Al's magical mystery tour

The packed audience listening to Al Gore on Capitol Hill didn't give him the adoring reception he's become used to. But he made his point anyway, says Fortune's Nina Easton.

By Nina Easton, Fortune Washington bureau chief

WASHINGTON (Fortune) -- The 80-year-old John Dingell is no Ellen DeGeneres. Still, Al Gore came to Capitol Hill this morning determined to deliver an Oscar-level performance before the Detroit congressman's joint committee session.

And it was quite the star turn.

Never glancing at notes, the former vice president (picture Alec Baldwin in 30 Rock) delivered a fervent made-for-TV, save-the-planet pitch, appealing to lawmakers to follow in the footsteps of the World War II generation of Americans who stood together to rebuild Europe and defeat communism.

"You in the Congress are the repository of the hopes and dreams of people across the earth," he declared.

Just as the Spartans faced insurmountable odds against Xerxes and the Persian army in the new movie "300," he said, "this Congress is now the '535.'"

"Do what history is calling upon all of us to do," he declared, his eyes rimmed in red from fatigue or emotion or both.

There was only one problem with Gore's performance: Independence Avenue isn't Hollywood Boulevard, and the audience packed into the Rayburn building hearing room wasn't exactly unified in adoration, like Gore's fans on Oscar night, when he took home the award for his film "An Inconvenient Truth."

Democrats lauded his courage. But ranking Republican Joe Barton snickered at him. And Texan Ralph Hall accused the former Democratic presidential candidate of launching "an all-out assault on all forms of fossil fuel and all forms of nuclear energy."

The GOP may not control Congress anymore, but - in a prelude to legislative battles still to come this year - House Republicans gamely tried to limit Gore's control of the global warming stage, repeatedly raising questions about the economic costs and regulatory burden of his proposals.

Keeping in character, Gore offered sweeping government solutions certain to draw at least some industry opposition: an immediate freeze on carbon dioxide; higher mileage standards; an immediate moratorium on new coal-fired plants that lack full pollution controls; required corporate disclosure of emissions; and revisions to the tax code to lower worker taxes while imposing new taxes on carbon pollution.

"We do not have time to play around," he insisted.

The hearings come at a time when scientific critics of Gore say that while they appreciate his message, there is a dose of unscientific alarmism in his message.

Republicans tried to advertise some of that criticism today, with Barton pointing out that a recent United Nations report estimated that the world's oceans would rise, at most, 23 inches this century - while Gore's documentary shows them rising 20 feet and swamping New York City.

While Gore declared climate change "a true planetary emergency" ("I know that sounds shrill," he averred), many lawmakers have said they would reserve that label for, say, the threat posed by terrorists seeking nuclear weapons.

Still, the hearings captured a trend in which both Republicans and Democrats appear to be committed to policies to combat climate change and reduce America's dependence on foreign oil, a theme taken up by President Bush in recent State of the Union messages. The divide is over how to accomplish this - and how far to go.

Outside Washington, a number of Republican state chiefs - including California's Arnold Schwarzenegger and former New York Governor George Pataki - have embraced government measures to combat global warming. Others, such as South Carolina Governor Mark Sanford, express serious worry over the problem, but prefer to let the market, rather than government, lead the way.

Some Democrats, too, face political hurdles: Dingell has long defended his hometown auto industry from higher mileage standards; others hail from regions dependent on the coal industry.

Gore - once ridiculed for supposedly claiming he invented the internet - now calls for an "electranet," that would enable individuals to set up their own sources of energy and sell them onto a grid.

And he called for a setting a date to ban incandescent light bulbs. "They'll adjust as long as everyone plays by the same rules," he said of manufacturers.

Acknowledging that the Kyoto treaty was a "damaged" brand, he called for a new international treaty to be negotiated more quickly than originally planned, and which would enforce standards against polluting developing countries such as China and India.

Former GOP House Speaker Dennis Hastert told Gore he agreed "the debate is over" and that science has demonstrated that the earth is warming, though he said he was "less certain" about human contribution to the problem. But, he insisted, more taxes and regulation would hurt the economy.

An immediate freeze on carbon emissions would mean that "tens of thousands of jobs would move to China and India and other places," said Hastert, an Illinois congressman. "We'd have even more empty factories."

Still, Hastert praised Gore "as a thinker, a personality, and now a movie star."

"Rin-Tin-Tin was a movie star," Gore responded. "I just have a slide show." Top of page