A Peace Prize for Science

[Post reconstructed after 25.10.07 hack]:

This is just great!

From the Norwegian Nobel Committee (remember, this prize does not come from the Swedish Academy):

The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 is to be shared, in two equal parts, between the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. 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.

This is simply fantastic, since I see it as a major step that a peace prize has been given for work on a scientific issue that affects our lives so profoundly. The IPCC was tasked with sifting through all the science on the matter, and present a thoughtful set of reports to guide governments, other organisations and individuals on the issue. This is a huge and important task that has been deservedly recognised by the committee. (My Correlations colleague Michael Tobis has more thoughts here.)

It could not stop there though. We live in a society where it is not enough to make a scientific case, since there are people and organizations that will try to confuse the issue for their own personal gains, and -most dismayingly- the vast majority of people are not going to be swayed by scientific arguments that they will never read, or take the time to understand, or consider as not personally relevant to their lives. This is where Al Gore (and others) comes in. You can read some of my recent thoughts about Al Gore’s role in all this in an earlier post entitled The Man of Tomorrow?, and so I won’t repeat all of that here, but here are some extracts:

[…] I’ve been very heartened by the pace of change that has happened in a short time with regards to people talking about the environment, and (some) people beginning to do something about it. Not become activists of the sack-cloth wearing sort, but merely thinking about the small things that individuals can do here and there that correspond to large changes when you add up the effort of millions. To begin thinking about changes to lifestyle and business practices that might make a real difference.

[…] So what is responsible for this pleasant change, this marked increase in awareness in the populace? At least in the USA (the environment’s worst offender – although it is being challenged for this dubious position by China), whether you like it or not we must point to Al Gore as being one of the principal messengers who has got the debate going on the street and in people’s households. It would be nice to think that it was all (or mostly) about people -under their own steam- stopping and weighing the arguments from scientists and other thinkers that were already out there for many years, but that’s largely a fantasy. A lot of it has to do with celebrity and star power. He’s no longer just ex-Vice-President Al Gore (the Man Who Would Be President), which already helped him get heard more than many other people would have been. He’s no longer just the guy who turned his slide show into a notable movie… he’s now Oscar-winning Al Gore, and I’m still surprised (and a little embarrassed on behalf of my fellow man) at how much more weight that seems to have given him. To his credit and to the credit of the Academy, he has been using this to get his message across even more, and more people have been listening. Finally, he has an extra hook: He is the Al Gore who everyone is wondering if he will run for President.

…and now he can add Nobel Laureate to his list of hooks. I can’t resist ending with repeating my provocative remarks from that post:

Yes, many of us are upset about the Presidency, and about the loss of what might have been if Gore had gone to the White House in 2000. But let’s stop for a moment. What if what happened was actually for the better? Let’s suppose that we are hurtling along the road to not just environmental discomfort, but environmental catastrophe. We do not know for sure how much of a catastrophe, but even reasonable projections can turn mere discomfort into loss of life on huge scales resulting from direct disruptions such as storms and floods overwhelming populations (imagine dozens of Katrinas), to economic effects of various sorts on entire regions. I need not go on about this…. you’ve read and heard a lot of the possibilities yourself. So let us suppose we are on a path to this, and to get off the path we need to rapidly acquire increased awareness of that we’re on the path, and what we need to do to divert us from the path. Might it be the case that we needed Al Gore to step up and devote his energies to championing this issue on the ground more than we needed him in the White House? Is it possible that the US political system was not ready for a truly environmental President in 2000, and so he might not have achieved very much in the environmental sphere, especially given how finely balanced the House and Senate would have been. How much would he have really been able to achieve? Some highly compromised things might have got through, but would they have been that much more than window dressing? We need really significant action, and I’m not sure that would have been possible. Maybe his actions over the last several years have helped pave the way for a political atmosphere where we can have significant leadership on environmental issues, where for example someone can stand up and propose taxes and incentives designed to promote environmental causes without utterly destroying their political credibility. Yes, I’m saying that perhaps it was ultimately (taking into account the medium and long to very-long term) not a bad thing that Gore did not make it to the White House. He served the world better -and will continue to do so, perhaps- as a highly visible and influential spokesperson for action on the environment.

I’ve been wanting to present the above idea for a long time now, but I’m always given reason to pause when reminded of all of the terrible things that have happened under the current Bush administration. Obvious things like the Iraq situation (how can one even begin to quantify where to put that into the equation of the previous paragraph), Katrina mishandling, the Supreme Court, and perhaps less obvious ones like (for example) the manipulation of expert testimony on scientific matters to do with the environment, etc. (I won’t go into all of that since you know of them so well, and other blogs and sources you read do a perfectly good job of that, and I largely leave it to them.) So I don’t really know where I stand on my Devil’s Advocate position above, but it is in my nature to try and make the best of a bad thing, so it is a thought that came up naturally. I offer it to you the reader as a thought to turn over in your own head, and to debate, examine, deconstruct, and do with what you will.

Well, I’ll end it there. I consider this announcement to be potentially a very significant step forward in the fight to start everyone -from individuals to organizations and governments- acting in ways that responsibly address the raft of environmental issues that confront us now. Let it be more than a fad. Let it be a way of life.

-cvj

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5 Responses to A Peace Prize for Science

  1. Elliot says:

    Clifford,

    As you know I’m in violent agreement with the sentiments above. It may be that one of the resolutions to Fermi’s paradox is that intelligent civilizations may have a propensity to self-destruct in myriad ways before extraterrestrial exploration is accomplished.

    We can hope this is a harbinger of a shift in thinking and that wisdom may trump parochial interests in the future.

    e.

  2. Anonymous hero says:

    Dear Clifford, if you think that “the peace prize has been given for work on a scientific issue that affects our lives so profoundly”, then you don’t have to worry about the future of our planet because you are already living at another one.

  3. Martin Vermeer says:

    So true, so true… I recognize my own thoughts on this. This is great recognition — not for specific scientific achievements, but for the scientific method.

    America doesn’t deserve Gore for president. And Gore has better things to do.

    …and about the Nobel Committee chairman saying with a straight face that this should not be construed as a criticism of Bush, that was good for a few giggles over here. I mean, not only has Bush tried to suppress his own climate scientists, but pretty much all his scientists — and his intelligence people, with known disastrous results. And the Iraq energy war… but no, “Any resemblance to real persons alive or dead is purely coincidental”. Sick joke.