The Nexus Between Peace and the Environment
Yesterday’s announcement that Al Gore and the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change have won the Nobel Peace Prize came as a surprise to many. Just reading the comments over at the Volokh Conspiracy gives one a flavor of some of the skepticism. For those who do not follow these things closely, it is fair to ask, “What does the environment have to do with peace?” But in fact, environmentalism has increasingly become an important element in the Nobel Committee’s understanding of what is required to secure and maintain peace.
In the early days of the environmental movement, the emphasis centered on concerns about the environmental fallout from nuclear war and nuclear testing. In 1963, Linus Pauling highlighted the dangers of atmospheric nuclear testing on the environment, warning that “[e]ach nuclear bomb test spreads an added burden of radioactive elements over every part of the world.” Then in 1975, Andrei Sakharov broadened the concern and warned about the industrial and technological progress leading to “ominous changes in the environment in which we live and the exhaustion of our natural resources.”
In recent decades environmentalism has become a common theme among the Peace Laureates. In the past 20 years, sixteen Nobel Laureates—including the Dalai Lama, Mikhail Gorbachev, Nelson Mandela, Kofi Annan, and Jimmy Carter—have emphasized the importance of the environment in their Nobel Lectures.
Until yesterday, the most significant recognition of the link between the environment and peace came in 2004 when Wangari Maathai received the Nobel Peace Prize for her work to combat deforestation in Africa. In presenting the Peace Prize to Maathai, the Nobel Committee said that its conception of peace is a “broad one” and that environmental protection is “one path to peace.” A comprehensive analysis of world’s conflicts, it suggested, will one day recognize that the relationship between the environment and conflict will become as obvious as the connection we see today between human rights, democracy, and peace. Maathai herself also emphasized that pollution and the destruction of ecosystems has contributed to excruciating poverty and conflict in Africa.
But even Maathai would not be described as purely an environmentalist. She viewed reforestation as also about empowerment of impoverished women and the promotion of democracy in her home country of Kenya.
So the announcement yesterday that Al Gore and the IPCC have won the Nobel Peace Prize is simply an extension of a growing trend to recognize Nobel Laureates who see the connection between the environment and peace. While the link may not be obvious to everyone, there is no reason to cabin the concept of peace so narrowly that it excludes recognition of those who seek to combat human activities that threaten the scarcity of global natural resources. The concern is if climate change continues unabated, conflict over scarce resources will result. As the Nobel Committee put it yesterday, climate change “may induce large-scale migration and lead to greater competition for the earth’s resources… and there may be increased danger of violent conflicts and wars, within and between states.”