IN AN IMPORTANT new profile piece, the climate unifier Al Gore opens up on a range of once-taboo subjects.
Reporter Darrell Harb of Climate Nuremberg is a leading obsessive on Gore’s career in oratory (I’ve seen him recite Vice Presidential speeches by heart), so it was a dream come true when the environmentalist invited Darrell to the palatial Malibu compound where he summers.
Their wide-ranging interview is due out in next month’s CN (print edition only), but we’re proud to share these excerpts with CliScep readers.
“I WANTED TO ASK YOU, Senator Gore, about a soundbite that can, and has, been used against you in the court of public opinion,” I say nervously.
Throughout most of my life, I raised tobacco. I want you to know that with my own hands, all of my life, I put it in the plant beds and transferred it. I’ve hoed it. I’ve dug in it. I’ve sprayed it, I’ve chopped it, I’ve shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn and stripped it and sold it.
Apart from its exquisite musical quality—I ask—that passage was also factual, wasn’t it?
“Yeah; I used to sell tobacco. It certainly isn’t a part of my life I’d ever boast about. Not if I wasn’t canvassing rural votes.
“It was short-sighted of me—no question about it. But when you’re young you feel invulnerable. You never think about the consequences, the future. Nobody at 40 ever stops to wonder: what if I run for V.P. in ten years?”
Would you do it again, I ask?
“What, with everything we know about the dangers of tobacco links? You’ve gotta be joking.
“Not only does Big Tobacco harm your credibility, it causes severe damage to your likeability, electability, perceived Presidentiality… the list of effects goes on.
“A new peer-reviewed study has concluded, and I quote, that every year you sell tobacco cuts two years off your [political] life expectancy.
“Americans who sell regularly are 19 times as likely to be associated with words like cancer, unhealthy and heart disease.
“I can show you the focus research. The political scientists are unanimous. Read the political science.”
He says he has little sympathy for anyone who’s still pushing nicotine.
“I just shake my head at the stupidity. In this day and age, with all our computers on the interwhatsit, there’s just no excuse. It’s electoral suicide. Joe Blog at home suddenly has access to all kinds of information. He just has to google your name, and blam: there’s a photo of you on a [tobacco] spiker.
“Back in the day, nobody went online. Even the top scientists didn’t understand the connections [between me and the tobacco industry]. People are much more aware of the facts [about my past] now.”
Gore is under no illusions: he was lucky to get away with it for so long.
“America still voted for me, but it could have gone the other way. I quit just in time. Sometimes I feel so blessed—I mean, look around. Look at all the nice houses I own.
“A lot of guys I grew up with weren’t so lucky. You know where they are now?
He indicates the ground, mournfully.
“The South. Still.
“Careers in a holding pattern, middle management at some Tennessee tobacco outfit, an ugly wife and a house mortgaged up the ass. There but for the grace of God, right?
“So whenever I’m tempted to feel sorry for myself I just think of all the losers I know. It reminds me that God really does care about me,” he says, chuckling.
“How many years do I have left? Who knows—but I’m grateful for all of it. The way I see it, every day above the Mason-Dixon line is a good day.“
Does he ever feel regret for the many years of tobacco sales, subsidies and campaign contributions that have gone into his personal and political coffers, I wonder?
“Sure, I could do that: I could indulge in the luxury of guilt. I could give it all back to the community, all this ‘blood money,’ in exchange for a good night’s sleep—the sleep of the innocent.
“‘This is the house that lung cancer built,’ I could cry, and donate it to charity, and move into something simpler, maybe a Spanish six-bedroom in Beverly Hills.
“So yeah, I could buy my own redemption for a few million dollars. That would be the easy thing to do.
“Easy, and wrong. Things happen for a reason. I believe God had a plan for me when He put me in that [tobacco] industry, and allowed me to stay there all those decades, even though He could’ve pulled me out, easily, at any time.
“Of course you don’t always know what the plan is. Not until years later.
“Just recently, you know, I was writing a polemic for Rolling Stone, basically stoking hatred against folks who question the need for climate action. But I needed a new way, a better way, of talking about my opponents. The old language of ‘denier this’ and ‘denier that’ wasn’t cutting it any more. That’s the only downside to hate speech: the shock value wears off.
“But for the longest time I had to rack my brains to think of an alternative.
“And you know what? Jesus had put the answer right in front of me, all along. All’s I had to do was look in the mirror. Really look. When I finally saw my own reflection, really saw it, it was like: eureka!
“‘Merchants of poison.’ And just like that, we had our headline.”
The first thing I notice as I shake Al Gore’s hand is all the weight he’s lost.
Sensing my admiration even before I do, he explains, “I’ve been hitting the gym,” and gestures towards the mansion’s North wing, where he’s just had a fully-equipped cardio and weights complex installed.
“A few months ago I got a real wake-up call: the top argument against global warming was my adiposity, apparently,” he continues.
“I obviously couldn’t have that on my conscience. So I made it my New Year’s resolution: no more defenders of the science would ever lose to deniers because Al Gore is fat.”
Gore’s live-in trainer is confident the former Vice President can reach his ideal Body Mass Index of 31.5 (grade-one obesity) by midyear, leaving him at least as trim as his average American critic.
“One of your most effective speeches, I think,” I tell the former Vice President, “was the one you used on political donors at the ’96 Democrat convention. I’m always moved by that moment in the hospital, when your sister Nancy is fighting her last battle with lung cancer after 60 pack years of chain-smoking.”
She looked up and from out of that haze, her eyes focused tensely… ‘Do you bring me hope?’
But all I could do was say, with all the gentleness in my heart, ‘I love you.’ And then I knelt by her bed and held her hand. And soon her breathing became labored and then she breathed her last breath.
And that is why until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from the dangers of smoking.
How did he pursue that cause, I ask?
“Well, first, I figured I should probably stop selling tobacco.”
But kicking the habit was harder than Gore expected, and two years after his sister’s death he was still selling “regularly.”
Why did it take so long, I ask?
“That’s easy for you to ask! You’ve obviously never had a dependency on the income,” he retorts, barely holding onto his temper.
“I had a $1500-a-day habit. After taxes. It’s been proven—and this, this is science here: that tobacco is a highly lucrative substance.
“You know, so I just, I find that whole line of questioning incredibly ignorant.
“As I’ve been consistent in saying, okay, and as I will always say, this: that night, when my sister died in agony right in front of me, I made up my mind immediately to distance myself from Big Tobacco.
“It just took me a while to get around to it.”
With the demands of his local constituency, his Senatorial responsibilities, a one-man crusade against climate change to fight, and a tobacco farm to run, he just couldn’t seem to find a spare five minutes to quit the tobacco industry, Gore explains.
“There are only 24 hours in a day,” he adds, “according to the scientists who study time management.
“Obviously I did quit, in the end—several times, as the joke goes! Seriously though, the stress of fighting climate denial made it all too easy to lapse back into bad habits whenever I had a shitty day.”
But climate skeptics aren’t solely responsible for his actions, he clarifies.
“I also blame my childhood friends; they were pretty heavy sellers at the time. It wasn’t exactly the most supportive environment for getting clean—not when my entire social group was doing it.”
The Vice Presidential nomination couldn’t have come at a better time, Gore reflects.
“Suddenly I was moving in a whole new circle of folks in Washington, so I had no time for my old friends. I didn’t even return their calls, because I was too good for them; and I never have.
“Which is a good thing. They’d only act as enablers.”
The key to quitting once and for all—just months before winning the White House—was to sell gum instead, he adds.
Now that he’s a parent of four, I’m dying to know: does Gore allow his kids to sell tobacco?
“No way. The Gore house is a Big-Tobacco-free zone. Actually, that goes for all drugs.
“And all our houses,” he adds.
“I’m not naïve: young people are going to experiment. I supplied marijuana in college, once or twice, but I didn’t like it.
“If my kids want to sell crack to their friends they can do it outside, on the veranda. Not while they’re under my roof.”
Like anyone who’s raised a teenager, he wasn’t exactly looking forward to ‘the conversation’ about selling drugs.
“But the first one is the hardest. It gets easier.
“Kids at that age are curious. They want to know about drug dealing. ‘Dad, all my friends are doing it,’ says my 14-year-old.
“’But they’re not my son,’ I answer—’are they? You are. You carry my surname.’”
While Gore believes in a parenting style that allows kids to make their own mistakes (“the only way to learn,” as he puts it), there are limits to the kind of risks he’ll allow them to take.
“’When you get arrested for traffic and supply, you’re not just hurting yourself,’ I used to tell them.
“’You’ll also be hurting me—politically, socially, financially. My name will be on the evening news, and not in a good way.’
“‘Sorry, young lady, but I won’t allow that.'”
Gore’s advice to other American parents?
“Life experience comes in handy when broaching these topics. Let your child know that you know—that you’re not just some old fuddy-duddy who has no idea what he’s talking about.
“After all, we’ve been around the block. I personally spent 30 years pushing addictive substances.”
“We’ve already touched briefly on the musicalness that runs through your rhetoric, which is obviously informed by the tradition of charismatic preaching that you imbibed at Vanderbilt Divinity.
“But I think my favorite example,” I continue, “would have to be your use of the tobacco analogy.”
I read from a transcript of an interview he gave in 2009:
Some of the largest carbon polluters have been vigorous and try to convince people—as the tobacco industry did years ago on the link between smoking cigarettes and lung disease—that there really isn’t a link—between global warming—pollution and global warming. But the power of that kind of lobbying and advertising does have an impact.
How does he justifies the leap from tobacco to climate denial, I ask?
Gore points to the complete lack of evidence.
“A link like that doesn’t just disappear on its own, does it? It must have cost a lot of money to make evidence on such a scale go away. Someone desperately doesn’t want us to know something, which only increases the moral obligation I feel [to inform the public about it].”
Absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence, Gore reminds me, but rather evidence of the presence of a well-funded plot hidden from public view.
“The cover-up is obviously professional,” he says, “when there’s virtually no trail left. Considering how many climate deniers played an intimate part in the Tobacco Wars, you have to wonder why there’s no record of it.”
Gore believes hundreds, if not thousands, of skeptical climate scientists have past links to Big Nicotine.
“A recent study has shown, I think, that there are more tobacco-linked contrarian scientists than there are mainstream scientists in total,” he says off the top of his head.
“This is an industry that’s been polluting the discourse for 50 years. You can’t spew thousands of words of propaganda per day into the blogosphere and not have an effect.”
But there are people who think skepticism has nothing to do with tobacco industry emissions, aren’t there?
“So what? There are people who think the moon landings were faked on a Hollywood sound stage!
“Not the same people, of course.
“But people nonetheless. Because people are idiots. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in this climate game, it’s that nobody ever lost money underestimating the critical faculties of the American public.
“What qualifications do these ‘people’ have? In the field—in the industry?
“Have they raised it? With their own hands, all of their life? Put it in the plant beds and transferred it? Hoed it, dug in it, sprayed it, chopped it, shredded it, spiked it, put it in the barn, stripped it and sold it?
“Because I have. Who are you going to trust?”
The research is compelling, he continues, and slams a mint-condition hard-cover novel on the table in front of me. I don’t even have to glance down to know it’s Merchants of Doubt.
“Four hundred turgid pages of solidly-footnoted prose. I defy anyone to read this.”
Gore hasn’t, but says it’s an excellent introduction to the topic for those who need one.
“Merchants is what I’d read first, if I didn’t already know everything in it.
“And what do the skeptics have?” he asks, mocking the dearth of novels in support of their complaints that the historical novelists ‘have got it all wrong.’
“They’ve been trashing Professor Oreskes for years. But I don’t see them producing a coherent, peer-reviewed theory to explain all the climate skepticism we’re seeing.”
Which leads us nicely to what is probably my favourite passage in An Inconvenient Truth.
It was a fine spring day in March, 1989. That year, in America alone, 195,000 people would be the victims of motor vehicle accidents—105,000 of them due to negligent drivers.
For me it was just a statistic… until now. My six-year-old son had just been struck down by a careless driver, and the doctors were saying he’d never walk again until his cast came off, which could take weeks.
In the sterile quiet of that trauma ward, amid the shattered bodies of young MVA [motor vehicle accident] victims just like my son, with their bruised lungs, fractured collarbones, broken femurs and second-degree skin burns where cars had dragged them along the road, I made up my mind that I wasn’t going to sit there, helpless. I was going to do something.
And that is why, until I draw my last breath, I will pour my heart and soul into the cause of protecting our children from climate change.
Gore now counts the near-tragedy as one of the “truly shirt-changing events” in his life.
“It was the kind of moment that makes you reexamine your whole appearance. My wardrobe would never be the same again.
“I had to take a long, hard look at myself in news footage and CSPAN; to go back over all the print interviews I’d done with fresh eyes, asking the hard questions: did those colors really work for me?”
He admits seeking professional help in the turmoil of those weeks at his son’s bedside at Johns Hopkins.
“A friend gave me the card of a good stylist, and I hired her, just to get through that transitional period. It really did help, to have someone to talk to about these issues.
“I’m not ashamed of it. And you know, it might not be a stylist; it could be an image consultant or a personal shopper. But sometimes in life you do have to reach out—to admit you can’t do it alone.”
His son was back at school within a month, but Gore himself never looked the same.
Resilience in public life: where does it come from, I ask?
“When bad things happen to good people like me,” he explains, “I ask myself:
“How can I turn this to my advantage by incorporating it into an awareness- or fund-raising speech?
“I believe God is good, and never sends us trials and tribulations we can’t use as anecdotes.”
At 67, Gore says he’s not about to hang up the gloves.
“How can I retire from public life now, when there are millions of Americans who refuse to admit, or can’t acknowledge, or won’t concede, the science that links Tobacco emissions to climate skepticism?”
Gore has thrown down the gauntlet to cynics, offering $250 million of his own as a prize for anyone who can prove that the climate issue is a money-making scam.
So far, he says, there’s been deafening silence “from anyone legitimate.”
“I guess they lack the courage of their convictions,” he concludes. “They call themselves climate deniers, but deep down they know the Earth has a climate. They probably know it changes, too, for that matter.”
Lacking the courage of their convictions: it seems to be a common theme with self-styled deniers, I notice. When was the last time they debated you in public, I ask?
“Try never! They like to talk big, but they’re afraid to go head to head,” says Gore, who has a policy of refusing to grant ‘deniers’ the legitimacy of sharing a stage with him.
Bottom line, I ask him: what is the message of the science, in one sentence?
“The overwhelming majority of world scientists agree that climate-change denial is real, it’s caused by Fossil Fuel, and it poses a major threat to our home world.”
What one piece of advice would he give the legitimate scientists?
“Listen guys, the world has changed. You can’t afford to just, quote-unquote, stick to the science any more,” says Gore.
They need to get better at defaming and delegitimising skeptics, he argues.
Perhaps we all do. Through his own network of climate leadership camps, Gore is doing his bit to give young people the smearing skills they need to disarm tomorrow’s denialists—but he knows it isn’t nearly enough. He’s pressing for these skills to be taught in high schools so that they’re not limited to the élite few who can afford his training fees.
“Everywhere I go—and I travel a heck of a lot—people come up to me and hug me and say: Mr Vice President, why do these global warming skeptics make you so mad? Why take the climate debate so personally?
“And all I can say is, because it is personal! You know, you’re goddamn right I get emotional.
“Because if you’d experienced half of—when you’ve, when you’ve been through what I have—then, you know, you’d know the damage tobacco can do.
“My own sis—look, don’t kid yourself: these are not decent human beings we’re dealing with.”
Tobacco use caused an estimated 282,000 premature deaths in the US alone last year.
Climate change may have altered the flowering seasons of some plants, say scientists.
To fight climate change, go to http://www.WorldsBiggestProblem.com. ◼︎