Al Gore came to Capitol Hill this week, all decked out in his earth tones, with an old scribe's tale of destruction, doom and disaster. He was rewarded not with questions worthy of the world's greatest deliberate body but with what our English cousins call a "gobsmack." Right on the mouth.
In an ordinary time and at an ordinary place, all iced in and with a wide stretch of the nation shivering in record single-digit misery, more talk about global warming - or "climate change" as we're supposed to call it now - would be regarded as a cheap and cruel joke. Since only a United States senator would leap at an invitation to go on such a snipe hunt, the Senate is where Al showed up with his graphs, factoids and PowerPoint presentation.
"We must face up to this urgent and unprecedented threat to the existence of our civilizations," he told a panel of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "This is the most serious challenge the world has ever faced. It could completely end civilization, and it is rushing at us with such speed and force." Even an old newspaperman like Al ran out of hyperbole.
But this is the kind of sucker stuff senators like. Language like this can sell schemes to other incredulous senators worth billions and billions of the dollars ordinary people work long and hard to contribute to the public till. You could see visions of sugarplums dancing behind rheumy Senate eyes.
Richard Lugar of Indiana, a Republican who gets along with Democrats better than with his own party, was moved almost to poesy, agreeing with Al that the global warming he described would cause "an almost existential impact." Existentialism, the curse of the common cause, is hard for a senator to define, but he knows it when he thinks he sees it.
John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic chairman of the panel, is a devoted wind surfer at his home in France, so he's understandably concerned that the destruction of the planet as we know it would alter wind currents aloft, even in France, making it difficult to get to dinner on time. Four-star Michelin restaurants rarely hold reservations for tardy Americans. "Share with us, if you could," the senator told Al, "sort of the immediate vision that you see in the transformative process as we move to this new economy."
"Geothermal energy," Al replied. "This has great potential, and it's not very far off." Mr. Kerry beamed a happy beam, reassured that the friendly French air might not be disturbed, after all.
Al talked his doomsday talk as if the eminent crash of Spaceship Earth is a settled fact unless the senators intervene. The senators, who imagine they have the power to order the sun to quit having sunspots, eagerly agreed.
Only when James Risch of Idaho, a Republican, asked when the last man on earth could expect to be fried, sauteed or parboiled did Al reveal an ever so slight crack in his mortal certainty.
"I don't claim the expertise to answer a question like that," he said.
Several senators paled, as if affrighted by this unexpected doubt of infallibility in Delphi. It was a particularly difficult moment for Johnny Isakson of Georgia, a Republican, who mildly challenged Al with a question about the risks and dangers in spent nuclear fuel. He would have pulled at his forelock if he had one: "I stand to be corrected, and I defer to your position, you're probably right and I'm probably wrong. I'm not questioning you, I'm questioning myself."
The gobsmacking of silly senators aside, Al has good reason to declare the debate over, even if no one else does. A growing number of eminent scientists - thousands at last count - do indeed question Al's "science," and with no tugging of scholarly forelocks.
Mr. Kerry scoffed at the snow and ice that accompanied Al to Washington as "a little snow" that "does nothing to diminish the reality of the crisis," but many weather scientists have taken due note of the severity of recent winters and the decline in average temperatures over the past decade. Al and his conspirators have changed "global warming crisis" to "climate change."
Well, if the weather changes, and most of us have seen it do that with our own eyes, why not change the language of the scam?
This manufactured crisis has cost us plenty already, hobbling oil exploration, preventing the construction of new refineries, even driving up the cost of groceries. None of these hardships touch the senators who feed so well at our expense, of course, and many of them are determined to help Al milk the public cow. The senators don't want an honest debate, either.
We must be thankful for the new hard times. Maybe we can't have Wall Street bailouts and Senate handouts at the same time. Hard times stand between us and the grim consequences of Al and his bad science.