The Many Sides of Al Gore

March 20, 2008 |

Ever since unveiling "An Inconvenient Truth," Al Gore has become a symbol for the fight against climate change. The image of him standing on his pedestal, Earth in peril looming large in the background, has etched itself permanently on our minds. Gore's film raised environmentalists' whisper-warnings to shouts coming from the mouths of elites. Given his immense contribution of elevating the importance of the climate challenge, it's easy to forget that Gore had a political career that predated his current one as environmentalist advocate.

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Gore the environmentalist

But the former vice president has been many things over his political career, and one of those permutations is worth revisiting. Al Gore the high-tech aficionado may have been the butt of jokes for his claim that he "invented" the internet, but what he actually said was true:

During my service in the United States Congress I took the initiative in creating the Internet. I took the initiative in moving forward a whole range of initiatives that have proven to be important to our country's economic growth and environmental protection, improvements in our education system.

His 1991 High Performance Computing and Communications Act led to what is now known as the "Information Superhighway," and was a springboard for the development of the commercial Internet. The "Gore Bill," as it was often referred to, played a major role in helping to hoist an obscure military project across the technology valley of death, and Gore has been hailed as the first political leader to recognize the Internet's importance. His early support of the Internet -- which dates back to the 1970s -- is evidence of wise foresight.

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A younger Gore

Gore should call upon these faculties in his work on climate change. The best he has offered us in terms of a solution are small, individual acts like "use less hot water" and "drive less" -- acts that don't even begin to address the huge challenge he characterizes so vividly in "An Inconvenient Truth." The heavy emphasis on sacrifice doesn't leave any room for big, aspirational goals like investing in a new clean energy economy (see Breakthrough's "The Investment Consensus"). Where is the faith in human ingenuity he displayed back when he was romping around "inventing" internets? It's certainly not to be found in his statement that the truth about climate change is "an inconvenient one that we are going to have to change our lives." Nowhere does he suggest that he means a change for the better.

Gore frames the issue as one that will require great sacrifices if humanity is to have a chance at survival; it's ironic, then, that he also underestimates what it will take to address the climate change. He seems to emphasize that global warming is not really a technological challenge -- in other words, global warming wouldn't be such a big deal if more people would just trade in their Hummers for Priuses. As Roger Pielke pointed out earlier this month, Gore has suggested that $2 billion dollars is all we need to invest in clean energy technology. That paltry sum exposes Gore's optimism for technological complacency -- all the more frustrating given his tech-savvy background.

Of course, if we follow Gore's logic to its end, he's absolutely right about the outcome for the planet: if we're as naive as Pollyanna about what it will take to confront this problem, the outcome might well look like doomsday. His sacrifice-focused agenda underestimates human ingenuity, undermines the aspirations of those in the developing world, and in the end is not enough to stop climate change. At the Breakthrough Institute, we don't think we have all the technology we need, but by investing in improved technology, we offer up our own dream: equalizing worldwide living standards and defeating global warming. A tall order, to be sure, and while light bulbs and Priuses can play their part, they won't be enough.

It's Al Gore the visionary, techno-savant, expansive dreamer who should be up there on the pedestal.


You don't think the fact that he's working with KPCB and Generation Investment Management is a sign that he is committed to attacking this thing technologically? Am I being too optimistic by giving him lots of credit for doing that kind of investment work?

By Jake de Grazia on 2008 03 24