For Climate Action, let’s protect our democracy, Part 2

“We have everything we need to begin solving the climate crisis – save, perhaps political will.
But in America, political will is a renewable resource.”

– Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore from his 2006 book, An Inconvenient Truth

Photo of Brian Ettling taken on November 15, 2023.

This is the toughest blog for me to write. In fact, I have devoted the last year to blogging and writing about my life story and blogging for years before that. This was the blog I knew it was vital for me to write, but I dreaded writing this blog. For the past 23 years, I have not felt that environmentalists, climate advocates, progressives and Democratic leaning voters were smart about electing Presidential, state level, and local candidates who would protect our environment, planet, and our democracy.

This was a very painful blog to write, but I felt like I have no choice to share but to share my story. In the process of writing this blog, I discovered that I wrote so many pages that I am breaking this into an 8-part blog story. Hopefully, someone can learn from my disappointment and letdown I felt from environmental and climate Democratic voters who allowed awful candidates for President and other elected offices win.

The first post in this blog series, focused on my 1980s childhood in Missouri to witnessing 2000 Presidential Election in Florida. This blog, Part 2, focuses on my story from 2001 to 2007.

Part 2: My disgust with President George W. Bush and my thrill with the return of Al Gore

My disillusion with politics after George W. Bush became President over Al Gore in 2001

I know that in the year 2000 no one could foresee what Al Gore would end up doing after the election, as President or as a private citizen. At the same time, we all saw how the George W. Bush Presidency was a total disaster. During his Presidential campaign, he supported putting mandatory limits on carbon-dioxide emissions. Then he flip-flopped soon after he became President. On March 13, 2001, Bush announced he would not regulate carbon dioxide, stated he did not believe in the science of global warming, and affirmed his opposition to the Kyoto protocol, the only international procedure attempting to reduce the threat of global warming.

The climate disinformation efforts by the Bush Administration became a central tenant of the Bush era – and perhaps causing the most long-term damage. Even more, they went out of their way to censor, doctor, and suppress government scientific reports on climate change that hamstrung government action and misled the public. The list is long how the George W. Bush Administration set back climate policy.

Just as outrageous to me was the case that the Bush Administration seemed asleep at the wheel when the 9-11 terrorist attacks happened. A month before the attack, Bush received an intelligence briefing paper called paper titled: “Bin Laden Determined to Strike in U.S.”

What was Bush’s answer to Americans how to respond to 9-11? “Go shopping” and “Get down Disney World in Florida.

Led by President George W. Bush, experts drew the conclusion that “After 9/11, the U.S. Got Almost Everything Wrong.

For years afterward, I felt guilty after every time I put gas in my car wondering if my money went to Saudi Arabia and then to finance terrorism there. There were zero attempts by the Bush Administration to try to switch the U.S. to clean energy to deprive oil money flowing to Middle East, which funds terrorism.

Knowing all that I have read about Al Gore and even meeting him, I have a hard time believing that Gore would have responded as awful as George W. Bush did to 9-11. Even more, George W. Bush and Bush administration ignored clear warnings that led to the 2008 housing crash and resulting Great Recession.

As I mentioned in the first post of this blog series, I grew up as a fiscal conservative Republican. George W. Bush was a total failure with exploding annual federal deficits and increasing the federal debt by 57%.

Bush inherited a federal budget that had surpluses for three straight fiscal years (after running deficits for nearly 30 years in a row) and was on course for a surplus in fiscal year 2001. In fact, according the Center on Budget and Policies, “both President Bush’s Office of Management and Budget and the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) projected that if the policies in place when President Bush took office remained unchanged, the budget would generate surpluses that would total $5.6 trillion over the next ten years — more than enough to pay off the entire outstanding federal debt held by the public.”

So why did large federal deficits and huge increases in the federal debt occur under President George W. Bush?

“The biggest factors were very large tax cuts and increases in security-related programs (primarily for two wars that were not paid for). The tax cuts and security spending increases cost nearly $3.4 trillion over those eight years and accounted for more than four-fifths of the fiscal deterioration that policy changes caused during that period.”

Oh, in case we forgot, Al Gore received over a half million more votes nationwide for President than George W. Bush, which should have made him the winner of the 2000 Presidential election. Instead, because of Florida tipping the Electoral College for Bush, he got to pick two Supreme Court Justices, John Roberts and Samuel Alito. Along with Donald Trump’s three Conservative Supreme Court picks, this current Supreme Court now tilts far right. As a result, in recent years, they overturned legalized abortion, favored loosening gun protection laws, allows for discrimination against LGBTQ+ individuals, etc.

I sure wish that the 2000 election Nader voters gave that more thought instead of hiding behind excuses that ‘Gore ran a weak campaign’ or getting easily duped when Nader referred to George W. Bush and Al Gore as “Tweedledum and Tweedledee.”

Not voting and squandering votes on 3rd party candidates in the 2000 election does have consequences that reverberate to this day. This still hurts for me to talk about 23 years later. The 2000 election deeply crushed my spirit.

With my job narrating the boat tours at Flamingo, I found some of the passengers from other states to be downright cruel. Some of them mocked me, ‘Can’t your state vote correctly.’ Or, I heard juvenile jokes about hanging chads. I responded that the same thing could have had in their state if their election results had been extremely close. Even more, it bothered me that we should be counting ballots to make sure that every ballot counts when we have extremely close elections. However, these visitors did not really care about this point I tried to make to them.

Even more, George W. Bush and his campaign were not interested at all in voter recounts to accurately determine who won Florida and the 2000 Presidential election. According to a 2023 CNN article,

“Amid ballot recounts in various challenged counties, the Florida secretary of state certified a 537-vote margin on November 26 for Bush, from 6 million votes cast. Bush strove to stop the recounts as Gore continued to challenge the state’s tallies.”

George W. Bush and his supporters wanted to win at all costs. For the sake of American democracy, they were not interested in holding off declaring victory until there was a completion of recounts to get a more accurate picture of who really won the election. I thought this started a dangerous precedent for American politics to try to win at all costs that Donald Trump and his supporters tried to do in the 2020 election.

After the election of 2000, I lost a lot of faith in the U.S politics, the American people, and American democracy. With thousands of Floridian environmentalists voting for Ralph Nader, the snarky comments I heard from Everglades visitors about the chaos counting the votes in Florida, and how Americans felt indifferent that a man who won the popular vote nationwide, plus possibility that Gore might have won the votes in Florida, left me feeling disgusted with the U.S. I felt very little sense of patriotism after that election.

I spent every day on the boat tours talking about ecology and trying to plant seeds in visitors minds to commit themselves to save the Everglades and our planet. The Florida Nader voters left me feeling less motivated to do this. There were probably many others who felt disheartened like me. Was that really the intention of those Florida Nader voters? Did they really think through the long-term implications of their actions?

President George W. Bush came to Everglades National Park on June 4, 2001. The National Park Service asked me for help to volunteer for this event. I initially said yes. I loved working in the Everglades, and this was a big deal to have the President come to the Everglades. However, the more I thought about it, the more I could not participate. I did not believe Bush won the 2000 election fair and square. I believe he tried to stop the recounts to determine who really won. I did not consider him to be an honorable and trustworthy man. I still don’t to this day. Thus, I choose to protest with a good friend and fellow park employees with many others at a designated free speech area at the park entrance.

President Geore W. Bush visiting Everglades National Park on June 4, 2001.
Image source:

Focusing on my seasonal park ranger jobs and my disappointment with the 2004 election

A year later, I gave up my year-round naturalist guide job in the Everglades where I had full time benefits. I needed a break from trying to inspire visitors to save the Everglades during my boat tour narrations. In addition, in 2001 and early 2002, I volunteered giving ranger talks at the Royal Palm Visitor Center and the Flamingo Visitor Center on the water ecology of the Everglades. Like my boat tour narrations, I hoped to educate and influence them to protect the Everglades, our natural world, and our planet.

In May 2002, I drove away from Flamingo and Everglades National Park unsure if I would return. My friend Amelia Bruno hired me to return to my old summer job entrance station ranger job at Crater Lake National Park. I planned to enjoy the summer there and do lots of hiking. I was unsure what I would do next. It turned out that I was not finished with the Everglades.

In 2002, I had a wonderful summer at Crater Lake. It was a superb summer for me to return because the park was celebrating its centennial. Congress passed a bill establishing the national park and President Theodore Roosevelt signed it into law on May 22, 1902. It was great to make new friends working in the park since I was gone for four years. It was a joy to rediscover all the trails in the park that I enjoyed hiking.

The stressful part was I did not have plans for the winter of 2002-03. I applied to work for the National Park Service in the Everglades that winter at the Flamingo Campground Kiosk, but I did not hear back from the park. I ended up going back to St. Louis to stay with my parents.

I returned to the entrance station ranger job for the summer of 2003. In June, I had a new housemate at Crater Lake, David Grimes. He worked seasonally in other national parks such as Congaree Swamp in South Carolina and Zion in Utah. We became friends. We both applied to work as seasonal interpretation rangers in Everglades National Park for the winter 2003-04.

In late November, I received a phone call from Candice Tinkler, the District Supervisor Ranger at the Everglades City Visitor Center. Someone she hired for the winter declined to work there. She needed to hire a new ranger fast. She saw my name on the list of eligible candidates. Grimes highly recommended me, so she called to offer me an interpretative ranger position for the winter. She needed me to come down fast, within a week if possible. I started throwing my ranger uniforms and other belongs in the car to drive from St. Louis to Everglades City, Florida. I left shortly after Thanksgiving and arrived during the first week in December 2003.

This was my first National Park Service interpretative ranger job. After my four years as a naturalist guide in Flamingo, this new ranger position was an ideal fit for me. I enjoyed narrating the boat tours in Everglades City, leading the canoe trips, and giving ranger talks on the water drainage issues and the Everglades Restoration plan. I liked spending the winter in Everglades City and I ended up spending three more winters there from 2004 to 2007.

Brian Ettling giving a ranger talk in Everglades City in the spring of 2004.

In subsequent winters working in Everglades City, I expanded to do additional ranger programs, such as guided bike tours and an evening program on the birds of the Everglades. I enjoyed my year-round work of summers working as an entrance station ranger at Crater Lake and the winters working as an interpretive ranger in Everglades City.

With Al Gore’s 2000 campaign where he was extremely close to winning the Presidency, I eagerly wondered in 2001 and 2002 if he would run for President. If he ran for President again, I would be tempted to give up my ranger jobs to volunteer or to even see if I could somehow work on his campaign. Leading up to his decision for 2004, I still thought Al Gore was the best potential Presidential candidate for the environment. I really wanted him to run again.

On December 15, 2002, I received the crushing news that Al Gore decided he would not run for President in 2004. Furthermore, he disclosed that he did not expect ever to run for president. I felt deflated by that news. I was in St. Louis living with my parents. I had to go for a very long neighborhood walk to try to process the news and attempt to somehow lift my spirits. I still considered him to be the leading voice in the U.S. for protecting the environment and reducing the threat of global warming. I hoped he would continue to use his voice and platform to make a difference and to influence citizens like me.

As the 2004 Presidential campaign heated up, I was happy that Al Gore endorsed Howard Dean for President. Like Gore, I was impressed with Dean’s ability to appeal to the nation’s “grassroots” elements and his fundraising. After his poor finishes in the New Hampshire primary and the Iowa Caucus, I lost interest in Howard Dean. After John Kerry became the Democratic nominee for President, I supported him for President hoping he could defeat George W. Bush.

On Wednesday, November 4, 2004, I heard on the radio that George W. Bush had officially won the election. I was inside my car, and I could not stop crying. I thought it was a fluke of the electoral college that Bush won the first time in 2000. It shocked me that a majority Americans re-elected him in 2004. With that election, it did not seem like Americans cared about the environment or any long-term damage humans were causing the planet. The election left me feeling numb and so disappointed with the U.S. The election of 2000 still felt like a recent open wound that crushed my spirit further when I heard the outcome of the 2004 election.

I needed some good news that Americans really cared about the environment and the health of our planet. During that time, I focused on my summer ranger entrance station job at Crater Lake and my winter interpretative ranger job in Everglades City.

Brian Ettling leading a ranger led canoe trip in Everglades National Park around 2006.

My excitement seeing Al Gore back in the public spotlight promoting climate action

In May 2006, I saw that maybe America was getting a tad bit more serious about the environment and climate change. I had wrapped up my winter season in Everglades City. I embarked on a cross country drive to my summer job at Crater Lake. Along the way, I decided to visit friends in North Carolina. My friend Dana Ostfeld was getting ready to graduate from Duke University with a master’s degree in environmental management. My friend Sheryl Shultz lived that time not far away in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. I had a good visit with these friends. I then went to see the Biltmore Estate in Asheville, NC. I got a motel room to spend the night not far from Asheville. The next day, I had plans to visit and hike in Great Smoky Mountains National Park.

When I turned on the TV for a few minutes that morning to start my day, a documentary on HBO grabbed my attention. It was called Too Hot Not to Handle. The film had video interview clips with climate scientists throughout the program. The message of this documentary was that “Global Warming is the most urgent threat facing humanity today.” I found the film to be mesmerizing. It laid out a stark warning from scientists the threat of climate change and what they think we need to do to solve it. Soon afterwards, I bought my own DVD copy of it online from the HBO store to watch multiple times.

On a random news stand while I traveled across country, I noticed the May 2006 edition Wired magazine with Al Gore on the cover staring right at me. The headline of the magazine news proclaimed, “CLIMATE CRISIS: The Pro-growth, Pro-tech Fight to stop Global Warming.” In the lower right corner of the magazine had a sub-headline, “AL GORE and the Rise of the Neo-Greens.”

In the article, “The Resurrection of Al Gore,” I read something that jumped out at me,

“Al Gore is traveling the globe, delivering a slide show that, by his own estimate, he’s given more than a thousand times over the years. His one-man campaign is chronicled in a new documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, which made Gore the unlikely darling of the Sundance Film Festival earlier year and will be released on May 26th by Paramount Classics. He has also written a forthcoming companion volume of the same name, his first book on the subject since the 1992 campaign tome Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit.”

This was suddenly my “must see” movie and book to read for the summer. When I returned to Crater Lake in June 2006, I watched the internet periodically to see when the film would be shown at a theatre in southern Oregon. Finally, An Inconvenient Truth had a showing at a movie theater in Ashland, Oregon in July 2006. I saw the documentary with my girlfriend at the time, Marie Malo. We were speechless afterwards how fantastic the film was. Al Gore was very compelling to watch and even displayed a great sense of humor as the film showed him giving his climate change presentation. The film was sobering about the serious danger of climate change.

As we watched the credits, our hearts were further touched by the Melissa Etheridge theme song. “I Need to Wake Up.”

Like many others who saw An Inconvenient Truth, I wanted to do something, but I was not sure what to do. I did not know of any individuals or organizations working on climate change at that time. The film did give great advice as the credits rolled, such as “Vote for leaders who pledge to solve this crisis. Write to Congress. If they don’t listen, run for Congress.” To further reinforce what I saw and learned in the documentary, I purchased the companion book. Laurie David, the Executive Producer of the HBO documentary Too Hot Not to Handle, was a producer of this film.

When the film came out on DVD that winter, I bought it as soon as it was available. At that time, I was working my winter seasonal ranger job in Everglades City. I never shop at Wal Mart. I despised their business practices how they displaced so many small independent businesses. However, I had so much fun that day walking into Wal Mart to buy this film. I wanted to vote with my dollars that this was a good product that they for sale that day.

An Inconvenient Truth turned out to be a profitable movie for Hollywood. It costs about $1 million to make and made over $50 million during its showing in movie theaters worldwide. That was an unheard of a box office success at that time for a documentary. It turned out that this film was one of the “must see” films for the summer of 2006, not just for me. Years later, I had friends tell me that they got involved in the climate movement after seeing An Inconvenient Truth. In fact, Marshall Saunders, founder of Citizens’ Climate Lobby (CCL) – one of the first climate groups I joined back in 2012 and became a volunteer, was motivated to start CCL after seeing the film and attending one of Al Gore’s Climate Reality Trainings in 2007.

I was elated over the buzz An Inconvenient Truth created in 2006 and 2007. On January 25, 2007, the film was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Documentary (Feature). On Sunday, February 25, 2007, the Everglades City rangers had an Oscar watch TV party. I was ecstatic when An Inconvenient Truth won the Oscar for Best Documentary feature. Al Gore came on the stage with the Director Davis Guggenheim and producers Lawrence Bender and Laurie David to accept the award. Guggenheim even allowed time for Al Gore to give a short speech,

“My fellow Americans, people all over the world, we need to solve the climate crisis. It’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue. We have everything we need to get started with the possible exception of the will to act. That’s a renewable resource. Let’s renew it.”

Later at that same Academy Award ceremony, rock musician Melissa Etheridge won the Oscar for Best Original Song for “I need to Wake Up.” Just like Gore, it was great to see her urge the audience of top Hollywood celebrities and a global TV audience of over a billion people to take climate action. She said,

“I have to thank Al Gore for inspiring us, inspiring me, showing that caring about the earth is not Democratic or Republican, it is not red or blue, we are all green.”

The accolades continued later that year when the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Al Gore. Their motivation to give the Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore was due to “their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change, and to lay the foundations for the measures that are needed to counteract such change.”

“According to the Nobel Committee, Gore is probably the single individual who has done most to rouse the public and the governments that action had to be taken to meet the climate challenge. ‘He is,’ in the words of the Committee, ‘the great communicator’.”

With an Oscar winning documentary feature about climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, plus a Nobel Peace Prize. I was happy for him and how he was elevating the issue. At the same time, it was bittersweet because he because he should have elected President in 2000.

At the same time Al Gore made a comeback from his devastating 2000 Presidential loss with the Nobel Peace Prize and an Oscar winning documentary about him in 2007, I experienced a bad depression and my own heart-breaking loss.

Brian Ettling in Everglades National Park in December 2006.

End of Part 2 of For Climate Action, let’s protect our democracy

In part 3 of this blog series, I will cover The Loss of a friend, Leaving the Everglades, and Finding my Life’s Mission for Climate Action. Stay tuned!