Archive for August, 2007

An Inconvenient Truth

August 9, 2007

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Since leaving office, former Vice President Al Gore’s public persona has undergone a unique transformation. Once portrayed as the populist favorite among Democrats, in political defeat Gore has continued to maintain a high profile in the public’s eye by becoming the quintessential concerned citizen. While he remains an influential political presence among the liberal left, Al Gore has shifted the focus of his public message from an overtly political agenda to environmental activism. He has become a champion for curtailing the phenomenon of global warming and has recently been featured in the Academy Award winning documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”.

As scientific evidence grows to corroborate the theory that human activity is a catalyst fueling global climate change, it becomes increasingly difficult to take serious arguments put forward to refute the facts. It is to our societies’ collective detriment, however, that there are powerful coalitions of political and economic forces at work that persist in the effort to discredit environmental activism in order to maintain the global status quo. Nowhere are these factions more influential or pervasive than in North America.

Dominant corporate interests such as Exxon Mobil and General Electric routinely minimize the significance of environmental issues in order to deter public participation in the political process. Political activism is the greatest source of potential opposition to corporate activity that is responsible for the creation of excessive greenhouse gases and unnecessary environmental degradation. Impugning the credibility of individual activists in order to discredit the message they convey is a typical approach in trying to undermine the environmental movement. Unfortunately, Al Gore provides an abundance of ammunition for his detractors to use in discrediting his sincerity and by inference, the credibility of his message.

In 1992, Gore published his book, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit”. In it, he clearly defines his concerns for the environment and what is required of society in order to stave off catastrophe. “We must make the rescue of the environment the central organizing principle for civilization”, Gore proclaimed fifteen years ago. “I have become very impatient with my own tendency to put a finger to the political winds and proceed cautiously…[E]very time I pause to consider whether I have gone too far out on limb, I look at the new facts that continue to pour in from around the world and conclude that I have not gone far enough…[T]he time has long since come to take more political risks – and endure more political criticism – by proposing tougher, more effective solutions and fighting for their enactments.”

Never was there a timelier manifesto for political change. Over the previous decade, federal environmental legislation in the United States had been systematically dismantled by successive Republican administrations. With the election of Clinton and Gore, environmentalists had a legitimate reason to be optimistic. The anticipated reforms, however, never materialized. In fact, the Clinton-Gore administration began their tenure with an environmental public relations fiasco.

East Liverpool, Ohio

East Liverpool, Ohio

In 1992, Waste Technologies Industries, (WTI), was constructing and eventually completed a hazardous waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio, despite opposition from local residents. The WTI facility is one of the world’s largest capacity hazardous waste incinerators. It sits on the banks of the Ohio River where Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia converge. It is in a flood plain and over a high-yielding aquifer. There are homes within 320 feet of the facility and a 400-pupil elementary school just 1100 feet from the facility’s stack. Air emissions from the facility include mercury, dioxins and lead, all of which pose long-term health threats, particularly to children. In addition, a serious accident at WTI that involved the Ohio River could affect every town and city downriver from East Liverpool and on into the Mississippi.

During July of 1992, while campaigning in West Virginia, Gore said: “The very idea of putting WTI in a flood plain, you know it’s just unbelievable to me.” He assured his audience that “a Clinton-Gore administration is going to give you an environmental presidency to deal with these problems. We’ll be on your side for a change instead of the side of the garbage generators.”

Jackson Stephens

Jackson Stephens

One of the original owners of WTI was billionaire Jackson Stephens, Chairman of Stephens Inc. – an investment firm based in Little Rock Arkansas. When he made his assurances to the people of East Liverpool, Al Gore may not have been aware that Stephens had been a supporter throughout Clinton’s entire political career and had raised $100,000 in contributions for Clinton during his 1992 presidential campaign. He also supplied a $3.5 million line of credit for the campaign through his Worthen Bank.

Whitehouse protest of WTI, May 1993

Whitehouse protest of WTI, May 1993

When the facility began commercial operation, it was found to be releasing four times more mercury than permitted. In 1997, the Akron Beacon Journal reported that the stack monitor, intended to supply emissions data directly to the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency, had not worked since the facility started operation. The company paid a $126,000 fine. As recently as June 26, 2007, the owners requested a permit modification from the Ohio EPA to reduce their onsite emergency equipment.

As time passed, the Clinton-Gore administration’s performance did not improve.

In 1993, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed.
NAFTA’s opponents say the agreement allows foreign corporations to use the American legal system to negate the sovereign right of federal, state and local elected leaders to take steps aimed at protecting consumers, workers and the environment. The ability to assure citizens of clean water and air have also been severely compromised by a NAFTA provision allowing corporations to sue governments at all levels for lost profits stemming from directives aimed at curbing pollution, assuring public safety or advancing labor rights. Health and welfare protections included as part of the NAFTA side agreements have done little to stop pollution along the U.S.-Mexico border. A marked increase in cases of asthma among children under age 14 has occurred on both sides of the border. Pollution has lead to clustering of birth defects on both sides of the border, mainly anencephaly.

Shantytown outside of Tijuana, Mexico

Shantytown outside of Tijuana, Mexico

The border with Mexico has some of the worst environmental pollution in North America, a problem that is exacerbated by poverty and illiteracy. “Most of the pollution may be coming from Mexico, but in many cases it is driven by capital from the U.S., Japan, and Korea,” says Erik Lee, assistant director for U.S.-Mexican Studies at the University of California, San Diego. “We’ve outsourced our jobs and pollution.” A case in point is the New River, which originates in Mexicali and terminates in the Salton Sea, 60 miles north of the border in southern California. Up to 20 million gallons of untreated urban wastewater, sewage and industrial pollution flow into the river every day.

Bill Clinton

In April 1994, Bill Clinton convened a “timber summit” in Portland Oregon. As a result, clear-cutting of old-growth forests in the Pacific Northwest was renewed for the first time in three years.

In 1995, North Carolina Representative Charles Taylor (a forester by profession) proposed and passed a bill to allow the Forest Service to sell and log “salvage” timber. Salvage timber, which formerly meant just dead trees, was legally redefined to include any trees associated with dead trees. In other words, if there is one dead tree in the forest, the entire hillside can be sold and carted away. Clinton could have vetoed the measure. Instead, he bowed to industry and special interest concerns and, on July 27, 1995, signed the Taylor bill.

Since then, the Forest Service has aggressively supported “salvage” logging. Timber yields are up, with three-fourths of the sales being classified as “salvage” operations. In 1997, Al Gore called the salvage law “the biggest mistake” Clinton had made as president, yet nothing was done to rectify the mistake.

Throughout the 1990s, the Clinton-Gore administration successfully pushed for “critical-use” exemptions in use of the pesticide methyl bromide, despite its reported effects of contributing to ozone depletion and its devastating health consequences for farm workers.

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The NPR-A and ANWR, Alaska

In 1999, Clinton-Gore opened the National Petroleum Reserve – Alaska, (NPR-A), to oil drilling – 24 million acres adjacent to the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge, (ANWR). The NPR-A is an environmentally sensitive area. It contains Teshekpuk Lake, an important nesting ground for many species of migratory bird, including shorebirds and waterfowl. The NPR-A also supports more than half-a million caribou of the Western Arctic and Teshekpuk Caribou Herds. It contains the highest concentration of grizzly bears in Alaska’s arctic, as well as wolverines and wolves that prey on the caribou. NPR-A contains the headwaters and much of the Colville River, Alaska’s largest river north of the Arctic Circle.

The Kyoto Protocol to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change is an amendment to the international treaty on climate change, assigning mandatory emission limitations for the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions to the signatory nations. The objective of the protocol is the “stabilization of greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere at a level that would prevent dangerous anthropogenic interference with the climate system.”

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The United States, the largest single emitter of carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels, did not ratify the protocol. On November 12, 1998, Vice President Al Gore symbolically signed the protocol. “Signing the Protocol, while an important step forward, imposes no obligations on the United States. The Protocol becomes binding only with the advice and consent of the US Senate,” Gore said at the time. “As we have said before, we will not submit the Protocol for ratification without the meaningful participation of key developing countries in efforts to address climate change.”

In September of 2000, China was granted “Permanent Normal Trading Relations” with the United States when President Clinton signed it into law.
Earlier in the year, in a foreign policy speech delivered to the International Press Institute in Boston, Gore stressed that China and Russia should not be viewed as enemies but as “vital partners.” The vice president also said that America has a vital interest in promoting its own economic prosperity throughout the world. “We need to promote the stable flow of investment around the world,” he said. During his speech, no mention was made of promoting minimum environmental standards among America’s new “vital partners”.

Yangtze River, China

Yangtze River, China

Since then, companies operating in China have been notorious for their low environmental and labor standards – among the worst in the world. Pollution is rampant. China is second only to the United States in its greenhouse gas emissions and is now building on average one coal-fired power plant every week! China is considered a “developing” country, and as such is not required to reduce carbon emissions under the Kyoto Protocol.

After reviewing the actions, and inaction, of the Clinton-Gore administration, it is hard to believe that it is the same Al Gore featured in the documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth”.

Al Gore’s estate in Nashville, Tennessee

Al Gore’s estate in Nashville, Tennessee

Critics of Gore’s personal lifestyle point out the gas and electric bills for the former vice president’s 10,000 square foot mansion in suburban Nashville, Tennessee. The Tennessee Center for Policy Research revealed that the gas and electric bills for the former vice president’s 20-room home and pool house used nearly 221,000 kilowatt-hours in 2006, more than 20 times the national average of 10,656 kilowatt-hours. In total, Gore paid nearly $30,000 in combined electricity and natural gas bills for his Nashville estate in 2006.

Gore also owns homes in Arlington, Virginia, and Carthage, Tennessee. To be fair, he subscribes to utility company programs offering alternatives, paying more for wind power per kilowatt-hour than energy derived from traditional sources. Gore has also installed solar panels where possible on his estates and does his utmost to make his lifestyle “carbon-neutral”.

In the final analysis, how do we reconcile Al Gore’s abysmal record as a politician with his personal convictions, (which I have no doubt are sincere)?

I think that The Independent, (London), journalist Johann Hari provides the explanation quite clearly in his article of June 1, 2006:

“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 pounds 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.”

It’s not just the petroleum industry on which Al Gore would rely for funds, but a myriad of corporations dependent on cheap energy to guarantee their massive profits – businesses that hold stocks in oil companies, or are owned by them outright, including all of America’s mass media networks.

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There is now a website called DraftGore.com, the supporters of which hope to convince Al Gore to run for the Presidency in 2008. On the site, Gore is described as “the conscience of the Democratic Party”, whose “leadership on issues of moral imperative” is “unmatched”. Gore is touted as being the “Democrats’ best bet to win back the White House”, not a particularly encouraging observation to anyone familiar with his political history.

Considering how far gone our situation is and the moral bankruptcy of the American political system, it probably does not matter who the next President of the United States will be. And that is much more than just an inconvenient truth.