Science, Civil Society, and the Nobel Peace Prize

by Roger Alford

Today Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. You can read the Nobel Committee’s presentation speech here, Al Gore’s Nobel Lecture here, and the IPCC’s Nobel Lecture here.

A few quick thoughts on the award. First, scientists have become increasingly common recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize. A few scientists, such as the 1949 prize to Lord Orr and the 1970 prize to Norman Borlaug, have been honored for innovative technology that reduces poverty and promotes agriculture efforts in developing countries. At least one scientist, Andrei Sakharov, was honored in 1975 primarily for his role as a political dissident and human rights advocate in the Soviet Union.

But beginning in 1962 with the award to Linus Pauling, the Nobel Committee advanced a new strategy for promoting international norms. The strategy recognized the general public’s inability to fully grasp the danger of certain threats, such as nuclear fallout or global warming. The typical laureate could do little to credibly explain the nature of that risk. But by honoring world-renown scientists, the Nobel Committee could ratify a scientific voice of indisputable authority to highlight to the world the precise nature of the risk. Pauling thus constituted a new breed of laureate: the scientist as a prophet of doom. By enlisting this epistemic community of technical experts, the Nobel Committee hoped to sway public opinion regarding the perils that lay before them. It is an approach the Nobel Committee would adopt again in 1985 with the award to the IPPNW, and in 1995 with the award to Joseph Rotblat and the Pugwash Conference.

It is precisely this same type of laureate that was honored today with the Nobel Peace Prize to the IPCC. The focus of the IPCC’s Nobel Lecture was technical and scientific, warning of the imminent danger that global warming poses to human life and security. It recognized that in honoring the IPCC, the Nobel Committee has acknowledged “the power and promise of collective scientific endeavour, which, as demonstrated by the IPCC, can reach across national boundaries and political differences in the pursuit of objectives defining the larger good of human society.”

The award to Al Gore is consistent with an even longer tradition of honoring those active in civil society to promote the emergence of new international norms. Some of the earliest laureates, such as Frédéric Passy and Betha von Suttner, were populist pacifists instrumental in the international peace movement who called for the abolition of war and the creation of arbitration treaties and a permanent international judiciary. Their first goal failed miserably but the second was a huge success.

More recently this trend was evident in 1977 with the award to Amnesty International for promoting human rights, especially prisoners of conscience. Then again in 1997 with a new emphasis on civil society as treaty makers with the Nobel Peace Prize to Jody Williams and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines. And the 2004 prize to Wangari Maathai highlighted her efforts to use civil society and the “Green Belt” movement to combat deforestation and promote sustainable development in Africa.

As the Nobel Committee put it in honoring Jody Williams, “public opinion must be formed and directed by the active involvement of individual members of society in society’s manifold organizations or associations. These are the fundamental institutional elements of what we have learned to know as a civil society. The problem at the international level is that no global civil society has existed…. But in the extensive cooperation we have been registering between the multitude of nongovernmental organizations, the many national governments, and the international political system, … we may be seeing the outline of what may turn into a global civil society.”

I think it is quite clear that Al Gore’s Nobel Peace Prize follows in that tradition. As the Nobel Committee put it, “Al Gore is … the single individual who has done most to prepare the ground for the political action that is needed to counteract climate change.” In his Lecture he stressed the need for a new treaty to combat global warming, if possible by 2010. That treaty should establish “a universal global cap on emissions and use the market in emissions trading to efficiently allocate resources to the most effective opportunities for speedy reductions.”

If one can accept that global warming is connected to human security, as the Nobel Committee discussed at length today, then the award to scientists and leaders of civil society addressing that problem is not surprising. Indeed, it is consistent with a long tradition of the Nobel Committee using the prize to promote the emergence of new international norms.

If the success of past Nobel Peace laureates is any indicator, one can anticipate that this latest emerging norm will become accepted by states and internalized at the domestic level.

7 Responses

  1. Roger,

    An interesting and, by my lights, persuasive analysis. Thank you.

  2. Unfortunately, Al Gore is not a “world-renowned scientist”. He’s a politician. This seems just as likely to further alienate Republicans from such norms, which they are skeptical of anyway. And I doubt Democrats need much prodding.

    It’s also a bit late – Europe has already decided that climate change is a problem that warrants action. Had it not, I doubt Gore would have gotten the prize. Which seems more like a reverse of what you suggest – Europe has already been moving toward adopting more norms, and so reflects that in Nobel prizes. The rest of the world has not, and doesn’t much care. Anti-nuclear norms have not exactly been all that successful. And most countries are [understandably] hostile to international bodies infringing upon their sovereignty to promote the “security” of their people.

  3. Jvarisco,

    No one is suggesting that Gore is a scientist. The IPCC are the scientists and Gore is the leader of a global warming civil society movement. They serve different purposes.

    As for it being too late, I don’t think so. If you read the Nobel Committee’s Presentation Speech and Gore’s Nobel Lecture, the focus is on the United States and China. They are the countries that need the most convincing on this issue. And even at the international level it is difficult to argue it is too late given that we still don’t have the appropriate treaty that we need.

    As for past successes on anti-nuclear norms, I agree with you somewhat. We don’t have any treaties banning the use of this weapon. But I think you are ignoring some successes, such as the atmospheric test bans, the nuclear non-proliferation treaties, and the nuclear freeze agreements between the superpowers at the end of the Cold War.

    Roger Alford

  4. It may be useful to mention that there is a fair bit of scholarly literature challenging the role of global NGOs in creating new international norms. One of the most cogent was from David Davenport in Policy Review available here. He writes that “while those carrying out the new diplomacy must be commended for their commitment, shrewdness, and effectiveness, international law and diplomacy have not been wholly improved by what they have done. There are several respects in which the new diplomacy does not really deliver what it promises and, at the same time, fundamentally undermines the practice of statecraft.” He then outlines his concerns about this “new diplomacy.” It definitely is worth a read.

    Roger Alford

  5. I commend Prof. Alford’s analysis of Nobel Prize winners. He correctly calls our attention to the place of scientists and of civil society in the pantheon of peace. One could also add the Institut de Droit International (1904), described on the Nobel Prize website as a “scientific society”, and for civil society, Élie Ducommun (1902) and the ICRC (1917), among the early winners.

  6. Clearly the Committee hopes to sway international opinion with the award to Gore and the IPCC. That is obvious. The great divorce, however, lies in that the Committee chose to pounce upon an already overladen global warming bandwagon before adequate inquiry, seasoned by the experiential prudence won by the passing of time, can be made. A growing number of reputable researchers such as Daniel Botkin, president of the Center for the Study of the Environment and professor emeritus in the Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Marine Biology at the University of California, are disputing pop-science’s rapid release findings as to global warming’s causes and alleged future danger. I think this chorus will continue to swell as unbiased research with clear sight of historic data (from all relevant fields) is considered. Once this materializes, broad, fiscally responsible action should then find the global support it, at least in my estimation, rightly lacks at present.

  7. It is certainly true that the IPCC are scientists. But to your average American (maybe not the average European?) who doesn’t go much beyond the headline, it may as well have been just Gore. If the Nobel committee is trying to influence public opinion, choosing a partisan figure like Gore may not be the most effective strategy. I’m not an expert on public opinion, but it seems dubious to suggest this selection is going to somehow change how Americans see global warming, and China is not exactly big on norms (or caring about public opinion regardless).

    I’m not sure the nuclear successes you point out can be ascribed to norms; it’s easy to freeze arsenals when you already have enough to kill every person in the world ten times over, and we are only abiding by the test-ban treaty because we can simulate such tests. But it is true that there seems to be a strong norm against the use of such weapons that existed even before MAD made such uses suicidal.

    Thank you for the article reference, it was quite interesting. There is obviously disagreement among political scientists about the effect norms have upon state behavior, and it’s not always easy to determine causality. But the influence of NGOs is certainly worth watching.

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