Celebrities, Politicians

Al Gore – he’s hot

The Times – July 6 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Once derided as a wooden politician, Al Gore is the man of the moment. On the eve of his series of ‘save the planet’ Live Earth rock concerts, Ginny Dougary finds him warm, witty, passionate and attractive

Al Gore
Photo: Brett Wilson

The Goracle – also known in Washington these days as “Al Gore: rock star” – clears his throat and starts singing the lines from a Bob Dylan song quietly and unselfconsciously: “ ‘I was so much older then, I’m younger than that now’ . . . it’s a lovely lyric. He’s written so many great ones . . . like ‘He not busy being born is busy dying’.” The former Vice-President of the United States may be joining the likes of Madonna and the Pussy-cat Dolls on stage at Wembley’s Live Earth concert tomorrow but his vocalising – as far as I know – will be restricted to challenging each and every member of the audience to make a pledge right now to do his or her bit to save the planet.

The rock-star epithet – awarded by The Washington Post – is partly a reference to his involvement in the Live Earth concerts: a massive event spanning seven continents and involving 150 acts, with a global reach of two billion people. But it’s also an acknowledgment of Al Gore’s new charisma (not a word that would ever have been applied to him when he was in mainstream politics), where his name – as a leading, Oscar-winning environmental campaigner – is now a big draw and standing ovations are the norm.

Why, he even looks a bit like a rock star, all in black from his sharply tailored jacket, nipping in his barrel chest, to his cowboy boots: a far cry from the bland Ivy League uniform of chinos and loafers.

The singing came after one of several concerted attempts on my part to establish the definitive response to the question that we all want answered: will Al Gore run for the presidency in 2008? Last week’s poll, conducted in the key state of New Hampshire, showed that Democrats would prefer Gore to any of the declared contenders (Hillary Clinton, the forerunner, would be forced into second place by 6 percentage points) even though he has yet to enter the race.

If you really want to make the crucial difference to affect climate change, isn’t it imperative that you run for the presidency? “Hmmm.” Because even if you don’t care to, and you like your life more now than you did before . . . “Hmmm.” For every person you reach with these concerts and your slideshow lectures and film ( An Inconvenient Truth), the one individual who really has the power to make dramatic changes is the President of the United States … “Hmmm.” And now is your time! And anyway, didn’t you make a sort of promise to your father on his deathbed that you would “always do right”? “Hahahaha.”

This is a hollow, slightly embarrassed, laugh but as the interview progresses the laughter becomes increasingly genuine, until by the end of our brief encounter any trace of the old “wooden” Gore has been replaced by an appealing combination of cool, wry humour and bursts of passion.

Much has been made of the Goracle’s increased heft – and not just politically – in these so-called “wilderness years”, but while he may be fleshier (much continues to be made of the loss of his movie-star jawline), he also radiates the sense of being comfortable in his skin, and that is undeniably attractive.

“It’s a fair point that no position in the world has as much potential for bringing about change as that of President of the US. But I ran for president twice, and [‘eee-arnd’, he says with a southern twang] I have now launched a different kind of campaign” – his delivery slow and measured – “aimed at raising awareness and giving knowledge of the solutions to the climate crisis all round the world. While it’s true that I haven’t ruled out the possibility of running at some point in the future, the reason I don’t expect to is that I’ve fallen out of love with politics.”

What an arresting phrase, spoken with all the disenchantment of a disappointed lover – “fallen out of love with politics”, from a man who was groomed from birth by his Democrat senator father, Al Sr, for the highest office in the land. He knows that there is still anger, and not just among the Democrats, that he didn’t somehow fight harder to prevent the final outcome of that messy election in 2000 which resulted in the Bush Administration, the non-signing of the Kyoto treaty and the war in Iraq.

“I’ve seen the limitations of politics when public opinion will not support the kind of dramatic change that’s really necessary,” Gore continues. “I’ve seen that at first hand. And focusing on changing public opinion at the grassroots level feels like the right thing for me to be doing.”

For someone who is pushing 60 you’re talking very much like a young person, if I may say so. We are always hearing that the young are disaffected with the main political parties but are much more likely to respond to single issues – do you agree?

After his mini-warble, Gore says: “I feel,” (it is striking how often he uses “feel” rather than “think”) that this climate crisis is far and away the most serious challenge we’ve ever faced, and it’s a challenge first and foremost to the moral imagination. We have never in the past confronted anything like this; never had this radically new relationship to the planet.

“We’ve quadrupled population in less than 100 years. We’re using routinely technologies that are a thousandfold more powerful than those our grandparents had available to them, and we’re now the bull in the china shop. And becoming conscious of what we’re doing worldwide about how to stop putting all this global-warming pollution into the air is really the most urgent challenge we have to face.”

I watched An Inconvenient Truth with my family the evening before meeting Gore, and was struck by what an impact it made on us all, regardless of our generation. It’s a film that forces viewers, whatever their experiences, to join the dots together.

As Gore says, while we watch diagrams of the edges of continent after continent submerged in water – the sure result of all this catastrophic melting – it is hard not to shift straight from denial to despair. But optimism is crucial, and not misplaced: “We have everything we need [to tackle this] save political will,” he says, “and in America political will is a renewable energy.”

Gore was a lone voice in American politics to speak out against the Iraq invasion, which he opposed from the outset (Hillary Clinton voted for the war in the Senate, although she now says that she was misled by the Bush Administration). “There’s no longer any dispute about the fact that the Iraq war was a horrible mistake,” he says.

Unlike, famously, Bush or Clinton, Gore has first-hand knowledge of the horrors of war because he volunteered for Vietnam out of a sense of duty, despite his public opposition to it. He didn’t serve his full two years but saw and recorded enough as a military reporter to feel the need to enrol in divinity school for a year on his return: “It was a way of – ahhh – searching in an organised way for answers to some of the questions that I confronted when I faced what seemed to a young man to be a moral dilemma about going to Vietnam. But in any case,” he clears his throat again, “I’ve always been a person of faith.”

He calls himself a Christian but he also meditates in times of stress: “I don’t often talk about this,” he says hesitantly, “but I believe in a very personal definition of what I think the Creator of the Universe is – that God is a moving force in the world – but I don’t think everything is predetermined in any way, and I think that what we do matters and the choices we make matter, and I think it’s up to us to try our best to make better choices.”

He sees no signs of Bush making better choices, but surely we can’t afford to dismiss the possibility that he might. “Well, it’s true and I have to admit to you – however – that I have recently begun to fear that I am – ah – losing my objectivity where Bush is concerned.” This is said with an hilarious deadpan expression. “Yaiiirs, and Cheney, too, I must say.” But on the positive side: “Congress has already acted. I have gone to Capitol Hill and testified before the House and the Senate, and they are now moving. So we can have some new laws even before Bush leaves office.”

Can I draw an analogy between you and Gordon Brown? “Of course,” Gore says in his amiable way: he might just be the politest person I’ve ever interviewed. “You mean, Number Twos who become Number One?” he asks mock-archly. Oh, are you hinting . . . “Well, he made it and I didn’t.” There’s still time. “Hahahahaha, yes, I’m a young man – 59 is the new 49!”

The point I want to make is that with both Brown and Gore (when he was in office) there is an unhelpful schism between their private (witty, charming, relaxed) and public (dour: Brown; wooden: Gore) selves. Does Gore agree? “I used to be described that way but I haven’t been in a long time,” he says. “I think that people see [Brown] very differently now that he is Prime Minister.” Even so soon? “Yes, I do. I think you’ve seen an almost instant change in the way that people perceive him. Perhaps it’s influenced by his excellent handling of this terror threat, but there is some evidence that he is experiencing a surge in the polls. Part of that comes from people seeing him as Prime Minister and not as Number Two. I think that does colour people’s perceptions.”

Do you think it’s true that you seem far more engaged and passionate as an environmental campaigner than when you were running for President? “The perceptions of candidates are affected by the lens that we all use when we look at candidates – and when one is not a candidate there is a different lens,” he says. “But it’s true as well. Even though I was inspired when I was holding political office to address the climate crisis [he has campaigned on this issue for 30 years], there is a kind of luxury in being able to focus single-mindedly on one issue out of the entire panoply, and the opportunity to focus on it intensely might not be as possible for someone holding office.”

Dick Morris, Bill Clinton’s campaign manager, made an arresting comparison between Gore and Clinton’s respective personalities: “In private Gore is what Clinton is like in public. And in public he’s like Clinton in private. When he’s not in front of a microphone, Gore is witty, urbane, informal, empathetic and often subtle, displaying attributes that Clinton reserves for the stage.”

It may sound cheeky, but do you think that Clinton is so charismatic that your lustre was eclipsed by his? “Hmmm, hmmm – well, I never saw it that way. I thought we were an excellent team. I think he’s uncommonly talented as a politician, much as Tony Blair was uncommonly talented, and I think that both Gordon Brown and I have a different set of talents – and someone who is Number Two and in waiting, if you will, is inevitably seen in a different way.”

America, soon to be overtaken by China, is the largest source of global-warming pollution in the world. What will it take to make Americans wake up and believe that global warming is real before it’s too late?

“Well, Sir Winston Churchill said – I’m sure you know the quote – ‘The American people generally do the right thing . . . after first exhausting every available alternative’. And I think we have exhausted the alternatives and we’re now just about ready to do the right thing on climate.”

Lest we feel smug about “those dumb Americans” – and in answer to Bob Geldof’s complaint that tomorrow’s event is just another enormous pop concert and “we’re all f*****g concious of global warming” – it turns out that we’re not as smart as we think we are. Gore points out: “Did you see this morning’s major new MORI poll which shows that in the UK, 56 per cent of the people are notaware that there is a scientific concensus that global warming is caused by human actitivities?” We know from the smoking ban that the unthinkable can become the thinkable overnight. But: “The first establishment of the national consensus on smoking was in 1964,” Gore points out, “and it’s taken that long to convince enough people, one by one, of the need for the new laws on smoking. But we don’t have 40 years left to make enough changes on this issue one by one – so that’s the reason for these mass events like Live Earth worldwide, to speed up that process.

“There’s an old African proverb that says ‘If you want to go quickly, go alone. But if you want to go far, go together’. We have to go far – quickly. And this is just the beginning of a three-year massive campaign.”

Gore doesn’t like to call himself an eco-warrior (“it sounds a bit hubristic and militaristic, doesn’t it?”) but he is gathering forces – Al’s army – in his battle to save the planet. He has already trained 1,300 people to give his slide show, attended by 200 people at an event in Cambridge University (including, rather surprisingly, Sir Alex Ferguson). Then there’s Australia, and India at the end of the year, China next, and Africa – “whatever it takes to persuade enough people to reach that critical mass, that’s what we have to do. So let’s get on with it, that’s my feeling.”

Our time is almost up. I have one final question. Gore has said that he has learnt a lot in the past six years. “Having been through some of the experiences I’ve been through, I can confirm the old cliché that we often learn the most from [a little, rueful laugh] the most painful experiences.”

Could you be more specific? “It’s hard to be. But letting go of . . . Kris Kristofferson wrote a line that Janis Joplin sang: ‘Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose . . .’” Yes, I think I see. So do you feel free now? “Yes,” Al Gore says. “I do.”

General, Travel & Adventure

Ice castles

Times Saturday Magazine, November 11 2006
– Ginny Dougary

Francis Latreille’s photographs are a tribute to the North Pole’s majestic, glacial beauty – and a chilling reminder of man’s careless destruction of the natural world

ice castles

These unique sculptures, each one fashioned by the elements, seem to be living proof that there is no artistry more entrancing than that which is created by nature. They are so dreamlike in their beauty that it is hard to look at them without falling silent, and in that small space of time you step out of the humdrum everyday and into an icy place of the imagination. But flicking through the pages, you also rec­ognise majestic echoes of ancient cathedrals, blades soaring into the sky which resemble the creations of our best modern architects, an iceberg whose profile amusingly mirrors the questing form of a polar bear on the hunt.

You may enjoy these natural art works without pausing to consider their ephemerality. They endure as a sort of trick of visual fiction – their permanence achieved only because they attracted the attention of Francis Latreille, who happened to be there, in a remote place that few people get to visit, and chose to transform something fleetingly spectacular into a lasting pleasure. When he lined up his camera in that chance moment, he knew that the glorious sight that filled his lens was a one-off that could never be recaptured by himself or anyone else.

ice castles

The experience of gazing at these images – stunning as they are – cannot compare with the exhilaration of witnessing for yourself the treasures of the Arctic gallery in their full monumental glory, the chill of the air on your cheeks, your heart soaring at the sight of the turquoise glowing under the white transformed by a shaft of sunlight into an iridescent gem-like blue. The satisfying crunch of the icy sea-floor under your booted foot, which opens up here and there to reveal: intricate patches of lacework, curious fibre-optic networks, bubbles of air trapped and frozen. You stop to marvel and move on to the next breathtaking vision. The rubble-yards of snow whipped up by the wind, then caught at precarious, tilting angles – as though nature were a mischievous faery child who had waved a wand. A day later, another windstorm, and that frozen Giacometti or Hepworth will have gone. So being there not only gives you the weirdly omniscient sense that each sculpture has been made for your eyes only, but is a constant reminder of change and fluctuation.

ice castles

It took a man, inspired by the treasures of the Arctic gallery, to bring this evidence back home to share with us – and it is man who is destroying the environment in which these wonders are found. Our first thoughts on looking at these chilly beauties is not of warming and hothouse effects, but the stark facts in the text that accompany these photographs make it clear that Latreille’s book comes with a message.

The Arctic is warming twice as fast as the rest of the planet. The ice floe or ice sea has lost more than 8 per cent of its surface area and 40 per cent of its thickness over the past three decades – which is why Pen Hadow, the explorer, found himself swimming as much as skiing to the North Pole on his last historic expedition. The Greenland ice cap – containing 90 per cent of the northern hemisphere’s reserve of fresh water – has begun to melt away. The glaciers are retreating. The layer of perma frost, made up of earth, vegetable matter and ice, which covers some four million square miles in Siberia, Canada and Alaska, is thawing on a scale that has not been seen in the past 11,000 years. Fresh water is pouring into the Atlantic Ocean, affecting its salinity, which is already having devastating consequences on the food chain. The tundra has begun to transform into a swamp, releasing incalculable quantities of methane gas – compared to a “sleeping dragon” – presently fossilised in the ice.

ice castles

What do these bleak bullet points mean? To the Inuit people, it is the destruction of their homes and their livelihoods. The ice shelf is forming much later in the year and is infinitely more fragile than it was before, which means the hunters and fishermen who dare to move across it run a much higher risk of drowning. They are having to dismantle their houses and move them to less vulnerable areas – but as the sea encroaches inland, how far will the Inuit be forced to retreat?

The hunting season has shortened significantly. Reindeer are no longer able to feed themselves because the constant melting and freezing has created a new crust which their hooves have not been adapted to penetrate to get to the lichen below. The caribou population around Peary in Ellesmere Island declined from 26,000 in 1961 to 1,000 in 1997. The most abiding symbol of the North Pole, the polar bear, is fighting for survival because the ice shelf – its food store and playground – is shrinking. There are also disturbing signs that they are being dramatically affected by the pesticides and chemical wastes spilled into the environment, especially into the water, as the pollutants ride the ocean currents that flow into the cold zones… into algae eaten by fish which go into the bellies of the seals which end up powerfully concentrated in the polar bears at the top of the food chain, affecting their ability to reproduce and leading to congenital malformations.

And what do these inconvenient truths mean for us? Do they take the shine off our enjoyment of the photographs, or do they make us more concerned about what happens in these imperilled places of remote and mysterious loveliness? Will we only care when we start to suffer the consequences of such carelessness ourselves – and will that be too late to remedy the effects? In May 2005, in Brussels, representatives of the Arctic Circle, an intergovernmental forum created to promote circumpolar co-operation, issued an alarm declaring that what happens in the Arctic is a barometer for the rest of the world. And that is Francis Latreille’s wake-up call behind the beauty of his book.

Photographs from White Paradise by Francis Latreille, published by Abrams and available from BooksFirst priced £22.46 (RRP £24.95), free p&p, on 0870 1608080; timesonline.co.uk/booksfirstbuy