Change in the Weather 

Al Gore heats up debate in An Inconvenient Truth

Four words you probably never expected to hear in combination are "Al Gore concert film." "Documentary" may not be the best label for An Inconvenient Truth, Davis Guggenheim's film of the former vice president's compelling lecture -- what Gore calls his "slide show" -- on the devastating implications of global climate change. With appealing, self-deprecating humor and startling visual aids (including shocking photos showing the disappearance of world glaciers and the potential flooding of Ground Zero in New York City), Gore makes a case that can thaw the most hardened skeptic.

I interviewed him when his promotional tour brought him to Atlanta's Four Seasons hotel and found that, despite his brainiac reputation, Al Gore turns out to be warm and gregarious. (In serious moments, however, he looks a little like Sam the Eagle from "The Muppet Show.") I didn't bother asking him if he'll make another presidential bid following his infamous loss in 2000; his stock reply these days is the open-ended, "I have no plans to run for public office again." But I did talk to him about his long-standing, at times quixotic environmental cause and his newfound career in the movie business.

In the movie, when you're not doing the slide show on stage, you're by yourself during the short autobiographical segments. Do you genuinely feel isolated, or does the movie just create an impression of you, alone, pushing the global warming issue?

I don't think it's a false impression. I think the movie is accurate in its portrayal of me going around the country and around the world presenting this slide show to audiences everywhere they'll sit down long enough to watch it. I was given a real privilege by my college professor Roger Rivelle back in the 1960s, by being shown the truth of this very early on. It's almost like finding a note in a bottle on a beach that says, "This message is life or death. Whoever finds this, please deliver." In my case, the message has been addressed to the American people. And it's not from me, it's from reality. And it's from the global scientific community, and the experts in climate science who don't always have a chance to communicate directly to the American people. Our public forum doesn't work very well when it comes to scientifically based information. It gets lost in the discussion of Britney's new baby and whether Russell Crowe threw a telephone at a hotel concierge. I believe in American democracy, but I believe it works only when there is a well-informed citizenry, to use James Madison's phrase, and when the people hold the politicians accountable in both parties.

One of your graphs shows how the levels of CO2 concentration steadily went up simultaneous with your years in Congress. Does that increase of greenhouse gases increase your sense of urgency?

Today, the world will put more than 15 million tons of carbon dioxide pollution into the Earth's atmosphere. And tomorrow, the same. Except it'll be a little more the next day, and the day after that. The best scientists are now saying that we've got less than 10 years before we pass a point of no return. We don't have to do everything within 10 years, but we have to make a big start toward solving it.

Do you feel frustrated that you've been pushing these issues for most of your career, and the situation hasn't improved?

Yes. That's why I say in the movie that I feel as though I've failed to deliver this message as clearly and compellingly as it needs to be delivered. But I'm not done yet. There's an old saying that the harder you work, the luckier you get. When I gave the slide show in Los Angeles last year, some movie producers were in the audience who came up afterward to ask if they could make a movie out of it. Although I had some initial reservations, they talked me out of them. The movie makes it possible to deliver this message to a lot more people in a shorter period of time. Plus, they tell me I don't have to be physically present everywhere this movie is shown -- which will save a little CO2 myself.

What were your reservations?

I couldn't see how you could make a slide show into a movie. Live performances keep the attention of an audience if for no other reason than they want to be polite to the real-life person on stage. And secondly, I worried that the science would take a back seat to a Hollywood approach, but they satisfied me on both of those points. You'll never see another movie that has more science front and center, but in an entertaining way.

An Inconvenient Truth starts out with footage of Hurricane Katrina striking New Orleans, implying that global warming caused the Hurricane Katrina disaster. Is that fair?

You know, I was scheduled to give my slide show to the 50 state insurance commissioners at a conference on global warming and hurricanes in New Orleans on Aug. 29. Here's what the science says: The average hurricane has become significantly stronger because of global warming. What was unusual about Katrina was how strong it was. And after all, the same year Katrina hit, it was far from the only strong hurricane. Three weeks later, Hurricane Rita hit. Before Katrina, Hurricane Dennis wiped out a lot of the oil and gas industry in the Gulf. Wilma became the strongest hurricane ever measured in the Atlantic. And while Wilma was still on the scene, they ran out of names. The fact that hurricanes occur -- that's natural. The sharp increase in Category 4 and 5 hurricanes, according to the scientists, is strongly affected by global warming. So yes, I think it's totally fair.

The film presents such a bleak, powerful case that after a while, all I could think was, "Well, we're screwed." I saw it right when gas hit $3 a gallon, and thought, "At least we can't afford to drive anymore, so that will solve the issue."

One of the reasons I put so much humor in it was to get through those parts and be of good cheer. Actually, I am an optimist. I'm totally convinced we're going to solve this crisis -- we are! But we will solve it when the majority of the people know the truth, and are set free by the truth, and demand that politicians in both parties act on the truth.

Some environmentalists say gas should be $4 a gallon to enforce conservation. I agree with that in principle, but what about people in places like Atlanta, who won't be able to afford to drive?

I've never felt that the burden of this ought to be put on the shoulders of the people who are least able to pay for it. I think we ought to build an alliance with the farmers and make a big shift to what they call cellulosic ethanol. Then, you can grow your own fuel and it is renewable. It would help supplement the incomes of small farms surrounding large cities and cut our dependence on Middle Eastern oil. Right now, we're going deeply into debt to China to borrow money to buy oil from the most unstable part of the world -- where we have to send soldiers every so often -- and then burning it in a way that destroys the habitability of the world. It's not a good pattern.

On a lighter note, I was wondering if you have guilty pleasures.

Guilty pleasures? Oh, sure, everybody does. When Tipper and I were watching "The Sopranos" last night at home in Nashville, I went to the refrigerator and got a chocolate bar. I knew I shouldn't do that. I'm going to the Cannes Film Festival on Saturday -- I need to lose some more weight!



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