Some might consider it odd for the award to be shared by a committee whose stated purpose is simply to assess trends and recommend solutions rather than to actually do anything. However, I think it's clear that the Nobel committee's purpose (as has been the case with several recent Nobel awards) is more to say "this is important -- listen to this person" than actually to acknowledge accomplishments. In making the award the Nobel committee said:
"He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Nobel committee.One wonders, however, whether the Nobel committee (whose wisdom has not exactly been unquestioned recently) is picking the best course here. Certainly, it's true that Gore is probably the most well known person associated with global warming advocacy. However being the best known if not necessarily the same as being the best.
In making the announcement, Mjoes said, "Through the scientific reports it has issued over the past two decades, the IPCC has created an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.
"Thousands of scientists and officials from over 100 countries have collaborated to achieve greater certainty as to the scale of the warming." (CNN story, source)
If one wants concern over global warming to be taken seriously, and I would assume that the Nobel Committee falls in this category, you would think you would want to avoid being fully identified with someone who is seldom afraid to let the scientific facts get in the way of the message when it comes to global warming.
For instance, unable to resist co-opting a disaster in the news, Gore famously announced that the destruction of Hurricane Katrina was the result of global warming, and that unless we were able to put in place stricter environmental controls, we could expect more of the same. In fact, the connection between global warming and hurricane frequency and strength is fairly tenuous, if it exists at all. The issue with Hurricane Katrina is that hurricanes don't know whether they're hitting populated areas built below sea level, or unpopulated areas. When you have a form of natural disaster which only arrives in full force (a maximum strength hurricane) every decade or two, and only hits a heavily populated area one time out of several -- it's entirely reasonable to expect this kind of event to happen on a century or greater spacing. That doesn't necessarily mean that this particular occurrence is the result of the cause celebre of the moment. It just means the occurrence is rare. (Galviston was leveled by a massive hurricane back at the turn of the last century -- an event that was fairly clearly not caused by global warming.)
Two things really bother me about the global warming movement as we see it now:
First, many modern environmentalists seem to see the Earth as a steady-state system. They imagine that the "natural" course is for the climate to remain the same, species never to go extinct, and regional ecosystems to remain stable. This often seems to lead to an attitude that sees humanity as The Problem. (Queue the Matrix' Mr. Anderson: "Humanity is a virus.") If only we didn't have six billion people mucking the planet up, everything would remain peaceful and beautiful just the way it is.
Now the fact is, to the extent that we humans are products of this world, we are products of the earth. Like every other species (and if one doubts this, one doesn't know much about how animal populations behave) we desire to be fruitful and multiply. Given the resources, we eat what we find, have children, and spread. Like other creatures, if we can change our environment to our benefit (or simply survive the changes that our spread causes) we continue to spread -- even if that results in effects that are negative to some other creatures. (If you think we're unique in this, ask a Australian cane toad.)
I don't want to suggest that we should not take into account the results of our actions. Unlike other creatures, we have the capacity to reason (when we're not watching TV or reading political forums, at any rate) and are called to be good stewards of the earth. However, this is where the fact that the earth is not static comes in. The earth has, at times, been much warmer than it is now, for completely natural reasons. It has also been colder. There have been times when ice sheets came down as far as the modern mid-west US (which is probably easy to believe in Chicago around January). As recently as a thousand years ago things were warm enough that Greenland was readily habitable, and grape vines grew wild in Newfoundland. Around ten thousand years ago, it was the increasing drying of the deserts of North Africa and the Middle East that drove populations into the river valleys, where agriculture and civilization began.
So while it's true that human activity is probably at least in part responsible for the current warming trend -- the fact also remains that we cannot assume that the earth won't go through changes all on its own that will have a highly negative impact on us humans. The planet is going to survive global warming just fine. The issue should not be "save the planet" but "save the humans".
This works around to the second thing that bothers me about the global warming movement: While on the one hand frequently exaggerating the possible dangers (threatening larger and more frequent hurricanes; claiming sea levels will rise over 2-3 decades rather than the scientifically supported 2-3 centuries) the solutions suggested by the global warming movement don't come anywhere close to dealing with the problem. If it's correct that the warming that has been observed is indeed evidence of a long term trend, and if greenhouse gas emissions caused by industrialization are the primary causes of that warming trend, then unfortunately driving a Prius and supporting solar and wind power generation aren't going to solve the problem.
It's often pointed out that the minority of the world's population that lives in the developed world is responsible for the vast majority of greenhouse gas emissions. This is true. However, when you look at greenhouse gas emission divided by gross national product, you find that the economies of the developed world are in fact the most efficient about avoiding greenhouse gas emissions in the world. In other words, the only reason why the undeveloped nations are currently emitting so few greenhouse gasses is that their economies are practically nonexistent. So even if the first world cut emissions by 50% (which is highly unlikely given current technology no matter how many Priuses people buy), if the third world gets anywhere close to modern first world standards, total greenhouse emissions would be up by a factor of 2-3.
So does that mean we should just throw up our hands an not do anything?
Well, no. Call me stingy, but I figure it's always one's duty not to use more resources than necessary. Conserving resources is good. However, ridiculing everyone who drives a fullsize pickup truck instead of a subcompact is not going to save the world. And unless one can somehow convince oneself that telling the third world to remain undeveloped (or coming up with some way to cut the Earth's human population in half) is anything other than wildly immoral -- we're going to have to face the likelihood that current levels of greenhouse gas emission aren't going down any time soon.
Given those things, I think the following are some of the more important things to think about:
-We'll have to wait and see how the evidence shapes up as far as whether this is a long term or short cycle warming trend that we have observed. A couple decades are next to nothing in the history of the planet, and our records on global climate cycles don't really go back accurately more than a couple hundred years. We also don't yet know how self-correct the climate is -- the Earth may well have its own ways of rebalancing the system.
-It certainly doesn't hurt us to try to be as efficient as possible and shift from fossil fuels to nuclear energy for power generation: there are a host of reasons that make that a good idea from oil politics to the mess involved in coal mining and burning. (And people who prefer solar and wind power need to recognize that these are not net positive enough in energy creation to be large scale successes.)
-We should put some serious research into CO2 reclamation possibilities. The most obvious solution to this is something many traditional environmentalists may not like: CO2 is consumed by plants. If you want to get rid of lots of CO2, you want to develop a plant that grows very, very quickly and ends up in some sort of fairly easily dealt with solid waste. (If plant material decomposes or decays, you get the CO2 back out again.) Perhaps there are other good methods of reclaiming CO2 as well. However, whatever they are, they may well involve genetically modified organisms and other things that many environmentalists don't like. They'll need to deal.
-And finally, we may simply have to deal with the fact that the earth is changing -- if it is. The history of humanity is one of migrations and changes. Goodness knows, it would be horrendously sad if 300 years from now Venice is thirty feet under water. And yet, if one thing has been constant throughout human history is has been that we have dealt with change. We've moved, we've built, we've moved again. We've found new ways to feed ourselves, new places and ways to live. It would be terribly sad if it turned out to be the case that the oceans reclaimed many old sea-side cities a couple hundred years from now: and yet the real treasures of humanity are the several billion souls that are living out their lives on this planet.