Oct 122007
I try not to pay too much attention to the Nobel Prizes, because the recipients are usually either boring, obvious choices or stupid ones. This time around, most fell into the former category. The choice of Capecchi, Evans, and Smithies for their development of the genomic knockout mouse was as unassailable as it was inevitable, and Fert and Grünberg’s award for giant magnetoresistance shared both those properties. Gerhard Ertl‘s work, which probably sounds dull or obvious to the layman, is in fact of staggering significance, and his prize too was richly deserved, if not particularly exciting to read about. I can’t recall ever having read anything by Doris Lessing, but this is true of most Nobel Literature Prize winners. I have always been confused by the idea of awarding a literary achievement prize to anyone who is still alive, anyway (more on that in another post, perhaps). Some have complained about her award, but the controversy on this prize is muted, especially compared to the storm that broke with today’s announcement of the Nobel Peace Prize. No doubt you’ve heard that the prize was given to Al Gore, just days after a British judge debunked his film, which reflects poorly on our media. In fact, Gore was a co-recipient with the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the judge, though he found that the film advocated a viewpoint and contained nine errors (most of them insignificant or understandable), did not dispute its central message. These facts are related, and understanding that relationship is, I think, essential.

The finding that An Inconvenient Truth advocates a viewpoint is unsurprising, because Al Gore is unapologetically an advocate for controlling anthropogenic warming. He is not a scientist, but a man who uses science (sometimes disputed science) to send a message. The Peace Prize has been awarded to advocates before, and justly so. Indeed, it would be completely unreasonable to award it to someone who was not some kind of advocate — gazing at your navel and saying “Apartheid is bad” does not qualify you for any kind of award, while getting thrown in prison for trying to end it arguably does.

On these grounds it would be inappropriate to give the Prize to the IPCC on its own. The IPCC is a scientific organization, and advocacy or even the appearance of advocacy would significantly undermine its mission. Gore and his allies make use of the IPCC’s findings, and indeed without the weight of the IPCC consensus their fight against anthropogenic warming would go the same way as the awakening that followed the publication of Silent Spring. Gore is a strong, visible advocate, the sort of person or organization that deserves the prize, but though the IPCC did all the hard work, it is not an advocate, and would be practically invisible without the help of Gore and his friends. Without the scientists, the advocacy would be ignored, and without the advocates the scientists would be ignored. As such, if a Peace Prize is to be given for the fight against warming, both must be honored. That is what the committee did.

Was it justified to give a Peace Prize for this? At first blush, it might not seem that warming has all that much to do with peace. Of course this isn’t particularly relevant — the Peace Prize has been awarded in the past for innovative banking approaches, service to the poor, and agricultural research. But if you want to be a stickler nonetheless, you should know that the effects of anthropogenic warming are likely to be a significant threat to security in this century, and perhaps the largest threat. If you think I’m not a credible witness on this point, perhaps you will listen to Gen. Gordon R. Sullivan, Adm. Frank Bowman, Lt. Gen. Lawrence P. Farrell Jr., V. Adm. Paul G. Gaffney II, Gen. Paul J. Kern, Adm. T. Joseph Lopez, Adm. Donald Pilling, Adm. Joseph W. Prueher, V. Adm. Richard H. Truly, Gen. Charles F. Wald, and Gen. Anthony C. Zinni. If you don’t want to read their report detailing the security threat to the United States from warming, I’ll give you the short version.

Climate change will cause agricultural disaster and population displacements in some of the most unstable places in this world. Rising sea levels will push millions of refugees out of Bangladesh. Changing rainfall/snowfall patterns will cause water shortages in Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, and these droughts will be accompanied by famine and disease. The cruel fact is that the countries hardest hit by global warming will probably be those least capable of mitigating its effects. The natural result of this tumult will be resource wars, including the possibility of wars involving nuclear powers such as India, Israel, Pakistan, Russia, and China. Famine, disease, and war will displace millions in these regions, leading to increased competition for resources in more habitable regions and an increasing strain of immigrants in nations where the effects of climate change have not been so dire.

In my own view, it is likely that societies facing this degree of resource scarcity will fracture along ethnic or tribal lines, leading to repeated incidents of genocide much like that we have seen in Darfur. Hopefully the situation will not advance to the point of nuclear war, but it is entirely possible that unhinged tribalists in unstable countries like Pakistan will decide that if they cannot have the resources, nobody can. Unchecked, global warming may well lead to war and an era of genocide unlike anything the world has yet known, including the unthinkable prospect of a second nuclear war. Only this time, the victim will be able to return fire in kind.

Was this the committee’s justification? I couldn’t tell you. It probably contributed, but it’s equally fair to say that they were likely motivated by a political desire to tweak the Bush administration. It’s fair to say that Bush deserved it, as his attitude towards the problem has been abominably stupid. More broadly, they may have meant the endorsement to help silence global warming deniers, though at this point the outright denial of warming is so far to the fringe that it will likely have no effect among stalwarts. At this point the essential debate concerns the policies that ought be adopted in light of the warming trend — in my view, the committee’s action will add weight to the IPCC recommendations. The choice is still rightfully controversial, but it isn’t outrageous or improper. They’ve made worse decisions.

The Gore-IPCC Peace Prize will be widely discussed for some time, and it is to be hoped that by awarding this prize the committee will encourage new efforts on greenhouse gas reduction and climate change mitigation. But the committee has tried to use the prize in such a way before, without success.

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