Long before the release of “An Inconvenient Truth,” the new film about climate change starring Al Gore, the scientific consensus had ratified the warnings he has delivered over the past two decades. Leading business executives in the insurance, investment and even energy industries have conceded that he was right. Conservative politicians who scoffed at him have since traveled in his footsteps to the shrinking polar ice caps — and returned to Washington as fervent environmentalists.

The truth that the former vice president has been trying to tell us for most of his public career is no longer subject to serious dispute. The real questions are no longer whether climate change is occurring or whether that change is caused by human activity, but how much damage the world’s rising temperature will do to civilization, and how much time we have to change course before we suffer a catastrophe.

Even more impressive than Gore’s mastery of this grave matter is his remarkably consistent and courageous effort to save the planet. In 1997, he went to the Kyoto conference in pursuit of a global accord, despite advisers who said his role there would jeopardize his political future. In the spring of 2000, he reissued “Earth in the Balance,” his 1992 book on the subject, on the eve of his presidential nomination. Just to be sure that nobody misunderstood him, he added a new foreword and postscript emphasizing his commitment to “completely eliminating” the internal-combustion engine.

Like many prophets, Gore has often been derided as an annoyance, an extremist and possibly a madman. Every great American mind of our time felt compelled to take a shot at him.

Admiral James Stockdale called him a “fanatic.” Dan Quayle said his views were “bizarre, detached from reality, and devoid of common sense.” P.J. O’Rourke called him “nutty.” Grover Norquist compared him to the Unabomber. David Frum accused him of wanting to “dismantle the American economy in the name of environmental regulation.”

Meanwhile, in the oil-funded think tanks as well as in the pages of the right’s intellectual journals, such certified sages as Tucker Carlson and R. Emmett Tyrrell Jr. firmly assured us all that the world wasn’t really getting warmer, and that nobody should worry anyway. Jeff Jacoby, the resident reactionary at The Boston Globe, celebrated global warming as a boon to the economy.

Indeed, Gore became a safe, easy target for nearly every Republican politician and right-wing commentator, some brandishing “Earth in the Balance” as if it were the Communist Manifesto. “This is a book written by an extremist, and it’s filled with extremism. . . . He wants to do away with the automobile as we know it today,” complained Jim Nicholson, then the Republican national chairman (and now the secretary of veterans affairs). What was once the most controversial recommendation in Gore’s book — phasing out that infernal combustion engine — is today the official objective of the Bush administration.

And, of course, the same hacks who shrieked back then about the damage this radical proposal would inflict on the American economy would surely praise President Bush for his farsighted leadership.

The Bush presidents, father and son, were naturally among the most intemperate critics of Gore; they attacked him not only as a political opponent but because he didn’t share their abject fealty to the oil bidness. During the 1992 campaign, the first President Bush raged against him incessantly and sometimes incoherently, sputtering, “Ozone Man, Ozone. He’s crazy, way out, far out, man.”

Eight years later, Dubya tried to have it both ways, attacking Gore for environmentalist excess while promising to reduce carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere. Upon entering the Oval Office, he promptly abandoned that pledge, and has since flipped and flopped more times than a dying fish.

As president, he has tried to suppress government data that back the world scientific consensus, while promoting the “contrarian” opinions of quacks and mountebanks. “I read the report put out by the bureaucracy,” sneered the president when asked about a study on climate change issued by the Environmental Protection Agency. He used to sneer at Gore’s book, too, which he never actually read, and says he doubts that he will bother to see “An Inconvenient Truth.”

Now that nearly everyone else acknowledges Al Gore’s point, however grudgingly, those who attacked him so viciously owe him copious apologies. He would be wise, unfortunately, to anticipate further assaults instead. The inevitable intrusion of reality has restored his stature, but the mean character of his enemies remains depressingly the same.

To find out more about Joe Conason, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.

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