Al Gore and the Nobel

October 12th, 2007

Posted by: admin

Former Vice-President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) share this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. In doing so, they join the ranks of previous winners such as Martin Luther King Jr., Mother Teresa, Aung San Suu Kyi, Nelson Mandela, and many other internationally recognized figures working on human rights and global security issues.

I was personally surprised by this decision by the Nobel Committee on many levels.

In my recollection, the Nobel Peace Prize is traditionally awarded to individuals and organizations working to end human conflict or improve the lives and dignity of oppressed or poverty-stricken people. In awarding the prize to Gore and the IPCC for the climate change issue, the Nobel Committee are extending the boundaries of what we recognize as a human conflict issue to include the global environmental issue of climate change. Certainly climate change has the potential to inflame conflicts and initiate new ones, and many have pointed this out in their evaluation of the impacts of climate change on societies. But in my opinion the Nobel should be reserved for those on the front lines combating the human tragedies of our day such as the atrocities of Darfur, ongoing military occupation in Burma, and plunging life expectancy in many African nations. That the Nobel Committee has no environmental prize is a reflection on the inadequacy of the Nobel categories, and should not be an excuse to make the Peace prize into the political issue “catch-all” category of the day.

But I have a few specific beefs with the Nobel Committee’s selection of Mr. Gore. The citation reads: “for 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” and for Gore specifically, “He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.” Certainly the IPCC has done this in spades, for many years and involving many, many scientists. The IPCC and the thousands of individuals who generally volunteer their time deserve a great recognition. But Mr. Gore has had a mixed record in his efforts on climate change. Certainly, he recognized the importance of the issue early on, writing a book on the subject, “Earth in the Balance,” in 1992. But Gore has also had an opportunity to influence US policy from the second highest platform available—the Vice-Presidency. In his 8 year term as Vice-President, the US became a signatory to the Kyoto Protocol (largely attributed to Mr. Gore’s efforts) but never ratified it. The blame for this has been laid on President Bush, but Mr. Gore did not make this a platform of his Presidential campaign, nor did he attempt to spend political capital to get the Protocol ratified before he left office. In addition, no reputable scientist believes that the measures of the Kyoto Protocol, even if fully adopted by all signatories, would put much of a dent in the global warming problem. The Kyoto Protocol may be a “good start” as some have said, but it may just as easily be seen as a detrimental distraction to the reality of seriously solving the problem. We need reductions of 80-90% in the long term, some say in the next few decades. How are we going to get there?

As far as “measures needed to counteract such change,” Mr. Gore’s communication efforts thus far leave much to be desired. As his documentary illustrates well, he is a consummate scientific communicator, and he has done a great job of communicating the science of climate change to a wider audience. As far as promoting adequate solutions, however, Mr. Gore falls short. In his film, “An Inconvenient Truth”, he only begins to discuss solutions two thirds of the way into the movie, and then only in a cursory manner. Mr. Gore does not even mention the energy part of the climate change problem until more than half way through the movie. There is a reason he was unable to urge the Congress to ratify the Protocol. There was a reason he did not make climate change a central platform of his Presidential campaign. The fact is, the solutions that are needed to get to 80 or 90% reduction in CO2 emissions are politically and infrastructurally difficult. Mr. Gore cites that “political will is a renewable resource”, and certainly political will is a necessary feature. But even more necessary are real, committed strategies to begin to make stringent reductions in emissions. And in that department Mr. Gore is still where many advocates are on the climate issue. Raising awareness is a good thing, but what we really need is action.

Perhaps the Nobel Prize Committee shares this sense of urgency, and with their selection is intending to do their part to elevate the issue. Certainly others are interpreting their actions this way– for example Rep. Al Markey (D-MA) on CBS– “Now that Mr. Gore has won the Nobel Peace Prize, it is up to Congress to act.”

Hmm. An Oscar and a Peace Prize. Maybe now people will sit up and take notice. I just wonder what they will take notice of. Most of the press coverage of Mr. Gore’s selection has included speculation on whether or not he will run for president again . But the climate change issue is not about a single person or finding the magic button to get people’s attention. We need to get past symbolic gestures and dramatic theater. My hope is that someone will soon win a Nobel Prize for discovering a way for humans to live peaceably and in good health without exhausting our non-renewable resources or polluting the planet for future generations and the rest of the world’s species.

12 Responses to “Al Gore and the Nobel”

  1. danielc Says:

    Reviewing the past recipients of the Peace Prize, I find it hard to agree with your thesis that this award is misplaced, though I appreciate being encouraged to consider this award in detail.

    First up, let’s see if there’s any precedent. To begin, note that the IPCC and Gore received the Peace Prize “for 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.”

    Also note this text: “Indications of changes in the earth’s future climate must be treated with the utmost seriousness, and with the precautionary principle uppermost in our minds. Extensive climate changes may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the world’s most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.”

    From this we see various themes emerge: communication of an important message; sustainability; improving living conditions.

    Precedent lies in the following recipients. Wangari Maathai received hers in 2004 “for her contribution to sustainable development, democracy and peace.” Elie Wiesel in 1986 for being “a messenger to mankind.” Norman Borlaug got his in 1970 for providing “bread for a hungry world,” and John Orr in 1949 for his work on nutrition.

    Do you also contend these awards were misplaced? Is peace only the opposite of war?

    Furthermore, you suggest there should be an environmental category. My gut reaction was to agree, but I thought further. The IPCC and Gore were not awarded the prize for contributing to the protection of the environment, it was for the protection of something on which human well-being depends. Like food and the absence of conflict. The environment is central to individuals and societies being at peace.

    Moving now to your contention that recipients be “working to end human conflict or improve the lives and dignity of oppressed or poverty-stricken people,” and be “on the front lines combating the human tragedies of our day,” I completely agree. Indeed this resonates well with the second quote above. But where are the front lines? Darfur? Burma?

    Many past recipients were international politicians who made their marks by negotiating the cessation of hostilities (or by being the figure heads of the parties that did the negotiation). These negotiations took place in the world’s halls of power, not where the casualties were mounting. For climate change, the war being fought is (was?) one of communication. The science is settled. What has been critically lacking is an appreciation of this, and of the significance of the climatic change, hampered in large part by institutions that do not like the scientific conclusions. The front line is thus in the media, and for that one needs a messenger.

    I’ll wrap up with a quote from the presentation speech for John Orr’s award: “But however great his scientific contributions may have been, they alone would not have earned him the Peace Prize, for scientific discoveries cannot, in themselves, create peace. It is only when they are employed to promote cooperation between nations that they become a valuable factor in the cause of peace.”

  2. 2
  3. OregonGuy Says:

    My understanding of the Nobel Peace Prize is rather arcane, since I learned of the prize some forty years ago. Short story is, Nobel felt bad about the destructive power of the product he had made. And while saving the lives of thousands upon thousands of working men in the construction industry, felt some nascent guilt through TNT’s use as a military tool. Ergo, the Peace Prize.

    And again, in some arcane way, I thought the actions should be some way related to reducing violence/war in the world. That being the case, the International Committee of the Red Cross won the Peace prize in 1917. In 1919 President Wilson won the Peace prize. The following year, Leon Bourgeois, President of the League of Nations, won the award.

    In 1938, the Nansen International Office for Refugees was awarded the prize. After a lapse of six years, the International Committee of the Red Cross again won the Peace prize. In 1945 Secretary of State Cordell Hull won the prize.

    When I reflect upon the humanitarian effort of these men, and the men and women of the Red Cross I am struck dumb by the comparison to Al Gore’s opus.

    Not one life saved. Not a single pain eased. Not a single deposed tyrant. Not a simple message of peace.

  4. 3
  5. David B. Benson Says:

    Technically, Mr. Gore did not receive an Oscar. The Oscar for Best Documentary Feature is awarded, by tradition, to the director, in this case Mr. Guggenheim. Mr. Guggenheim chose to have everybody involved on the stage with him at presentation time.

    Mr. Gore does, I believe, have an Emmy award.

  6. 4
  7. TokyoTom Says:

    Lisa, Gore may very well be a flawed candidate, with some responsibility with Clinton for not negotiating Kyoto sufficiently to include China and for failing to submit it to Congress, but the Committee obviously gave it to him to send a signal to the US and the rest of the world where they think our priorities should lie – and in stark contrast to US foreign policy over the years of the Bush administration.

  8. 5
  9. LDilling Says:

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments and discussion!
    - danielc, I can certainly see that the Nobel Committee has awarded environmentally-based awards in the past, but I question whether Gore’s role in communication warrants the prize. Take Maathai, for example, a previous winner. She was the first woman to receive a doctorate in east and central Africa. She started the “Greenbelt” movement in her region in Africa, which empowered women to plant trees to improve their environment and their quality of life. Her movement resulted in over 20 million trees being planted and counting. Her influence extends far beyond the environment to her work on women’s issues, human rights, poverty, and democracy. Of course the environment is critically linked to these issues. So I can accept that there is precedent for environmental issues. But the second part of my question is whether Mr. Gore’s work on communicating climate is commensurate with the stature of the award. I have argued above that, while it is laudable and excellent work, it does not do the hard work of actually making a change in our approach to climate. I like your quote of John Orr’s– it is exactly the point I was trying to make. It is not enough to simply make discoveries (or, I would add, to talk about them). It is what we then do with the knowledge that makes a difference. The IPCC at least was a herculean effort, organized by many scientific leaders, often volunteers, and would seem more deserving in this respect.
    - David B., thanks for the correction! you are right.
    - TokyoTom, yes, I would agree that the Committee was sending a signal. But again, I would like to see us move beyond signals to rewarding substance.

  10. 6
  11. LDilling Says:

    also, one postscript– danielc- I don’t agree that the “war” being fought in climate is one of communication. The polls show that for several years the public has accepted that climate change is real, is a problem, and the majority think that the government should act to do something about it. Gore’s film has elevated visibility in the past year, but the reality is that an overwhelming majority already thought it was a problem. The issue for me is one of action and urgency– we need to move beyond talking about the science (which, as you say, has been settled for a while), and actually implement policies and measures that will make a difference.

  12. 7
  13. TokyoTom Says:

    Lisa, I agree with you.

    If it had been in the Committee’s power to have changed the past or to turn the clock of time ahead, surely they would have preferred to award the prize to someone who had already been instrumental in getting the US and the world to commit to an effective climate treaty. But alas, no such agreement has yet been reached.

    But as the Committee remains convinved of the urgency of dealing with climate change, I suppose they can be forgiven for doing what is clearly second best, though it is all that is within their power.

  14. 8
  15. Paul Biggs Says:

    What ‘agreement’ can control the complex, chaotic, non-linear climate system?

    What a ridiculous final sentence:

    “Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control.”
    –Nobel Committee, 12 October 2007

    Gadzooks! Man can apparently control the climate, but only in a time frame that fits a political definition of NOW!

  16. 9
  17. David B. Benson Says:


    The Nobel Peace Prize Committee is correct. Some aspects of climate change are irrevokable already, such as species extinctions. Controlling climate change needs be accomplished ’soon’ so as to avoid further species extinctions and many other essentially irreversible (and undesirable) changes.

  18. 10
  19. Paul Biggs Says:

    Dream on King Canute. Humans don’t control the climate.

  20. 11
  21. Paul Biggs Says:

    Dream on King Canute. Humans don’t control the climate.

  22. 12
  23. Jason Says:

    David Benson, you talk of extinctions that will happen. Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California said this yesterday in an article:

    “Case in point: This year’s United Nations report on climate change and other documents say that 20%-30% of plant and animal species will be threatened with extinction in this century due to global warming — a truly terrifying thought. Yet, during the past 2.5 million years, a period that scientists now know experienced climatic changes as rapid and as warm as modern climatological models suggest will happen to us, almost none of the millions of species on Earth went extinct. The exceptions were about 20 species of large mammals (the famous megafauna of the last ice age — saber-tooth tigers, hairy mammoths and the like), which went extinct about 10,000 to 5,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, and many dominant trees and shrubs of northwestern Europe. But elsewhere, including North America, few plant species went extinct, and few mammals.”