Is Al Gore Responsible for Destroying the Planet?

By Sean Carroll | December 6, 2010 9:28 am

Among the many depressing aspects of our current political discourse is the proudly anti-science stance adopted by one of our major political parties. When it comes to climate change, in particular, Republicans are increasingly united against the scientific consensus. What’s interesting is that this is not simply an example of a conservative/liberal split; elsewhere in the world, conservatives are not so willing to ignore the findings of scientists.

Republicans are alone among major parties in Western democracies in denying the reality of climate change, a phenomenon that even puzzles many American conservatives. Denialism is growing among the rank and file, and the phenomenon is especially strong among those with college degrees. So it doesn’t seem to be a matter of lack of information, so much as active disinformation. Republican politicians are going along willingly, as they increasingly promote anti-scientific views on the environment. After the recent elections, GOP leaders are disbanding the House Select Committee on Global Warming.

What makes American conservatives different from other right-wing parties around the world? Note that it wasn’t always this way — there was a time when Republicans wouldn’t have attacked science so openly. I have a theory: it’s Al Gore’s fault.

Actually it’s not my theory, it comes from Randy Olson. For a while now Randy has been vocally skeptical about An Inconvenient Truth, Gore’s critically-acclaimed documentary about global warming. I was initially unconvinced. Surely the positive effects of informing so many people about the dangers of climate change outweigh the political damage of annoying some conservatives? But Randy’s point, which I’m coming around to, was that for all the good the movie did at spreading information about climate change, it did equal or greater harm by politicizing it.

By most measures, Al Gore has had a pretty successful career. Vice-President during an administration characterized by peace and prosperity, winner of the popular vote total during his Presidential run, co-founder of Current TV, winner of an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Nobel Prize. But to Republicans, he’s a punchline. It’s an inevitable outcome of the current system: Al Gore was the Democratic nominee for President; therefore, he must be demonized. It’s not enough that their candidate is preferable; the other candidate must be humiliated, made into a laughingstock. (Ask John Kerry, whose service in Vietnam was somehow used as evidence of his cowardice.) The conclusion is inevitable: if Al Gore becomes attached to some cause, that cause must be fought against.

Here is some evidence. You may think of Jay Leno as a completely vanilla and inoffensive late-night talk-show host. But he’s a savvy guy, and he knows his audience. Which is mostly older, white, suburban middle-class folks. Which political party does that sound like? Between January and September of 2010, Jay Leno made more jokes about Al Gore than about Sarah Palin. You read that right. This is while Palin was promoting books, making TV specials, stumping for candidates, and basically in the news every day, while Gore was — doing what exactly?

Once Al Gore became the unofficial spokesperson for concern about climate change, it was increasingly inevitable that Republicans would deny it on principle. This isn’t the only reason, not by a long shot (there’s something in there about vested interests willing to pour money into resisting energy policies that are unfriendly to fossil fuels), but it’s a big part. Too many Republicans have reached a point where devotion to “the truth” takes a distant back seat to a devotion to “pissing off liberals.” With often nasty implications.

What the United States does about climate change will be very important to the world. And what the U.S. does will be heavily affected by what Republicans permit. And Republicans’ views on climate change are largely colored by its association with Al Gore. As much as I hate to admit it, the net real impact of An Inconvenient Truth could turn out to be very negative.

Gore himself doesn’t deserve blame here. Using one’s celebrity to bring attention to an issue of pressing concern, and running for office in order to implement good policies, are two legitimate ways a person can help try to make the world a better place. In a healthy culture of discussion, they shouldn’t necessarily interfere; if any issue qualifies as “bipartisan,” saving the planet should be it. But in our current climate, no discussion of political import can take place without first passing through the lens of partisan advantage. Too bad for us.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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