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Al Gore’s Critique Sparks Debate Over Obama’s Record on Global Warming

June 22, 2011 at 12:00 AM EST
In a "Rolling Stone" article, former Vice President Al Gore criticized President Obama's record on climate change. Gwen Ifill discusses what Mr. Obama has and hasn't done with The Center for International Policy's Glenn Hurowitz, The Center for American Progress' Daniel Weiss and The American Enterprise Institute's Ken Green.
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GWEN IFILL: Now to the politics of climate change.

Former Vice President Al Gore, writing in an upcoming edition of “Rolling Stone” magazine, takes President Obama to task in an article titled “Climate of Denial.”

Mr. Gore writes, “President Obama has thus far failed to use the bully pulpit to make the case for bold action on climate change.” He goes on to argue that the president “has not defended the science against the ongoing, withering and dishonest attacks.”

Gore’s article has forced a largely internal debate into public view.

We get three takes on that, from Glenn Hurowitz, who works on environmental issues at the Center for International Policy, Daniel Weiss, the director of climate strategy at the Center for American Progress, and Ken Green, who studies environmental policy for the American Enterprise Institute.

Glenn Hurowitz, is Al Gore right?

GLENN HUROWITZ, Center for International Policy: He is right.

Unfortunately, environmentalists got the sense that President Obama wasn’t fully fighting for the climate and for the urgent environmental needs that we have during the debate over climate legislation when he cut side deals with the oil industry, with the coal industry, with the nuclear industry, without getting anything in return in terms of a commitment to support a cap on pollution or support investments in clean-energy jobs.

That was the rumor that he was seeing other people, but we really got confirmation when he embraced a broad agenda of drilling for oil offshore in the Gulf, now looking to do it in very sensitive ecological areas in Alaska.

We saw it when he opened up huge areas for coal mining in Wyoming. That’s about 30 times the amount of coal mining as clean energy that his administration has installed. He’s also delayed several major Clean Air Act regulations, both regarding climate, and also ones that will have major climate benefits, but are primarily aimed at protecting public health, like mercury, smog and soot.

So there’s been a real series of attacks on the environment coming from the Obama administration. And I think I’m really happy to see Vice President Gore come out and take a leading edge on this.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Weiss, you think the president is getting a bum rap?

DANIEL WEISS, Center for American Progress: Yes.

I think that Glenn is looking at the glass and seeing it’s one-quarter empty, when it’s really three-quarters full. President Obama has done more to reduce global warming pollution and other toxic pollutants than any other president.

We have gotten $90 billion invested in clean energy as part of the recovery package, which created tens of thousands of jobs. We have the first improvement of fuel economy standards since 1987 that will save close to two billion barrels of oil and reduce global warming pollution by nearly another billion tons.

Where we have been disappointed is in his ability his inability to help get 60 votes in the U.S. Senate, a supermajority, for a program that would reduce global warming pollution. And you have to important to remember this took place in the midst of the worst economy in 80 years.

There’s never been an environmental law that has been passed a major environmental law that has been passed with unemployment above 7.5 percent. And unemployment last year and the year before, when he was trying to pass this law, was, you know, a fair higher than that.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Green, are we even having the right argument?

KENNETH GREEN, American Enterprise Institute: Well, this is going to be surprising, but I actually agree a little more with Dan here. I think president is getting a bum rap on this one.

I could wish he’d been a little less active, in fact, on climate policy, but I think it’s clearly a sort of a pre-election…

GWEN IFILL: Why? Why do you wish he…

KENNETH GREEN: Because I think a lot of policies have been bad and will portend worse for an economy that is already in barely in recovery and is staggering along in its recovery, such as letting the EPA regulate greenhouse gases.

But I think it’s clearly a political move to set the stage, the left environment stage for the 2012 election. They’re staking out the position on the far environmental side, Al Gore being the leader of that position, to draw the debate in that direction. And I think we will see that throughout. As we approach the election, you are going to see that on both sides of virtually every issue, staking out the extreme to make the median look more more reasonable.

GWEN IFILL: Should there be a political calculation involved in this?

GLENN HUROWITZ: Well, if there is a political calculation involved, I think it argues very strongly for standing up to the polluters, and investing in clean energy and programs like reforestation and public land protection.

The reason for that is…

GWEN IFILL: Something you say this administration isn’t doing.

GLENN HUROWITZ: Something which the administration has not been doing enough of. And, certainly, in many cases I disagree with Dan, because it was disappointing to see him not fight hard for climate legislation, but what really hurt was using his administrative power to open up vast areas for new coal mining, new oil drilling. And much of that coal is actually going to China.

But I think reason where politics comes in is environmentalists are really disappointed about what President Obama has been doing. And they’re now up for grabs. They are either not going to turn out for polls or we will see what happens on the Republican side.

But the reality is it’s going to be the number-one thing that is going to decide this election is the economy. And if President Obama isn’t making sufficient investments in clean energy and ecological restoration, he’s not going to be able to generate the economic growth and job creation that we need.

Every dollar every dollar invested in wind power and solar panels and reforestation creates two to three times more jobs than investing in fossil fuels.

GWEN IFILL: Dan Weiss?

DANIEL WEISS: I think that you’re really missing the point here.

The difference between President Obama and Vice President Gore can be measured in inches. The difference between those two and the Republicans can be measured in miles. In 2008, President Obama and then Sen. McCain – Sen. McCain had essentially the same position, to reduce global warming pollution.

In the coming election, it’s very possible that the person running against President Obama is going to deny climate science. They’re going to deny that a problem exists, let alone have a solution to solve it. That’s a huge difference. And that’s very unfortunate.

In my view, that’s something that the media ought to really be focusing more on, rather than Vice President Gore’s disappointment in the fact that President Obama isn’t giving enough speeches about global warming.

GWEN IFILL: And, in fact, to correctly characterize Vice President Gore’s argument, it was more an attack on the media for not…

DANIEL WEISS: Absolutely was.

GWEN IFILL: … making the case than an attack on President Obama.

DANIEL WEISS: And doing a he said/she said 98 scientists here, two scientists there against saying that doesn’t happen, and they both get equal time.

GWEN IFILL: Are we having the right argument? Is are the climate skeptics being given too much, too little attention?

KENNETH GREEN: We’re beginning to actually have the right argument, which is interesting.

You have Andy Revkin at The New York Times, an environmental reporter, seriously upset over the fact that the U.N. IPCC, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, let a report on renewable energy be written by the Sierra Club.

And this is a huge scandal of unprecedented proportions.

GWEN IFILL: Is that true?

KENNETH GREEN: And some in the environmental left reporting community are furious, they are livid over what’s been done, and the discrediting that’s going happen to the entire U.N. environmental movement.

So, I think now we are beginning to have the right debate. It’s no longer, oh, there’s only a few cranks and, oh, there’s a few people with tinfoil hats. There’s a real problem with the politicization of climate science. And now, if we have that debate, I think that’s…

DANIEL WEISS: But, Ken, that politicization has occurred on the right. The National Academy of Sciences just released a report two months ago that found that 96 percent of all the global warming studies that have been peer-reviewed by scientists were all pointed in one direction, increase…

KENNETH GREEN: But, Dan, it takes two to tango. It takes two sides to tango.

DANIEL WEISS: Increased emissions are leading to global warming.

And we have seen just the story that was on right before here, the flooding in Minot in North Dakota. It’s the exact kind of effects that scientists told us for years we were going to see. And now we have seen extreme weather in 2011 and 2010 that is record-breaking.

GWEN IFILL: Glenn Hurowitz, let’s you’re never going agree on this point about this, but let me ask you this question, ask it this way, which is, how much of this whether you believe it should there should be government action or not, how much is the public clamoring to change? How much can they stomach, especially at a time of economic stress?

GLENN HUROWITZ: Well, I think the public needs it. And they’re…

GWEN IFILL: Well, we need we also need broccoli, but we don’t all like it.

GLENN HUROWITZ: Right. That’s true.

But I think what Vice President Gore was saying in the article was that it’s hard for just the environmental community to stand up against entire Republican Party, against the fossil fuel lobby, with all their money, that there needs to be leadership the White House.

Historically, that’s how we have made environmental progress to pass the Clean Air Act, to pass the Clean Water Act, to protect public lands and national parks. And without that kind of leadership, we are not going to get the agenda that we need.

And in terms of just day-to-day putting bread on the table, like I said, revitalizing the economy means investing in clean energy. It means investing in ecological restoration.

And in order to do that, we’re going to need leadership from the White House. That’s how it’s been accomplished in the past. And I hope President Obama realizes that we’re in a new economic paradigm, where the country that wins the future is going to be the country that wins the race…

GWEN IFILL: Is that realistic, Daniel Weiss?

DANIEL WEISS: Absolutely. And that’s exactly what President Obama has not only been saying, but, more importantly, has been doing. In addition…

GWEN IFILL: As much as he should?

DANIEL WEISS: As much as he has been able to accomplish with Congress has blocked him because of a wall on opposition from Republican senators.

GWEN IFILL: That’s why I asked whether this is realistic.

DANIEL WEISS: It is. But, remember, also, politics is the art of the possible.

Now, there was just a survey released by Yale University a couple weeks ago that found overwhelming majority of Americans, including a small plurality of Republicans, all support action to reduce carbon pollution that causes global warming.

So, it’s not a question of the public. It’s a question of, you have a political party, the Republicans, is the only major political party in any Western democracy that is denying climate science. That wasn’t true four years ago or three years ago. In fact, Jon Huntsman, Newt Gingrich and Tim Pawlenty all did ads saying, we must reduce global warming. And now they’re all appealing to their hard right of their party.

GWEN IFILL: Ken Green is shaking his head.

KENNETH GREEN: Well, with all respect, this whole language about the new green economy is silly.

If you look at the experiences of all of the countries in Europe that have tried it, they have found it economically unsustainable, have lost jobs on net, and are now backing away from their subsidies.

California, a world leader in environmental quality everybody agrees with that look at their job situation. Look at their economy.

But this idea that by this idea that by renaming it, well, we’re in a new paradigm I would like a new paradigm where gravity is less than it is. My scale would thank me.

But you can’t declare a new paradigm just by fiat and pretty words.

GWEN IFILL: I have to ask you all a very brief final question, which is, what would you like to see the president do, starting with you, Ken?

DANIEL WEISS: Sure.

KENNETH GREEN: I would like to see the president focus on getting people back to work. Unless the economy is prosperous, people do not are not able to afford environmental protection.

It’s when people feel prosperous, they will set aside forests, they will protect streams, they will protect the air. When people feel needy and that they’re not doing well, they put aside environmental issues. If you care about it, you want us to be prosperous.

GWEN IFILL: Glenn Hurowitz, what would you like to see the president…

GLENN HUROWITZ: I think the number-one thing he has to do is enforce the laws that already exist and use his tremendous administrative power to implement protections against mercury, against soot, smog, and especially carbon pollution.

He has the power to do it. He can do it. He should do it as fast as possible, so we can clean up the air, protect people’s health, and save the planet.

GWEN IFILL: Realistically, what would you like to see the president do?

DANIEL WEISS: All of the things that Glenn said, which will will create jobs, according to studies by universities.

In addition, issue fuel economy standards, so cars get 60 miles per gallon by 2025. That will create jobs, save millions of barrels of oil. In addition, set a new ozone smog standard that will protect public health, save kids from having asthma attacks during the summer.

GWEN IFILL: Daniel Weiss, Glenn Hurowitz, and Ken Green, thank you all.

DANIEL WEISS: Thank you.

KENNETH GREEN: Thank you.

GLENN HUROWITZ: Thanks so much.