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Jewish World Review April 28, 2000 /20 Nissan, 5760

Michael Barone

Michael Barone
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Gore in the balance: His book reveals a fanatical approach to the environment --
APOCALYPSE NOW–OR VERY, VERY SOON. That was the theme of Jonathan Schell's 1982 bestseller, The End of the Earth, and it was the theme of Al Gore's 1992 bestseller, just reissued, Earth in the Balance. Both books are written in hushed, earnest prose; both are careful to take contrary arguments into account; but both ultimately take on the unmistakable tone of the fanatic. History has been no kinder to Schell's book than to the Millerites in upstate New York who predicted the world would end Oct. 22, 1844. "Unless we rid ourselves of our nuclear arsenals a holocaust not only might occur but will occur–if not today, then tomorrow; if not this year, then the next." Well, not in 1982 or in 1983, nor later, nor–unless the Indians or the Pakistanis develop vastly more powerful nuclear weapons–ever. As Emily Latella on Saturday Night Live used to say, "Never mind."

Gore's book was almost as apocalyptic as Schell's. He predicted not the extinction of the human race but a global environmental crisis with many possible dire effects. Only in his own lifetime, Gore says, with the solipsism so common in fervent baby boomers, have man's actions been able to affect the world's environment. Now, thanks to our thoughtless actions, "our system is on the verge of losing its essential equilibrium" and "civilization is now capable of destroying itself." Our failure to understand this is the common cause of "global warming, ozone depletion, loss of living species [and] deforestation."

Now these were and are arguably problems requiring government action, and some have been addressed since 1992. To stop ozone depletion, the United States banned production of CFC-emitting products in 1995, and governments and private groups have made progress in limiting the destruction of tropical rain forests. But Gore went further than urging government action; he argued that failure to act on "the evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht" is morally equivalent to failing to act against Hitler. With messianic assurance, and in passages that sometimes resembled the Unabomber's anti-industrial manifesto, Gore argued that there could be no more debate about the existence of global warming and, more important, about the need to take drastic government action to prevent disaster. Nature is good and man is evil: "Our civilization is, in effect, addicted to the consumption of the Earth itself."

The last eight years have not been entirely kind to Gore's arguments. Gore's global-warming theory, that increased carbon dioxide emissions have a greenhouse effect on the Earth, is plausible and widely–though not (as he insists) universally–accepted by scientists. Surface temperatures are up–by 0.3 to 0.7 degrees centigrade since 1900, reported a scientific panel last January. But this falls far short of proving Gore's blunt assertion that "we are in the process of altering global temperatures by up to" 3 to 8 degrees Centigrade. In fact, while surface temperatures have risen, those measured by weather balloons have not; no one knows why. It is not mysterious why most politicians have rejected plans to impose great costs on the economy and slow down growth. That's how most people would respond to a distant and by no means certain threat.

Some may ask why, if Gore thought this issue was so important, he didn't talk about it more in his national campaigns in 1988, 1992, 1996 and, so far, 2000. Gore's answer, though not in so many words, was political cowardice. Certainly the solutions he offers in Earth in the Balance–a carbon tax, pollution charges, paying for foreign environment programs, phasing out the internal combustion engine for the (so far uneconomic) electric- or solar-powered car–are not popular. He strongly supports the Kyoto treaty, which 95 senators voted to oppose as long as it requires the United States but not developing countries (and big polluters) like China and India, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions to 7 percent below 1990 levels.

Backdoor approaches. Gore's central planning solutions are consistent with his filial loyalty to the New Deal politics of his father, who was first elected to Congress in 1938. But the nation has been moving away from such policies. Gore's father led a filibuster against Comsat, because of its partial private ownership; the Clinton-Gore administration now wants to fully privatize the satellite network company. Gore junior strongly supported gas price controls in the early 1980s, but no one seriously proposed reviving them when gas prices rose this year.

So a President Gore is unlikely to get his environmental program through Congress. But there are other ways. Current EPA head Carol Browner used regulatory power to impose huge costs on industry without a clear congressional mandate; ex-FCC Chairman Reed Hundt imposed administratively a 5 percent tax on phone calls. Both are Gore protégés. Gore may be politically cowardly, but the fact that he published, and authorized reissuance of, as odd a book as Earth in the Balance suggests he is sincere. As president, he would be able to act on those views and surreptitiously impose huge costs on the economy to prevent the disaster he believes is otherwise certain.

JWR contributor Michael Barone is a columnist at U.S. News & World Report and the author of the biennialAlmanac of American Politics. Send your comments to him by clicking here.


04/04/00: President-elect Putin offers a basis for hopes–and for fears
03/14/00: Over the long, long haul, the issues may yet favor the Republicans
03/02/00: Will unions rule? Indispensable to Gore, labor may be the campaign's secret winner
02/15/00: A reformers' party
01/03/00: The voters rule: In Manchester, Mexico, and Moscow, an imperfect system works
01/19/00: The era of Big Promises
12/08/99: Welcome to the world of 'good enough'
11/2/99: Just saying no
11/12/99: Money talks, as it should
10/28/99: Mexico votes – for real
10/03/99: Going against type
09/28/99: The unions go public
08/31/99: China's strait flush
08/25/99: The first two contests
08/03/99: Paddling upstream
07/08/99: Taking Hillary seriously
06/22/99: Trying the lawyers
06/07/99: Facts on the ground

©2000, Michael Barone