Gored Again: Bipartisan Bagmen in Bali and Kyoto

In the interests of full disclosure, I must own up to some tenuous personal connections to Al Gore, whose Carthage homeplace was about 20 miles or so from my home in Watertown. My cousin was one of his press officers for several years, back in Gore's House and Senate days. Gore was the very first person I ever interviewed as a college journalism student -- a sit-down (obtained through the good offices of my cousin, naturally) during one of Gore's swings through Knoxville during his first Senate run. And when Gore made his first run for the House of Representatives in 1976, in our Congressional district, he came to my father, who was a community leader, for his endorsement, and asked him to introduce him around town. My father had worked locally for the Senate campaigns of Gore's father, Senator Albert Gore Sr., so he always referred to Gore Jr. as "Little Al."

That's about it, beyond the yearly Christmas cards that my father (along with thousands of other people) still gets from "The Gores." I myself have not laid eyes on or spoke word with Gore in 25 years. I did have one brief encounter with his local Senate office in Knoxville (years after my cousin had left his employ), when I was pulling every wire I could find to get support for an emergency extension to the insurance coverage for my first wife, who had been hospitalized for a catastrophic mental illness. (She was actually my ex-wife by then, but we still lived together with our children.) I worked for the state university system then, so my insurance was through the state government, and I had to go to Nashville and appear before an appeals board and beg for an extension; otherwise, my wife would have been turfed out of the specialized hospital and we'd be left to fend for our own. I got letters of support from Tennessee's other senator at the time, Jim Sasser, and a couple of other high-level contacts who remembered my father from the old days. Gore's people said they'd passed the request on to Washington and something was in the pipeline, but it didn't arrive before the hearing, and it didn't matter anyway: the tribunal -- appointees of then-Governor Lamar Alexander, the feckless, frat-boy non-entity who now sits in the Senate himself -- turned down the appeal. The insurance ran out and she had to leave the hospital, despite her desperate condition; we declared bankruptcy, and she died a year later from cancer. Just another story of life on the ground in the shining city on the hill.

But I said all that to say this: when I lay into Al Gore, it's not something I do lightly. In some small way, it's like going after one of my own -- a vestige of the kind of "tribalism" that Arthur Silber has delineated so well. Indeed, I come from a long line of "yellow dog Democrats," and it takes a good deal of effort for somebody like that to resist the tribal pull and see the reality in front of our eyes. I trust I've demonstrated my resistance to this pull in my attacks on the Democrats over the years; at the same time, I think this heritage gives some added credibility to the attacks: they're not coming from someone predisposed to despise Democrats anyway, but from someone who has been compelled by reality to change their views and see the truth.

So now we come to Little Al's latest caper: his noble stand in the Bali climate change negotiations, denouncing the United States for blocking and sabotaging efforts to confront this global crisis. Fine words, true words -- but the messenger was perhaps not the most credible. George Monbiot lays it all out clearly in this piece: We've been suckered again by the US. So far the Bali deal is worse than Kyoto.

"After 11 days of negotiations, governments have come up with a compromise deal that could even lead to emission increases. The highly compromised political deal is largely attributable to the position of the United States, which was heavily influenced by fossil fuel and automobile industry interests. The failure to reach agreement led to the talks spilling over into an all-night session."

These are extracts from a press release by Friends of the Earth. So what? Well it was published on December 11 - I mean to say, December 11 1997. The US had just put a wrecking ball through the Kyoto protocol. George Bush was innocent; he was busy executing prisoners in Texas. Its climate negotiators were led by Albert Arnold Gore.

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The European Union had asked for greenhouse gas cuts of 15% by 2010. Gore's team drove them down to 5.2% by 2012. Then the Americans did something worse: they destroyed the whole agreement.

Most of the other governments insisted that the cuts be made at home. But Gore demanded a series of loopholes big enough to drive a Hummer through. The rich nations, he said, should be allowed to buy their cuts from other countries. When he won, the protocol created an exuberant global market in fake emissions cuts. The western nations could buy "hot air" from the former Soviet Union. Because the cuts were made against emissions in 1990, and because industry in that bloc had subsequently collapsed, the former Soviet Union countries would pass well below the bar. Gore's scam allowed them to sell the gases they weren't producing to other nations. He also insisted that rich nations could buy nominal cuts from poor ones. Entrepreneurs in India and China have made billions by building factories whose primary purpose is to produce greenhouse gases, so that carbon traders in the rich world will pay to clean them up.

The result of this sabotage is that the market for low-carbon technologies has remained moribund. Without an assured high value for carbon cuts, without any certainty that government policies will be sustained, companies have continued to invest in the safe commercial prospects offered by fossil fuels rather than gamble on a market without an obvious floor.

By ensuring that the rich nations would not make real cuts, Gore also guaranteed that the poor ones scoffed when we asked them to do as we don't. When George Bush announced, in 2001, that he would not ratify the Kyoto protocol, the world cursed and stamped its foot. But his intransigence affected only the US. Gore's team ruined it for everyone....

In both cases, the US demanded terms that appeared impossible for the other nations to accept. Before Kyoto, the other negotiators flatly rejected Gore's proposals for emissions trading. So his team threatened to sink the talks. The other nations capitulated, but the US still held out on technicalities until the very last moment, when it suddenly appeared to concede. In 1997 and in 2007 it got the best of both worlds: it wrecked the treaty and was praised for saving it...

There are still two years to go, but so far the new agreement is even worse than the Kyoto protocol. It contains no targets and no dates. A new set of guidelines also agreed at Bali extend and strengthen the worst of Gore's trading scams, the clean development mechanism. Benn and the other dupes are cheering and waving their hats as the train leaves the station at last, having failed to notice that it is travelling in the wrong direction.

Although Gore does a better job of governing now he is out of office, he was no George Bush. He wanted a strong, binding and meaningful protocol, but American politics had made it impossible. In July 1997, the Senate had voted 95-0 to sink any treaty which failed to treat developing countries in the same way as it treated the rich ones. Though they knew this was impossible for developing countries to accept, all the Democrats lined up with all the Republicans....

So why, regardless of the character of its leaders, does the US act this way? Because, like several other modern democracies, it is subject to two great corrupting forces. I have written before about the role of the corporate media - particularly in the US - in downplaying the threat of climate change and demonising anyone who tries to address it. I won't bore you with it again, except to remark that at 3pm eastern standard time on Saturday, there were 20 news items on the front page of the Fox News website. The climate deal came 20th, after "Bikini-wearing stewardesses sell calendar for charity" and "Florida store sells 'Santa Hates You' T-shirt".

Let us consider instead the other great source of corruption: campaign finance. The Senate rejects effective action on climate change because its members are bought and bound by the companies that stand to lose. When you study the tables showing who gives what to whom, you are struck by two things.

One is the quantity. Since 1990, the energy and natural resources sector - mostly coal, oil, gas, logging and agribusiness - has given $418m to federal politicians in the US. Transport companies have given $355m. The other is the width: the undiscriminating nature of this munificence. The big polluters favour the Republicans, but most of them also fund Democrats...The whole US political system is in hock to people who put their profits ahead of the biosphere.

So don't believe all this nonsense about waiting for the next president to sort it out. This is a much bigger problem than George Bush. Yes, he is viscerally opposed to tackling climate change. But viscera don't have much to do with it. Until the American people confront their political funding system, their politicians will keep speaking from the pocket, not the gut.