Prize stresses climate change's urgency

Nobel Peace Prize offers evidence that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue

Nobel Peace Prize offers evidence that climate change is no longer just an environmental issue

It is difficult to argue with a Nobel Prize. That was surely the sentiment circulating within the environmental community October 12, when, after much speculation, it was announced that former Vice President Al Gore and the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) would share this year's Nobel Peace Prize.

For communicators within the movement, the question quickly became how the decision to award the world's most notable prize to Gore and the IPCC might have an impact on communications efforts in the future.

It was immediately clear that the award could be seen as more than simply vindication for the movement. With an Academy Award already in Gore's hand for An Inconvenient Truth, it is becoming more difficult every day to paint the man who very nearly became president as a hysterical alarmist, communicators say.

But perhaps the key for these same communicators is that the urgency with which Gore speaks about the issue may have found some context. In awarding Gore the prize, the Nobel Committee effectively linked climate change to prospects for peace in every corner of the globe. Violent conflicts over the scarcity of resources are not far-fetched, to say the least.

"I think the Nobel Prize is an indicator that the climate crisis isn't simply an environmental issue, that it is much broader than that," says Kalee Kreider, Gore's communications director. "Newsrooms have begun to realize this isn't just an issue for the environmental beat reporter, and you're now seeing it on the business pages, on the cultural pages, etc."

Tony Kreindler, national media director for climate at Environmental Defense, agrees that the award may indeed help illustrate just how immediate the climate change issue is. "From a communications standpoint, we've had the challenge of telling people they need to care about something that has been framed as a couple decades down the line," he says. "This changes that."

And, as Kreindler points out, climate change isn't a particularly niche issue anymore. Big business has jumped into the fray, atypical environmentalists like anglers and hunters are increasingly involved, and politicians on both sides of the aisle are now working on various forms of legislation.

So could the prize permanently shift the debate over climate change from one questioning the science to one questioning the solution? Will it permanently put environmental groups on the offensive? "Since the award, we haven't had to play much defense," admits David Willett, national press secretary for the Sierra Club.

Willett says organizations began using the prize to leverage the media even before the announcement was made. Carl Pope, Sierra Club executive director, wrote a piece arguing in favor of Gore taking home the prize, which appeared in Salon the week leading up to the committee's announcement. And the Sierra Club gave its own award, the John Muir Award, to Gore just last month.

But while Gore brings his name recognition to the party, it may be the addition of the IPCC on the podium that makes the biggest difference to communicators. Consisting of hundreds of scientists around the globe, the panel lends Gore's communication skills some scientific muscle, Willett says.

"When the news stories talk about [the IPCC], it reminds people there is a global scientific community that agrees on this," he says. "Gore takes the information that those folks pull together, and he's able to bring it home for people, but it's just as important that these scientists are sharing the award with him."

It's true that the shift in environmental communications has been gradual, the result of a more educated public and an increasingly significant global movement. The award may fail to dramatically alter communicators' jobs overnight, but it very well might eventually be seen as the tipping point that pushed our leaders into action.

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