By JAMES TRAUB Published: May 20, 2007
Every minute or so he flashed a microgrin at a passer-by without interrupting his oratorical flow. We had moved on to complexity theory, which Gore would really immerse himself in if only he had the time, and then to the concept of nested systems, which of course had been developed by the late psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, when a woman in a blazing orange shirt emerged from her flight, did a double take and cried, "Isn’t that AL GORE?!" There was no ignoring this fan. As she came over to thank Gore for trying to save the planet, I saw that my bags were in the way. "I’ll move them," I said; and Gore, before he could think, said, "No, don’t."
Six years after the Supreme Court declared him the loser of a presidential race that seemed his for the taking, Al Gore has attained what you can only call prophetic status; and he has done so by acting as he could not, or would not, as a candidate — saying precisely what he believes, and saying it with clarity, passion, intellectual mastery and even, sometimes, wit. Everywhere he goes, people urge him, almost beg him, to run for the presidency. He probably won’t — though he might. ("It’s complicated," he told me, "but it’s not mysterious.") He says he thinks he’d be better at it this time than he was last time. And he probably would be: Gore really does know how to hold 6,000 people in a room. But sometimes one person is one person too much for him. Given his druthers, he’d really rather talk about complexity.
Gore is a gifted, and remorseless, explainer. Over the last three decades, he has been trying to explain a complicated and unattractive idea that scarcely anyone wanted to hear — that mankind has threatened its future on the planet by massively increasing the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. Now, thanks in part to Gore himself, fewer and fewer people dispute this premise. But winning the argument — the smoking-causes-cancer part — is only the beginning. Gore and the country’s major environmental groups have now embarked on a three-year effort, for which Gore hopes to raise hundreds of millions of dollars, to persuade the American people, and the political parties, to take drastic action to curb greenhouse gases. It is a campaign of such vast ambition that you could almost imagine passing up a run at the presidency in order to pursue it. "The central challenge," he said to me later that evening, as he was waiting to go onstage at the University of Miami, "is to expand the limits of what’s now considered politically possible. The outer boundary of what’s considered plausible today still falls far short of the near boundary of what would actually solve the crisis."
The Gores live in a whitewashed neoclassical mansion with a pillared portico in the ritzy Nashville neighborhood of Belle Meade. Tipper Gore had agreed to meet me there, and we sat outside by the pool, which was then still covered for the winter; a servant brought iced tea on a tray, along with a vase of tulips. The whole setting was redolent of genteel withdrawal; but inside, as if in generational counterpoint, Tipper, in days of yore a drummer in a rock band, kept, and used, both a drum set and a conga set. The former vice president, the more sedate and cerebral of the two, was upstairs going over the galleys of his new book, "The Assault on Reason," a learned screed on the demise of public discourse and "the meritocracy of ideas" scheduled to appear this week. I asked Tipper how long it had taken her husband to get over the agony of 2000. She looked at her watch and laughed. "What time is it now?" she asked. Neither of them, she said, has ever quite gotten over it. They withdrew from Washington to Nashville, where they set about fashioning a new life. In early 2001, she recalled, she said, "You know Al, why don’t you do your slide presentation again?" For him, she said, it would be "like going back to your roots."
Gore had been using the slide show as a teaching tool on global warming for more than 20 years. Now he switched from slide carousels and flip charts to computer graphics and began barnstorming the country. He also contemplated making another run at George W. Bush, a prospect that many of his own supporters regarded with ill-disguised dread. Gore officially withdrew his name from the race in late 2002 and concentrated on preaching the climate-change gospel and on making money as the vice chairman of Metwest Financial, an asset-management firm. And now that he was liberated from the political imperative of caution, Gore began to issue thunderous — and as it turned out, highly prescient — jeremiads against the Bush administration. He denounced the war in Iraq and what he saw as the administration’s reckless encroachment on civil liberties and on the prerogatives of Congress. He became the darling of the bloggers and the left. He supported the candidacy of Howard Dean. (His prescience did not extend to politics.)
By 2005, climate science had advanced to the point where the urgency of reducing CO2 emissions had become manifest, though only to the small circle of cognoscenti. And that was the problem. Gore had talked himself blue on the subject without making much headway. In mid-2005, he began talking to members of "the green group," as the environmental lobby is collectively known, about marshaling a popularizing effort. Nature has a way of chipping in on climate change, and the apocalyptic images of Hurricane Katrina, which hit New Orleans at the end of August 2005, made such a campaign seem not only more urgent but also more compelling. Gore was the obvious candidate to lead the crusade. But the Al Gore of September 2005 was not the Saint Albert of today. That Al Gore was a harsh partisan, and all too apt a symbol of the hectoring, holier-than-thou stance of the environmental movement. "It was not clear then that having him headline this was the best strategic approach," says an official who now works with Gore, "but they didn’t want to say that to him, because he was their friend and ally. It was painful. It was like, ‘Maybe we need more balance.’ " Gore tried to solve the problem by seeking to attract a Republican as a partner, but one candidate after another turned him down. And so, in December of that year, the board of the Alliance for Climate Protection was established — without Al Gore.
The decision obviously rankled. When I asked Gore why the alliance had taken so long to get in gear, he blurted out, "Because I wasn’t chairman of it." This actually appears to be true. In the ensuing months, according to one of the alliance’s founders, "nothing happened, nothing happened and then nothing happened. It was like the spaceship had gone around to the other side of the moon." Meanwhile Gore continued to proselytize the heathens, gaining adherents by the hundreds and thousands. It had not occurred to him that he could win converts by the million. But when he brought his slide show to the Beverly Hilton in April 2005, he hit pay dirt. Laurie David, a former comedy producer (and the wife of Larry David) who had become a leading environmental activist, brought Gore to Hollywood; among the spectators was Lawrence Bender, a producer whose films included "Pulp Fiction" and "Good Will Hunting." Bender received his very own form of revelation: "I immediately thought to myself, This has got to be a movie." Even a movie about a slide show could work, he thought, so long as there was "an emotional way in"; and Gore would be that way. Filming began over the summer, and the finished product was introduced at the Sundance Festival in January of last year and quickly sold to a distributor. The movie landed in theatres in May — warp speed by Hollywood standards.
Hundreds of thousands of filmgoers must have grudgingly yielded as I did, passing in a matter of days from "I’m not going to an Al Gore vanity project" to "Oh, fine" to "Yikes!" For all the gizmos and pyrotechnics, "An Inconvenient Truth" required viewers to pay attention to real science. A review on the Web site realclimate.org, which caters to the academic climate crowd, concluded that Gore had handled the science "admirably," with only a few minor errors. One prominent climate scientist I spoke to, Kerry Emanuel of M.I.T., did say that he felt Gore might be exaggerating the effects of increased CO2 emissions. Others disagree. Perhaps the most remarkable summation came from James Hansen, the director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies (and one of Gore’s own gurus), who wrote, in The New York Review of Books, "Al Gore may have done for global warming what ‘Silent Spring’ did for pesticides."
James Traub is a contributing writer for the magazine.