The world’s leading crusaders against global warming are finally getting their day in the sun. The Nobel Peace Prize, awarded October 12 to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, comes as vindication of decades of research and advocacy on an issue that for too long was greeted with skepticism and easy laugh lines. It is no longer possible to deny or complacently accept the dire consequences of environmental abuse, and the Nobel committee rightly credited Gore and the UN-affiliated IPCC for this rapid shift in public consciousness.
Although we honor Gore’s singular contribution as a citizen crusader, we also remember that as a politician he was often eager to settle for watered-down compromises. It was Vice President Gore, after all, who allowed glacier-sized loopholes for US polluters when he negotiated the final terms of the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, and it was the Clinton/Gore Administration that pandered to the timber industry. The author of Earth in the Balance helped tilt the scales toward big business during the Clinton years, when free-trade agreements flourished and global environmental standards dropped significantly.
Gore didn’t mobilize support for effective climate change legislation until he left office. It is a telling commentary on the corrupting influence of our political system that only after he was freed from big-money pressures and cautious consultants did he find a way to speak out on the issue with a sense of moral conviction. And it is a testament to second acts in American life that Gore the un-President has reinvented himself to become, in the words of the Nobel committee, “probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted” to confront the climate crisis. He has been guided by the IPCC, an international community of experts who have been gathering data on global warming for two decades. Gore and the IPCC needed each other: Gore might have sounded like a kook were he not able to rely on the authoritativeness of the IPCC, while the IPCC might have been ignored without Gore’s evangelism.
Subjecting its analyses to rigorous peer review and tossing out conclusions that did not meet a high standard of verifiability, the IPCC forged a scientific consensus. In a series of bulletproof reports this year, the panel bluntly concluded that climate change is undeniable, and undeniably caused by humans. The question we must ask now is what to do about it.
The IPCC has commendably set the international agenda for addressing the crisis. Domestically, a bill sponsored by Senators Barbara Boxer and Bernie Sanders follows the spirit of the IPCC by calling for reduction of carbon emissions to 1990 levels by 2020 and a further 80 percent reduction by 2050. Unfortunately, this bill must compete with industry-friendly compromises that purport to address the crisis but would effectively legitimize the status quo.
The Nobel committee gives its Peace Prize not only to recognize outstanding achievement but also to encourage bold action. Upon hearing of the award, Gore said, “This is just the beginning.” Let’s hope so. And the next phase must focus on solutions. Gore has been great at outlining the problem, but the feel-good eco-consciousness he prescribes is meek. Since we are facing a “planetary emergency,” as Gore has described it, then surely we must do more than recycle cans and bottles, switch to energy-saving light bulbs and throw a few concerts.
At last the world’s attention is focused on the fate of our planet. All of us, people and governments everywhere, must get down to work.