“I will accept this award as a call to action.”
Those were President Barack Obama’s words this morning in his first public statement as the 2009 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, an award given in part for his position on climate change.
Environmentalists and people around the world who are beginning to feel the effects of global warming will be watching for a strong follow-through on that bold declaration.
So far, they’ve heard speeches from the U.S. president filled with hope and with promises of action to stop climate change, but words alone don’t help drought-stricken families in India, where the rice crop is in trouble, or in Somalia, where even the camels are dying. Words won’t save the Maldives islanders from the rising seas.
Environmental groups are looking for the actions they expected when they celebrated Obama’s election almost a year ago, and they’re worried that his vision of change has been dulled by Washington’s culture of politics as usual.
The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize should increase global pressure on the president to stand up to the naysayers and to prove he can get things done for the betterment of humanity. Obama must now meet that responsibility, environmental groups say, and invest his reputation in securing a worthwhile U.S. climate law and personally negotiating a global climate treaty at Copenhagen.
In his comments to the media this morning, the president said he was surprised and humbled by the Nobel Committee’s call. He said he realized the award wasn’t recognition of his own achievements but of American leadership, and that he didn’t feel he deserved to be in the company of men and women who had done so much to change the world for the better. However, he said,
“I also know this prize reflects the kind of world that those men and women and all Americans want to build.”
"And I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honor specific achievement, it’s also been used to give momentum to a set of causes. And that is why I will accept this award as a call to action. A call for all nations to confront the common challenges of the 21st century. These challenges cannot be met by any one leader or any one nation."
Speaking to the challenge of climate change, Obama said,
“We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children, sewing conflict and famine, destroying coastlines and emptying cities. That’s why all nations must now accept their share of responsibility for transforming the way that we use energy.”
The Norwegian Nobel Committee said it took into consideration the president’s position on climate change, his desire to stop nuclear proliferation, and his shifting of the U.S. tone in international relations and cooperation in making its choice. The committee’s statement:
“The Norwegian Nobel Committee has decided that the Nobel Peace Prize for 2009 is to be awarded to President Barack Obama for his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples. The Committee has attached special importance to Obama’s vision of and work for a world without nuclear weapons.
“Obama has as president created a new climate in international politics. Multilateral diplomacy has regained a central position, with emphasis on the role that the United Nations and other international institutions can play. Dialogue and negotiations are preferred as instruments for resolving even the most difficult international conflicts. The vision of a world free from nuclear arms has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations.
“Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.
“Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future. His diplomacy is founded in the concept that those who are to lead the world must do so on the basis of values and attitudes that are shared by the majority of the world’s population.
“For 108 years, the Norwegian Nobel Committee has sought to stimulate precisely that international policy and those attitudes for which Obama is now the world’s leading spokesman. The Committee endorses Obama’s appeal that ‘Now is the time for all of us to take our share of responsibility for a global response to global challenges.’”
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica congratulated Obama, saying the prize reflected Obama’s "commitment to tackle profoundly important issues and re-engage the world community, as well as his ability to inspire hope and optimism that bold change is possible.”
However, Pica noted — as the president himself did — that the award was made “on the basis of expectations that have not yet been met.”
“While President Obama has pledged to solve climate change at the international level, it is important to note the United States is still playing a counter-productive role in the ongoing climate negotiations. At this moment U.S. negotiators are in Bangkok attempting to undermine existing agreements and shirk wealthy nations’ responsibility to lead the way in solving the climate crisis," Pica said.
"Failing to solve the climate crisis in a just and equitable way and end ongoing wars will undermine peace in our world and undermine basic human rights. We hope that President Obama’s receipt of this award prompts him to re-think his administration’s approach.”
The Nobel Prize ceremony will be in Oslo, Norway, on Dec. 10, at the same time the Copenhagen climate negotiations will be taking place in nearby Denmark. British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has promised to attend the climate talks, but Obama has yet to commit.
Greenpeace, along with Friends of the Earth and other environmental leaders, said the U.S. president has a responsibility to be at Copenhagen.
“We hope that this award will give President Barack Obama the courage of his convictions on climate change, that it will spur him to take personal leadership on climate change to avert climate catastrophe,” said Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International.
“In accepting the award in Oslo on 10th December, President Obama has an incredible opportunity, and responsibility, to then travel to the UN Copenhagen Climate Summit to help avert climate chaos and conflict."
Perhaps the U.S. president’s hosts for the Nobel Prize ceremony will have some influence. Norway this week pledged to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 40 percent from 1990 levels by the end of the next decade. That is a far steeper cut than the U.S. House-passed proposal to cut U.S. emissions to about 4 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and it’s a number in line with what scientists say is necessary to prevent catastrophic climate change.