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Could Gore's New Film on Climate Change Be the Tipping Point Forcing Congress to Take Action?

WASHINGTON -- Al Gore's new film opens in the United States today carrying the same scary message that he's been spreading for two decades: that the world is facing catastrophic climate change because of the negligence of mankind.

But ``An Inconvenient Truth" is debuting with a sort of exquisite timing that Gore has rarely been accused of possessing in his long career in public life, according to members of Congress of both parties. A convergence of factors -- including soaring gasoline prices, devastating hurricanes, and growing Evangelical concern about environmental degradation -- is slowly moving global warming to the forefront of political debate.

After years of inaction in Washington on climate change, the Senate last year adopted a nonbinding resolution acknowledging a ``scientific consensus" that global temperatures are rising because of increasing carbon dioxide emissions. It called for ``mandatory, market-based limits and incentives on emissions of greenhouse gases," something the Bush White House opposes in favor of voluntary programs.

Earlier this month, the powerful House Appropriations Committee endorsed a similar ``sense of Congress" resolution, though House Republican leaders stripped it from a spending bill before it could come before the full House. Just yesterday, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee adopted a resolution calling on the Bush administration to take a leadership role in international climate- change talks.

And momentum is building in Congress to require automakers to boost the fuel economy of their vehicles, a step that would significantly reduce emissions. House leaders are promising a vote within the next few weeks, and the bipartisan group of lawmakers behind the effort say they have their best chance in recent years to approve such a move.

The moves point to an emerging political coalition for more extensive measures, according to observers and environmental activists.

Against that backdrop, the opening of ``An Inconvenient Truth" could jolt the political system, and force reluctant politicians to confront the ``truth" referenced in its title, said Senator Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the top Democrat on the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.

``Most people who are rational are beyond [questioning whether global warming is occurring], and we're now trying to figure out, what do we do?" said Bingaman. The film ``can cause people to ask members of Congress or candidates for Congress what their position is on this issue, and what they're planning to do about it. I think that's very helpful."

Gore said in an interview that he detects an increasing willingness among lawmakers to make real changes, despite the bleak portrait of official neglect and denial depicted in the film.

``I do believe that we are on the verge of a major shift in the way the country approaches the climate crisis," Gore said. ``I'm optimistic. The political system, like the climate, is nonlinear. The potential for change can build up invisibly for quite a while until it's released in a sudden burst of change. And I think we're very close to that now, I really do."

The film -- a documentary depicting Gore traveling the world to deliver his slide-show presentation on global warming -- opens in New York and Los Angeles today and will be released widely around the country on Friday, June 2.

Much of the advance buzz has focused on how the movie softens the reputation of the sometimes frosty former vice president. Some supporters are even clamoring for another Gore presidential run.

But the greatest hope of environmental activists is that viewers will pay attention to what Gore is saying, not just how he's saying it.

``Gore has unique stature on this issue, and he's taking this to the larger audience," said David Doniger , climate policy director for the Natural Resources Defense Council. ``This issue is taking over the middle, and isolating a very few far-out members of Congress."

It was Gore, of course, who was once labeled the environmental extremist. The film shows a memorable clip of former President George H.W. Bush saying during the 1992 campaign that then-vice-presidential candidate Gore would leave the nation ``up to our necks in owls, and out of work for every American."

Yet as evidence of the devastating effects of climate change has mounted, the issue has gone mainstream _ and has come around to Gore. He forcefully laid out his argument in his best-selling 1992 book, ``Earth in the Balance," and spread it to a wider audience through the slide-show presentation he estimates he's given more than 1,000 times.

In that presentation -- the new film's central element -- Gore wields troubling graphics and disturbing images in a political call-to-arms. In between, the film depicts Gore as a lonely salesman, tapping on his laptop in hotel rooms and hauling his own luggage through airport security.

``An Inconvenient Truth" has vaulted Gore back into the limelight. He made another star turn on ``Saturday Night Live" last weekend. His stock answer to the presidential question is that he has found other ways to serve and has no plans to run again. Former aides say Gore's passion about global warming is larger than political ambitions.

``This is something that really does make the guy tick," said Chris Lehane , Gore's 2000 campaign press secretary.

As for the man who won the 2000 election, President Bush has acknowledged that human activity has contributed to the rise in greenhouse gases, but has stopped short of government mandates on carbon dioxide emissions. Asked by an audience member in Chicago Monday whether he would see the Gore movie, the president responded, ``Doubt it."

The film has already provoked a backlash. The Competitive Enterprise Institute, a free-market group that gets funding from oil companies, is running television ads rebutting Gore's arguments.

Frank Maisano , an energy-industry lobbyist and spokesman, said Gore is too closely associated with the far left on environmental issues to change many people's minds about global warming.

``Climate change is a serious issue, and it's going to take a serious, collaborative approach," Maisano said. ``It shouldn't be `us versus them.' But when it gets this type of hype, with Gore, people will choose sides."

Maisano said the film is likely to be this year's ``Fahrenheit 9/11" -- a splashy polemic that confirms perceptions on both sides but ultimately does little to advance serious discussions.

But Gore's style in the film, combined with the growing interest in the subject matter, could force political action, said Representative Edward J. Markey , a Malden Democrat.

``Al Gore becomes everyone's favorite science teacher of all time in this movie; he's the latter-day Mr. Wizard," Markey said. ``It's something that has now flipped for people. The public is paying attention."

Joanna Weiss of the Globe staff contributed to this report.

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