Monday, October 15, 2007

The Other Half of the Nobel

I'd be derelict in my duty if I let the announcement of this year's Nobel Peace Prize pass by without comment. However, I'd like to focus on the half of the award that did not go to former Vice President Gore. If you read the Nobel citation, you'll see that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) actually received top billing, even though the media have largely ignored that or treated it as incidental. While it's understandable that we should focus more on the individual who personifies the cause of climate change in this country, and perhaps the world, I think the award to the IPCC might actually be more significant. By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is putting its moral authority behind what is generally referred to as the "scientific consensus on climate change."

Not to diminish Mr. Gore's efforts, but without the work of the IPCC, his presentation on climate change, captured on film in "An Inconvenient Truth," would have rested on mere conjecture. It took thousands of scientists and decades of research, peer review and public debate to arrive at the present picture of the interaction of all the factors affecting the global climate system, including the man-made greenhouse gas emissions that are nudging the Earth's climate towards a warmer state, with consequences both foreseeable and unknowable. Nor is this a static picture. Evidence is still being gathered, computer models improved, and data periodically reviewed and corrected. That's how science works.

But if the Nobel for the IPCC is a vote for this cumulative body of science and the scientists who produced it, I think it's important to understand that it is a very different kind of endorsement than the Nobel Prizes for the various sciences, which are awarded by the Nobel Committee of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences. The Peace Prize, on the other hand, is awarded by a committee selected by Norway's parliament, the Storting. This year's committee includes a university president, a theologian, and a consultant. All served in Norwegian politics or government at some point. In that light, the award to the IPCC should be viewed as a recognition of the geopolitical and world-historical importance of global warming, rather than any kind of peer review of the science behind it. My purpose in drawing this distinction is not to validate skepticism, but to suggest that this Nobel signals an evolution and perhaps even a turning point on the issue.

Now, I realize that some of my readers remain skeptical about the extent and risks of climate change, and of the very notion of a "scientific consensus." But I think we're now at a point with regard to our understanding of climate change and its risks that the main theater of activity will be political and diplomatic, rather than scientific. The scientists have communicated their conclusions, including a detailed series of reports released this year on the scientific basis, potential impacts, and mitigation strategies. It is now up to governments at all levels to decide what to do about it, based not only on the science, but on all of the other issues for which they are responsible: the prosperity, security, and well-being of their citizens, and of the world as a whole. The choices aren't as simple as they apparently seem to some, but neither can they be ignored. And that's what the committee says plainly in the concluding paragraph of the citation:

"By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 to the IPCC and Al Gore, the Norwegian Nobel Committee is seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the world’s future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond man’s control."

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