NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- Former Vice President Al Gore has "not ruled out" engaging in civil disobedience against new coal plants.
The Nobel Prize winner also believes Congress is capable of passing major climate legislation and a health care overhaul this year. And the fact that a global-warming bill about to be unveiled by a House committee is more favorable to energy-intensive industries than it was a few weeks ago is not a worrisome development to him.
"They're on the verge of a truly historic accomplishment," Gore said yesterday about the legislation sponsored by Reps. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), which has been sitting in incomplete draft form for weeks. "Everybody will spend a lot of time in the next few days reading and analyzing the [new version of the] bill. But I think it's a good bill."
The former vice-president made those remarks during a half-hour interview with E&E and another news organization that touched on everything from Gore's finances to public opinion to his views about President Obama's handling of the climate issue. An organization he founded, the Climate Project, is holding a weekend summit here to train a new army of activists to lobby members of Congress about the House legislation and to deliver the slide show made famous in Gore's documentary "An Inconvenient Truth."
Gore's first comments about civil disobedience occurred in March, when he encouraged young people to engage in peaceful protests against coal plants. Since then, activists across the country have been arrested, but Gore himself has not taken to the streets.
Yesterday, he said that he didn't think his time would best be used in such action, even as he said his friends have been out there and he has "not ruled out" the possibility of joining in. Currently, coal accounts for about a third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, and technology to capture carbon dioxide from belching power stacks remains commercially unavailable.
Coal's backers argue that the protesters are doing nothing to help solve the climate change problem and are hurting national competitiveness in the process, since China will open new coal-fired power plants regardless of what happens in the United States.
As for the Waxman-Markey plan, the weakened emission targets reported in recent days only make passage more likely, in Gore's view.
He said the process reminded him of fights about the Montreal Protocol, a treaty signed in the 1980s to control ozone-depleting chemicals. The protocol's initial drafts were criticized as being too weak, but became stronger as businesses realized that regulation was tolerable, he said.
A climate change bill and a health care revamp are doable at the same time, Gore said, because both problems are so much worse than they were a decade ago. That has convinced many businesses in both sectors that they need legislation, he said.
Despite criticism from some who say that Obama has not been engaged enough in getting a climate bill passed, Gore had nothing but praise for the president. He cited Obama's recent meeting at the White House with members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, at a "moment when negotiations could have gone either way," as evidence of the president's effectiveness.
Gore wants Obama to go to Copenhagen
He said he hoped Obama would attend international negotiations later this year in Copenhagen to forge an international agreement on global warming, but said getting a bill through Congress was "more crucial."
As part of a push to help that process, Gore's Repower America project is targeting swing votes in the House Energy and Commerce committee via new television, radio and Internet advertisements. This week, Gore-backed advocates will be holding some 36 town halls in the congressional districts of committee moderates. They already have sent about 59,000 letters to the editors of media outlets and flooded congressional staffers with phone calls about the bill, the former vice president said.
"Just laying the facts on the table and playing an inside the Beltway game is not going to do it on this issue," he said. "We have to win the feelings and opinions of voters in the country as a whole."
He said the importance of public opinion was the chief lesson he learned from a failed attempt in the 1990s as vice president to pass a British thermal unit, or Btu, tax on the heat content of fuels.
Yet polls conducted by groups like Gallup consistently show that global warming ranks low among the concerns of Americans in comparison to issues such as the economy. Many surveys also show the topic is one of the most partisan around, prompting some analysts to cite Gore's association with climate change as a source of the split between Democrats and Republicans (ClimateWire, April 30).
Does his party affiliation trump his message?
Asked whether he is too much of a political lightning rod to to be effective, Gore said he "doesn't buy into" the argument that he is the root of the partisanship. Polls also show that people across the political spectrum care about congressional action when asked about global warming separately, he noted. He added that he speaks with many Republicans and never has difficulty "convincing people."
An analyst said yesterday, though, that Gore would be wise to work behind the scenes on the issue, because of his link to the Democratic party and ability to fire up conservatives. The new ad campaign from Gore's organization is effective partially because the former vice president is not in it, said Matthew Nisbet, a communications professor at American University who has studied public opinion and climate change.
"These ads speak to people who watch football games," Nisbet said. "But every time Gore becomes highly visible, he risks countering that."
If recent congressional hearings are any indication, Gore is an attack target for Republicans opposed to the House bill.
Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), for example, pressed Gore in front of the Energy and Commerce Committee a few weeks ago on whether he stood to gain financially from climate regulations because of his multiple investments in clean-energy companies. Conservative bloggers also have been trying to put a total dollar figure on how much Gore has made from "green" investments since leaving the White House.
Yesterday, he said he couldn't place an overall amount on the value of such investments, because many them won't mature "for quite a while." But as he did in his response to Blackburn, he emphasized that every penny of his personal monetary gains would be donated to nonprofits such as his Alliance for Climate Protection.
"I hope that I will make money from these long-term investments in the best technologies that I can find to solve the [climate] problem," he said. "And I hope that will give me an opportunity to donate more."