By Dana Milbank
Thursday, January 29, 2009
The lawmakers gazed in awe at the figure before them. The Goracle had seen the future, and he had come to tell them about it.
What the Goracle saw in the future was not good: temperature changes that "would bring a screeching halt to human civilization and threaten the fabric of life everywhere on the Earth -- and this is within this century, if we don't change."
The chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, John Kerry (D-Mass.), appealed to hear more of the Goracle's premonitions. "Share with us, if you would, sort of the immediate vision that you see in this transformative process as we move to this new economy," he beseeched.
"Geothermal energy," the Goracle prophesied. "This has great potential; it is not very far off."
Another lawmaker asked about the future of nuclear power. "I have grown skeptical about the degree to which it will expand," the Goracle spoke.
A third asked the legislative future -- and here the Goracle spoke in riddle. "The road to Copenhagen has three steps to it," he said.
Sen. James Risch (R-Idaho) begged the Goracle to look further into the future. "What does your modeling tell you about how long we're going to be around as a species?" he inquired.
The Goracle chuckled. "I don't claim the expertise to answer a question like that, Senator."
It was a jarring reminder that the Goracle is, indeed, mortal. Once Al Gore was a mere vice president, but now he is a Nobel laureate and climate-change prophet. He repeats phrases such as "unified national smart grid" the way he once did "no controlling legal authority" -- and the ridicule has been replaced by worship, even by his political foes.
"Tennessee," gushed Sen. Bob Corker, a Republican from Gore's home state, "has a legacy of having people here in the Senate and in public service that have been of major consequence and contributed in a major way to the public debate, and you no doubt have helped build that legacy." If that wasn't quite enough, Corker added: "Very much enjoyed your sense of humor, too."
Humor? From Al Gore? "I benefit from low expectations," he replied.
The Goracle's powers seem to come from his ability to scare the bejesus out of people. "We must face up to this urgent and unprecedented threat to the existence of our civilization," he said. And: "This is the most serious challenge the world has ever faced." And: It "could completely end human civilization, and it is rushing at us with such speed and force."
Though some lawmakers tangled with Gore on his last visit to Capitol Hill, none did on the Foreign Relations Committee yesterday. Dick Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican, agreed that there will be "an almost existential impact" from the climate changes Gore described.
As such, the Goracle, even when questioned, was shown great deference. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.), challenging Gore over spent nuclear fuel, began by saying: "I stand to be corrected, and I defer to your position, you're probably right, and I'm probably wrong." He ended his question by saying: "I'm not questioning you; I'm questioning myself."
Others sought to buy the Goracle's favor by offering him gifts. "Thank you for your incredible leadership; you make this crystalline for those who don't either understand it or want to understand it," gushed Sen. Bob Menendez (D-N.J.), who went on to ask: "Will you join me this summer at the Jersey Shore?"
The chairman worried that the Goracle may have been offended by "naysayers" who thought it funny that Gore's testimony before the committee came on a morning after a snow-and-ice storm in the capital. "The little snow in Washington does nothing to diminish the reality of the crisis," Kerry said at the start of the hearing.
The climate was well controlled inside the hearing room, although Gore, suffering from a case of personal climate change, perspired heavily during his testimony. The Goracle presented the latest version of his climate-change slide show to the senators: a globe with yellow and red blotches, a house falling into water, and ones with obscure titles such as "Warming Impacts Ugandan Coffee Growing Region." At one point he flashed a biblical passage on the screen, but he quickly removed it. "I'm not proselytizing," he explained. A graphic showing a disappearing rain forest was accompanied by construction noises.
The Goracle supplied abundant metaphors to accompany his visuals. Oil demand: "This roller coaster is headed for a crash, and we're in the front car." Polar ice: "Like a beating heart, and the permanent ice looks almost like blood spilling out of a body along the eastern coast of Greenland."
The lawmakers joined in. "There are a lot of ways to skin a cat," contributed Isakson, who is unlikely to get the Humane Society endorsement. "And if we have the dire circumstances we're facing, we need to find every way to skin every cat."
Mostly, however, the lawmakers took turns asking the Goracle for advice, as if playing with a Magic 8 Ball.
Lugar, a 32-year veteran of the Senate, asked Gore, as a "practical politician," how to get the votes for climate-change legislation. "I am a recovering politician. I'm on about Step 9," the Goracle replied, before providing his vision.
Prospects for regulating a future carbon emissions market? "There's a high degree of confidence." The future of automobiles in China and India? "I wouldn't give up on electric vehicles." The potential of solar power in those countries? "I have no question about it at all."
Of course not. He's the Goracle.
Dana Milbank will be online to take reader questions at 12 p.m ET on Friday.