Reveling in world acclamation and a shared Nobel Peace Prize for global warming activism, former Vice President Al Gore stands at a crossroads: continue at the top of his game as a preeminent statesman on an environmental crisis or return to a territory rife with pain and potential as a Democratic presidential candidate.
Gore, speaking to reporters Friday in the packed headquarters of the Alliance for Climate Protection in Palo Alto, refused to reveal any clues about whether he is listening to renewed calls to consider a 2008 White House run after winning the award.
"I will be doing everything I can to try and understand how I can best use" the honor of the Nobel to highlight a "planetary emergency," Gore said.
Those who know and admire the former vice president said Gore already has shown a knack for dramatically affecting politics from outside the circle of campaigning for office.
"I want him to be where he is most effective, and at this time, I think he has made a decision that the most effective contribution he can make to solving the global climate crisis is to be chairman of the Alliance for Climate Protection," said Cathy Zoi, chief executive officer of the environmental advocacy group headed by Gore. "And we are, of course, thrilled about it."
In Washington, political figures said Gore's Nobel Prize could - perhaps more than any recent event - help spur critical legislation on global warming.
"Now that Mr. Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize, it is up to Congress to act," said Rep. Edward Markey, D-Mass., chairman of the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming. "This is not just a huge environmental issue, it is a matter of war and peace for many regions of the world."
And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, praised Gore as one who "performed an invaluable service to humanity" with his work. She said his leadership will help the House pass an energy bill and take up a climate-change bill that could impose a cap-and-trade system to reduce greenhouse gases.
Such developments have political and environmental insiders mulling what path Gore will choose and how his actions will affect the 2008 presidential campaign and the movement to reduce global warming.
Laurie David, a producer of "An Inconvenient Truth," the Oscar-winning documentary based on Gore's presentation on climate change that has generated $52.8 million in box office and video sales, told The Chronicle that if he chose to run, Gore would be "the best president we've had in a long time."
But David said that as she grew close to Gore during the filming of the documentary, she began to want him to bypass another bid for the White House.
"I wouldn't want him to go through what you have to go through to run for president," she said. "You have to deal with the battering you take from everybody, and that takes you away from your causes. He's more than doing his duty as a citizen of this world."
Gore won the popular vote as the Democratic Party's candidate in the bitterly fought 2000 presidential election but lost the electoral college to Republican George W. Bush.
David, also a trustee of the Natural Resources Defense Council, said Gore has mused that his role in environmental issues has been richly rewarding, while he has "fallen out of love with politics ... and who can blame him?"
And although the movie made him a popular figure known to millions worldwide, David said, "I think what he's proven, and what this Nobel Prize has proven, is that you can change the world without being president."
Greenpeace USA Global Warming campaign director Chris Miller also sees Gore as a figure who emerged from defeat in 2000 determined to make a profound difference in the lives of people.
"I think by losing the 2000 presidential race, he became unencumbered by the political realities of the time. It freed him up to speak in a way that is frank and clear and not encumbered by political realities on Capitol Hill or inside the Beltway," Miller said.
Former California Gov. Gray Davis, who in 2002 signed the nation's first bill banning greenhouse gases, said Gore's influential work and his resurgence in the public eye after a devastating loss "proves my point - that there's life after politics."
"Al Gore is essentially a modern day Paul Revere, warning people of what's coming," Davis said. And precisely because "he has found a higher calling when it comes to alerting the world" to the dangers of global warming, "I don't think he'll get in (to a presidential campaign)."
Indeed, in the merciless theater of a presidential race, a move from the environmental stage to the political stage could transform Gore from hero to villain overnight, said some veteran political operatives.
"To take all this acclaim because of his incredible leadership (on the environment) and turn that back into a run for president means all that evaporates overnight. You're back in the bog again," said Garry South, a longtime Democratic consultant. "The same people who are now slobbering all over him would be trying to bite his ear off if he got into the political domain."
But some said Gore still has the potential to shake up the country - and there is no bigger stage than the White House.
"Al Gore is probably the only Democrat who can take on Hillary Clinton from the left," said GOP consultant Dan Schnur, who was a spokesman for Republican John McCain in the 2000 presidential contest. He noted that Gore spoke out strongly against the possibility of war in Iraq before the Senate - including Clinton and Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards - voted for the authorization for the war, an issue that resonates deeply with progressive Democrats.
Should he get in, "Gore starts out with a lot of organizational and financial advantages," including name recognition and the ability to raise money, Schnur said. "I wouldn't want to run against him."
Davis Guggenheim, the director of "An Inconvenient Truth" - like many who have worked with the former vice president - said that "I can't answer the question" about which path Gore will take.
"Only he knows what is right for him and his family to protect all the work he has done on global warming and politics," Guggenheim said. "Either way, he is going to continue to be an agent for good and for progress on global warming."
What does global warming have to do with global peace?
The globe may find out sooner than we think, experts say.
"Climate change is and will be a significant threat to our national security and in a larger sense to life on Earth as we know it to be," retired Gen. Gordon Sullivan, former U.S. Army chief of staff, told a congressional panel last month.
The Nobel Peace Prize Committee agrees. In awarding the prize Friday to climate campaigner Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a U.N.-sponsored network of scientists, the Norwegian committee said the stresses of a changing global environment may heighten the "danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states."
Those, like Sullivan, who study the issues point particularly to the impact of drought and altered climate patterns on food and water supplies, leading to shortages that could spur huge, destabilizing migrations of people internationally.
A 2003 report commissioned by the Pentagon warned that abrupt climate change "could potentially destabilize the geopolitical environment, leading to skirmishes, battles, and even war due to resource constraints."
Source: Associated Press
© 2007 The San Francisco Chronicle