Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize is a fitting tribute to a world leader who has been prescient, bold, and skillful in alerting the world to the dangers of manmade climate change. Gore’s co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize is less known, but no less deserving. The Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is the UN’s global body for assessing the scientific knowledge on climate change and bringing that knowledge to the attention of the public and the world’s policy makers. Its receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize sends three powerful messages.
First, the world’s leading climate scientists and most of the world’s governments have brought climate science to the forefront of global policy debates. Climate change is complicated. Mastering the subject requires expertise in many scientific fields, including climatology, oceanography, atmospheric chemistry, ecology, engineering, politics, and economics. No lone scientist or national team can do this. A worldwide effort is needed to understand changes in all parts of the world.
Since its inception in 1988, the IPCC has harnessed the best scientific minds from around the world to document and explain what is known and not known about human-induced climate change. Various working groups prepare reports by scrupulously reviewing scientific publications. The review process is transparent and governments are invited to participate by nominating experts to various working groups, reviewing and commenting on IPCC draft documents, and approving final IPCC reports.
This process builds accuracy and confidence. Years are required for each major IPCC report, including the “Fourth Assessment Report,” which was completed this year. One reason for the IPCC’s notable success has been the skilled guiding hand of the IPCC Chairman, Dr. R. K. Pachauri, who will accept the prize on the body’s behalf.
The second message is that such a global process linking scientists and governments in a common effort is vital, because without it the airwaves can get clogged with the ignorance and misinformation peddled by special interest groups. For years, oil companies such as Exxon tried to pretend that climate change wasn’t real or that the risks were exaggerated. Exxon and others sponsored misleading journalism and groups that masqueraded as “think tanks.” The IPCC faced down these vested interests. Today, ExxonMobil and other major oil companies are much more honest and constructive in their discussions of the issues. They could not, in the long-term, beat the science without gravely damaging their reputations.
Finally, this year’s Nobel Peace Prize is a wake-up call to governments, starting with the United States, to get more serious about science and sustainable development. The Bush administration has been disastrously anti-scientific. It has been staffed with ideologues who reject or neglect climate science, and who set the US on a dangerous and irresponsible path. Today, Bush has begun to acknowledge the serious risks of climate change, though his administration has still failed to put forward any realistic proposals to reduce the rate of human-induced climate change.
Most governments are in fact ill-equipped to understand the scientific issues, even when they are much less ideological and dogmatic than Bush. Governments tend to be organized according to nineteenth- or twentieth-century topics such as diplomacy, defense, internal security, and finance, not twenty-first century challenges such as sustainable development. They are mostly unable to harness advanced scientific knowledge to protect their citizens or participate in global negotiations on the challenges of climate, water, energy, biodiversity, and the like.
The world should respond in three ways. First, we should take seriously the need for a new climate-change accord when global negotiations begin in Bali, Indonesia this December. The weak and only partly implemented Kyoto Protocol expires in 2012, and the world requires a much stronger framework, one that sets a strong target for stabilizing greenhouse gases by 2050 by including agreements on ending tropical deforestation, developing high-mileage automobiles, and shifting to low CO2-emitting power plants.
Second, we should initiate IPCC-like scientific processes for other global challenges, including the global loss of biodiversity, desertification, and over-fishing of the oceans. In each area, the general public and the world’s governments only dimly perceive a global crisis. Governments have signed treaties to limit the damage, but they are not acting on those promises with the urgency required, in part because they do not understand the underlying scientific challenges.
Finally, we must revamp national governments so that they have processes and capabilities similar to the IPCC. Global processes like the IPCC are crucial, but the issues must also be “brought home” to the conditions and challenges facing each country. Virtually all countries will face a host of intersecting challenges from climate change, such as overhauling the energy sector and adjusting to changing patterns of rainfall, storms, droughts, and floods. The IPCC proved that science can contribute powerfully to meeting these challenges, and that scientists and policymakers can work together to help solve problems of critical importance for humanity.