Awarding Al Gore the Nobel Peace Prize for increasing understanding and awareness of global warming seems a bit like giving the Nobel Prize in Literature to a publisher. The Norwegian Nobel Committee’s recognition of Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) admirably casts global warming as a political issue, but it neglects the work of activists who have sought far more significant political changes than Gore has dared to support.
In his film An Inconvenient Truth, Gore treats the political effects of climate change as universal, noting its link with the drought preceding violence in Darfur and the severity of Hurricane Katrina. However, the real political effects facing humanity in the coming years will be far more skewed because of the imbalance of power between industrialized nations, who created this problem, and the impoverished nations, predicted to suffer its worst consequences.
Wealthy countries, along with industrializing nations like China and India, have practiced a fingers-in-ears policy for decades toward climate change that has created the bulk of the greenhouse gases threatening our planet. While the Netherlands recently invested in floating houses and Australia in a massive, wind-powered desalinization plant to prepare for floods and droughts on the horizon, the African nations that will likely suffer worse consequences from climate change are left with few resources to brace for a problem they did not cause and could not prevent.
Gore’s work to place this issue in the public consciousness, as well as the IPCC’s work confirming the links between human activity and warming, represent a vital but insufficient portion of the political battles that global warming necessitates. Part of Gore’s political career was dedicated to making climate change an issue of national policy by opening hearings on Capitol Hill and by participating in the Kyoto Protocol. Since leaving politics, he has traveled the world presenting a slide show that eventually became the Oscar-winning An Inconvenient Truth, started an Emmy-winning, interactive television network with environmentally themed programming called Current TV, and started the Alliance for Climate Protection to disseminate information about lifestyle changes that reduce carbon consumption. His portion of the Nobel Prize money will be donated to the alliance.
There is a problem with the Nobel Committee’s decision to celebrate Gore’s lifetime of work. Since leaving office, he has treated climate change as an issue best addressed by individual changes in consumer habits, not through policy reform. Carbon consumption may be slowed by the conscience-pricking of Gore’s work, but only to the extent that it is caused by the everyday decisions of consumers. Efforts to hold powerful nations accountable for their debt to the world and to promote environmental policy changes move far beyond the scope of advice offered by An Inconvenient Truth, such as, “Buy a hybrid car (if you can afford it).”
The Nobel Committee’s dual recognition of the IPCC’s science and Gore’s populism left out a crucial third element: the scores of activists who have been addressing this issue politically for years. Sheila Watt-Cloutier, a nominee for this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, tried to bring legal action against the United States for violating the human rights of the Inuit people by emitting greenhouse gases that have already begun to threaten their way of life. Born in northern Canada, Watt-Cloutier has been an activist for much of her life, and she used her positions as President and International Chair of the Inuit Circumpolar Conference to protect Inuit culture from extinction.
As sea ice disappears in the Arctic, a region that suffers the greatest of global warming’s effects, a way of life disappears as surely as if threatened by human warfare. The Inuit are only the first of many groups whose continued existence on this planet will be made impossible by the drastic changes our planet faces in the coming decades and centuries.
By awarding the Nobel Peace Prize to a U.N.-supported panel of scientists and an already internationally recognized political and media figure, the committee chose to lend the immense moral weight of its support to groups who already controlled the public eye and have yet to use their power toward ends as radical, necessary, or humanistic as those of Sheila Watt-Cloutier.
The author is a Columbia College senior majoring in English and Comparative Literature.
He is also an EcoRep for Furnald