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Jewish World ReviewJan. 14, 2000 / 7 Shevat, 5760

David Corn

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Ozone Man To Ride Again? -- AT LAST week’s Democratic presidential debate in New Hampshire, Vice President Gore, contending with a strong and assertive performance from Bill Bradley, hailed his own leadership abilities. As evidence, he cited his role in increasing public awareness of global warming: “I decided to take on the issue of global warming and make it a national issue, when everybody was saying, you know, you’re going to run a lot of risk there, people are going to think that that’s kind of off the edge there. Well, now more and more people say yes it is real. And the next president has to be willing to take it on.”

True, Gore has, at times, been something of a leader in this area. But his leadership has been erratic. Throughout this campaign, Gore has done little to reprise his stint as the environmental politician. When I searched The Hotline, the political insiders’ daily guide, for the words “Gore” and “global warming,” the most recent hit occurred in the middle of the summer, when Gore made an appearance with Bill Nye, “The Science Guy,” and criticized GOPers in Congress for blocking environmental spending.

Eight years ago—after he had taken himself out of the 1992 presidential race—Gore published Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit. Conservatives still get off by combing its pages for what they consider to be examples of his gaga green extremism. The book, though, was a well-argued and seemingly heartfelt cry for far-reaching, kick-ass environmental policies.

But it contains passages that should haunt Gore, sentences that deserve to be taken off the shelf again and again, whenever anyone is evaluating Gore. At the start of Chapter 14—“A New Common Purpose”—Gore wrote, “I have come to believe that we must take bold and unequivocal action: we must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization.” Um, what happened?

Has Gore behaved in a manner consistent with this revelation? When you see him on the campaign trail fighting to keep an office in the White House, do you think, “There goes a pol who wants to make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle of civilization”?

A clue to the disappearance of the Ozone Man—that’s what George W. Bush’s Pop derisively called Gore in 1992—can be found in the introduction. There Gore confessed, “I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously. The voice of caution whispers persuasively in the ear of every politician, often with good reason. But when caution breeds timidity, a good politician listens to other voices... [N]ow, every time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on a limb, I look at the new facts that continue to pour in from around the world and conclude that I have not gone nearly far enough. The integrity of the environment is not just another issue to be used in political games for popularity, votes, or attention. And the time has long since come to take more political risks—and endure much more political criticism—by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting hard for their enactment.”

Somehow, it seems, the “voice of caution” has gotten to Gore. The Clinton-Gore proposals to counter global warming are far weaker than those measures advocated by scientists who have confirmed the existence of a global-warming threat. And if campaigns provide the chance to demonstrate leadership by bringing tough issues to the public, Gore so far has let the opportunity pass. A good guess is that “other voices” have told him to lay off that sky-is-falling, environmental stuff. It only depresses people. And, besides, where else are greenies going to go?

Obviously the problem of global warming has not vanished. The science continues to get clearer and more frightening. Right before Christmas, Peter Ewins, the chief executive officer of the UK Meteorological Office, and James Baker, the undersecretary in charge of the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, issued a letter that contained a stern warning. Recent data collected by both agencies, they said, confirm “that our climate is now changing rapidly. These new observations, when combined with our improving understanding of the climate system, increasingly point to human influences as the cause of these climate changes.” This pair of scientists noted that the 1990s was the “hottest decade of the last 1,000 years in the Northern Hemisphere.”

In the United States, 1999 will probably be the second warmest year on record since 1880. And, the two added, the heat is no fluke of nature: “The rapid rate of warming since 1976, approximately 0.2 degrees C per decade, is consistent with the projected rate of warming based on human-induced effects. In fact, scientists now say that they cannot explain this unusual warmth without including the effects of human-generated greenhouse gases and aerosols.”

Ewins and Baker criticized the naysayers in the United States who claim the global warming threat is just hype; they mean the corporate community and its allies in conservative think tanks. “Our new data and understanding,” they wrote, “now point to the critical situation we face: to slow future change, we must start taking action soon. At the same time, because of our past and ongoing activities, we must start to learn to live with the likely consequences—more extreme weather, rising sea levels, changing precipitation patterns, ecological and agricultural dislocations, and the increased spread of human disease.”

Public opinion and public policy lag woefully far behind the science on this crucial environmental issue.

(Forget the recent millennium-inspired blather in the punditry about whether the next century will be tagged another “American Century.” It probably will be known as the Century of Sizzle. That is, if it’s not dubbed the Chinese Century—imagine a billion people with cellphones!—or the Century of the Transnational Corporation.)

And where’s Gore? He is not throwing caution to the wind. Like George W. Bush, he, too, shows a lack of commitment to the faith he has professed.

JWR contributor David Corn, Washington Editor of The Nation, writes the "Loyal Opposition" column for The New York Press ( His latest book is Deep Background.

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