Friday morning, when they arrived at the opening plenary session of the first-ever Sierra Club convention held at San Francisco's Moscone Center, several thousand activists got a surprise. Instead of an address by Executive Director, Carl Pope, they heard a rousing speech from former Vice President, Al Gore. (The schedule change arose because Gore was to have given a speech to state insurance commissioners, in New Orleans.)
Many in the audience remembered that Gore once had a reputation as an impassioned defender of the environment and an eloquent spokesman for human rights. Somewhere during the Clinton Presidency that Al Gore went into hibernation; his unsuccessful 2000 Presidential campaign featured robot Al - the mechanical policy wonk best known for putting crowds to sleep, rather than stirring their emotions. Gore joked that he now is a "recovering" politician; perhaps the role of an outsider empowered him to be unusually candid. Whatever the reason, the "old" Al Gore showed up on Friday.
Gore's theme was based upon the quote from Proverbs, "When there is no vision, the people perish." He dwelt at length on the catastrophe of Hurricane Katrina observing, "It is important that we learn the right lessons from what happened, or else we will repeat the mistakes that were made." Gore identified three basic lessons that the American people must grasp: the first is deceptively simple - Presidents should be expected to pay attention. The former Vice President recalled that on August 6, 2001, President Bush received an intelligence briefing, "Bin Laden determined to strike in U.S.," but took no action as, "it was vacation time." Four years later, the Bush Administration received dire warnings of the damage that would be done to New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast, if Hurricane Katrina kept to its projected course; nothing was done, "It was, once again, vacation time."
The second lesson, according to Gore, involves presidential accountability. "There has been no accountability for horrible misjudgment and outright falsehood - [leading to] the tragedy of Iraq." The former VP argued that this has produced an atmosphere, in the White House, where "there is no fear of accountability" for the Federal missteps surrounding Hurricane Katrina. Gore opined that the management philosophy of the Bush Administration has been dictated by conservative lobbyist, Grover Nordquist, who famously boasted, "my goal is to get [government] down to the size where we can drown it in a bathtub." Gore indicated that, as a result, the President deliberately shrunk the size of FEMA, rendering it "weak and helpless."
The former Vice President's third lesson is that Presidents ought to heed warnings. The Bush Administration ignored distress signals about Al Qaeda and the frailty of the New Orleans' levees, and continues to disregard warnings about global warming. "The average hurricane will get stronger because of global warming, he said, noting a scientific study, recently reported in "Nature" magazine, that concluded, "Since 1970, the average hurricane has been 50 percent stronger," specifically because the oceans have grown warmer.
Gore passionately compared present-day America to Great Britain on the eve of World War II. He recalled the words that Winston Churchill spoke after Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's infamous 1938 appeasement of Hitler, "They are decided to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all powerful to be impotent - This is only the beginning of the reckoning. This is only the first sip, the first foretaste of a bitter cup which will be proffered to us year by year unless by a supreme recovery of moral health and martial vigour, we arise again and take our stand for freedom as in the olden time." Noting the chilling similarities between the crisis-management style of Bush and Chamberlain, the former VP declared that it is time that Americans, "recover our moral health and demand accountability."
Buoyed by a prolonged standing ovation, Gore concluded his speech by observing that the US is at "a moral moment - This is not about scientific debate or political dialogue, but about who we are - [It's about] our expectation to rise to this new occasion, to see with our hearts as well as our heads." The former Vice President remembered that, aft the end of the civil war, Abraham Lincoln remarked, "As the problems are new, we must disenthrall ourselves from the past." Gore implored his audience to help America be similarly disenthralled, "to shed our illusions that have led us to ignore the consequences of the global warming that has already begun."
Those present at the opening of the Sierra Club convention got much more than they expected - a rousing speech by the old Al Gore. He urged members, as they deliberate on Sierra Club priorities, to make global warming a central theme. The former Vice President ended with a rallying cry, "We know what to do. We have everything we need save the political will - which is, after all, a renewable resource. This is the time. This our moral moment and [I am confident] we will rise to the occasion."
Bob Burnett is a Berkeley writer and activist. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org