The Dynamic Post-Presidential Duo

For a writer, the Clinton Global Initiative is a bit of a tough topic. The three-day conference in New York brings together heads of state, corporate titans, rich philanthropists, and sundry do-gooders for a 72-hour parade of wonkish panels, charitable commitments, and social networking. But it's hard to write about in any way more interesting than simply noting that it's bizarre to see economist Gene Sperling earnestly leading one panel while Brad Pitt commands the podium at another.

The problem is that criticism of Clinton's initiative, or even rigorous evaluation, feels churlish. After all, I've never convinced Richard Branson to donate $3 billion for renewable energy research. Nobody has ever come to my living room and announced a sustainable housing community in New Orleans. And yet, and yet, and yet, something feels off about the Clinton Global Initiative. The goings-on are virtuous, but the effort occasionally feels misdirected; the sheer amount of good being done can occasionally obscure the fact that what's necessary is still stalled in Congress, and stalled in part because honored participants at the conference aren't fighting for it in that arena.

The Clinton Global Initiative's vision of change relies on corporate and philanthropic goodwill and nods in the direction of, but basically ignores, the realities of political power. Some causes, like malarial nets, really can be addressed through rich people being generous. Others, like global warming, really do need collective action that fundamentally reorders the way society treats carbon. That requires political power and pressure. The Clinton Global initiative seemed rather uncomfortable talking about either.

This was most clearly illustrated during Wednesday's opening plenary, when Clinton chaired a panel featuring Al Gore. In their post-presidential careers, Gore and Clinton have pioneered almost precisely opposite methods of affecting social change. Clinton has made remarkable strides activating and orienting the private sector toward good works. Gore, who has emerged as a cross between an atmospheric scientist and a folk hero, has sought to lead a post-millennial social movement capable of exerting the intense pressure required to move the government toward collective, even coercive, action to stop climate change.

The difference in approach was sharply apparent at the panel. Preceding Gore was Wal-Mart CEO H. Lee Scott, Jr., whom Clinton lauded for his company's plans to move from incandescent light bulbs to compact, fluorescent bulbs. Then came Gore: "There should be no mistake that this crisis, the climate crisis, is not going to be solved only by personal action and business action," he said. "We need changes in laws, we need changes in policies, we need leadership, and we need a new treaty, we need a mandate at Bali, during the first 14 days of December this year, to complete a treaty -- not by 2012, but by 2009, and put it completely into force by 2010. We can do it and we must do it."

The mere fact that Gore was on the stage, saying such things to the gathered world leaders and business titans, was, in its way, radical. But it wasn't sustained. Clinton didn't follow up by turning to the assemblage and driving home Gore's point, saying that all of today's rhetoric and good intentions are for naught if they are unable to transcend acts of personal virtue and make the public sacrifice required for a cap-and-trade program or a carbon tax. Instead, he launched into a question on a Merrill Lynch initiative to encourage companies to voluntarily report their carbon usage.

But good intentions won't solve climate change. And investment in energy innovation, which Clinton has been so effective in extracting from the private sector, cannot ramp up quickly enough, or return results rapidly enough, for a world in which carbon-based technologies remain cheap and plentiful. Clinton is one of the few individuals on earth who could exert real pressure, through his words and actions, for political change. And though there are various constraints on his capacity to do so -- the desire to remain above the fray, the realities of his wife's presidential campaign -- it is somewhat depressing to watch him achieve such results in the corporate world and know he could plausibly do so much more good if he broadened the scope of his efforts.

Gore's efforts, meanwhile, have not yet borne legislative fruit, but they have changed our culture's basic orientation toward climate change. In the past few years, global warming has evolved from an environmentalist's obsession into a political priority -- and it's largely thanks to Al Gore. George W. Bush, who used to deny global warming's very existence, is now calling for a global framework in which to address it. Wal-Mart, which needed a PR boost after unions spent years exposing their shoddy labor practices, sought a political resurrection through public commitments to carbon reduction. Hundreds of mayors and quite a few governors have enacted significant climate change legislation. Every Democratic candidate for the 2008 presidential nomination has a serious and strong carbon reduction plan -- stronger, indeed, than what Gore dared offer in 2000. Gore leveraged his visibility and credibility to create a new model for post-presidential advocacy, and the results have been staggering.

The Clinton-Gore team may go down in history as the most effective post-presidential duo in history. Jimmy Carter has been lauded for his impressive after-career, but Clinton and Gore are offering something of a one-two punch: Clinton's focus on philanthropy has been very savvy, and is directing philanthropic dollars where they can do the most good. His work has led corporations to invest in innovative new technologies that would have otherwise been casualties of the private sector's quest for profits, and may have been left out of public efforts as well, given the congressional tendency to fund every state's most lucrative, rather than most promising, energy technology. In creating a positive publicity loop for corporations and rich individuals who agree to cooperate on the climate-change issue, Clinton may be softening them up to support, or at least refuse to oppose, the harder, more necessary legislation Gore is pushing toward.

In that way, in their post-White House activism, Clinton and Gore have engaged in a bit of a role-reversal. Clinton has assumed the vice president's traditional task, toiling on smaller initiatives and reaching out to various constituencies and interest groups to build consensus. Gore, conversely, is taking on the presidential responsibility of offering the grand vision and using the bully pulpit to push for transformative legislation. And both are making strides. Gore/Clinton may prove able to force the sort of large-scale change that Clinton/Gore wasn't.