Saturday, October 13, 2007

Al Gore, the IPCC and the Nobel Prize 2007

After hearing the announcement that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and environmental activist/politician Al Gore were co-recipients of the 2007 Nobel Prize for Peace, I couldn’t help but recall Marshall McLuhan’s famous phrase "the medium is the message". While, in the eyes of the world, the bestowing of a Nobel undeniably ramps up the legitimacy factor, McLuhan’s axiom that the medium used to convey a message becomes more important than the content of the message itself deserves a refresher.

Many detractors (primarily but not necessarily all of them right-wingers) have consistently focused on Al Gore as the Harbinger of Doom by portraying his apocalyptic "we're going to hell in a hand basket" message as unnecessarily alarming. Positioning Gore as the Chicken Little of the environmental movement allowed the naysayers to deflect attention from the issue at hand – that global warming is not only coming, it’s here – and instead critique Gore for his approach, ergo, the media of McLuhan’s axiom. I think we might be in for a sea-change (rather apt metaphor, don’t you think?) in the acknowledgment of global warming/climate change as a threat we better start dealing with, for the Nobel just might be enough to shift the focus, much to the dismay of the naysayers and their privately-funded scientists, from media to message, and the new reality is that if the media – meaning Gore and the IPCC – has been officially blessed by the Nobel Foundation, then the message is one we had better start taking seriously.

Although Gore and the IPCC have two different missions, their underlying objective is identical: to raise awareness of the climate change debate by bringing it to the forefront of global discussion. As an intergovernmental institution, the IPCC coordinates the findings and research of hundreds of scientists worldwide in an effort to increase our understanding of the patterns of climatic change, and their Summary for Policy Makers, a document that translates their findings into terminology the rest of us can understand, has been their media of choice. After An Inconvenient Truth rightfully raised Gore’s profile, he further spread the message of his documentary not only by relentlessly making the rounds of the lecture circuit, but by forming a coalition of groups and individuals dedicated to further disseminating his Power Point presentations.

Yet if I had to hazard a guess, I’d say Gore's message has had more reach than the IPCC’s Summary. He’s a face, he’s got a powerful, Oscar winning documentary, and – let’s face it – aside from anomalies like Steven Hawking and Einstein, scientists and their statistics tend to lack for great PR. In recent years, naysayers and resource-extraction pals have consistently clung to the tactic of painting Gore and the IPCC as the proverbial messengers whose news are so inconceivable the messengers are obviously making this stuff up; denial and derision have become the default options. Ergo, as a resolution to unpleasant realities, shooting the messenger not only eliminates threats to the status quo, the media can be positioned as tragically misinformed. Bombs away!

Which sort of brings me back to McLuhan. Could the IPCC, in view of a profile now permanently affixed to a Big Cool Friend courtesy of a shared Nobel, attain the same level of Gore's reach? I think so. But I see their roles as complementary, and perhaps that's one of the reasons why the Nobel Prize Adjudication committee thought they should both share the 2007 Nobel Prize: because in their separate but convergent ways, both Gore and the IPCC are sending the same message: climatic change is here. That munitions maker Alfred Nobel’s legacy might yet provide the ultimate bullet-proof shield that allows Gore, the IPCC and countless others to focus on getting the message out instead of dodging fire is an irony that leaves me undeniably optimistic.

And if the message benefits, as I hope it does, from the renewed focus only a Nobel can bestow, we just might witness an irony I suspect even McLuhan might appreciate because, if ever there was a time when the message deserved to transcend the media, this is it.

Disclaimer.- Thanks to my good friend Debra Mc for editing this entry. The ideas, initial writing and analysis are mine, but her superb editing job made this post so much better!


Karthika said...

Great post Raoul. But I wonder if the positive attention Gore brings to this cause will be diminished if he re-enters the political race.

Paul Hillsdon said...

Fantastic post! You write really well. And I do think people have had a mindshift in recent years, thanks to Gore. We are on a road to solving climate change - we just happen to be in the slow lane. There just needs to be a bit more support nationally and internationally. For such a "glocal" problem, the global part of the solution has to pick up some slack - local people can only do so much.

Raul said...

Thanks, Karthika and Paul, for the kind comments! I also wonder what will happen if Gore re-enters the political race. Truth be told, he doesn't appear to be very interested in the issue.

As for the global part, I think that part of the research on climate change should be directed towards better mechanisms for international and intergovernmental coordination on climate change, beyond the IPCC.