It is, apparently, impossible to satisfy the public appetite for gotcha journalism - a point of some satisfaction to the Tennessee Centre for Policy Research .
Although you likely never heard of the TCPR before February 26, 2007, you may have heard since that the “independent, nonprofit and nonpartisan research organization” was the source of a story about Al Gore's personal energy consumption. According to the TCPR news release - fired out, coincidentally, the day after Gore's movie An Inconvenient Truth won an Oscar - the Gore family home in Nashville consumes energy at a rate equivalent to roughly 20 times the national average.
Gore's defence, that he has been purchasing “green energy” that is carbon neutral, was not part of the TCPR release, nor is it of much interest to Drew Johnson, the articulate young president of the TCPR (inset photo). In an interview earlier today, Johnson said the TCPR cares mostly about public hypocrisy. The TCPR's usual target is Republican politicians who call themselvs fiscal conservatives but spend an inordinate amount of time raising taxes and running up deficits. This, Johnson said, is the TCPR's first real attack on a “left-wing” target.
As for Gore's green energy response, Johnson said that Gore was only covering about one-quarter of his energy usage with a carbon-neutral supply, and that he had only begun buying green energy last December, even though the program had been in place for more than a year. The TCPR president also pointed out that Gore made the green energy purchase “about the time he was nominated for the Academy Award when he would have known that he was going to face greater scrutiny.” (It's an interpretation that seems to challenge Johnson's claim of being non-partisan.)
The TCPR's “gotcha” was greeted with a howls of delight by Gore's detractors and a savage snarl by the former vice-president's supporters. Gore's political opponents have used the issue to distract people from the essential truth of his message: that climate change is a real and pressing problem.
Gore supporters have launched an imperfect defence, for example by reporting that his energy consumption is only 13 times the national average. And the most mindless Gore fans responded with a rudely abusive attack on the TCPR, which has given the right-wing media an opportunity to keep spinning the story. (Note to good guys: Get a grip.)
Looking back on this as a piece of Carl Rovish trouble-making, it's a clean kill. The charge was largely true in its carefully chosen detail and perfectly timed to do maximum damage. It gave partisans an opportunity to laugh at Gore (who has been overwhelmingly effective on this issue), and it gave the rabid left an opportunity to bloody its own nose. As for the previously low-profile TCPR, before this release, the largest number of visitors to the TCPR website was about 10,000 a day. On Feb. 27, they got 1.7 million hits and they have been running an average of 40,000 a day since. And you can bet that the young Mr. Johnson will have an easier time bumping up into his next think tank position, wherever he chooses to go.
It would be good to try to pin all this on Exxon Mobil, and some people have . They have pointed out that Johnson cut his think-tank teeth working at the American Enterprise Institute. That's one of ExMo's favourites, getting as much as $1.6 million in Exxon funding and featuring former ExMo CEO Lee Raymond as Chair of its Board. But Johnson said he was an unpaid intern when he worked at AEI, “They certainly didn't give any of that money to me.” He also said that TCPR gets no funding from energy sources and has no specific brief, or beef, on climate change.
The truth, here, is that this is a Red Team/Blue Team issue (which makes the climate change conversation so much more difficult in the U.S.). Johnson calls himself politically non-partisan politically and, on climate change, he says, “The jury is still out as far as I'm concerned.”
Those two statements don't scan. Johnson is obviously a very intelligent young man; he's got a Masters in Public Policy from Pepperdine. Given recent coverage of the IPCC report - given the fact that even Exxon acknowledges human-caused climate change as an undeniable truth - it would take a special kind of partisan fervour to remain “undecided” about global warming.
So, this isn't about hypocrisy. No reasonable person would truly expect Al Gore to walk away from his family home and start living the life of an Indian hermit in order to speak credibly and passionately about the most pressing environmental issue of our time. We could all do better; that's part of the challenge.
This was about scoring political points on a day when Gore was flying high. And, call it a cheap shot if you will, it was irritatingly effective.
It also put me in mind of a sign that hung in the kitchen at the then-very small David Suzuki Foundation about 10 or 12 years ago. It was a top 10 sign, listing the things we do as good environmentalists. The first nine items were all pretty predictable: we recycle, we eat organic products, we walk or cycle to avoid driving unnecessarily … the usual.
But number 10 caught me off guard: “We shine our halos with biodegradable polish.” Who knew environmentalists had a sense of humour?
Seriously, though, it was a funny but pointed reminder that, by trying to speak up for something we believe to be true, we make ourselves a target. Gore has done that in spades. He has stood before the whole world and urged us to come to grips with an issue of global importance.
This petty piece criticism demonstrates that, in doing so, Al Gore has unsettled some very powerful and otherwise very comfortable people.
So criticize if you want. Giggle up a storm at Al's expense. But face it: he's right and he's trying to do the right thing.
What's your excuse?