Is Al Gore an environmental tribune ready to paint the White House green, or a cynical manipulator who has done more harm to the United States environment than even those Republican ecological vandals, Ronald Reagan and George Bush Senior? The answer to this question remains elusive.
The conundrum is highlighted by the near-simultaneous publication of two books. One is Gore's widely applauded 1992 green tract Earth in the Balance , with a new foreword from the presidential candidate titled "The coming environment decade". The other is the green case against him. In Al Gore: A User's Manual , radical journalists Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St Clair paint Gore as a weak, grasping and cynical charlatan.
When it was first published, Gore's Earth in the Balance was hailed not so much for what it said as for who said it. Here was a man who wanted to lead the most powerful nation on earth displaying both a clear understanding of the problems and a refreshing optimism about finding solutions. Jonathon Porritt called it "by far the best book of its kind by a serving politician that I have read". It was pretty much the only such book by a serving politician.
At the time, Gore was a young senator from Tennessee. But now he has a track record in Washington. The book is republished as his eight-year tenure as vice-president comes to an end and as he pitches for the highest prize. That makes the new foreword a doubly interesting read.
In it, he reaffirms his optimism, but sometimes it seems forced and either deliberately misleading or self-deluding. US cars, he says, will "soon achieve three times today mileage with the same pricing, comfort and safety". We can hope. But under his watch through the 1990s, US vehicles have travelled less far for every gallon put in the tank, largely because people have been buying bigger vehicles. "We cannot fight to save the rainforests halfway across the world if we are clear-cutting forests here at home," he says. Yet his Forest Plan for the northwest is allowing many of the country's last ancient forests to be clear-felled. "Protecting the remaining roadless areas in our national forests" - his declared domestic policy - sounds rather lame in comparison to the rhetoric.
Gore makes the bold claim that the ozone layer is beginning to heal and that "if we remain vigilant, the ozone hole over Antarctica will close by 2050". Well, it probably will not, actually, thanks in part to Gore. While most of the big agreements on saving the ozone layer by banishing CFCs were made by Reagan and Bush, the Clinton-Gore administration's most notable contribution has been to stifle international plans to bring forward bans on lesser ozone-eating chemicals that US companies continue to manufacture. So much for vigilance.
He has a better record on global warming, having helped broker the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse gases three years ago. But can he seriously believe that it was the US that "took the lead in convincing other nations that a voluntary international agreement to reduce carbon pollution was no longer enough"? It was the US, admittedly under Bush, that in 1992 stood out almost alone in opposing a legally binding deal. Gore did bring them back into line, but there were really no other nations to convince.
Still, he does get one over on the Bush dynasty, pointing out that Houston - home territory of his presidential opponent, Texas governor George W. Bush - "has taken over as the city with the worst air pollution in America".
But the charge against Gore, as delivered by Cockburn and St Clair, is not that he is optimistic or self-deluding. It is that while he can talk the green talk, when it comes to action, he systematically either caves in or actively seeks to sup with the enemy: that he is a better friend of his home-state strip-miners and oil buccaneers than of greens.
They have many examples of betrayal, beginning with the story of plans for a huge new hazardous-waste incinerator in East Liverpool, Ohio. In 1992, its backers were seeking an air pollution permit. On the stump that summer, Gore stopped by to garner support from opponents of the plant, which would be built close to housing and a school. He declared that "the very idea is just unbelievable to me". But once in office the story changed. It became "serious questions have to be answered" before the permit can be given. Then, after burn tests failed, it emerged that the plant had got a permit anyway. Gore claimed the deed was done by his Republican predecessors, but Cockburn and St Clair charge that he "failed to shut the plant down on numerous grounds, including repeated violations of its permit". It turns out the incinerator was "partially underwritten" by an Arkansas investor who helped bankroll the Clinton-Gore campaign. That stinks. Just like the incinerator, no doubt.
Next up, Gore "sold out" the spotted owl, which had become a campaign issue in 1992 as Bush derided Gore as a loopy owl-lover. The bird's habitat in the great forests of the American northwest was under assault from clear-felling loggers. The "sellout" involved Gore brokering a peace deal - an "orgy of consensus-mongering" - between warring loggers and environmentalists. Under the deal, some forest areas were "protected" in return for green groups such as the Sierra Club conceding that the loggers should be allowed to get back to business in the rest of the forest. The result, say Cockburn and St Clair, is that the spotted owl and its habitat are declining by 8 per cent a year, even faster than under the Bush administration.
Indeed, the charge is that Gore has often proved a worse defender of the environment than his hated Republican predecessors. But this is hard to buy. Was it not Gore who helped launch the Superfund, a toxic-waste clean-up programme on a scale Britons can only dream of? Was it not Gore who turned up at the Earth Summit in 1992, a meeting that Bush Sr treated with the greatest contempt, to lead a fightback in favour of the environment?
Part of the problem with Cockburn and St Clair's book is its ambivalent attitude to the political process itself. The authors note at the start of their chapter on the environmental record of the Clinton-Gore incumbency that "American politics thrives on simple legends of virtue combating vice". Quite so. But in trashing Gore's environmental purity, they show themselves equally seduced by the "simple legends", unable to see beyond the vices to any virtue in Gore. Gore might reasonably argue that the difference between his devious and duplicitous self and purity is the 40 percentage points that separate his poll rating from that of consumer crusader, green activist and fellow presidential candidate Ralph Nader.
Back in the late 1980s, I met many of the best and brightest US green activists while writing a book on the environ-mental movement. A decade later, many of them are working for Gore in the vice-presidential office. Sure, they say, they have had to make compromises. But they stuck with it. Are they charlatans, too? I do not believe so.
The trouble is that Gore is the kind of environmentalist that many greens hate. This book derides his interest in global environmental issues as too easy. "A senator talking about global warming is a more robustly eloquent man than a senator being put on the spot about strip-mining in Tennessee." His scientific and spiritual interest in the Gaia hypothesis is dismissed as "eyewash".
What the authors must hate is Gore's belief that free-market economics can solve many of the big problems, notably global warming. As his foreword puts it: "The big lie in this debate is that a good environment is bad economics."
Cockburn and St Clair beg to differ. They cite the terrible environmental effects along the US-Mexican border as dirty industries migrated south after the completion of a free-trade agreement between the two countries. Fair point. Perhaps Gore has fallen victim to another lie: that "good economics" is necessarily good for the environment. The authors make many good hits against Gore. I am not sure they add up to more than saying that he is a successful US politician, but they deserve to be made. The context of unstinting hostility, however, undermines their strength.
This is shown in their refusal to address Gore's record on what he has always regarded as the biggest environment issue. They note that global warming is "a threat to which Gore had devoted much of his book". Moreover, Gore took a clear lead within the Clinton administration in the major climate negotiations during the past decade.
And yet they dismiss it out of hand. Climate change and the Kyoto Protocol rate just two paragraphs in the central chapter on Gore's environmental credentials. Their failure is made most obvious by their passing attempt to criticise Gore for allowing emissions targets to be "voluntary on developing countries". I have only previously heard the US right wing, intent on a wrecking strategy, make this absurd criticism of the protocol. Per capita emissions in the developing world are generally ten to 20 times lower than in the US. It is crazy to deny that in any global action the rich should jump first. It is hard to believe that Cockburn and St Clair do not know this. But it seems that any stick, however dirty, will do.
Yes, Gore's period as an environmental vice-president has been disappointing. But only the naive should be surprised. Will he be any better if elected president? The omens are not good on a range of policy areas. But Cockburn and St Clair's hatchet job does not really help us understand whether he could do better.
Fred Pearce is a freelance writer on the environment and author of The Damned .
Earth in the Balance: Forging a New Common Purpose
Author - Al Gore
ISBN - 1 85383 743 1
Publisher - Earthscan
Price - £12.95
Pages - 407