Why Al Gore Has The Greens Seeing Red

Al Gore may not have invented the Internet, but the conventional wisdom is that among the Presidential contenders, he's the best hope for saving the planet from global warming, pollution, and thundering herds of SUVs. After all, Gore wrote the book on being environmentally responsible. That's part of the reason why, despite Gore's efforts to woo execs in the past year, the titans of industry want a President Gore like they want an ozone hole in the head. "I don't know how it's possible to go for years pushing programs that are really anti-business and anti-growth, and then wake up one day and say, `Gee, I want to be friendly to business,"' says William L. Kovacs, vice-president for environment at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

So environmentalists must be pulling out all the stops to get Gore elected, right? Wrong. The only major group to endorse a candidate so far, Friends of the Earth, is backing Bill Bradley. And enviro-land is now abuzz over a memo by Sierra Club board member Michael Dorsey that refers to the Veep's "tawdry environmental record." Dorsey writes: "No real environmentalist could ever endorse Al Gore."

FINE LINE. The list of complaints is taller than a sequoia. Critics fault Gore for refusing to back an international proposal to speed up the phaseout of ozone-damaging chemicals. They also cite his failure to back efforts by California and Florida to block offshore oil drilling. And they say he has fumbled such issues as global warming, pollution from chicken and hog megafarming, mining, and logging. "Gore's done a lot of talking, but there's been precious little action," says Jim Jensen, director of the Montana Environmental Information Center.

Preposterous, retort Gore insiders, who point out that Gore has his share of staunch backers--including several members of the Sierra Club board. Still, they concede that the Veep can't appear too rabidly environmental for fear of alienating the mainstream support and business backers he would need in November. But in the primaries, the environmental vote will be important in key states like New Hampshire, California, and Florida, especially given the greens' ability to organize and mobilize voters.

As a result, Gore has been trying to walk a fine line--and limit the damage from the enviros' defections. In a major environmental speech in New Hampshire, for instance, he vowed to place "environmental protection at the very heart of my campaign." But the guts of the speech was environment-lite, focusing on safer issues such as smart growth and traffic congestion instead of the more inflammatory questions like global warming. His spinmeisters even argue that attacks from hard-line enviros may help boost Gore's appeal to mainstream voters, much as right-wing criticism is helping GOP front-runner George W. Bush seem more moderate.

In contrast to Gore, Bradley is far less threatening to business. As a result, the former New Jersey Senator can afford to woo the greens more directly. And he's beginning to seize the opportunity. On Jan. 4, for instance, he won plaudits from Friends of the Earth and others for a plan to slash subsidies to miners, ranchers, and oil and gas companies.

Will this tiff make a difference in the primaries? Maybe. While environmental issues haven't played a major role so far, that could change. Polls show that over 80% of the public want a Prez who makes environmental protection a top priority. Republican John McCain has called the environment a sleeper issue of the campaign.

The bottom line: The environment is yet another minefield for Gore to negotiate. He is almost sure to regain his status as the great green hope--if he's the Democratic candidate in November. But first he has to get there.

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.