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Tuesday, December 11, 2007

On the Nobel Peace Prize and the Buggy Whip Industry

Al Gore and Rajendra Pachauri

It was a bad day for climate change deniers worldwide yesterday, when former Vice President Al Gore accepted the Nobel Peace Prize with the Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Rajendra Pachauri.

According to the Norwegian Aftenposten, "Pachauri said the actual costs of mitigating climate change aren't as high as many might think, especially if they're taken during the next seven years before the consequences of global warming become irreversible. Nor, he said, do emissions control measure need to halt economic growth."

Pachuari was countering a climate change skeptic argument -- one shared by the Bush administration -- that reducing carbon emissions would be bad for economies. It's hard to see the reasoning here. You develop new technologies and new industries and that's supposed to hurt business? Look at the computer boom -- how was suddenly doing everything differently bad for the economy? Even breweries are computerized now. These aren't the concerns voiced by people thinking about the future, they're the concerns of those invested in the status quo. It's the argument of the buggy whip industry against horseless carriages.

In fact, Pachuari pointed out that dealing with the effects of climate change would be more expensive than controlling it. "Where extreme weather events become more intense or more frequent with climate change, the economic and social costs of those events will increase," he told the audience in Oslo. How much did Hurricane Katrina, in purely monetary terms, cost us? More than "three-quarter billion in federal dollars" have been spent just reimbursing local agencies, according to FEMA. Untold hundreds of millions more were spent by insurance companies and other private business. Even more was raised by charities. And it's still not enough. Even if we completely disregard the human cost, there's no way we can afford to do this very often.

Gore's speech was more direct. "We, the human species, are confronting a planetary emergency," he said, "A threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering ominous and destructive potential even as we gather here. But there is hopeful news as well: we have the ability to solve this crisis and avoid the worst -- though not all -- of its consequences, if we act boldly, decisively and quickly."

He also accused two of the largest emitters of greenhouse gasses -- China and the US -- of using each other's inaction as an excuse for their own. "Both countries should stop using the other's behavior as an excuse for stalemate and instead develop an agenda for mutual survival in a shared global environment," he said.

Gore predicted a policy change for the US, no matter who won the 2008 elections. "I think that they do not accurately represent the wishes of the American people," he said of the Bush administration -- at least, indirectly. "We are in the midst of a process of massive change. The world is coming to grips with this crisis, but we are in a race against time. The United States of America, the natural leader of the world community, should lead instead of obstructing."

In awarding the prizes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel committee acknowledged that this year's choice of laureates was politically inspired. "The Norwegian Nobel committee rarely raises its voice," he said. "Our style is largely sober. But it is a long time since the committee was concerned with such fundamental questions as this year."

Writes climate activist and actress Laurie David for the Huffington Post, "Rarely also does the largely Norwegian audience break into a standing ovation but it did today after Al Gore's powerful and emotional speech. 'The earth has a fever. And the fever is rising...something basic is wrong. We are what is wrong, and we must make it right.'"

The audience is right, Gore is right, the Nobel Committee is right, and Rajendra Pachauri are right. If there's anything you can do to get the ball rolling here, you should do it.

Go ahead and disregard the folks with the buggy whips.


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