What’s Al Gore’s Real Record on Protecting the Environment?

Vice President Al Gore, author of the book “Earth in the Balance,” has tried to distinguish himself from other capitalist politicians based on his identity with the environmental movement.

Most environmental groups, while harboring some hope that Gore’s rhetoric may some day translate to action, are aware that it is mostly hot air. For example, Gore is known as an expert on global warming, and is regularly briefed by the nation’s leading climatologists. He has given much lip-service to this issue, calling for “vigorous action” on “the evidence of an ecological Kristallnacht.”

But what has he done? During the climate treaty summit in Kyoto in 1997, Greenpeace accused Clinton and Gore of being in bed with Big Oil because of their retreat on greenhouse emissions in deference to oil companies like ARCO, Chevron, and Exxon.

When George Bush used to call Gore “ozone man” it was an unearned compliment. U.S. News and World Report put it this way:

“Gore’s vivid language in describing environmental problems is almost never matched by equally passionate advocacy for a solution, particularly when powerful economic interests are at stake. Conservative critics who brand Gore an ‘ozone man’ have it wrong. On the environment, Gore favors extreme rhetoric but only incremental solutions.”

As a U.S. congressman, Gore’s environmental voting record was nothing to rave about. The League of Conservation Voters accorded him a mere 60 percent rating for his tenure in the House, and 73 percent for the Senate. Like his father before him, he was beholden to home-state investment interests associated with construction projects of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA).

For example, the Tellico Dam became a national issue after biologists discovered that it would cause the extinction of the snail darter, a tiny fish that lived in the Little Tennessee River, making the dam a test case for the Endangered Species Act. Representative Gore was among those voting successfully to exempt the dam from the ESA.

Gore also supported a “breeder” nuclear reactor at Clinch River, which was considered such a risky undertaking that the project was killed in 1983. From 1977 to 1984, Gore voted with the nuclear industry 55 percent of the time.

In another example, Gore’s influence peddling on behalf of Champion International Paper Company was one of his more embarrassing hypocrisies. The Republican Party is unlikely to let him or Americans forget this one.

For 90 years, Champion had released tons of chemicals and byproducts from bleaching wood pulp (chemicals including dioxins, some of the most toxic substances known) into the Pigeon River in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee. The river has been reported to have the color of coffee and the smell of sulfur. But Gore didn’t need to worry about it running through his backyard. It mainly runs through the most impoverished towns of Appalachia.

Although Gore devoted campaign rhetoric to cleaning up the river, when confronted with capitalist pressures during his first presidential campaign in 1987, he succumbed to croneyism.

Two congressmen beholden to Champion Paper (Terry Sanford and Jamie Clarke) convinced Gore to lobby EPA to cut Champion some slack in their waste discharge permit. Then in 1996, EPA under the leadership of Carol Browner, Gore’s former staffer, granted Champion a permit that waived water quality standards.

At this point an irate citizens group intervened to save the day. Calling themselves the “Dead Pigeon River Council”, they threatened to put up a billboard labeling Gore a sell-out. After much waffling by Gore, EPA eventually issued a more stringent permit, and Champion spent millions on pollution control. Finally, in a typical display of patriotism, Champion put the plant up for sale.

Here is another example: As vice president, Gore has campaigned for a substantial weakening of the U.S. law prohibiting the sale of tuna caught using fishing methods that incidentally kill dolphins. This was done within the context of international manueverings under the GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade).

As a closing vignette, much has been made of Gore’s trip to China, in which he was photographed toasting Li Peng, the Chinese leader associated with the Tiananmen Square massacre and with leading China’s market reforms.

It has been noted that Gore was embarrassed by the photograph, but what about the occasion of the toast itself? It was a celebration of a $1.5 billion deal between China and General Motors to produce 100,000 Buick Centurys and Regals for the burgeoning Chinese auto market.

But there is one important difference between the cars that will be produced for China and their American counterparts-the Chinese versions will not have pollution controls.

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[Editor’s note: We reprint this article by the Committee for the Abolition of Illegitimate Debt (CADTM). In 1989, the Bastille Appeal was launched, inviting popular movements throughout the world to unite in demanding the immediate and unconditional cancellation of the debt of the so-called developing countries. This crushing debt, along with neo-liberal macro-economic reforms imposed on the global South, has led to an explosion of worldwide inequality, mass poverty, flagrant injustice and the destruction of the environment.


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