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Nobel Prizes Recognize Climate Scientists, Not Just Gore

Andrew Freedman @ 10:30 AM

Yes, Al Gore won the Nobel Peace Prize. And yes, he deserved to receive it for his work to rally global attention to the greatest environmental threat facing humanity. Say what you want about the man's politics, without him climate change would not have permeated popular culture to the extent it has in the past few years.

But we should not let Gore's unrivaled year (Oscar, Emmy, Nobel oh my!) distract attention from the other recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize: the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). While not as sexy as the Goracle, without the IPCC's work we'd be blinded to the true scope of the climate change challenge and its potential solutions.

Jason Samenow's Forecast

Nice Day StampToday: Mostly sunny and delightful. Highs 70-75.
Tonight: Mostly clear. Lows 40-48 (suburbs-city)
Monday: Mostly sunny and mild. Highs in the mid 70s.

The full week ahead forecast will appear in tomorrow's post.

The IPCC is the world's preeminent climate science group, formed in 1988 under the auspices of the United Nations and the World Meteorological Organization (its full mission statement can be found here).

It has issued four voluminous and increasingly alarming climate change science assessment reports, which are the work of approximately 2,000 scientists from a range of disciplines.

The IPCC's Nobel Prize can be interpreted as the highest level of recognition for climate scientists in general who together comprise the scientific consensus that the earth is warming primarily due to human activities. This is because the IPCC conducts no original research of its own, and instead draws from and synthesizes the numerous climate-related and peer reviewed scientific studies published each year.

The IPCC's award differs from Gore's in that it's a recognition of the underlying scientific research on climate change, work that has led to worrisome conclusions that have required someone like Gore to publicize.

The Nobel Prize "is honoring the science and the publicity, and they're necessarily different," historian Spencer R. Weart told the New York Times on Oct. 13.

The IPCC's history is a fascinating story worthy of a science history book. The group is essentially an amalgamation of large volunteer working groups, whose members have the unenviable task of navigating the treacherous boundary between science and policy. It has withstood a steady barrage of attacks from climate change contrarians who have questioned the IPCC's credibility and central conclusion that the climate is changing primarily due to human activities.

For example, Benjamin Santer, a research scientist at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, was blasted for allegedly allowing political interests to override scientific findings when he helped draft the IPCC's Second Assessment Report in 1995. The charges never stuck, but they took a personal toll on Santer.

Then in 2001 controversy erupted over the so-called 'Hockey Stick' graph of global average temperature records. Questions about that graph's accuracy have lingered in some corners of the climate science community.

More recently, in 2002 the U.S., at the urging of industry, had the IPCC's chairman, Robert Watson, replaced because he was deemed too outspoken on climate change and had too much access to American media from his perch in Washington. He was replaced with Rajendara Pachauri of India, who was photographed uncorking champagne after the Nobel announcement on Friday.

Despite the controversies, the IPCC retains its reputation within the science and policy community as the most authoritative voice on climate change science. And both of the Nobel Peace Prize awards provide a major jolt of cache for climate science at a critical time in climate change diplomacy.

Representatives from around the world will meet in Bali, Indonesia in December to negotiate a successor agreement to the Kyoto Protocol which expires in 2012. The objective is to secure buy-in from developing countries which were exempted from mandatory emissions reductions under Kyoto, such as China and India, and the United States, which chose not to ratify Kyoto partly because of such exemptions.

Thanks to the efforts of Mr. Gore and the IPCC, public awareness of global climate change may be at the highest level in history. The question for the next Nobel Peace Prize winner to answer is how to channel that awareness into specific policies.

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