December 11, 2019

What if Al Gore had won?

The theme of this year’s Milken Institute Global Conference was “The Future of Humankind,” but beginning at 8 a.m. on Monday, all I could think about was the past.

I was sitting in a ballroom at the Beverly Hilton, surrounded by titans of the finance industry, watching former Vice President Al Gore give a stunning presentation on global warming. 

Before you respond, “Really? Again?” let me tell you two things: First, Gore’s message was just as shocking, riveting and inspiring this week as it was in his 2006 documentary, “An Inconvenient Truth,” which put climate change on the political map (though somewhere close to Siberia) and placed Gore back into the public eye after the colossally botched 2000 presidential election. 

In addition to his powerful onstage charisma that stretched to the back of the room, another reason to hear Gore speak is that repetition begets recollection. Gore’s relentless message about climate change helps impress it upon the consciousness of every audience he encounters. As Leon Wieseltier once wrote, “Repetition is one of the essential instruments of persuasion, and persuasion is one of the essential instruments of democracy.”

Gore’s expert shtick — replete with astonishing slides of graphs, time-lapse photography and up-to-the-minute photojournalism — is even more impressive because it connects the perils of climate change to the vicissitudes of the global economy. Gore readily exposes risks and threats to the global order caused by environmental upheaval, but he can just as easily evangelize about opportunities in the “sustainability revolution,” in which the alternative energy market is expanding and exploding worldwide. 

Halfway through his presentation, I thought: “This guy should be president!”

Then I realized, “Oh, sh–.”

But the thought wouldn’t leave me. Sixteen years — 16 years — after the Bush v. Gore recount was supposedly resolved, why do I still feel unsettled?

Well, there’s a lot to be unsettled about. According to a graph that has measured average daily temperatures globally since the 1950s, “extremely hot” days are now 150 times more likely to occur than “cool” or “cooler than normal” days. I am inclined to believe this statistic because I live in a non-air-conditioned apartment, and six years ago when I moved in, it didn’t bother me very much. Now, there are summer and fall days when my plants wither and weep and I literally sweat — indoors, wearing shorts. Every single day, 110 million tons of heat-trapping gases are released into the atmosphere, which Gore described as “an open sewer.” And there is so much heat coming off the oceans and being evaporated into the atmosphere as humidity that storms are intensifying across the globe. 

Gore equates the torrential downpour that occurred in Houston just two weeks ago with “38 hours of the full flow of Niagara Falls.” Then he showed a picture of the subsequent flooding: a family wading waste-deep in the street outside their home, a mother clinging to her infant as someone pushed them in a makeshift canoe.

Gore cited a Pentagon report that warned of climate-related disasters: food and water shortages, political instability, and vast animal and human migrations (animals are moving “poleward,” he said, at an average of 15 feet per day). But his warning became most vivid when he talked about Syria. Before the current conflict broke out, severe droughts decimated 80 percent of Syria’s livestock and wiped away 60 percent of its crops. The result was 1.5 million Syrians were forced into crowded cities. “The gates of hell have opened in Syria,” Gore said. And although he admitted there are multiple reasons for the current conflict, he insisted that “the underlying cause was climate-related drought.”

What if Gore had been in charge when the Syrian drought started to wreak havoc on the Syrian people? What if the world had heeded his message to care for the environment decades ago? How different might the world look today? 

Not just in Texas, still reeling from a cataclysm that caused billions of dollars in damage, but also in the Philippines, where 2013’s Typhoon Haiyan devastated sections of Southeast Asia and became one of the strongest tropical cyclones in recorded history. As of this writing, Thailand is “roasting” through the longest heat wave the country has seen in 65 years. The list goes on and on …

It goes on — even beyond climate change. If Gore had “won” the 2000 election, would 9/11 have happened as it did? How would he have responded? Would we have invaded Iraq and Afghanistan? Would worldwide terror networks be as robust? Would desperate migrants be running rampant all over Europe?

There are great things at stake in every election — when they’re fair and even when they’re not fair. There are certainly big things at stake in the coming election — the least of which is the fact that one of the two major political parties in the United States is simultaneously convulsing and imploding with the realization of its probable candidate.

But looking back, it does seem there was more to lose in the 2000 election than perhaps ever before in U.S. history. And, in retrospect, we did lose. As a nation, we lost a lot — a lot of lives, a lot of money, a lot of self-respect. 

I hope come November we’ll make a smarter choice. The future of humankind depends on it. 

Danielle Berrin is a senior writer and columnist at the Jewish Journal.