Gore Returns to Capitol Hill a Hero and a Target

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Al Gore wowed moviegoers and Hollywood elites with his Oscar-winning documentary on global warming. Today he faces a far tougher audience in Congress.

The 2000 Democratic presidential nominee will testify about the urgency of addressing climate change in two appearances on Capitol Hill before panels that include skeptics of the sort that Gore probably hasn't met on the red carpet.

For instance, Sen. James M. Inhofe (Okla.), senior Republican on the Environment and Public Works Committee, once called global warming "the greatest hoax ever perpetuated on the American people." The other witness scheduled to appear at the House Energy and Commerce Committee is Bjorn Lomborg of Copenhagen Business School, who asserts that global warming is real but argues that "the trouble is that the climate models show we can do very little" about it.

Gore's appearance is part of an ambitious Democratic effort to elevate energy as a top-tier domestic policy cause, alongside health care. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) created the Select Committee on Climate Change when Democrats took over in January. Nine bills related to climate change have been introduced in the Senate in the past two months. Yesterday, Democratic presidential hopeful John Edwards announced his energy plan. Its lofty goals: to stop "climate change, create 1 million new jobs in a new, clean energy economy and freeze our growing demand for electricity."

But Gore is the party's chief environmental spokesman. As a senator from Tennessee, he called the Senate's first climate-change hearing 20 years ago. But the surprise success of "An Inconvenient Truth," the documentary about his vividly delivered lecture on the dangers of global warming, has turned Gore into an international eco-celebrity.

The former vice president's new stature has stirred speculation that he may yet seek the 2008 Democratic nomination. Gore is expected to show up today with 500,000 signatures on petitions "demanding immediate action to solve the climate crisis."

"He's the leader on global warming," said Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who chairs the environmental committee and who invited Gore to testify. "He's world-famous," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), another fan, who attended the premiere of "An Inconvenient Truth" and requested a personal photo op with Gore this afternoon.

Gore begins the day in the House, where he will face John D. Dingell, a Democrat from the auto-industry state of Michigan and energy committee chairman, who has resisted federal increases in fuel-efficiency standards. Dingell also invited Lomborg, a Danish political scientist and author of "The Skeptical Environmentalist," who has argued that combating AIDS and poverty may carry a greater social value than tackling climate change.

Republicans have signaled that they will be waiting with tough questions. Two senior GOP lawmakers, Rep. Joe L. Barton of Texas and former House speaker J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, want Gore to use his 30-minute opening statement to address a comment last year that "it is appropriate to have an over-representation of factual presentations" in his lecture.

"What is your motive for the 'over-representation?' " Barton and Hastert asked in a letter delivered to Gore yesterday. "Are you worried that your issue must compete for attention and resources with those other global issues that are already compelling and do not need Hollywood hyperbole?"

Gore heads to the Senate after the lunch break. The low-profile environmental committee is borrowing a larger hearing room from Appropriations to squeeze in activists, VIPs and reporters.

The session marks the fifth time the committee has heard testimony on global warming under the tenure of Boxer, an ardent environmentalist and backer of one of the most aggressive global-warming bills now pending. The first hearing, on Jan. 30, was an open forum for senators to weigh in on the subject. It drew comments from 34 members. Other witnesses to appear in recent weeks included representatives from major industries and state and local governments; wildlife experts; and U.N. officials.

None of their comments attracted much media attention. But as big a draw as Gore may be for Democrats, for Republicans, his appearance provides a rare high-profile forum to air dissenting views.

One of Gore's toughest Republican critics is Inhofe. In December, during his last days as committee chairman, Inhofe released a 64-page booklet titled "A Skeptic's Guide to Debunking Global Warming Alarmism." He dismisses Democratic proposals to cap greenhouse gas emissions as "the largest tax increase in American history."

Inhofe pointed out that Gore usually faces friendly audiences. "I've never seen a time where he actually had to respond to questions, so this is a change," the senator said with a chuckle. "You gotta show the inconsistencies in his position, that has to be done." But he said the tone will be collegial: "He's still a senator in our minds."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company