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U.N. Climate Panel Member Details Nobel-winning Work

October 12, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: The Nobel Peace Prize takes up climate change. Kwame Holman begins our coverage with some background.

KWAME HOLMAN: This year’s Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the former vice president and a U.N. panel of scientists for creating greater consciousness and a growing consensus about climate change and the dangers it poses.

Speaking in Palo Alto, California, Gore thanked the Nobel committee for elevating awareness.

AL GORE, Former Vice President of the United States: It is the most dangerous challenge we’ve ever faced, but it is also the greatest opportunity that we have ever had to make changes that we should be making for other reasons anyway.

This is a chance to elevate global consciousness about the challenges that we face now. It truly is a planetary emergency, and we have to respond quickly.

There’s an old African proverb that says, “If you want to go quickly, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” We have to go far, quickly, and that means we have to quickly find a way to change the worlds’ consciousness about exactly what we’re facing and why we have to work to solve it.

I’m going back to work right now. This is just the beginning.

KWAME HOLMAN: Today’s award capped a year of accolades for the former vice president. Since winning the popular vote but losing the presidential election in 2000, Gore’s primary mission has been traveling the world to raise awareness on climate change. His PowerPoint lectures became the basis of the documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” released last year.

AL GORE: The arctic is experiencing faster melting. If this were to go, sea level worldwide would go up 20 feet. This is what would happen in Florida, around Shanghai, home to 40 million people, the area around Calcutta, 60 million. Here’s Manhattan. The World Trade Center Memorial would be underwater. Think of the impact of a couple hundred thousand refugees, and then imagine a hundred million.

KWAME HOLMAN: The film catapulted Gore onto Hollywood’s red carpet, winning two Academy Awards.

AL GORE: I don’t think there’s any pageant in the world that matches the Oscars.

A year of headlines for Gore, IPCC

Rajendra Pachauri
U.N. Climate Change Panel
Climate change has the potential to disrupt stability and peace all over the world.

KWAME HOLMAN: The 59-year-old Gore released two books [on global warming] in the last year, a companion to the documentary, and his second major book on the environment, "Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit."

This summer, Gore organized a single day of benefit concerts, dubbed Live Earth, to raise money and awareness for his fight against global warming. An estimated two billion people around the world attended or tuned in to the concerts.

Gore's co-winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, also has garnered headlines for three major reports this year assessing the impact of global warming and how to address it.

The IPCC was formed by the U.N. nearly 20 years ago to understand and evaluate climate change and its links to human activity. Rajendra Pachauri is chair of the IPCC, which is composed of some 2,500 scientists from more than 100 countries, and whose reports were unanimous in their assessment of the problem. Pachauri spoke to reporters today in New Delhi, India.

RAJENDRA PACHAURI, Chair, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change: Climate change has the potential to disrupt stability and peace all over the world. I hope that won't happen to a degree where it becomes a major global problem, but we know that we're living in a world where there are enormous disparities of income and wealth, and there are several stresses that already exist in several parts of the world, unfortunately, some of the most vulnerable regions of the world. Now climate change only adds further to those stresses.

KWAME HOLMAN: The IPCC reports project rising temperatures and tides. One ranks the certainty that human activity was responsible for the changes at 90 percent.

The U.N. group also says countries that produce the most greenhouse gases, such as the U.S. and China, won't bear the biggest burden in a changed climate. That will fall on poorer countries with fewer resources to be able to adapt.

The panel also found that, unless nations make major cuts in greenhouse gas emissions, those gases will increase between 25 percent and 90 percent during the next 25 years.

The Nobel laureates will receive the coveted prize in a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, on December 10th.

Honoring the climate change cause

Michael Oppenheimer
Member, U.N. Climate Change Panel
The scientific community has had a consensus that human beings were likely affecting the climate for about 10 years, but it's taken a while to convince the general public.

RAY SUAREZ: And Margaret Warner picks up the story from there.

MARGARET WARNER: For more on how Al Gore and the International Panel on Climate Change helped shape a new consensus on this issue, we're joined by one of the many co-winners of today's Nobel Peace Prize. Michael Oppenheimer is one of a team of authors for the IPCC's 2007 reports. He's a professor of geosciences and international affairs at the Woodrow Wilson School at Princeton University.

And, Professor Oppenheimer, welcome, and congratulations.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER, Princeton University: Thank you. I'm happy to be here. And this is, of course, an award to the hundreds, even thousands of scientists that have been involved in this process.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, 10 years ago, the notion that the globe, the Earth was warming, and that it was due significantly, at least, to human activity was still hugely controversial. As a scientist and someone who's long believed this, how hard was it to shape public consciousness to the point that the Nobel committee would call it a consensus now?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, the scientific community has had a consensus that human beings were likely affecting the climate for about 10 years, but it's taken a while to convince the general public.

But there's been kind of a conspiracy of events: the high oil prices, which has gotten people's attention to fossil fuels, the main cause of global warming; events in the climate itself that you can see on your own television set, like the melting away of the Arctic; certain weather events, like Hurricane Katrina, that may have not had much to do with global warming, but are an analogy, an indication of what the future could look like if we don't stem the gases; and into this mix jumped Al Gore, who did a wonderful job at consolidating the message and finding a way to transmit it to the lay audience.

MARGARET WARNER: But now there are hundreds of environmental reports issued each year, and most of them just get buried. What do you think, in all modesty, made the IPCC's reports have the impact they had and have the credibility they had?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: First of all, IPCC has managed to engage thousands of experts over a broad range of disciplines. So everybody gets involved; everybody has a chance to have a say-so; no one really feels left out.

Second of all, the IPCC process is unique, in that it engages governments. Actually at the very end of the process, the governments have an opportunity to participate in the writing of the summaries. That actually has improved the summaries of these reports and made them more understandable, more accessible to the people who have to actually make the decisions, mainly our political leaders and the citizens of every country.

Scientists with government leaders

Michael Oppenheimer
Member, U.N. Climate Change Panel
[Al Gore] was unique in taking hold of an issue about 30 years ago, and keeping on it, and following it down like no political leader maybe ever has.

MARGARET WARNER: How hard was it to achieve unanimity? Because many have said that that's one reason these reports were so credible, because you didn't have sort of dissenting views filed. All of these scientists and governments signed on to the same report.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, it's always a struggle when you involve political leaders and bring them close to scientists. The governments do have a say at the end of the day about what the summaries of the reports, which are mainly what's read by political leaders, will look like.

And sometimes scientists and government leaders stayed up all night, in fact, into the next morning, in the case of the recent report I was involved in, to hammer out the language and make sure at once it was true to the science, but at the same time was understandable to a layperson or at least to someone in government.

That's a very difficult process. I think it's absolutely unique, which is why IPCC deserves this award.

MARGARET WARNER: Now, the same question about Al Gore, I mean, there are many celebrities, famous people who've weighed in on this issue. What do you think made Al Gore such a pivotal figure in this, in really being able to reshape the public's consciousness?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Well, not only was his timing exquisite, as I said a few minutes ago, in taking a situation which was developing anyway, due to events in the climate, and really giving it a voice, but he was unique in taking hold of an issue about 30 years ago, and keeping on it, and following it down like no political leader maybe ever has.

And then, since he left the vice presidency, dedicating his life for the last six years to making sure that the best he could do, that something was actually done about this problem, that he used his tools, his experience as a politician, to get people to understand the problem and understand that something could be done about it.

And, finally, at the end of the day, he participated in producing a movie, a brilliant piece of work, actually, "An Inconvenient Truth." Who would have thought that a movie made of a slide show, a nonfiction situation like that, would actually grab people's attention instead of putting them to sleep?

But he and the producer of the movie, Laurie David, managed to do it. And that really is astounding. And putting those three factors together, there's no doubt that Al Gore deserved this award.

Avoiding "dangerous climate change"

Michael Oppenheimer
Member, U.N. Climate Change Panel
But let's face it: Climate change is here. We have to learn to deal with it.

MARGARET WARNER: Now in the meantime, though, according to the World Bank, CO-2 emissions in 2007 are 25 percent higher than the goals that were set out in the Kyoto Accords 15 years ago. In other words, not only are emissions growing, but at a faster rate than anticipated.

Now, your panel has shown that there are already demonstrable effects. What do you think at this point realistically is the best that the world can aim for? I mean, is it to reverse climate change? Is it to stabilize it? Is it to just live with and try to mitigate the effects?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: We can avoid a dangerous climate change. There's still a window of opportunity to do so, but it isn't going to stay open much longer. And the governments have to act. They have to act now to stem the emissions.

Then there is hope of stabilizing the climate, avoiding a dangerous climate change, and eventually, over the very long haul, even possibly reversing some of the effects that we already have.

But let's face it: Climate change is here. We have to learn to deal with it. We have to learn to deal with events like Hurricane Katrina better than we have. Who would have imagined that half of an American city would be gone like that, practically overnight?

So we have to get on the stick, start moving right away. And that's the good thing about this award. That's probably the best thing. It gives governments a level of public attention, of public awareness to work with.

Here's a big opening. They've got to start dealing with the problem right away, particularly the U.S. government, which has been remiss.

MARGARET WARNER: And you hope that this award, the awarding of these awards is going to be a sort of wake-up moment?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: I hope it's a wake-up moment, and there's another message here. You know, this is one of those rare times when scientists came out of their labs, tried to participate in the policy process in large numbers, and they've been rewarded.

They've been rewarded because governments are listening, and they're rewarded because the world appreciates it. That's what this award means. And I hope it encourages scientists to do this more broadly.

MARGARET WARNER: And finally, briefly, Professor, to some people it may not be obvious the connection between a peace prize and work on climate change. How do you see the connection?

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: A stable climate helps keep the peace. We see situations all around the world where shortages of the sorts of resources that will shrivel under a changing climate, like water for food, water for agriculture, are contributory factors in places like Darfur, the Horn of Africa, where instability is rife, and governments just can't hold it together, and people die. That's ultimately why this is justifiably a price for peace.

MARGARET WARNER: Professor Michael Oppenheimer, one of the many co-winners of today's Nobel Peace Prize, thanks.