Johann Hari: The hole in Al Gore's environmentalism

He cannot afford to alienate potential donors, so he cannot give a full account of the problem
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The Independent Online

The democratically elected 43rd President of the United States, Al Gore, has been in Britain this week. He should be here on a state visit as a highlight of his second term, but the Supreme Court had different plans. So he is here as a civilian, delivering packed-out lectures, warning that man-made climate chaos "could literally end civilisation". His speeches are terrifying, true, and contain a hole bigger than the old ozone hole he spent decades warning about.

He explains our dilemma in the stark, slap-in-the-face terms we need: "We are recklessly dumping so much carbon dioxide into Earth's atmosphere that we have literally changed the relationship between the Earth and the Sun ... so the build-up of heat energy that should be re-radiated by Earth is beginning to wilt, melt, dry out and parch delicate components of the planet's living systems." He concludes: "What is at stake is the habitability of Earth. Or, as one eminent scientist put it, the pending question is whether an opposable thumb and a neocortex are a viable combination on this planet."

There are only six degrees of separation between us and global crop failure, and many climatologists warn we could be there within a century.

But the gap in Gore's speeches - the elephant in the eco-room - is the reason why no American government has acted on these warnings. It's not just Bush, when Bill Clinton and Al Gore were in the White House, their environmental record was abysmal too. They pushed through Nafta, a free trade area for the Americas that defined environmental regulation as an illegal "market distortion" which must be struck down by the courts. They allowed dioxin dumping in the oceans. They oversaw the largest slashing of publicly owned timber in US history. I could go on. And on.

This is not because Clinton and Gore were unaware of the problem. Back in 1992, Al Gore wrote a superb book called Earth in the Balance that laid out the challenge of climate chaos better than anyone else at the time. It was eerily prescient. He warned that global warming was making hurricanes far more intense, threatening American cities such as New Orleans. He warned that Siberia's peat bogs would melt, burping massive amounts of their stored greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. He warned that famine would increase across sub-Saharan Africa as traditional rainfall patterns were disrupted. He didn't just get the problem - he got it better than almost anyone else.

So why did they move in the opposite direction? The temptation for journalists is to blame it on personal moral failure. Clinton and Gore are hypocrites, liars, the old story. If only we could find a morally pure politician, everything would be okay.

The reality is less glib and more disturbing. Every American politician has to pay for their massive election campaigns, and there is one group waiting with open wallets and a few polite requests: the fossil fuel industry. Democrat or Republican, if you don't lick the boots of the oil and gas companies, you never get the key to the White House.

This legalised bribery is often so naked that many corporations give to both parties, to ensure whoever wins is in their debt. Anybody with environmental leanings is quickly tamed - 28 gas and oil companies gave to Al Gore's election campaign, from BP Amoco to Enron, from Exxon to Chevron. Occidental Petroleum paid for the Clinton-Gore inauguration, and stumped up an extra £50,000 after Gore personally made a begging call to their CEO.

These companies own the American political process, and they are violently opposed to any moves to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. They can keep US politicians on a short leash, since presidents and senators are forced to spend around half their time fundraising. According to Bob Woodward, Clinton was so exasperated by this corporate-cash treadmill he once snapped: "We spend so much time raising money, when do we get to govern?"

Some politicians deal with this double-bind by rote-learning an ideology - neoliberalism - that says there is no conflict between the public welfare and corporate welfare. As Eisenhower's secretary of defence, Charles Wilson, put it: "What's good for General Motors is good for America."

Al Gore is far too smart to fall for this, but he was powerless to act. When Clinton arrived in the White House in 1992, Gore lobbied him hard for the only environmentally sane solution: a broad-based energy tax that would hit the dirtiest fuel, coal, hardest, and have a knock-on effect on natural gas and petrol. Clinton agreed, with a nervous nod in the direction of his campaign contributors - but it was impossible to get it past a (Democratic) Congress also drenched in petrol.

Yet in Al Gore's inspirational lectures on the danger we face, there is only the most fleeting of references to "the special interests that want us to ignore global warming", and silence about Gore's own dependence on them. Why doesn't Gore mention this, the biggest brake on dealing with global warming? Because if he wants to run for President in 2008, he will have to plunge back into the petrol tank to grab some campaign funds. He cannot afford to alienate potential donors, so he cannot give a full and honest account of the problem.

And even if a rogue presidential candidate did manage to somehow busk through while telling the truth, he would still have to contend with a Congress paid not to. "Even if you're President, you can't move if ... Congress isn't there," Gore noted sadly this week. It's tempting to believe we are suffering from a Bush-sized blockage in the global warming drain at the moment, and that once he is flushed away, international agreements will begin to flow. But this is a delusion. The problem is that the fossil fuel industries have occupied Capitol Hill and built a petrol-filled moat around it. They are also polluting American public opinion, paying for lavish propaganda, "astroturf" organisations (ones that pretend to be grass-roots organisations of ordinary people, but actually are the creation of petrol companies) and ludicrous "experts" who claim global warming isn't happening.

The solution is not for Al Gore or some other environmentalist to be treated as a Messianic figure, when in reality he will face the same hideous compromises. No, the only solution is for the American people to reclaim their political parties from corporations and start paying for their parties themselves, out of general taxation.

Right now, this proposal is greeted in Washington as if it were a quasi-communist plan to nationalise the banks. How hot does it have to get in here before the American people start tearing the corporate clothes off their politicians?