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Hot Seat

"I just saw him! And I think he's loaded for bear," a reporter whispered breathlessly, as the crowd scrambled to their seats at the Senate hearing yesterday afternoon. Most of the audience had come to see Al Gore testify before the Environment and Public Works Committee on the dangers of global warming. Over 100 people had been camped outside for hours, like ardent Star Wars fans, to make sure they would get inside. At least one RUN AL, RUN sign bobbed above the heads in line. But the reporter wasn't talking about Gore. Like many journalists, he was really there to watch James Inhofe, the committee's ranking Republican--a Gore foe who once called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people." May as well admit it: We in the press gallery were there to see screaming, sparring, spitting. We were there to see bloodshed.

Inhofe didn't disappoint. Before the hearings even began, his aides were flitting around the aisles, inundating reporters with fliers: An Inhofe op-ed that claimed, "[W]e are all skeptics now," and a pamphlet produced by the Competitive Enterprise Institute that called Gore's An Inconvenient Truth "One-Sided, Misleading, Exaggerated, Speculative, Wrong." (The latter came packed with footnotes full of disinformation.) As Barbara Boxer, the new chairwoman of the committee, announced the rules for the hearing, Inhofe immediately started in with the cavils, like a child whining about dinner. "You've got a great friend running this show," he huffed at Gore, complaining that his written testimony hadn't been turned in on time. "She's made all sorts of exceptions for you." Boxer glowered, informed Inhofe that he was being ridiculous, and then announced, "I am not going to tolerate interruptions!" If anyone was enjoying the end of the Inhofe regime, it was her.

That was just an aperitif. During the questioning period, Inhofe asked Gore about his own personal energy use--a fevered right-wing meme that, of course, has no actual bearing on climate-change policy. When Gore calmly tried to point out that his family purchases non-carbon green energy, Inhofe cut him off. Bad move. Boxer retorted, "How can you ask a question and not give him a minute to answer?" A short while later, after Inhofe brought up a recent New York Times hatchet job that criticized Gore's documentary (the piece has been dissected here and here), he declared that he didn't want to hear Gore's answer, since it would take too long. "You can submit it in writing," he added with a sneer. Boxer, like a mother losing her patience, barked, "Would you agree to let the vice president answer your questions?" When Inhofe sputtered in protest, Boxer waved her chairman's gavel in front of his face: "No, you're not making the rules. You used to when you had this. But elections have consequences!" The room erupted in cheers. A red-faced Inhofe slumped back in his chair. Bernie Sanders had his head in his hands, laughing hysterically.

Gore himself started out unevenly. He tried his best to sound rousing when he called climate change a "challenge to our moral imagination," and his scientific points were all sturdy. But he faltered in places, lapsing into a meandering aside about the Greatest Generation and World War II. He was at his best when he stopped trying to inspire and started trying to explain. What he really wanted to discuss was science and policy--to wade in the muck. At one point, Kit Bond mentioned that global warming might be caused by sunspots rather than manmade greenhouse gases. (Bond actually had to mumble the question twice--presumably he had been handed some lines and had no idea what he was reading.) Gore, unfazed, explained patiently that Bond's theory was inconsistent with observed temperature changes in the troposphere and stratosphere. When Republican after Republican badgered Gore about nuclear power, he replied that nuclear could play a small role in replacing oil, but that building lots of "extra-large" plants was a risky bet in an uncertain energy market. The same innate nerdiness--that same desire to lecture and wonk out--that caused the former vice-president so much grief on the campaign trail had finally found a perfect outlet.

It seems clear that Gore has no interest in running for president again. His policy proposals put him to the left even of Bernie Sanders. In his testimony, he called for an immediate emissions freeze and a 90 percent reduction by 2050. He wants the United States to replace payroll taxes with carbon taxes, sign an accelerated version of the Kyoto Protocol, stop building dirty coal power plants, raise fuel-economy standards, and ban incandescent light bulbs. (Junkies take note: Hillary Clinton, who sat stone-faced through most of the hearing and revealed a impressive command of policy minutiae during her time to speak, appeared to be nodding ever so faintly at a few of these.) If Gore were to enter the primaries, these proposals would be raked over and ripped apart by other Democrats. As a free-lancer, though, he can help nudge the boundary of "acceptable" climate-change policy further and further to the left--and pull the rest of the party toward him. John Edwards has already called for an 80 percent reduction in emissions by 2050; other Democrats, perhaps seeking Gore's endorsement, may well follow.

But that didn't stop Gore from reaching out to Republicans and acting like an elder statesman, above politics. Despite Inhofe's antics, Gore invited the Oklahoman out to breakfast to discuss climate change (Inhofe demurred). Much of his testimony, interestingly enough, appeared to be aimed at Senator John Warner, a Republican graybeard who commands a great deal of respect within his own party. Gore appealed to the armchair historian in Warner by invoking the battle of Thermopylae, couched environmental issues in military terms, and reminded Warner frequently of the work they had done together on national security issues. (Gore's rambling aside on the Greatest Generation may well have been targeted at the 80-year-old World War II vet.) The Virginia senator nodded gravely the entire time, and, when he finally spoke, said, "You have thrown down a very tough challenge, and I'm prepared to take some risks and fight for you and our chairman." Although Warner still had some critical questions--not least how to get China and India on board--he was sounding like a true believer himself. In the end, it may have been Al Gore, and not James Inhofe, who went home with the hunting trophy.

Bradford Plumer is an assistant editor at The New Republic.