Al Gore is like one of those alternate endings of those "Choose Your Own Adventure books" from the '80s.  Though America voted George W. Bush to run the country in 2000, you can't help but wonder how different things would be if we chose the Gore page.  Though it's likely the terrorist events of 9/11 would have occurred regardless of who was steering the ship, and the economy is often a crapshoot no matter who's behind the desk, it's clear that we'd have had a leader with an environmental agenda that wouldn't be waiting until the 11th hour to take some serious steps to reduce our dependence on oil.

I voted for Gore in 2000, but was one of California's "gimme" votes that made his victory in the state a foregone conclusion.  After losing to Bush by what some counts show as little as 537 votes in Florida, many folks figured a Gore vs. Bush rematch in 2004 was a sure thing.  Stating that the party needed some new faces, he chose not to run, and with a less likeable and qualified John Kerry botching the campaign, one wonders again, how different things would be if we chose the Gore page.

Gore remains cryptic about his plans to run again.  After a May 1st screening in San Francisco of his global warming documentary An Inconvenient Truth, I observed Gore telling a fan that he didn't plan on running again, stating the strain of being involved in 4 different campaigns (2 presidential, 2 for VP) was a bit much.  But during a Q&A session with the audience just minutes before, he responded to a woman who said the "green lining" in his failure to become President was the great work he could do for the environment, he gave this response, that would lead one to believe he'd still like the job:

"I like to think that if I had won the election (pretends to cry, then laughs) I like to think that I would have spoken out just as forcefully...I think there is absolutely no position anywhere on this planet that is comparable to the position of President of The United States as a place from which you can bring about change, and I suffer no illusions about that.  But, I do believe that the political system is broken and that the public forum is hollowed out and desiccated, and this is an opportunity for me to serve in a different way.  I am enjoying that, but I don't want to endorse the idea that it's better for the overall result."

But 2 weeks later in a 5/18 Reuters piece by Thomas Ferraro, Gore said, "I have no plans to run for president again. I have found other ways to serve and I'm enjoying them." Not an absolute denial, but he's not leaving the door open very wide. A primary battle between Gore and Hillary Clinton would be a fascinating and divisive contest by any account.  Could a Democratic candidate with a very strong environmental agenda actually rise to the top?  Even conservative writer Ann Coulter seems to think so. 

On May 8th (per Newsmax), Coulter told Fox News, "He is the perfect Democratic candidate...The environmental crazies are really leading the pack in the Democratic Party. It used to be the abortion ladies, but the enviros are about to heave them off the boat because they haven’t helped them win elections.”

Regardless of who our next president is, the movement to reduce the effects and causes of global warming that Gore advocates are certainly going to play an issue.  Bush himself has even told America that we need to change the way we live in his 2006 State of the Union address.  But while Bush stressed we need to end our addiction to foreign oil, Gore advocates ending the addiction to all oil, regardless of the country that produces it.

The day after watching the film, I interviewed Al Gore and the director Davis Guggenheim at the St. Regis hotel in San Francisco.  I was impressed with how accessible and down to earth the guy was.  I didn't want to rehash the same questions I had already heard at the previous night's Q&A session, so I figured it'd be best to stay focused on the movie.  But I had a burning desire to ask what he thought about his portrayal on the South Park episode that aired just a week before, so I had to find a way to get it in.

Al's always seemed to have a good sense of humor, so I figured he'd be willing to talk about it. He had a funny appearance on Saturday Night Live following his 2000 defeat where he was hanging out on the set of The West Wing, reluctant to leave the replica Oval Office desk. And just a week ago, he was SNL again with a brilliant opening sketch showing a parallel world that has become a perfect Utopia with Gore as President (pictured right).

So as we sat down under a headlamp full of suspiciously placed florescent lighting, Al furiously looked through messages on his cell phone, until he finally snapped out of his wireless trance and laughed.

AL GORE: I’m sorry (laughs) Modern communications interferes with everything now.

Well I was at the Q&A of the film last night, really enjoyed it a lot.

AL GORE: Great, thank you.

In the news a lot lately, obviously the price of gas going up is on everyone’s mind.  There was whole “Meet the Press” dedicated to it last week where you were actually quoted a few times.

AL GORE:  Somebody told me that.  I didn’t see it, but Dick Durbin apparently mentioned that he had seen my slide show the day before.

Do you think the rising price of gas is perhaps the kick in the pants America needs to become more fuel efficient?

AL GORE: No, because the oil industry, principally OPEC, has always adjusted the oil price to kill off innovation just when it starts. So this is a cycle. I‘ve been trying to tell this story for 30 years now, and I have seen numerous cycles of price increases and price declines. The fact is that we can only solve this by taking the long term strategic view and becoming independent not just of Middle-East oil, but of oil, and coal. That which we burn has to be burned in a way that is environmentally responsible, where the carbon is captured.  The burden of it should not fall on those who are least able to bear it. 

Years ago when I wrote “Earth in the Balance”, 15 years ago, I proposed a shifting of the tax system so that there would be higher prices but in a way that rebated to the individuals who could least afford to pay it an amount that was offset on the social security tax side of it. I think that this…these rising gasoline prices are just another face of the same dysfunctional system. The Iraq war is part of it, also.  There are other causes of course, for the Iraq war. We’ve had multiple desert wars in a region of the world that has the largest oil supplies. We borrow money from the Chinese, and buy the oil from an unstable region, and then burn it in ways that destroy the environment of the planet. We’re doing something wrong. 


We need to change that whole system. Just reacting to what the oil companies and principally oil producers, oil producing nations, are doing to the price periodically is just a small piece of the puzzle.

Davis, you have been able to take what is essentially a 90 minute slideshow and make it an entertaining film. What sort of challenges existed to make that happen?

DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I was invited by the producers, Lawrence Bender and Laurie David, to go see Al’s slideshow.  And I was not an environmentalist. I read about it a little bit, I was a little bit concerned. But then when I saw Al speak, it was profoundly changing for me. The message is not political. When I first saw it I was all, “What’s Al up to? What’s he doing now? What’s his motive here?” And when I started to watch it, his slideshow, and what I hope what people watch the film get, there’s no motive other than telling the truth. He’s so passionate about it and it’s so convincing that I just wanted to give people that experience. So the challenge was 'how do I help other audiences feel the way I did?'. When you have that as a director, that’s actually easy, because you can just refer to your experience. And say “How do I recreate that?”

I guess one of the interesting things about the film is that there doesn’t appear to be any disputable evidence presented in here.  Certainly 10 or 15 years ago you heard a lot of things on the radio, “environmental whacko” and “the global warming hoax”, and in the film you compare that to a lot of the propaganda used  by the tobacco industry when dangers were brought up there, but there still seems to be a very lackadaisical approach to doing something about it.  How much time honestly can pass before it would be too late to make any kind of serious impact?

AL GORE: (takes a deep breath) Well, the debate is over in the scientific community.  There are 5 points to the global consensus.  Number one, global warming is real, Number two, we are mainly responsible for it. Number 3, the effects are catastrophic, Number 4, we need to fix it quickly, and number 5 it’s not too late.  Those 5 elements make up a very strong consensus.  And on those points, the debate is over.  But on the last point, “How long before it might be too late?”  The scientists, who I most respect on this question, are now saying, and this is new for them to say, that in their view we have less than 10 years in which to make a significant start in changing the amount of carbon dioxide pollution we put into the earth’s atmosphere or else it will be too late.  Now I think we’ll act long before then, but that’s not much time in the sweep of history, and we have 2.5 years left in an administration that is moving the US in the wrong direction, so if the scientists are right and we only have 10 years, we can’t take 2.5 of those 10 and say, “Well, we’ll make it worse for 2.5 and then we’ll get started, we just can’t do it. So the real purpose of the movie is to get the truth about this in front of as many people as possible without regard to party or partisanship or ideology and bring about a change in the way the country feels and think and acts. I see this as the ultimate action movie because it empowers the audience to act.

It seems like these changes would require a president with a big environmental agenda.  I mean if we were going to get 8 years more after Bush with more of the same, is this something the people can enact and do without a President leading the way for this?

AL GORE: Well, we need an informed citizenry with a big environmental agenda, because it’s going to take all of us to solve this problem. And if we have that then we will have leadership that responds to an informed citizenry. The politicians in both political parties ought to be competing with one another to offer genuinely meaningful solutions. That’s happening already in England right now both parties are trying to get out ahead of the other with imaginative far reaching bold proposals, and that’s as it should be because that’s what the reality we’re facing would lead a rational set of people to do. We in the US have been in a little bubble of unreality isolated from the rest of the world because the right wing talk radio and the propaganda …this group that has a notion that the earth is flat and the moon landing was staged on a movie set.  I mean they don’t argue that but it’s comparable to that, they have managed with heavy financing from a few irresponsible companies that don’t want to see the government take any action, they’ve managed to plant enough doubt in the minds of the American people to paralyze the political process. And it’s not enough to say we’re addicted to oil, too many politicians are addicted to the money from the oil companies. That addiction has to be broken.

I really enjoyed a lot of the animated segments in this film.  I think it really did a remarkable job of keeping things lighthearted and such for overwhelmingly depressing subject matter at times.  Was that initial animation segment done by “The Simpsons’” animators?

AL GORE: "Futurama".  It’s a Matt Groening product.  "Futurama" is to "The Simpsons" as "The Jetsons" was to "The Flintstones".  My second oldest daughter, Kristin, worked for Matt Groening for 3 years on "Futurama".  And she has heard my presentation on global warming all her life, and when they were doing that episode, she said, 'Hey what about this?' and she was part of the small creative team that did that segment. I met Matt Groening through my daughter and became good friends with him. And that led to a cameo appearance on "Futurama", I appeared as a disembodied head.

I saw that...

AL GORE: Thank you very much!  Incidentally, last summer I was walking down the sidewalk on Townsend here, I’m on business here a couple days a week, and I was walking down with my business associates down to the Paragon restaurant, and this group of young people, in their I’d say late 20s were coming in the opposite direction, and they get about 20 feet away, and they don’t say, 'Hey! There’s the former Vice President of The United States, or something like that, instead, one of them throws both arms up in the air says, 'I HAVE RIDDEN THE MIGHTY MOON WORM!'  (laughs) and my associates are like, 'Uhhhh', and I’m all 'Right on, man!'  It was fun to get to know Matt and that group, and when I asked him if I could have that, if we could use that piece, he gave it to us for the movie for free.

DAVIS GUGGENHEIM: I had the advantage of getting all of Al for the movie.  (both laugh) It’s so much easier having all of you.

Well, being recognized for cartoon catch phrases, I could only wonder what last week’s South Park may have...

AL GORE: I haven’t seen it yet, but I want to see it

Scenes from the Season 10 episode of South Park featuring Al Gore hunting the elusive Manbearpig

Well, you’re the star of the episode, practically.

AL GORE:  Well, I’m very flattered.  Apparently I’m trying to slay some mythical beast or something.

The Manbearpig!

AL GORE: The Manbear… (laughs) Those guys are crazy!

What do you think the single quickest and most effective thing that America can do to reduce global warming?

AL GORE: conservation and efficiency is by far the most readily available response that will have the biggest impact.  We waste about 90% of the energy we think we’re using, and you can save money, have a better lifestyle and clean up the environment all at the same time. It just requires thinking a little differently about how you go about things.  These light-bulbs for example, I believe they are the environmentally responsible kind.

The florescents

AL GORE: The home light bulbs that use 1/10 tenth the electricity, you change them 1/10th as often... but you make it back in the first year.  Yet force of habit leads a lot of people to just walk right past them and not consider those kinds.  That’s going to change.  Clock thermostats, being aware of the electricity consumption of the appliance choices you make…buy the hybrid instead of a regular car if you can, use mass transit when you can, walking when you can, these are relatively simple things, but multiplied by enough people they make a big difference. But then when you get past conservation and efficiently there are even bigger changes that require a new law, a new policy to make it easier for all of us. You know it’s hard to get from here to Cupertino without driving. Many people just assume we have to take 3000 pounds of metal with us everywhere we go. The day will come when we will look back on that and think, 'Gee, that was nuts.'

Al Gore with An Inconvenient Truth director Davis Guggenheim

It seems like the message of An Inconvenient Truth kind of outlives the theatrical release model…are you planning on exploring other distribution methods with this like internet downloads, pay per downloads, different things with the DVD, it seems like the shelf life of this film will be quite long, for people that want to use this for educational purposes and whatnot in the future.

DAVIS GUGGENHEIM:  People are signing up in advance to see the movie, they’re getting groups together to go see the movie because they want to share the experience because it’s is so profound. I think this will happen with the DVDs. People are going to have screening parties, and they’re going to give it to teacher as a gift.  Science teachers come up to me all the time and they say, “How do I get this to teach it to my class?” I think it’s just going to keep going.  People want to watch it…all these questions are now answered…now they understand the issue, they actually feel good so they can feel part of the change.

AL GORE: And yes, we are exploring new and innovative internet online distribution. That will probably come after the DVD. We met with a mutual friend last evening about another distribution method. I am going to start a training program in Tennessee in September to give away my slides to people who take the course and ground themselves in science so they present them accurately and then give them the right to go out and make the presentations in their own voice … and then I’d like to get 1,000 or more people going out all over the country to high schools and civic groups wherever a group of people will listen to and watch it and update it regularly over the internet and post a version so people can gain access to it, and then make it kind of a ... Wikipedia approach to the climate crisis.


AL GORE: The book, An Inconvenient Truth, that will come out the same day as the movie, it's published by Rodale.  It's a book version o the slideshow with original text. That’s another way to try and get the message out, also.

Al Gore after a May 1st screening of his film in San Francisco

Your film ends with a lot of positive hopeful tips at the ends so you don’t walk out of there feeling like you want to hang yourself.

AL GORE: That really hurts word of mouth if they do that (laughs).

What gives you the most hope that things will turn around?

AL GORE:  Just in the six months we’ve finished shooting, I’ve seen 85 conservative evangelical ministers announce they were breaking with The Bush/Cheney Administration to take on this climate crisis. I’ve seen 230 American cities independently ratify Kyoto and start reducing emissions to meet the standards. I’ve seen grass roots organizations take a very forward leaning aggressive approach. And all of these straws in the wind are beginning to mount up and give me a real sense that we’re on the verge of significant change here. Political leaders in both parties who in the past were negative and skeptical are now changing what they say and that’s often a prelude to the change in what they do. Not always (laughs) but if the pressure is continued, continues to come from the grassroots, and they will change, and I’m optimistic.

Thank you very much

AL GORE: Thank you!

That concluded our official interview, but while posing for some pictures Al went on to talk about how funny Stephen Colbert's White House Correspondent's Dinner appearance was, and spoke of him with great admiration. He had his assistant order him a cheeseburger to eat for lunch.  We then we got a picture together that most people believe is pasted together in Photoshop. Trust me, if I was using Photoshop I'd put a skinnier head on my body.

I'm still not sure if the ideal time for Gore to serve as President of the USA has passed him by.  But I think there's room to have him serve as a voice of the environment for anyone willing to listen. 

-Robert Berry

NOTE: The Sacramento News and Review will be publishing my review of An Inconvenient Truth shortly.  I'll place a link up to it when it goes live.

Al Gore and Robert Berry, the guy who created the internet, and the guy who destroyed it.


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