Global Trends by Martin Khor

Monday 15 October 2007

Climate action gets Nobel Prize boost

That the Nobel Peace Prize is given to an individual and an organization that advocate drastic action on climate change serves to highlight the seriousness of the climate crisis and the urgent need to address it.


Climate change shot further up the charts of the global political agenda last week when the Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to Al Gore and the Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The peace prize has traditionally been given to people or organizations involved in security issues, who are considered to have contributed to bringing peace to a situation of intractable warfare.  Some past awards in this category have been controversial.

But in recent years, it has also honoured environmental and humanitarian activism.  The Kenyan environmentalist Wangari Mathai, the Bangladesh founder of the Grameen Bank (which launched the micro-credit movement) and the medical organization Medicins San Frontiers (Doctors without Borders) were previous recipients.

So it is not so surprising that the Nobel Prize this year honours those who are fighting to make the world aware of the climate catastrophe that is to come, if we don’t act on time.

That Al Gore was chosen gives out several messages at once.  First, that he is a passionate advocate of climate action, and his celebrity status (now further enhanced by the prize) has made him effective.

Second, perhaps more importantly, that the United States is the country needing most change, since it emits the most Greenhouse Gas, and since President Bush and most members of Congress are still in denial that binding action to cut emissions is required of the developed countries.

The award to Gore is a message to Bush that his refusal so far to take part in an international framework to legally bind developed counties with targets to reduce their Greenhouse Gas emissions is the biggest obstacle to successful global action on climate change.

Vice President Gore was in the United States delegation during the negotiations of the Kyoto protocol which the US like other countries signed on to.  But the irony is that Gore and President Bill Clinton could not get Congress to ratify the Kyoto protocol. 

And a few years later President Bush unilaterally got the US to withdraw from the  protocol.  This sent a chilling signal that for the US, it was more important to protect its oil industry, old economic growth-path and lifestyle, than to tackle climate change seriously.

Having lost the Presidency although he received a majority of the votes, Gore re-built himself as an environmental advocate, and his movie An Inconvenient Truth revived his popularity, this time as a warrior to save the world.

In the wake of his Nobel prize award, there is a lot of speculation that Gore will either stand for the US Presidential elections (which is unlikely) or be a “kingmaker” in that whoever he supports will have an advantage.

The mood around the world about climate change, even in the U.S.,  is changing, with few people now daring to challenge the science – that climate change is already taking place, that it is mainly human-made, and that “business as usual” will lead to rapid emission growth and further global warming, that will threaten human life on earth.

For this rising consciousness, major credit goes to the IPCC, the other Nobel award recipient, which is overshadowed by the more famous Al Gore, but whose painstaking work over many years has laid the foundation for the present awareness and future action.

The model of the IPCC’s work is unique.  It gathers more than a thousand scientists from different countries to study and agree to the many aspects of the climate issue – the causes, the potential effects, the economic issues, and the policy options.

Then its thick scientific reports are presented to representatives of governments. A short summary of the reports – including policy implications -- is then thrashed out by the governments at special sessions. 

In this way, the governments also “own” the reports, through their nomination of the scientists and their re-drafting of the policy summaries.

When the IPCC came up with three detailed reports – and three accompanying policy summaries – this year, the events were widely publicized through the media.

The scientific messages were very clear – the effects of “business as usual” will lead to global average temperatures rising up to 4 degrees centigrade above the pre-industrial level by the end of this century.

This will have catastrophic effects long before the end of the century, and it is doubtful if the children of today and the grand-children of tomorrow will lead decent lives, or even survive.

The IPCC’s work and modus operandi meant that no government today can deny the existence and seriousness of the climate crisis, a far cry from the situation just a few years ago.

Even the United States administration, which had been the greatest denier, now accepts the reality of the climate crisis.  It has not yet accepted the need for joint global action that places legally-binding obligations on the developed countries.

Under the Kyoto Protocol, the developing countries also committed to undertake action, but they were not obliged to have legally binding targets. 

The reason:  they are not responsible for the historical build-up of Greenhouse gases since the industrial revolution, and the developed countries have first to prove that they are taking serous action in their own countries as well as to provide assistance (funds and technology) to developing countries to enable the latter to act.                        

In December in Bali, negotiations will start for a new phase of the Kyoto Protocol in which the extent and types of actions will be laid out.

On this will depend the fate of the Earth, and probably the Nobel Prize jury was looking towards these negotiations when it chose to highlight climate change for the peace prize.