Is Al Gore a hero or a traitor?
By Jay Branegan/Washington
April 19, 1999
Al Gore the senator wrote Earth In The Balance, a warning about global warming and other looming catastrophes of "the environmental crisis." At once passionate and wonky, the book reflected years of personal study and policymaking. Larded with stirring phrases--"We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization"--and bold prescriptions, like eliminating the internal-combustion engine in 25 years, Earth in the Balance secured Gore's place in the environmentalists' pantheon as America's greenest national politician.
Al Gore the Vice President has been an influential adviser and workhorse for the Clinton Administration on many issues, including trade, with his high-profile trouncing of Ross Perot in a NAFTA debate; foreign policy, with his up-front role in the Kosovo crisis; and technology, where he has championed the multibillion-dollar effort to wire all schools to the Internet (even if he didn't create it).
But now that Gore is running for the White House and preparing to step out of Clinton's shadow, environmentalists and other voters want to know how green the Vice President really is. Does his record on the environment as Clinton's right-hand man match the exalted and ambitious rhetoric of his book, or has he, as he phrased it in Earth In The Balance, succumbed to the "tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously"? In other words, is Al Gore the candidate the guy who wrote the book?
His own answer is a quick and unequivocal yes, and there's plenty of evidence to back him up. Thanks to Gore, the Clinton Administration is the most pro-environment in a generation. Gore has placed staunch allies in top environmental positions, most notably his one-time Senate legislative director, Carol Browner, as boss of the Environmental Protection Agency, where she has been a tenacious pollution fighter. The next proof of that will be tough new EPA proposals, expected by the end of the month, for regulations mandating cleaner gasoline and lower limits on auto pollution, particularly from sport utility vehicles. The Administration has pushed through Congress important legislation, such as the California Desert Protection Act, which covers more public land than any other conservation law affecting the Lower 48 states. Clinton and Gore largely beat back--with some exceptions--an assault on environmental laws and regulations by Republicans when they captured the House and Senate in 1994, and have found ways around hostile legislators to implement policies favored by conservationists, like reining in the U.S. Forest Service's road-building program.
The green lobby has never had better White House access and is consulted early about legislation and regulations, following years of virtual exile under Reagan and Bush. "We're part of the process now," says Dan Weiss, the Sierra Club's political director.
And so is Gore. For instance, he ignored the advice of his own experts and flew to the 1997 Kyoto climate-change treaty negotiations, which were about to collapse. He announced a shift in the American position and personally lobbied several foreign delegations. The result was a breakthrough, and a treaty that calls for developed countries to cut their emissions of harmful greenhouse gases, including the carbon dioxide that comes from burning coal and gasoline. "It was his presence that helped break the whole thing open," says the chief American negotiator, Stuart Eizenstat.
Perhaps most important, Gore doesn't distance himself from his book, which opponents have called "kooky," among kinder descriptions. Because it was published well before Clinton plucked him from the Senate, Gore could claim he was being deliberately outrageous to stir debate. But he does no such thing. "There's not a statement in that book that I don't endorse. Not one," he said last month during an interview in his West Wing office. "The evidence has firmed up the positions I sketched there."
So, case closed? Not so fast. While Gore has been enthusiastic in his commitment, he has been pragmatic in his tactics. Politics is the art of the possible, and even less is possible when you're only the Vice President. Antipollution proposals have run afoul of other powerful government players, particularly Deputy Treasury Secretary Lawrence Summers, described by a former Administration official as a "Darth Vader on the environment."
To some of Gore's green allies, his willingness to compromise has been a source of quiet frustration. Last week leaders of nine top environmental groups wrote him to voice their "deep disappointment" that the Administration hasn't produced a credible program to meet the Kyoto targets. "It's very clear that Gore has the knowledge," says Howard Ris, executive director of the Union of Concerned Scientists and one of the letter signers, "but we haven't seen the full exercise of political will to move that forward." Says Gore's most vocal green critic, the National Environmental Trust's Phil Clapp: "I don't question the Vice President's commitment against global warming, but so far, it's all talk and no action."
The problem was clear last August at a meeting in the Roosevelt Room between Gore and the CEOs of the leading environmental groups, who presented him with a set of options to cut carbon-dioxide emissions from the two biggest sources, cars and coal-fired power plants. Curbing the pollution from coal would involve controversial moves against many electric utilities, but the U.S.--and Gore--had to show leadership by backing the idea, they insisted. The room grew suddenly frosty, and Gore, who in previous months had been speaking out on climate change and fighting internally for more antipollution funding, said, "Name a Senator who would support me." He then gave a lecture on global warming's vexing politics--the Senate would soundly reject the treaty in its current form--and abruptly ended the meeting. The green lobbyists concede that the public isn't yet ready to back painful measures to combat global warming, but contend that a political donnybrook led by the Vice President, even in a losing cause, would raise awareness. Not so, says Gore. "We lost the fight in 1993," he observes, referring to the far-reaching "btu tax" on fuels that went down to defeat. "We're not yet winning the fight for the proposals we have now. Losing on impractical proposals that are completely out of tune with what is achievable does not necessarily advance your cause at all," and could set it back by convincing politicians that the issue is too risky to revisit.
Stronger policy proposals, Gore argues, have to go with public awareness and political support. "You cannot have one without the other," he says. A presidential campaign might be a good place to stir up a tempest about climate change, but so far, it appears unlikely that Gore will do so. His strategists figure, quite rightly, that he can't be elected President solely as Mr. Environment and Technology. So they plan to fill out the rest of Gore's portfolio. His still evolving stump speech emphasizes such proven vote getters as education and health care. The main environmental program he will push is "livability," a grab bag of measures to fight urban sprawl, preserve open space and battle traffic congestion that should appeal to important suburban swing voters.
If all this means that Gore will soft-pedal his signature cause, climate change, for the next 1 1/2 years, that's bad for the earth and unworthy of a politician who has a record for being principled and decisive. With jobs plentiful and the economy strong, there never will be a better time to be aggressive. True, the environmental community must do more to build grass-roots support, but who is Al Gore if not the country's leading environmentalist? If the environment is ever to be civilization's "central organizing principle," surely it should be the central focus of Gore's campaign. That would force his Republican opponents and any Democratic rivals to respond, giving voters the opportunity to judge who can best protect the environment--and civilization--as we head into the 21st century.
--With reporting by Dick Thompson/Washington
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