Cold day, hot speech: Gore's global warning
Al Gore's remarkable address on climate change and environmental policy won a sustained ovation from the audience that filled Manhattan's Beacon Theatre Thursday afternoon. Lucid, learned, witty and fearless, the man who won the last presidential election delivered what was certainly the best speech of his career and one of the best I've ever heard given by any politician. (It is now available here.) The event's only regrettable aspect was the absence of certain individuals who ought to have shut up and listened -- including Ralph Nader and his supporters, axe-grinding reporters who maligned Gore so unfairly in 2000, and such scientific authorities as Rep. Roy Blunt and Dr. Matt Drudge, who evidently think a winter snowstorm somehow disproves global warming.
The headline moment came when Gore described George W. Bush as a "moral coward," but he carefully built toward his scathing conclusion with Powerpoint logic, displaying the graphic and pictorial evidence that shows how swiftly the Earth's polar ice and glaciers are receding as pollution increases. In fact, the scientific consensus on this issue and its dangers has been clear for several years -- and is growing stronger (see this article in the December 2003 issue of Science magazine by two leading U.S. government scientists and this statement issued last month by the American Geophysical Union, the largest organization of earth scientists.)
As Gore noted sardonically, "Glaciers don't respond to politics. They just melt or freeze."
The former vice president spoke with humor and passion about the dangers of environmental irresponsibility -- and with a degree of sarcasm and anger about the forces that stand in the way of environmental progress. He has come to believe, he said, that the Bush administration represents a terrible departure from a national consensus that dates back to Theodore Roosevelt. In its subservience to corporate interests and right-wing extremists, he discerns "a troubling pattern ... In almost every policy area, the administration's consistent goal has been to eliminate any constraints on their exercise of raw power, whether by law, regulation, alliance, or treaty ..."
He recalled the president's "solemn" promise, as a candidate in 2000, to regulate carbon dioxide as a polluting greenhouse gas -- and how that promise was abandoned, after the Supreme Court installed George W. Bush in the White House, with a "dismissive expression of contempt for careful, peer-reviewed work by EPA scientists setting forth the plain facts on global warming." (Paul O'Neill provides a timely inside account of that sickening surrender in "The Price of Loyalty.")
Gore went on to say that "the Bush White House represents a new departure in the history of the presidency. He is so eager to accommodate his supporters and contributors that there appears to be very little that he is not willing to do for them at the expense of the public interest ... While President Bush likes to project an image of strength and courage, the truth is that in the presence of his large financial contributors he is a moral coward -- so weak that he seldom if ever says no to them on anything -- no matter what the public interest might mandate."
That brought whistles and hoots from the crowd, but Gore's peroration was not belligerent, but moving and optimistic.
"When we set our sights on a visionary goal and are unified in pursuing it, there is very little we cannot accomplish ... Instead of spending enormous sums of money on an unimaginative and retread effort to make a tiny portion of the Moon habitable for a handful of people, we should focus on a massive effort to ensure that the Earth is habitable for future generations ..."
Then Gore clicked a button, and up on the screen appeared a huge photograph, taken from far out in space, of an infinitesimal azure dot -- a "mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam," a symbol of "the folly of human conceits." And it was hard not to think about the folly and the conceit that allowed a lesser man to take what this man had won.
[4:30 p.m. PST, Jan. 15, 2004]