Seven hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money to spend to try to get someone to talk to you and not get an answer.
That's how much the Heartland Institute, a Chicago-based libertarian think tank, has forked over in six months for advertisements in national newspapers trying to persuade Al Gore to debate one of its experts on global warming issues. "We have tried, repeatedly, to contact Gore directly, with registered letters and calls to his office, and have never received a reply," says Joseph Bast, Heartland president.
A spokeswoman for Gore told me by e-mail that Heartland is an oil-company-funded group that denies that global warming is real and caused by human activities.
"The debate has shifted to how to solve the climate crisis, not if there is one," said Kalee Kreider. "It does not make sense for him to engage in a dialogue with them at this time."
The issue is a bit more complicated than that. What Bast wants is for Gore to debate one of three authorities who dispute the former vice president's assertion that global warming is a crisis that requires an immediate, hugely expensive response potentially damaging to the U.S. and world economies.
One of the Heartland experts is Dennis Avery, an economist, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and co-author, with Fred Singer, professor emeritus of environmental science at the University of Virginia, of the book Unstoppable Global Warming: Every 1,500 Years. As you might guess from that title, Avery sees global warming as a natural phenomenon in which "there may be a human factor but if so it's small." He describes the warming as "moderate" and says there's been no warming since 1998. "Where's the crisis?"
When you talk with Avery, he cites numbers on carbon dioxide and temperature change and dates of previous warming periods, such as during Roman and medieval times. A layman like me soon finds himself in deep water, and you know someone on the other side of the issue will cite other sources, such as a U.N. panel on climate change that says most of the warming since the mid-20th century is likely due to greenhouse gases.
But the point is that Gore and his movie "An Inconvenient Truth" aren't the last word. In March, the New York Times reported that while they praise Gore for raising awareness about warming, a number of scientists see exaggerations and errors in some of his assertions. "They are alarmed, some say, at what they call his alarmism," the Times wrote. For example, Gore forecasts sea levels rising up to 20 feet, flooding parts of New York and Florida. But the U.N. panel's actual estimate is that seas will rise 7 to 23 inches in this century.
As for the Gore camp's statement about Exxon funding, Bast says those contributions are too little to control Heartland policy and amount to "far less than what Heartland spends speaking out on climate change."
The Heartland case is not the first time Gore has ducked a forum. Earlier this year he canceled an interview with Denmark's largest newspaper when he learned it would include questions from Bjorn Lomborg, respected author of The Skeptical Environmentalist. "Gore's sermon is not one that will stand scrutiny," says Christopher C. Horner, another one of Heartland's debate candidates, a senior fellow at the Competitive Enterprise Institute and author of The Politically Incorrect Guide to Global Warming and Environmentalism.
Bast says the ad campaign will continue until March, costing a total of $1.2 million. But he won't get a debate from Gore. Still, Heartland's effort serves the worthy purpose to spotlighting the need for an informed discussion on the severity of global warming and how best to deal with it, by trying to halt it or adapt to it. Gore offers a worst-case scenario of unmitigated disaster. If he's wrong about rising sea levels, what else is he wrong about?