Over the past few weeks I've been seeing previews for the film An Inconvenient Truth, by one Al Gore. This guy really seems to understand just what a dire threat global warming represents to the planet, I thought. If only he could somehow get into a position of power so that he could do something about it!
And then it struck me: this same Al Gore used to be the Vice President of the United States during the Clinton administration, from 1993 to 2001. So what was the administration--and Al Gore in particular--doing about global warming back then, when he was one of the most powerful people in the world and not just a budding filmmaker? Let's see what Greenpeace had to say in 1997, just prior to the Kyoto summit:
Greenpeace said recently reported (New York Times 10/10/97 ["Top Aides Urge Clinton to Ease Global Warming Emission Goal"]) White House proposals to delay action on climate change for a generation would both kill global efforts to combat climate change and hurt the legacy President Clinton and Vice-President Gore.
The Clinton/Gore administration are apparently floating a range of targets which would stabilize emissions of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas, at 1990 levels by 2010, 2020 or 2030.
"If this proposal is adopted Clinton and Gore would wipe out any chance to achieve real and meaningful reductions in the gases that cause dangerous global warming," said Kalee Kreider, Director of the Greenpeace USA Climate Campaign.
Greenpeace said it was stunned at the proposed reversal of President Clinton's promise before the world community in June to bring "significant" reduction proposals to the Kyoto Climate Summit.
Greenpeace interpreted the apparent policy shift as driven by Al Gore's Presidential ambitions.
And a few days later the Clinton administration went forward with a policy based on these proposals, prompting Greenpeace to put out another press release stating:
"Five years ago at the Rio Summit, Al Gore and Bill Clinton accused the Bush White House of being the `lone holdout' and an `obstacle to progress' after it refused to support mandatory (as opposed to the non-mandatory agreement ultimately signed) curbs on greenhouse gases. Now, it is Al Gore and Bill Clinton who are the obstacles," concluded Kreider.
Al Gore, obstacle to progress on curbing global warming? Now that's odd. But maybe this policy was being made without his knowledge, consent, or participation? Not according to this BBC report on Gore's visit to the Kyoto summit a few weeks later:
On Monday, the United States vice-president, Al Gore - on a brief visit to Kyoto - said the American team was prepared to offer greater flexibility.
But he failed to shift from the established American position that emissions of the gases blamed for global warming be limited to 1990 levels - a target many countries say is inadequate.
Mr Gore later told a news conference that flexibility would depend on issues like how many gases were being controlled and whether countries' provision for absorbing carbon-dioxide in new forests were included.
So the "flexibility" that Gore mentioned basically boiled down to: "We don't have to cut emissions, because we have so many trees."
Let's skip forward to the year 2000 UN climate summit at the Hague and see what the situation looked like then (using some headlines collected by FAIR):
- "Gas-Guzzling U.S. Under Fire at Global Warming Talks" (Agence France Presse)
- "U.S. Blamed for Climate Treaty Talks Deadlock" (London Daily Telegraph)
- "Climate Talks Fail to Close Rift with U.S." (London Guardian)
- "U.S. Blocks Attempts to Cut Global Warming" (London Independent)
- "Pollution Pact Under Threat as America Is Accused of Con Trick" (London Times)
Hey, FAIR, I can play this game too--here are a few that I found:
- "Climate Talks Stall Over US Proposal for Carbon 'Sinks', Pollution 'Credits'" (Reuters)
- "Activists, Delegates Say Washington Is Seeking Loopholes In Efforts To Cut Global Gas Emissions" (Los Angeles Times)
- "US Berated For Wriggling Out Of Treaty Pledges / EU fury grows as Americans try to exploit loopholes" (London Guardian)
- "US Plays Dirty As Planet Chokes" (London Observer)
And here's a good summary of the controversy (from that last article):
The prime problem is America, the world's greatest emitter of carbon dioxide, which presses, with increasing insistence, that it should be spared from reducing its output and should instead be allowed to create new forests, both in the US and the Third World. These trees and plants, known collectively as carbon sinks, will soak up all that nasty carbon dioxide, say US delegates, and will obviate the need for Americans to abandon their profligacy.
The US also believes that by planting crops specially designed to soak up carbon dioxide, it could extend its 'sink' philosophy from the wild to the farmyard, thus strengthening its case for unabated industrial emissions. It was this idea, introduced at the Hague last week, that provoked that outburst of fury by Europe's delegates.
Other US agricultural innovations circulating last week included the wonderful idea of feeding sheep, pigs and cows special anti-flatulence diets to reduce levels of methane, another greenhouse gas. This notion merely induced derisive laughter.
(Laughter? Have these people no appreciation of the dire danger posed to the planet by livestock farts? Yeesh.)
Europe and most developing nations, as well as most non-governmental agencies, scorn the idea of carbon sinks. Only the real thing - cuts in emissions - will definitely work, they say.
So sure enough, the "flexibility" Gore was selling at Kyoto was just his way of dressing up the Clinton administration's corporate-inspired stance that the US would not cut emissions in any significant way, but would instead receive credit for its 25% of global emissions on the basis of having so damn many trees. This and other proposals like "pollution credits," all of which were intended to obviate any real US response to the crisis, put the US in opposition to the rest of the world and sank the Hague summit--deferring action on global warming at a time when delay was simply no longer an option.
And throughout all of this, Vice President Al Gore was right there at the center of the policymaking. When he had the chance to actually do something about global warming--rather than just putting out self-serving films extolling his commitment to addressing it, that is--he put corporate profits and political expediency before the welfare of the planet.
I'd say that Gore has some inconvenient truths of his own to account for.
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad Gore has made a film that will be seen by many people and may actually open a few minds to the threat of global warming, though I suspect the vast majority of the audience will be those who already recognize the danger. But it doesn't change his past, and I seriously doubt it portends any change in how he'd handle the issue in the future if he were ever to regain high office (since I suspect that this film is an early Gore campaign commercial for 2008 or 2012 as much as anything else). Were Gore ever to become president, I have no doubt he'd start talking again just as he did in Kyoto in 1997 about "realistic and achievable" limits and warning that countries should not "promise what we cannot do"--fiddling while the earth burns.