WELCOME TO PLANET AL
On the road with the larger-thanlife-jet-setting-celebrity-magnetenvironmental-rock star, AI Gore
BY LUIZA CH. SAVAGE AND NICHOLAS KÖHLER • It’s 10 a.m. on April 23, the Monday after Earth Day, when a Falcon 20 twinengine turbo jet descends from the gauzy sky above Regina’s airport. Direct from Nashville, Al Gore, the former U.S. vice-president turned superstar salesman-in-chief for the “climate crisis,” emerges with a single assistant. A security detail and two high-end hybrids—a Prius and a Lexus GS 450h—meet him on the tarmac. Gore was meant to fly commercial, but that didn’t jibe with his schedule. A local radio station calculates his jaunt through Western Canada will use enough fuel to refill an average car 137 times. Such calculations inevitably follow Gore as he travels around the world telling people
to reduce their own “carbon footprint.”
Today’s destination is the Brandt Centre, a hockey arena the colour of an unripe tomato, which over the weekend hosted Monster Spectacular, a gas-guzzling extravaganza billed as the “biggest monster truck event ever presented in Regina.” It featured cars so gargantuan they’re worthy of names: Bounty Hunter, Godzilla, Maniac, Iron Outlaw, Jurassic Attack. The joke around Regina was that the fumes wouldn’t clear in time for Gore’s speech.
His visit, at the invitation of Saskatchewan Premier Lome Calvert, has not been without controversy. Back in his White House days, Bill Clinton used to joke that he could raise money by charging donors US$10,000 for a “private meeting with Al Gore to discuss reinventing government.” The punchline was: “And for US$20,000, you don’t have to go.” Now Gore’s speaking fee is $125,000— and no one is laughing. SaskTel, the province’s telephone company and a Crown corporation, is covering the event’s estimated $208,000 cost.
When the event fails to sell out, other Crown corporations, including SaskPower and SaskEnergy, step in to purchase seats by the hundreds, triggering opposition complaints in the legislature. Calvert, meanwhile, stands accused of jumping on the globalwarming cavalcade by inviting Gore—a charge local media, angry that a Gore dictate has barred cameras and microphones from his speech, are only too happy to report. That a provincial premier could use Gore to try to score political points is a measure of the former VP’s stunning transformation from longwinded butt of jokes to global celebrity, a sort of Bono without the music, who counts among his friends celebrities and entertainment moguls like Robert De Niro, Madonna, and director Rob Reiner, who is bringing back his fake band Spinal Tap to help Gore save the planet. Gore calls himself a “recovering politician” and touts his mission as non-partisan and non-ideological. But as the Harper government will discover by the end of a week, it’s not all Kumbaya. The guy who won more popular votes than the sitting President is still capable of a powerful political slap-down.
WHILE THE CLIMATE CRISIS IS GORE’S MISSION, IT’S ALSO HIS BUSINESS
Yet Gore is still more than a politicianturned-preacher: he is a businessman, bigtime. No one knows how much he’s worth, but the speculation is that it’s enough to launch another run for the White House (an option Gore declines to rule out). Three years before its multi-billion-dollar IPO, Web searchengine Google brought Gore on as a “special adviser.” What precisely he does for Google and how much his stock options are worth is a closely guarded secret. (“Gore is an adviser to the company and has counselled Google on a range of issues pertaining to our business and his experience in international markets,” a Google spokesman emailed Maclean’s, adding, “We cannot provide any further comment, nor put someone on the phone to discuss.”) Gore also sits on the board of Apple Computer, and has founded Current TV, a cable and satellite TV network based on viewer-created content, for which he is to receive an International Emmy later this year. And he has co-founded a global investment firm with David Blood, the former CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management.
But to the 3,800 believers in jeans and baseball caps who have paid $20 to $70 for a chance to hear him in Regina, Gore is guru. When he is introduced by Calvert, the crowd ecstatically leaps to its feet. “I am Al Gore,” he begins. “I used to be the next president of the United States.” He used to fly Air Force Two, he says. “Now I have to take my shoes off to get on an airplane.” Thus the stage version of An Inconvenient Truth begins—and quickly disappoints. Funny on screen, but in Regina it is shtick: strange, a little mechanical, something like reading a movie novelization. From a graphic of the atmosphere’s mounting C02 levels to before and after pictures of vanishing glaciers, the audience has seen it before. A photograph of polar bears trapped on a wilting iceberg. Ships beached on a desert bed where once water flowed. Beyond a few jabs at Canadian issues—the ravaging pine beetle, drying prairie potholes, the stressed Athabasca River—the talk is little changed from the film. And so the crowd starts to fidget—until Gore mangles the name of the province, giving each syllable equal weight and even missing a consonant or two. “Sa-Ka-Cha-One.” There are muffled giggles. He says the word again, now louder, prompting another titter.
IT IS SHAPING UP to be a challenging day for Gore. His next stop is Calgary, capital of Canada’s oil patch, and home to executives who manage over $100 billion in oil developments, backed by a government that stands ardently opposed to the Kyoto accord. Protesters greet Gore when he arrives later that afternoon. One man, dressed in a yellow chicken costume, carries a sign: “Al Gore and Chicken Little—partners in false panic.” Another yells into a megaphone: “Al Gore is lying to you,” addressing the gathering crowd in their cocktail dresses and suits. “Each and every one of you has paid money to be lied to.”
In Calgary’s Jack Singer Concert Hall, with its 90-tonne spruce-wood acoustical canopy suspended above the stage, Gore faces a soldout crowd of 1,800, made up in large part of energy industry luminaries who’ve shelled out $150 a ticket and who risk, just by their very presence, Kyoto-induced spontaneous combustion
There is Ed Stelmach, the Alberta premier, Environment Minister Rob Renner, Calgary Mayor Dave Bronconnier, energy bigwigs like Canadian Natural Resources Ltd. vicechairman Murray Edwards. It appears as if every CEO in town has shown up. Before taking to the stage, Gore meets with them at a closed-door session set up by the Calgary Chamber of Commerce and the University of Calgary, the event’s co-sponsors.
Just last summer, Gore had badmouthed these very people to Rolling Stone magazine. “Take the tar sands of Western Canada,” he’d said then. “For every barrel of oil they extract there, they have to use enough natural gas to heat a family’s home for four days. And they have to tear up four tons of landscape, all for one barrel of oil. It is truly nuts. But you know, junkies find veins in their toes. It seems reasonable, to them, because they’ve lost sight of the rest of their lives.” The remarks made Stelmach balk. “Where do you think we’re selling the oil?” he told the Calgary Herald hours before Gore’s arrival. “Right to his own country.”
So why did the Albertans shell out to see him? “I didn’t want to have to answer the question, why didn’t I come,” says Renner,
who adds that he and Gore don’t differ on the facts. “The point at which we probably begin to lose convergence is when he suggests Kyoto as a solution.” And why are the energy CEOs here? They’re not talking, but the head of Calgary’s Glenbow Museum and a member of the board of directors of the David Suzuki Foundation, Mike Robinson, speculates, “They want to know if his arguments are sharp enough to take them on.”
The sharpness of his arguments may in the end matter less than how loud they are. And Gore has become an expert at turning up the volume. The profits from his Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, and the book it inspired, go to paying for the training of 1,000 volunteers, from housewives to actress Cameron Diaz, who will fan out and present his slide show to more audiences than Gore can personally reach. Gore is also overseeing Live Earth, a series of massive rock concerts to be held on seven continents on July 7, featuring 150 artists such as Madonna, Bon Jovi, Kanye West, Ludacris, the Black Eyed Peas and Spinal Tap, to name a few. Live Earth producer Kevin Wall, who did Live Aid, aims to reach two billion people.
But the ticket sales from this extravaganza won’t go toward planting trees or scrubbing smokestacks. They’ll go to an outfit chaired by Gore called the Alliance for Climate Protection, a sort of sophisticated PR company for the idea of a climate crisis. The group exists to “generate overwhelming public support” and to create a “tipping point” in public opinion for the idea that there is a crisis, and to tell people how to fix it. It’s a circle creating buzz to raise money to create more buzz. Oil patch beware.
But at 7 p.m. in Calgary, the oil patch is applauding. Gore took Regina’s standing ovation in stride, but he seems genuinely stunned when the Calgary crowd jumps to its feet to greet him. “I’m really grateful,” he tells the audience, adding that he’s never had a similar invitation from Houston. He acknowledges that there are many here who “feel like they disagree with me.” But, he adds, “Reasonable people can disagree. If you have a disagreement on something—all right, talk it out.” Then he is off. “I am Al Gore,” he begins. “I used to be the next president of the United States.”
If Gore had bored his Regina converts, he now holds Calgary rapt. Most people in the audience, including Stelmach, have never seen An Inconvenient Truth. And Gore modifies his shtick. Where he had worked anti-Bush material for laughs in Regina, in Calgary he promises to tone down the “cheap shots.” Where he told Regina that globalwarming skeptics are “a group more rapidly shrinking in numbers than the glaciers,” in Calgary he is more circumspect. “I don’t mean to push this down your throats,” he says.
THE SHOW IS DESIGNED FOR ‘PEOPLE WHO LIKE MICHAEL MOORE,’ SAYS ONE CRITIC
“It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it,” he tells his listeners, quoting Upton Sinclair. The audience responds with nervous recognition, embarrassed laughter. He is, he tells them again, “genuinely humbled” to be speaking to people who might rather not hear his message. Then his voice lapses into whisper, a preacher’s trick, as a list of Kyoto member countries dances on the immense screen behind him. Canada, he says, is a country of moral authority, a country that has contributed more blue-helmeted peacekeepers than any other. “That country would turn its back on this treaty? I don’t think so.” Now the applause comes only piecemeal, from corners of the hall. A line of oiland-gassers who had gathered into a joshing row just as the lights dimmed now grows silent. Arms are crossed. Heads shake.
At the close of Gore’s address—it is three hours, though his sponsors paid for the short version—the front of the crowd gathers again to its feet, and row after row joins them. The oil-and-gassers turn on their heels and leave. Then Gore receives an honorary doctorate from the University of Calgary. “I really felt a surge of emotion. This really means a lot to me,” he says.
Later, Gore presses the flesh at a wine-andcheese reception for the energy people. His face red with exertion, he smiles wanly, grasping hands. Photographs are taken (one man says he wants a shot with Gore to showcase in his office alongside his picture with Margaret Thatcher). Says Gore’s “great, great friend,” the environmentalist David Suzuki: “I think there were a lot of skeptics here. But they came.” Scott Thon, president and CEO of AltaLink, responsible for nearly 60 per cent of Alberta’s transmission lines, says, “I don’t know if people were swayed.” But Heather Douglas, head of the Calgary Chamber of Commerce, is giddy. The evening “felt like a seismic shift in Calgary,” she says. “The vice-president was genuinely touched to be in one of the capitals of the energy world— and to be received so generously and so graciously.” Outside the hall, one of the oil-andgas types dismisses Gore’s appearance as a “great show” designed for “the same people who like Michael Moore.”
Like Moore, Gore is a lightning rod. Earlier this year an anti-regulation group in Tennessee got hold of utility bills showing that Gore’s Nashville mansion consumed 20 times the energy of an average American household. Gore defended himself by saying that he and his wife work from home, that some of that power is produced by renewable sources, and that he offsets his energy use by buying carbon credits. (He also had tried to install solar panels on his house, a move that was blocked until recently by local regulations.)
But the whiff of hypocrisy lingered. When Gore testified to the Senate environment committee, a Republican senator asked him to pledge to downsize his lifestyle; Gore refused. As for the offsets, some environmentalists criticize the scheme for exculpating people from actually cutting their emissions. Other critics then accused Gore of enriching himself by buying the carbon offsets from a company he owns. It turns out they had it wrong. The investment company he co-founded, Generation Investment Management LLP, doesn’t sell the carbon offsets to Gore; rather it buys them for Gore—a perk it provides for all of its employees. The credits are bought from the British-based CarbonNeutral Co., which then pays for a “microhydro” project in Bulgaria and a solar project in Sri Lanka. Gore’s firm also buys carbon credits through the Chicago Climate Exchange, according to company spokesman Richard Campbell, who declined to disclose how much the company spends on offsetting Gore’s carbon emissions, explaining that his critics are on the lookout for numbers “to exploit.” There is no denying that, while the climate crisis is Gore’s mission, it is also his business. His investment company is not, as it’s frequently touted, an environmentally focused one. It’s actually a mainstream investment
bank, looking for firms that will profit from long-term trends—such as public concern over the climate crisis. Generation Investment has bought into General Electric, for example, because GE makes energy-efficient light bulbs and plans to focus on energy-efficient appliances. It’s a seamless project for Gore. The more people Gore can persuade to buy energy-efficient light bulbs, the better for the planet—and the better for GE, the better for Generation Investment Management, and the better for Gore.
AFTER CALGARY, he hits Indianapolis, for a Tuesday meeting of mayors, where Gore presents his slide show at a synagogue, and later boasts that while climate change was not on the mayors’ agenda, it quickly became “the only thing they talked about.”
By Wednesday morning, he’s standing on a theatre stage in lower Manhattan for a news conference about the Tribeca Film Festival— an event whose opening he will preside over later in the evening. He has swapped his suit and tie for an all-black ensemble that on a fitter man might suggest Han Solo. It’s the same getup his “very close friend,” Hollywood über-director Rob Reiner (Stand By Me, When Henry Met Sally, A Few Good Men), is wearing as they appear alongside the billionaire mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg. “Al, don’t you just hate those rumours about running for the White House?” ribs Bloomberg, who is himself a frequent object of such speculation. Bloomberg, who ran as a Republican in a mostly liberal city, has just announced a plan to reduce New York’s emissions in part by slapping a congestion tax of US$8 on cars and up to US$21 for trucks to enter parts of Manhattan. Commuters are incensed, and he could use a public pat on the back from Gore, whom he introduces to the assembled New York press as “the hottest leading man of the moment, Oscar-winner, and matinee idol.” Gore obliges, twice calling Bloomberg’s initiatives “gutsy.”
CALGARY MUST HAVE MADE AN IMPRESSION BECAUSE GORE NO LONGER COMPARES OIL MEN TO HEROIN JUNKIES
Gore is touting nine short films with a climate crisis message that will premier at the festival. They were commissioned by SOS Films, another project of Wall’s, the producer of Live Earth. One Less Car portrays cyclists in New York. Sunny Day encourages the people of Los Angeles to ditch the clothes dryer and hang their wash outside instead. One documentary asks children such uplifting questions as, “Why are the polar ice caps melting?” and “How long do you think the world will last?”
Among the glitterati there is no eye-rolling, just mutual adulation, not to mention the kind of self-importance only the entertainment industry can muster. Wall, who takes to the stage in jeans, calls Live Earth “one of the most important events ever produced.” Movie producer Jane Rosenthal (Meet theFockers, Wag the Dog, The Good Shepherd), who co-founded the festival with filmmaker Robert De Niro, says the goal is to “imprint environmental awareness on the collective consciousness of the entire plant.”
Gore, who insists the planetary “tipping point” on climate change is near, chooses this moment to mention his meeting with oil executives in Calgary. Whatever went on behind closed doors in Calgary clearly made an impression, because he no longer compares them to heroin junkies. “We had a very frank and full discussion about the choices we have to make as a society about producing energy without so much carbon pollution in the atmosphere,” he says. Pressed by Maclean’s to elaborate, Gore says the industry executives told him, “ ‘If this thing is what you say it is, we want to figure out what we can do to be a part of the solution.’ ” He gushes: “I love that. I love it. We’re going to need them to play that role.” He acknowledges the initial successes of carbon capture and sequestration projects in Alberta—before ending on a bittersweet note. “I don’t want to hold out a vain hope that that’s going to make it possible to develop the tar sands,” he says. “I actually think that it’s more likely than not that the emissions related to that energy source will overwhelm the efforts to capture the carbon. But the spirit of open discussion
that I encountered there was great. And that’s what we need. We’ve got to get back to a point where we don’t make facts a battleground.”
Around 7 p.m., the stars begin arriving at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center—some in official festival SUVs that event sponsor General Motors has prominently marked “HYBRID,” others in old-school stretch limos and Hummers. The climate is not co-operating, and the organic and biodegradable red carpet is drenched with rain. De Niro is here, as is Canadian-born screenwriter and director Paul Haggis, Jon Bon Jovi, The Sopranos’ Edie Falco, and models Christie Brinkley and Shalom Harlow, all moving in a hail of flashbulbs. “I’m hoping to meet Al Gore,” starlet Kerry Washington tells the paparazzi on her way in to the gala. “I think he’s fantastic. Thank God for you!” Metal barricades corral the autograph seekers, including 13-year-old New Yorker Anne Kaplan, who is too young to remember Gore’s years in the White House but old enough to have seen his movie three times. Gore is “very cool,” she explains, because “he won an Oscar and he knows what he’s talking about.”
The festival will roll on for two weeks, premiering films like Spider-Man 3 and documentaries by Angelina Jolie and Ricki Lake. But by Saturday morning, Gore is already back in Canada, to speak to a mostly middleclass audience of 1,100 at an environmental consumer show in Toronto, and to make his biggest headlines of the week. A pair of lastminute tickets for this appearance are available on eBay for $1,000. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sits in the front row. Another standing ovation. Photographers get 10 minutes to Gore’s picture before the media is ordered out. It’s during this photo op that he unleashes on the Canadian government’s recently released plan to combat global warming. “In my opinion, it is a complete and total fraud,” he says. “It is designed to mislead the Canadian people.” After spanking the Tories, Gore lunches with McGuinty and 25 others. Then it’s off to the upscale Royal York Hotel for a half-hour meeting with McGuinty and Ontario Environment Minister Laurel Broten.
At 5 p.m., he speaks to a Bay Street crowd of 3,200 at an invite-only event sponsored by the VenGrowth and Criterion Investment firms. It takes place at the Hummingbird Centre, where the steady stream of non-hybrid Lexuses, Jaguars, Mercedes and BMWs begins arriving about an hour early. Then he’s off to a cocktail reception at the Hockey Hall of Fame, with 600 guests, where Gore is presented with a Toronto Maple Leafs jersey emblazoned “Gore 07.”
Before night falls, the Canadian government is firing back. “It is difficult to accept criticism from someone who preaches about climate change, but who never submitted the Kyoto Protocol to a vote in the United States Senate, who never did as much as Canada is now doing to fight climate change during eight years in office,” Environment Minister John Baird says in a statement. Baird says Gore is in no position to comment, having not been briefed on the Conservative plan. But a Gore representative says the former vice-president had the chance to both “read” and “review” the necessary documentation.
Whatever the case, Gore has made his mark. Liberal Leader Stéphane Dion and the NDP’s Jack Layton are quick to associate themselves with the public face of envirofriendliness. “Mr. Baird is embarrassing Canada around the world,” Dion says. By the afternoon of Monday, April 30, the controversy is strong enough to interrupt another day of bitter debate over military detainees in Afghanistan. First Bloc Québécois MP Bernard Bigras, and then several Liberals, rise during Question Period to throw Gore’s fword back at the government. Eventually, Natural Resources Minister Gary Lunn takes the bait. “Mr. Speaker,” he says, “the only inconvenient truth is the absolute, deplorable record of the Liberal Party of Canada on the environment.”
Meanwhile, Gore reflects on his trip to the Canadian oil patch in his online journal at AlGore.com, and concludes that “the conversation has been taken to a higher, more productive level.” M
With John Intini and Aaron Wherry