Climate of peace

Print edition : November 16, 2007

Al Gore in a scene from his documentary An Inconvenient Truth. - ERIC LEE/PARAMOUNT CLASSICS/AP

The Nobel Peace Prize has been jointly awarded to former U.S. Vice-President Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

Al Gore in

THE selection for this years Nobel Peace Prize has indeed come as a surprise. The Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), a United Nations body, and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr., the former Vice-President of the United States, have won it 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. The IPCC is entrusted with the task of making a scientific assessment of climate change and its potential impact. Al Gore, on the other hand, is a leading public campaigner for preserving the global climate. His campaign has taken several forms, including the award-winning film An Inconvenient Truth and a book by the same name, which have helped create public awareness of the issue.

One might wonder why these two, whose accomplishments have more to do with protecting the environment than with ensuring peace in the world or, as Alfred Nobel willed when instituting the peace prize, with doing the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the award has been criticised in some quarters.

For instance, Alan Hunter, a lecturer in peace studies in the United Kingdom, has been quoted by Al Jazeera as saying: The link between climate change and peace is very tenuously made. There are long-term predictions that it will lead to resource scarcity and resource scarcity could lead to conflict, such as fighting over water in parts of Africa, but I think thats accepted as being a few decades away.

However, with a broader and more generous interpretation of the eligibility criterion set by Nobel, a rationale for the award can be advanced as, indeed, the Nobel Foundations press release does. Extensive climate changes, the release said, may alter and threaten the living conditions of much of mankind. They may induce large-scale migrations and lead to greater competition for the Earths resources. Such changes will place particularly heavy burdens on the worlds most vulnerable countries. There may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.

By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC and Al Gore, it added, the Nobel Committee is seeking to contribute to a sharper focus on the processes and decisions that appear to be necessary to protect the worlds future climate, and thereby to reduce the threat to the security of mankind. Action is necessary now, before climate change moves beyond mans control.

Through the scientific reports it has issued over the past two decades, the release said, the IPCC has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warmingIn the last few years, the connections have become even clearer and the consequences still more apparent.

Indeed, the IPCCs Fourth Assessment Report (AR4), released earlier this year (Frontline, March 9), on the physical basis for climate change, says: The warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice, and rising global mean sea level Most of the observed increase in globally averaged temperatures since the mid-20th century is very likely (greater than 90 per cent probability) due to the observed increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations. This should be compared with its observations six years earlier in its Third Assessment Report (TAR), which said: [M]ost of the observed warming in the last 50 years is likely (greater than 66 per cent probability) to have been due to the increase in greenhouse gas concentrations.

On the potential impact of climate change, the IPCCs recent report says: Much more evidence has accumulated over the past five years to indicate that changes in physical and biological systems are linked to anthropogenic warming. It goes on to warn: Unmitigated climate change would, in the long term, be likely to exceed the capacity of natural, managed and human systems to adapt.

This consensual scientific assessment of climate change and its effects has not occurred overnight. On a scale that is unprecedented in any international scientific effort, it has taken the scientists, environmentalists, analysts and policymakers of the nearly 200 countries that make up the U.N. and the World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) nearly two decades of intense, collaborative effort. The scientific exercise alone is the result of the pooled efforts of nearly 2,500 scientists from as many as 130 countries over the years. As Rajendra K. Pachauri, the present chairman of the IPCC and director of the Delhi-based The Energy Resources Institute (TERI), said in his statement following the announcement of the Nobel Award, This is an honour that goes to all the scientists and authors who have contributed to the work of the IPCC, which alone has resulted in enormous prestige for this organiszation and the remarkable effectiveness of the message that it contains.

The IPCC was established in 1988 by the U.N. Environmental Programme (UNEP) and the WMO to provide independent scientific advice on the complex and important issue of climate change. Its mandate was to prepare, on the basis of available scientific information, reports on all aspects relevant to climate change and its impacts and to formulate realistic response strategies. Its constitution was initiated following the concern expressed by the WMO at the First World Climate Conference in 1979 that continued expansion of mans activities on earth may cause significant extended regional and even global changes of climate. It called for global cooperation to explore the possible future course of global climate and to take this new understanding into account in planning for the future development of human society. The 10th WMO Congress in 1987 gave the directive to establish the intergovernmental panel.

The IPCCs First Assessment Report formed the basis for negotiating the U.N. Framework Convention for Climate Change (UNFCC), which was adopted at the U.N. Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, popularly known as the Earth Summit. The UNFCCC was opened for signatures in May 1992 and entered into force in March 1994. Even after the UNFCCC came into force, the IPCC has continued to be the most important source for its scientific, technical and socio-economic information on a comprehensive, objective, open and transparent basis.

It is important to note that the panel itself does not conduct new research, monitor climate-related data or recommend policies. Indeed, an important principle followed by the IPCCs is to be policy relevant but not policy prescriptive. It is this that has enabled the IPCCs findings which undergo extensive review by experts and governments to have significant impact on national and international perceptions on climate change and consequent policies, such as the Kyoto Protocol (which sets mandatory limits on greenhouse gas emissions until 2012), which was adopted in December 1997. Over the years, this relationship between the UNFCCC and the IPCC has, in fact, become a model science-policy interaction and several attempts have been made to replicate it with regard to other global environmental issues.

Significantly, as Pachauri has pointed out in his foreword to an IPCC publication: The Panel has also been instrumental in creating research and analytical capacity around the world, which is the result of a conscious effort to draw in scientific expertise that represents a geographical balance. It is also pertinent to note that none of the hundreds of scientists and authors who are engaged in the assessment exercise is paid any money by the IPCC. What is even more pleasing, says Pachauri, is the fact that more and more authors around the world are willing to involve themselves in the work of the Panel.

The IPCC assessment reports have also been the subject of criticism, especially by global-warming sceptics (including scientists) or those who doubt the importance given to human activities as the cause of global warming or those who are concerned about the proposed actions to address the issue, particularly vested business interests such as oil companies.

There have been purely scientific controversies as well. The latest was after U.S. scientist Christopher Landsea resigned in 2005 from working on the AR4, stating that his research on hurricane activity was being (mis)used to push through a preconceived and politically motivated agenda on the impact of climate change.

The most serious one was following the Second Assessment Report, of 1995, when U.S. scientist Fred Singer alleged that the final report was changed under political influence without the authorisation of the scientists involved, thereby presenting a scientifically inaccurate picture. Similarly, the TAR, of 2001, was also the subject of the so-called hockey-stick graph controversy, which referred to the prominent graph that the report used to portray the large temperature increase in the very recent past. Some scientists argued that the graph was an artefact of the statistical analyses of proxy data used to detect temperature variations and was in direct conflict with the satellite data of the past 50 years.

It is, however, to the credit of the scientific community that the IPCC has been able to weather these storms and stay on course and remain more relevant today than ever before. Citing the 2007 report, Pachauri emphasised in his statement that bringing about reduction in emissions is inevitable if the worlds climate has to be stabilised. For an equilibrium temperature increase of 2 to 2.4 C, the world can at best allow emissions to increase up to 2015 beyond which they must decline, he points out. The statement issued by the IPCC, on the other hand, said: What we need to do now is to get started on the negotiations of a post-2012 frameworkWe urgently need a new agreement or a set of agreementswhich can deliver the greenhouse gas emission reductions in line with what science is telling us is needed 50 per cent by 2050 along with significant funding for adaptation.

Al Gore, who shares the award with the IPCC, has been in the forefront of spreading this urgent message of science through his public campaigns. About him, the Nobel release said: Gore has for a long time been one of the worlds leading environmentalist politiciansHis strong commitment, reflected in political activity, lectures, films and books, has strengthened the struggle against climate change. He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.

Notwithstanding this glowing tribute to Gore, one may argue that in giving the award to Gore the Nobel Committee has stretched its rationale a bit far. Indeed, much of the criticism has been directed against giving the award to him. Writing on the website of the Transnational Foundation for Peace and Future Research, Jan Oberg, the former secretary-general of the Danish Peace Foundation, pointed to Gores role as Vice-President to Bill Clinton under whose administration Kosovo, Afghanistan and Sudan were bombed. The argument clearly is that while Gore may have spread public awareness about climate change, his suitability for a top peace award was highly questionable.

Some, in fact, have even contended that Gores selection was politically motivated, a notion that the Norwegian Nobel Committee which decides the peace award unlike the others, which are decided by different Swedish Academies has sought to dispel. Some of its members have defended the decision by saying that the award should inspire more reasoned discussion on climate change and efforts towards a real solution than a baseless assault on the underlying science. By awarding Gore, a politician, the committee perhaps intends to convey the message to world politicians to act quickly and decisively to mitigate impending climate change.

In an interview, Gore has stated that he became intrigued by the topic of global warming when he took a course at Harvard University with Roger Revelle, one of the first scientists to measure carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It was Gore who initiated the first congressional hearing on climate change soon after he entered the House of Representatives in the late 1970s: he brought together U.S. climate scientists and politicians to discuss the issue. He also wrote a book in 1992, the year of the Rio Summit, on environmental issues titled The Earth in Balance, which was on The New York Times bestseller list.

Gore was Vice-President from 1993 to 2001, during which period he tried to introduce a carbon tax to reduce fossil fuel consumption and thereby reduce greenhouse gas emissions. It was implemented partially in 1993. Though he helped push through the Kyoto Protocol, ironically, the U.S. itself has failed to ratify it under President George W. Bush. During his presidential campaign in 2000, Gore pledged to ratify the protocol.

He was also instrumental in 1998 in funding the satellite programme Triana (also called Deep Space Climate Observatory) which was aimed at making direct measurements of the earths albedo, the fraction of the incoming light and heat from the sun that is reflected back into space to focus research and awareness on environmental issues. The satellite, unfortunately, was never launched because of political hostility and opposition. In fact, it was removed from the launch pad of the ill-fated STS-107 Columbia shuttle. The $100-million satellite continues to be in cold storage at a cost $1 million a year.

Rajendra K. Pachauri, the present chairman of the IPCC.-RAVEENDRAN/AFP

Rajendra K. Pachauri,

After his defeat in the presidential elections, Gore got intensely engaged in the preparation of a slide show based on a compilation of his campaigns over the years on the environment and climate change. He used this as a part of multimedia presentations on global warming in the U.S. and in various parts of the world. According to Gore, he would have made at least 1,000 presentations.

Inspired by the slide show at a presentation in 2004, film producers Laurie David and Lawrence Bender engaged director David Guggenheim to make a film based on it. The director, who was sceptical at first, stated that he was blown away. It apparently left him thinking for an hour and a half that global warming was the most important issue. I had no idea how you would make a film out of it, but I wanted to try, he said. The result was the Oscar-winning documentary An Inconvenient Truth, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in 2006 and had its first public screening on May 24, 2006, in New York and Los Angeles.

The film has already grossed $49 million at the box office worldwide, making it the fourth-highest grossing documentary in the U.S. The films distributor, Paramount Classics, has pledged to donate 5 per cent of the box office proceeds and Gore has decided to donate all his earnings from the film to the Alliance for Climate Protection, an organisation founded and headed by him that is dedicated to conveying the urgency of responding to what it calls the climate crisis. Though global-warming sceptics have called the film exaggerated and erroneous, it has been acclaimed by film critics, a wide spectrum of scientists and politicians, and has won two Academy awards.

It is also being used as part of school science curricula around the world. In the U.K., though, a petition was filed in the British High Court of Justice in May against its use in schools after the U.K. government, the Welsh Assembly and the Scottish Assembly announced in January-March that copies of the film were to be sent to all secondary schools in England, Wales and Scotland. Only about a week before the Nobel announcement, the court ruled that the film was substantially based on scientific research and fact although science was used to make a political statement and to support a political programme. However, the context of the political bias evident in the film needed to be explained with the aid of guidance notes issued along with the film, the court said. The judge also pointed, on the basis of expert testimony, to nine errors, which were essentially statements not supported by mainstream scientific analyses. The court, therefore, required that guidance notes also be supplied to address these errors. A spokesman for Gore said that they had studies that supported these so-called errors.

The joint Nobel Award to the IPCC, a body grounded in climate science, and Gore, an individual engaged in environmental activism, is thus a pointer to the increasingly apparent truism in many spheres of human activity that science and public campaign need to go hand in hand if political action at national and international level is required. Given the context of the threat of climate change and its disastrous impacts, one may even argue that these winners are much more deserving than some former winners of the peace prize.

Climate change is a truly unifying phenomenon in that it affects the entire world irrespective of national borders, cultures and political structures. If the IPCC has, through its painstaking scientific analyses, brought the topic to the centre stage of national policy and global treaty making, Gore has been one of the leading public advocates on the need for immediate action at an individual and societal level. These complementary efforts of the Nobel award winners have been instrumental the IPCC certainly to a large measure in furthering the cause of long-term human survival and sustainable development in peace and harmony on the only habitable planet that we have, the Earth.

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