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Testing the climate

Sometimes, the hope expressed by the Nobel Prize committee is realized. Sometimes it honors an illusion.  Sometimes a hopeless cause.  What kind of prize will Al Gore’s turn out to be?
Illustration: Tom Bachtell
/ Source: The New Yorker

Last week, Al Gore, at the start of his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, took note of a curious coincidence. Almost exactly seven years earlier—on December 12, 2000—the United States Supreme Court had called a halt to the Florida recount, thereby un-electing him President. “I read my own political obituary in a judgment that seemed to me harsh and mistaken—if not premature,” Gore told the dignitaries assembled in Oslo. “But that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose.”

The Nobel Peace Prize is given out on the anniversary of Alfred Nobel’s death. It’s the only prize that, following a quirk in Nobel’s will, is administered by the Norwegians, rather than the Swedes, and the only one that is awarded not for solving a problem but for merely trying to. Sometimes, the hope expressed by the Nobel committee is realized—as it was by Nelson Mandela and Frederik Willem de Klerk, for example, in 1993. Just as often, the prize ends up honoring an illusion—Yasir Arafat, Shimon Peres, and Yitzhak Rabin, in 1994—or a cause that’s as hopeless as it is noble: the Dalai Lama, in 1989; Aung San Suu Kyi, in 1991.

What kind of prize will Gore’s turn out to be? Though the answer to this question won’t, of course, be known for years, in recent weeks there have been encouraging signs that the Goricle’s message is getting through. At the end of November, in England, top executives of a hundred and fifty global businesses, including the C.E.O.s of Coca-Cola, DuPont, and United Technologies, issued a statement declaring that “the benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs.” The statement, which was released just before the latest round of international climate negotiations got under way, in Bali, called on world leaders, with perhaps a bit too much metaphorical vigor, to “seize this window of opportunity.” A few days later, in Canberra, the new Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, took office and, within hours of his swearing in, signed his country on to the Kyoto Protocol. (Rudd’s action left the United States the only major industrialized nation that has refused to ratify Kyoto, and thus accept binding greenhouse-gas reduction targets.)

The Bush Administration continued to temporize—in Bali, the American team managed to gum up negotiations on a treaty to succeed Kyoto, parts of which lapse in 2012—but it seems increasingly isolated, even within the borders of its own country. In early December, the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee approved a bill, co-sponsored by John Warner, Republican of Virginia—a self-described convert on the issue of climate change—that would reduce carbon emissions from major sources seventy per cent by 2050. All the top Democratic candidates for President have proposed “cap and trade” plans to sharply reduce America’s carbon emissions, and, last week, all the top Republican contenders at least acknowledged, at their debate in Iowa, that global warming was a problem. Also last week, a federal judge handed yet another victory to California, which has been trying to impose tough CO2 limits on automobiles. And the Senate approved an energy bill that, though drastically stripped down, finally raised federal fuel-efficiency standards for vehicles. (Congress has not tightened standards for cars in more than thirty years.)

But, for every bit of encouraging news of one sort, recent weeks have also brought ominous news of another. The world’s drought-prone semi-tropical belts are expanding both to the north and to the south. Melt from the Greenland ice sheet is accelerating. (“The amount of ice lost by Greenland over the last year is the equivalent of two times all the ice in the Alps, or a layer of water more than one-half mile deep covering Washington, D.C.” is how Konrad Steffen, a climatologist at the University of Colorado, put it last week, releasing the results of a new study.) The Arctic sea ice is shrinking so fast that within the next few decades, if not years, it could be completely gone in summertime.

“The Arctic is often cited as the canary in the coal mine for climate warming,” Jay Zwally, a climate expert at NASA, told the Associated Press. “Now as a sign of climate warming the canary has died.”

The Nobel Peace Prize committee, in its citation, called Gore “probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding” of what needs to be done to combat global warming. (Gore shared his prize with the members of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.) But the sad or, if you prefer, inconvenient truth is that the reason Gore is finally being heeded is that the reality of climate change has become manifest—something that can be seen and measured around the globe, and even felt in our everyday lives. Such is the inertia of the climate system that far more dramatic changes have already become inevitable. Gore received his prize before any meaningful action has been taken, but quite possibly at the last moment when such action is still practical. He is as aware of this irony as anyone, and his acceptance speech was grateful, hortatory, and, finally, pessimistic.

“Too many of the world’s leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler’s threat,” he said at one point. “ ‘They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided, resolved to be irresolute, adamant for drift, solid for fluidity, all-powerful to be impotent.’ ”

He continued, “So today we dumped another seventy million tons of global-warming pollution into the thin shell of atmosphere surrounding our planet, as if it were an open sewer. And tomorrow we will dump a slightly larger amount.”