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Peace prize for Gore stirs hope and speculation

Times Staff Writers

Former Vice President Al Gore, who has waged a decades-long fight against global warming, on Friday shared the Nobel Peace Prize with a Geneva-based United Nations climate group. The choice of Gore delivered a symbolic rebuke to the Bush administration, which has opposed calls for mandatory greenhouse gas reductions, and fueled speculation that the former Democratic presidential candidate might yet enter the 2008 race.

In its citation, the Nobel committee said Gore’s commitment “has strengthened the struggle against climate change” and called him “probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.”

The 2006 Oscar-winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth,” which captured Gore’s crusade, has been credited with helping push global warming into the public consciousness.

Gore, 59 -- who has insisted he does not plan to run for office again -- said Friday that he was deeply honored to receive the peace prize and that he and his wife, Tipper, would donate his half of the $1.5-million award money to the nonprofit Alliance for Climate Protection, which he founded.

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“We face a true planetary emergency,” Gore said. “The climate crisis is not a political issue, it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity. It is also our greatest opportunity to lift global consciousness to a higher level.”

If Gore made global warming a cause celebre, the U.N.'s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of more than 2,000 scientists from 130 countries, has provided the scientific heft. Its series of reports released this year definitively blamed humans for global warming and said that rising temperatures, if left unchecked, would lead to widespread coastal flooding, starvation and species extinction.

“This prize belongs to the international U.N. community and the states that support us,” the IPCC’s chairman, Rajendra Pachauri, said from his offices in New Delhi. By bestowing the honor on those sounding the alarm against global warming, he said, the Nobel panel elevated a problem that has “the potential to disrupt stability and peace all over the world.”

When the U.N. climate group was formed nearly two decades ago, scientists were divided over whether human activities were causing climate change. But as evidence mounted, a broad consensus began to emerge that the connection was real.

The White House has opposed joining the Kyoto Protocol -- a U.N.-led treaty to reduce global greenhouse gases that Gore helped negotiate when he was vice president -- on the grounds that it does not restrict emissions in the developing world, where pollution is worsening most rapidly. Instead of mandating greenhouse gas cuts, the Bush administration places its hopes on voluntary reductions and future technologies.

The Kyoto treaty was signed by the Clinton administration but was not submitted to Congress, then dominated by Republicans, for ratification.

“Almost inevitably [the 2007 peace prize] will be taken as some sort of statement on the U.S. policy -- or lack thereof,” said John Reilly, an economist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “For those people who have been skeptical about global warming, the Nobel Prize is a broad societal recognition of its importance.”

Skeptics were not swayed.

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“In terms of Al Gore, it’s a wonderful award that recognizes the brilliance of Hollywood promotional activity,” said John R. Christy, director of the Earth Systems Science Center at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. “He has really created an astounding career and a mega-fortune by demonizing energy.”

Christy, a lead author in the IPCC’s 2001 report, has criticized Gore’s dire predictions about the effect of global warming.

The economic forces against cutting emissions of heat-trapping gases are enormous, particularly in the developing world.

China, whose annual greenhouse gas emissions are expected to surpass those of the U.S. as soon as this year, opens a new coal-fired power plant every week.

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“Their entire base of power and incentive structure since Mao Tse-tung has been based on growth,” said Michael Gillenwater, a climate policy researcher at Princeton University.

At the same time, because carbon dioxide remains in the atmosphere for decades, the United States bears the most responsibility for current greenhouse gas concentrations.

“You’re always looking for some kind of event that will catalyze action,” Gillenwater said, suggesting the Nobel award was not enough to make nations rethink how they affect global warming.

A hurricane hitting Manhattan, he added, might do the trick.

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In one measure of the sensitivity of the issue, a British judge this week ruled that public schools could continue to show “An Inconvenient Truth” as long as students were alerted to nine scientific “errors.” For example, the judge said, the disappearance of snow on Mt. Kilimanjaro, the drying up of Lake Chad and the devastating force of Hurricane Katrina -- all highlighted in the film -- were not proven effects of global warming. He also called predictions about rising sea levels “distinctly alarmist.”

Scientists generally have lauded the film, even if it occasionally overstates its case.

“I think [Gore] pushes it at times,” said Mike Wallace, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Washington. “On the other hand, the big picture he portrays is close to the truth.”

And Robert Mendelsohn, a Yale University economist, worried that Gore’s calls for urgent measures could backfire at a time when small steps are needed to overcome the political hurdles of international cooperation.

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“People want to do something about it, but it is not clear they want to sacrifice deeply,” he said. “The question is how far do we go, especially in the beginning.”

Environmentalists were overjoyed Friday, with several recalling how long Gore had toiled on the issue, often to political ridicule.

Greenpeace’s Chris Miller called the former vice president “a true American hero.” He praised the Nobel committee for highlighting the issue and said Gore’s “unstinting efforts to wake up policymakers and the public alike to the global warming crisis have inspired many around the world to redouble their efforts to protect the planet.”

Sierra Club Executive Director Carl Pope said Gore had personally urged him to persevere. “Once, when I was particularly frustrated by challenges I faced in my job, Gore heard me out and replied, ‘Never, ever give up,’ ” Pope said. “That would seem to be his motto, as reflected in the thousands of speeches he has delivered, the Live Earth concert he built from scratch, the naysaying he has endured, the movement he inspired.”

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The White House too offered congratulations.

“Obviously it’s an important recognition,” said spokesman Tony Fratto, adding that President Bush, who defeated Gore in the 2000 presidential election, was “happy for the vice president.”

And Sen. James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, a ranking Republican on the environment and public works committee and a longtime critic of the alarms over global warming, congratulated Gore, “though we disagree on the issue.”

Inhofe added that he hoped Gore would use the prize’s award money “for something useful, such as providing for malaria shots in Africa or clean water projects in the developing world.”

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Gore was one of the first politicians to call attention to the issue of global warming, first as a Tennessee congressman and then as a senator in the 1980s. He ran for president in 1988, he said, largely to draw attention to what he viewed as looming environmental catastrophe -- a platform that, like his campaign, failed to connect with voters.

His 1992 best-selling book, “Earth in the Balance: Ecology and the Human Spirit,” became a point of attack in that year’s election, with Republicans portraying the vice presidential candidate as an extremist who wanted to sacrifice America’s individual freedoms.

In the book, he compared society’s appetite for natural resources to a drug addict’s need for a fix. Most controversial, Gore called for eliminating the internal combustion engine in 25 years.

In 2000, after losing the presidential race, Gore refocused his efforts on the environment. He updated his slide-show presentation on global warming and began using it in front of audiences around the world. It became the basis for “An Inconvenient Truth.”

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On Friday, the leaders of a group promoting a Gore candidacy in 2008 posted a statement on www.draftgore.com, their website, saying he “is in a unique position to make a difference in the world” and has “no choice but to take the one step left to have the greatest impact in changing policy on global warming -- run for president.”

Gore repeatedly has said that he never plans to run for public office again, and many argue that he may have more influence as an activist than as a politician.

Speaking Friday from the Palo Alto headquarters of the Alliance for Climate Protection, Gore said he would go to Oslo to accept the award “on behalf of all of those who have been working so hard and so long to try to get the word out about this planetary crisis.”

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alan.zarembo@latimes.com

johanna.neuman@latimes.com

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Zarembo reported from Los Angeles and Neuman from Washington. Times staff writers Henry Chu in New Delhi, Maggie Farley in New York, Scott Martelle in Los Angeles and Michael Finnegan and Theo Milonopoulos in Washington contributed to this report.

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