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In its collective wisdom, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has awarded the Nobel Peace Prize this year jointly to former Vice President Al Gore and to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), ostensibly, because of their work in drawing attention to possible future conflicts arising from climate change.
The IPCC is a, scientific body that produces dry reports, which are incomprehensible to the layman. Gore produced and starred in an Oscar-winning movie. Given the differences in their methods, one might suggest that Al Gore is the IPCC's public relations arm.
The IPCC works by bringing together a few experts in each scientific area to sift though all the recent published science. They then write it up a report based on their assessment. The resulting, massive report actually does a pretty good job of summarizing the state of the hard science, but much less so on the state of the economics and the projected impacts of global warming -- which are pretty much educated guesswork.
The quality of the scientists working on the IPCC has, however, declined as the process has gone on -- the work is unpaid and unrewarding. Meanwhile, before that full report is released, a much smaller team of mostly government representatives -- scientific bureaucrats -- works out what policy makers "need" to know and writes up a heavily filtered "Summary for Policymakers" that strips away most of the report's language of uncertainty and adds a clear spin to the science.
However, not even the hyped summary managed to seize the imagination of either policy makers or the general public. The public saw the projections of future climate as remote and uninteresting, while policy makers saw the huge costs of the emissions reduction policies advocated by the IPCC as daunting.
This is where Gore's role becomes crucial. He took the IPCC science, ignored what he found inconvenient, and added speculation and alarmism to present an apocalyptic vision of global warming. By linking global warming directly to such disasters as Hurricane Katrina, massive imminent flooding, the drying up of Lake Chad and the possible extinction of the polar bear, he made the issue immediate to the public and impossible for policy makers to ignore.
Yet this was only possible by moving well away from the mainstream science.
In fact, the British High Court this past week identified nine separate areas in which Gore goes well beyond the IPCC science to exaggerate and alarm. Without those nine specific arguments, the Gore film would be thin gruel indeed.
In other words, the IPCC's science is not enough to make the case for urgent action on global warming. For that, it must be spun, and that's what Gore has done. Given the High Court's decision, the IPCC should be embarrassed to appear on the same stage as Gore. The fact that they are not speaks volumes about the IPCC's politicized nature.
There are also moral questions at work here -- this is the peace prize, after all. Access to energy is key to development. Gore's preferred policies, by restricting access to affordable energy, will strip away the chance for affordable development in the developing world, where billions of people have never flipped a light switch, and women in particular are condemned to back-breaking labor, gathering firewood to carry it for miles to burn in poorly ventilated huts.
Access to affordable energy would be a godsend in liberating the developing world. Yet Gore would prefer to leave Indians and Africans in the dark unless they use expensive alternative energy. I wonder: What Mother Teresa and Albert Schweitzer would have thought of that?