Global warming, the Nobel Peace Prize and the corruption of scientific and political debate

You’ve no doubt heard that the former next president of the United States has been awarded a half share in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. The other recipient is the entire UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

I congratulate Rajendra Pachauri and his IPCC colleagues on this well-deserved recognition of their invaluable work. I hope that the award of the Nobel peace prize emboldens the panel, and helps them overcome political interference in their work from those who would water down their recommendations and prevent scientists from airing issues such as polar ice dynamics.

But Al Gore? A Nobel Prize? I do hope this doesn’t presage a return to the days when politicians such as Henry Kissinger and Jimmy Carter won the peace prize for services to war and gross political incompetence.

In recent years the recipients of the Nobel peace prize have been truly worthy of the honour. With laureates such as Muhammad Yunus and the Graneen Bank, Mohamed ElBaradei and the International Atomic Energy Agency, Wangari Maathai, Shirin Ebadi and others, the peace prize looked to be salvaging some credibility.

It didn’t last long.

Christopher Hitchens was partially right:

“On Oct. 12, we shall hear again from Oslo, and I will be very surprised indeed if the peace prize is not awarded to Albert Gore Jr. (Don’t ask what a campaign against global warming has done for “peace”; that would be like asking what Mother Teresa or Henry Kissinger had ever done to reduce global conflict. The impression is the main thing.)

So, and if I am right, the former vice president will then complete a year in which An Inconvenient Truth has been awarded an Oscar and he has authored a best seller. Roll it round your tongue again: an Oscar, a best seller, and a Nobel Prize in the space of 12 months or so. Not bad.”

When Hitchens writes in brackets, it often means that he hasn’t thought through the sentence in question, and in this case fails to see the connection between environmental degradation and conflict over natural resources. But I agree with him that in our celebrity age impression is the main thing. Substance is secondary.

The Norwegian Nobel Committee says that Gore is “… probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.” This statement is almost as hyperbolic as Gore’s film. One cannot deny that Gore has raised the profile of climate change, but in the view of many – and not only climate-change denying flat earthers – the way in which he has presented the subject is inimical to rational debate.

Gore’s film may contain a number of scientific errors and exaggerations, but the man is passionate about the environment, and so that makes it all right, say many environmentalists. Well, no it isn’t, actually. This is not a rhetorical debate about ultimately inconsequential political matters. To treat it as such is an insult to the intelligence of the general public, and the legion of scientists working on climate change and its consequences.

In yesterday’s Guardian, David Adam reported on a court case brought by political activist and Kent school governor Stewart Dimmock, who objects to the government’s plan to show Gore’s film in secondary schools. The judge, Mr Justice Barton, refused to block the move, but criticised the film, and demanded that when it is presented in schools, the Department of Children, Schools and Families should make it clear that the film is not an impartial analysis of climate science.

My own view is that An Inconvenient Truth is based largely on scientific fact, but this is embellished and distorted in the service of a personal political agenda. In the past I’ve objected to taxpayers’ money being spent on feeding this propaganda to British school students. I now accept that this battle is lost, and advocate that the film be accompanied by teacher-produced discussion notes that put Al Gore’s contribution to the climate change debate into political context.