants to solve problems.
Indeed, he wants to change attitudes about government as much as he wants to preach environmentalism. Global warming is what William James called a "moral equivalent of war" that gives political officials the power to do things they could never do without a crisis. As liberal journalist James Ridgeway wrote in the early 1970s: "Ecology offered liberal-minded people what they had longed for, a safe, rational and above all peaceful way of remaking society ... (and) developing a more coherent central state."
This explains Gore's relentless talk of "consensus," his ugly moral bullying of "deniers" and, most of all, his insistence that because there's no time left to argue, everyone should do what he says.
Isn't it interesting how the same people who think "dissent is the highest form of patriotism" when it comes to the war think that dissent when it comes to global warming is evil and troglodytic?
"If your baby has a fever, you go to the doctor," Gore said this week. "If the doctor says you need to intervene here, you don't say, 'Well, I read a science fiction novel that told me it's not a problem.' If the crib's on fire, you don't speculate that the baby is flame retardant. You take action."
True enough. But if your baby's crib is on fire, you don't run to a politician for help either.
You can tell that Gore's schtick is about something more than the moderate and manageable challenge of global warming when he talks of sacrifice. On the one hand he wants everybody to change their lifestyles dramatically. These are the sacrifices the voracious energy user Al Gore won't have to make because he can buy "carbon credits" for his many homes and his jet-setting.
But when asked this week about the enormous and unwise costs his plan would impose on the U.S. economy (according to the global consensus of economists), Gore said that his draconian emissions cuts are "going to save you money, and it's going to make the economy stronger."
Wait a second. This is the gravest crisis we've ever faced, but if we do exactly as Gore says (but not as he does), we'll get richer in the process as we heal Mother Earth of her fever? Gore's faith-based initiative is a win-win. No wonder so many people think it's mean to disagree.