What if Al Gore had won?

Monday, November 30, 2020 - 1:30pm

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As millions of Americans try and grapple with the fact that President Donald Trump will be a one-term president, it is important to note that this is not America’s first “disputed” election. In the 2000 presidential election, Democratic nominee former Vice President Al Gore and Republican nominee former Texas Gov. George W. Bush went head to head in one of the closest and most contested elections in recent American history. That election was much closer than the 2020 election and came down to 537 votes in Florida, where Bush’s younger brother, Jeb Bush, happened to be the governor. Due to the small margin, there was no winner declared on election night, and the country was forced to wait 36 days for the recount to be conducted. 

The election was eventually decided by the Supreme Court, which declared by an initial 7-2 ruling and then a 5-4 decision that the recount was unjust; in practice making George W. Bush the nation’s next commander in chief. But somewhere in an alternate universe, the recount was justified and Al Gore became the 43rd President of the United States. What effect would Gore — a man who centered his campaign around environmental protection — have had on the planet as president?

To begin to answer this question, Bush’s environmental record must be put under a microscope. During his campaign, Bush promised to regulate carbon emissions from coal power plants, but like many of his campaign promises, he did not follow through with it. Just a few days into his first term, his administration announced that the United States would not enact the Kyoto Protocol. Signed two years earlier in 1998, the Kyoto Protocol was an international treaty, similar to the Paris Climate Agreement, which aimed to encourage countries to cut down on greenhouse gas emissions. Under Bush, the U.S. ultimately did not join the treaty.

A spokesman for the Sierra Club, Josh Dorner, explained the legacy of the Bush administration, saying, "The Bush administration has introduced this pervasive rot into the federal government which has undermined the rule of law, undermined science, undermined basic competence and rendered government agencies unable to do their most basic function even if they wanted to.” If that sounds familiar it’s because it is. 

Perhaps the most damaging environmental consequence of the Bush administration was its attack on science. Similar to the current administration, it ran a disinformation campaign and silenced scientists who spoke out about climate change. In 2004, James Hansen, a NASA scientist, publicly accused the Bush administration of censoring information about the rate the planet was warming. Following the accusation, the White House continued to ignore science and tried to go around the Environmental Protection Agency to get a regulation on car emissions overturned by doctoring a scientific study. It also began to deregulate many existing environmental protections and put an emphasis on dismantling the Endangered Species Act — which included special protections for many animals, including polar bears.

So what would a President Gore have done differently? For starters, Gore would have joined the Kyoto Protocol, as he explained when he said Bush needed to “listen to those among his advisers who know that we need to have binding reductions in CO2.” While this would not solve everything, it was the absolute bare minimum. Additionally, Gore would not have rolled back environmental regulations in the same haphazard way as Bush did. Gore put environmental conservation front and center during his campaign and would have increased protections for water, air and wildlife. Gore even went so far as to say that environmental protection should become “the central organizing principle for civilization.” His attention toward the environment led almost every major environmentalist group to throw their support behind him. The Sierra Club, the U.S.’s most prominent environmental group, endorsed Gore, citing his record of improving air health standards, reducing car emissions, conserving America’s landscapes and decreasing the amount of time it took to clean up Superfund waste sites. 

Following his defeat, Gore focused on something bigger than himself. Since 2000, Gore made it his goal to increase awareness about climate change and do everything he can to remedy it. He has given thousands of presentations around the world about the dangers of inaction. In 2006, Gore released a documentary about climate change titled “An Inconvenient Truth,” which led to him later receiving a Nobel Peace Prize. That same year Gore started an organization called Climate Reality, which aimed to pressure politicians to support policies that protect the environment.

While a Gore administration would not have solved even close to every climate or environmental related issue, it would certainly have been a big improvement over the administration we got. A major difference is that climate change would not have been as bipartisan as it is now. If Gore had acted on climate early, it would have focused the debate on how best to solve climate change, not whether or not it exists. This would have allowed politicians to actually act in a timely manner and face climate change head-on and protecting our environment. A Gore presidency would have had a tremendous butterfly effect on the state of our present-day nation and would have drastically changed the situation we are in.

 

Alexander Nobel can be reached at anobel@umich.edu.


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