The American debate, as ever, sets a shining city on a hill and calls it Las Vegas. The question is not only who America needs for its next president - it's who is worth a flutter. Place your bets, please. Can Hillary find the human warmth to win a few primaries? Will Obama cut the mustard in Mississippi? Is John Edwards a busted flush? But this time, perhaps, the game is different. This time all normal bets are off.Just occasionally, a new politician on the block can transform political priorities. David Cameron (though you won't hear Labour or Liberal Democrat dignitaries admit it openly) has done that already. He may not have hitherto evinced much interest in matters environmental. His Guardian online columns, written way before leadership happened, are notably short on greenery. But the moment he got on his bike and made saving the planet a Conservative cause was the moment the issue itself - climate change - made a step change in British electoral consciousness.
Prime Minister Cameron couldn't let global warming slide inertly down the league table of global concern without exposing himself as shallow and opportunistic in the most humiliating way. He must, in or out of office, keep plugging away for solutions. He can't pipe down - and so other parties have to pipe up, too. Education, education, education? What the hell use is that if your school is under water? National health? Not in hospitals where the air conditioning has collapsed. Climates change, but the challenge doesn't. Which is where we reach the inconvenient truth about Al Gore. And why he needs to be the next man in the Oval Office.
Normal political punditry, to be sure, yawns at the very prospect. Poor old lumpen Al - Bill Clinton handed him power on a plate seven years ago and he let it slide. He wouldn't allow the departing wizard to give him a hand. He pandered to old Democrats rather than new, offering ancestral mood music to the public service unions. He made more of the very successful economic same seem a threat, not a promise. Maybe some hanging Palm Beach chad hung probity and his prospects out to dry, but he shouldn't have had to struggle so close to the brink in any case. He had his chance and he threw it away. He's over: let him go.
Except that Al Gore isn't over, and has not gone away. On the contrary - his profile and organisational structure still in place - he has become America's true prophet of climate change. In the beginning, that seemed like retirement or a move to some showbiz style of career, starting liberal radio stations, making earnest movies. But events, if we're honest, have reshaped all that.
When Gore fully embraced the threat of global warming, half a decade ago, he was just one figure on one side of the argument. He said that carbon dioxide emissions were wrecking our world and that something had to be done. George Bush (and his Republican half of the world) didn't agree. There was no climate change and therefore nil need for uncomfortable action. Kyoto could be safely left to stew.
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But that, crucially, isn't the case any longer. There isn't a debate in an artificially balanced way (if you leave Channel 4 documentaries and a few loony tunes out of the equation). We don't know precisely how serious the threat has become - somewhere between horrid and utterly disastrous - but science as a whole says a clear threat exists. American states from California to Rhode Island are unilaterally signing up for international protocols. American business can't sit this one (and its new technologies) out. Why, even Bush surreptitiously burnt his old beliefs at the G8 this month.
How long have we got to take decisive action? Ten years at most, say the direst American voices (like Jim Hansen, Nasa's top man on climate change). And where does the heart of that action necessarily lie? In Washington DC, because that's where any fight against global pollution necessarily begins. Other politicians and nations can pressure and preach - but top-down decision-making starts in the Oval Office.
Is that possible when climate change is just one "normal" issue among many, to be ceremonially weighed against US jobs or gas prices or Chinese imports? It's not. But that, with inevitable shades of emphasis, is where every extant presidential candidate stands. Too timid, too slow. Global warming is an utterly abnormal issue that needs a leader all of its own. Gore has fashioned himself as that leader. He can't just sit there and pontificate. He has to run. And, when he does, the rest of us have to put inconvenient illusions aside and listen.
© 2007 The Guardian