President Obama may have been the highlight of Day One of the Clinton Global Initiative. But Day Two belonged to Al Gore, who declared the United States Senate to be ground zero in the crusade for climate change.
"The crucial step in solving the climate crisis is actually now to get the United States Senate to pass legislation," Gore said at a plenary session held at Manhattan's Sheraton Hotel. "The United States must play a crucial role and in order to do so the president has to be able to go there with a credible bargaining position based on the prospect of imminent legislation if not the achievement of legislation," he said.
On Tuesday, President Obama delivered a major speech on climate change at the United Nations, in which he bluntly warned that "there should be no illusions that the hardest part of our journey is in front of us" in working out a solution to the issue." Many are concerned, however, that the political will to achieve his goals is in short supply. Obama's hard-fought campaign to pass health-care legislation, already behind schedule, might pale in comparison to the kind of partisan warfare involved in approving a climate change bill. The House has already approved a climate bill, but wavering Senate Democrats in states with key industries that might be affected—combined with Republican opposition—might thwart the effort.
Nonetheless, Gore said that any treaty at Copenhagen, even a weak one, would at least be a step in the right direction and provide the basis for future negotiations.
"It's very important that we get a deal in Copenhagen," he said. "It's not necessarily crucial that the deal be perfect in every respect and include absolutely everything." Spoken like a former U.S. senator.
Gore pointed to treaties in the 1980s addressing the hole in the ozone layer as a model, saying that initially week agreements were eventually strengthened as countries and businesses gained momentum in their efforts to address the problem.
Despite his modest goals for the meeting, Gore insisted that time was of the essence as "there are several thresholds we are in danger of crossing" including the melting of the polar ice caps, which could have major consequences around the world.
He sounded a much more upbeat note, however, in assessing progress on the technological innovations needed to address carbon emissions, saying that "it's very clear we have all the tools we need to solve three or four climate crises and we only have to solve one. The missing ingredient has been political will, but we are seeing a big sea change around the world."
Gore was not above a little lobbying, leaning on the influential audience assembled for his former boss’s annual ideas party to reach out to their friends on Capitol Hill.
"Everyone here who has a relationship with, a friendship with, a member of the U.S. Senate...you personally can play a meaningful role in getting on the telephone or meeting in person and communicating the message as forcefully as you can you want them to pass legislation," he said.
Benjamin Sarlin is a reporter for The Daily Beast. He previously covered New York City politics for The New York Sun and has worked for talkingpointsmemo.com.