Reflecting on Nobel Peace Prizes

Reflecting on Nobel Peace Prizes

Cooling, not warming

It’s been nearly three weeks since the Norwegian Nobel Committee named former U.S. vice president Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change joint 2007 Nobel Peace laureates. The news took me back to the day just over three years ago when I was in Kenya, traveling with Wangari Maathai to her rural constituency about a three-hour drive from Nairobi. Before the phone call from Oslo, Wangari was a long-time advocate for the environment, democracy and human rights and founder of the non-governmental Green Belt Movement. She’d recently (2002) been elected a Member of Parliament and served as assistant environment minister.

As the news traveled, Wangari was absolutely in demand as a new Nobel peace prizewinner. The world’s media who jammed the two cell phones Wangari and her assistant were traveling with. Then Kenya’s president summoned her back to Nairobi for a ceremony and sent a military helicopter to pick her up (I got to go along for the ride). True to form, before the president’s call, Wangari continued her pre-Nobel life: after the call from Oslo, she’d gone to a meeting she’d scheduled with her constituents, hundreds of whom had gathered in a field next to a small school. Journalists suggested she rush back to Nairobi to be on live TV feeds. But she didn’t, so it was from that field that we attempted to meet the media’s desire for news of the new Nobel peace laureate. Cell phone batteries died, replacements were found, calls were lost, journalists were told, “she’s meeting with her constituents right now. Can you call back? This phone doesn’t dial internationally.”

In her first interviews, Wangari sought to universalize the prize. It doesn’t honor only me, she said, but everyone in the world who works for the environment, for human rights, for gender equality, for democracy, and for peace. Her Nobel Prize was the first to link environmentalism with peace work and democratization and some quibbled. But by honoring Gore and the IPCC, for the second time in three years, the Nobel Committee has said: if we do not protect the Earth and its climate, we’ll have wars, large and small, peace will remain elusive.

This year’s Nobel peace prize has been greeted with jubilation by environmental groups and many who believe that Gore won the 2000 U.S. presidential election. Some others have been less enthusiastic. They see the Nobel to Gore in particular as sanctioning the hype’the Oscar for “An Inconvenient Truth,” the Emmy award and the best selling book. Others are disappointed by the singling out of the “great man” and bemused by lauding the IPCC’s technocrats as peace workers. One colleague, an indigenous woman from East Africa, wondered why the Norwegian Nobel Committee hadn’t honored outstanding climate advocates from several regions. I don’t feel represented by this prize, she said, and I wanted to be. I could relate to her muted response. It wasn’t that either of us was questioning Gore’s commitment or dedication, or the rigor of the IPCC. But somehow the prize felt, well, a little obvious, a privileging of the industrialized world’s experience of climate change’not the whole worlds’and not as energizing as other Nobels have been (including the award to Wangari Maathai).

For her part, Wangari said this about this years Nobel peace laureates, in a piece written for She and he have known each other for years and traveled together to Haiti in the mid-1990s to learn about that country’s perilous levels of deforestation and find ways of mitigating it:

…In his speeches, writings and the excellent documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, Al Gore has made clear to the industrialized world that not only is global warming real, but that human actions are at the center of solutions as well as the problem. He has focused world attention on the challenges we need to confront to avoid the worst-case scenarios laid out by IPCC’s dedicated scientists. His work to make ordinary people and political leaders aware of the dangers has been an inspiration.

For me, the issue is personal–for it is in my part of the world, the continent of Africa, that the effects of global climate change are likely to be most severe. Increased drought, erratic rainfall, floods, crop failures and the consequent migration of large numbers of people will only intensify already existing tensions here and in other developing regions. This is already taking place in Darfur in western Sudan, where, as elsewhere, access to and control over natural resources (clean drinking water, land suitable for crops or grazing, oil, minerals and precious metals) underlie almost all civil conflicts and outright wars…

Both Al Gore and I know that championing long-term thinking is often difficult in a world where it’s easier to sacrifice the common good of the future for today’s convenience. But we’re also aware how essential it is to hold on to our convictions, whether we’re political leaders, heads of corporations, leaders of civil society or individuals seeking to do whatever we can for our planet.

Read the full article here.

I’m hoping Al Gore will now become a truly global spokesperson for global warming, engaging with climate justice advocates from all over the world, particularly in developing regions and lands with significant populations of indigenous peoples. Indications are he will. Just before he receives his Nobel in Oslo on December 10th, he’ll be in Bali at the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change conference, along with government officials and thousands of civil society representatives. They’re set to begin to hammer out a post-Kyoto Protocol agreement on global warming. The convenient truth is this: what’s needed is a global accord that’s stronger, better, more in tune with the social and economic and power realities of climate change, and, importantly, that puts a premium on protecting intact forests, not just replacing them once they’re gone.

As Wangari Maathai wrote in her appreciation of Al Gore and the IPCC:

We know that intact forests contain the biodiversity that makes life possible for numerous species as well as forest-dwelling human communities. But forests–particularly thick, healthy stands of indigenous trees–also absorb huge amounts of carbon dioxide, a major greenhouse gas, and hold vast reserves of carbon in their soils. As these forests are felled for timber, agriculture, human settlements or commercial development, the world loses a vital component needed to slow, and ultimately reverse, global warming.