A Look at the Group Sharing the Peace Prize Al Gore may be the big name getting the Nobel Peace Prize, but half of the award is going to the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change — or IPCC. The once obscure body is having its moment in the spotlight. Its thousands of scientists from around the globe can now say they got a piece of a Nobel Prize.
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A Look at the Group Sharing the Peace Prize

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A Look at the Group Sharing the Peace Prize

A Look at the Group Sharing the Peace Prize

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Okay, that was the Peace Prize winner we've all heard of. Now, the other one.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change was created in 1988. It's a creature of the United Nations. It works mostly out of public view. Its job is to pull together the latest research on climate change and help politicians decide what to do about it.

Here's NPR's Christopher Joyce.

CHRISTOPHER JOYCE: When you call up someone who's sharing a Nobel Prize with about 1,999 other people, there's one question that comes immediately to mind. How are you going to split up the money?

PETER FRUMHOFF: I'm - that's really not my judgment. I think there's something in the order of 2,000 scientists involved. All of us volunteered our time; we're not in this for the money.

JOYCE: That diplomatic reply comes from Peter Frumhoff, an ecologist with the Union of Concerned Scientists in Cambridge, Massachusetts. Frumhoff helped write parts of the four big reports that the IPCC has published over the past 17 years. Those reports boiled down just about all of the climate studies that have appeared in peer-reviewed scientific journals over the last two decades.

Frumhoff describes the IPCC's job as a massive collating task, pulling together everything known about climate change from oceanography to plant biology to atmospheric chemistry and delivering it to government policymakers in the way they can understand.

FRUMHOFF: If we simply had a body of literature that wasn't synthesized and wasn't called for by the government, I'd suspect we'd be even further behind in handling this problem than we are today.

JOYCE: There has been controversy, though, over what the IPCC has written. For one thing, IPCC scientists work together with government bureaucrats from member nations to write the reports. That means the kind of compromise that many scientists aren't comfortable with.

Martin Parry is head of a team that writes IPCC reports on how climate change affects people in the environment.

MARTIN PARRY: Sometimes it does mean boiling the knowledge down to the lowest common denominator, what we all agree on. And the IPCC is being criticized for that sometime. But the powerful part of the IPCC is this: It's a body of knowledge upon which the political community build on.

JOYCE: Actually, it's the act of throwing scientists in with political functionary that gives the IPCC its influence, at least according to Robert Watson, a former director of the panel.

ROBERT WATSON: While there is a criticism by some, it dilutes the document, the fact that governments are part of the process means they have ownership. They can't easily set it to one side.

JOYCE: Some governments have tried to. Another IPCC author, Michael Oppenheimer of Princeton University, says the political scientific wrangling got especially tough in 1995. That was when scientists wanted to declare that industrial activities were, indeed, affecting the earth climate in a discernable way.

MICHAEL OPPENHEIMER: Some governments weren't happy with the notion that a scientific consensus was growing around the understanding that humans were affecting the climate.

JOYCE: The scientists won that fight. In the 1995 report, the second one delivered by the IPCC, included groundbreaking language putting the blame on human activity. Since then, the panel has stated the same thing with greater certainty. The IPCC scientists say they've been swapping e-mails all over the world today celebrating their elevation to Nobel status. But Parry may be typical of the rest of his colleagues in worrying about what comes next, adapting to the inevitability of climate change.

PARRY: We don't really have a good clear that grasp of how much climate change we can adapt to. That's the question, which I'm afraid we haven't given an amount of (unintelligible) yet.

JOYCE: The IPCC issued its most recent report this year focusing on regional effects and how a warmer Earth may change everything from agriculture to flooding of coastal cities. The report ran over a thousand pages. Scientists say now they are Nobel winners, they hope more people will read their work.

Christopher Joyce, NPR News.

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