Environment Blog

Peace Prize, Check. Next Stop, Copenhagen.

What does the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize mean for U.S. policy on climate change?

October 11, 2009

Whether President Obama’s selection for the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize was an act of condescension or a formal declaration of expectation, the Norwegian Nobel Committee accomplished the bizarre feat of making pretty much everyone uncomfortable. Now, in the wake of the announcement, what remains are questions about how the Peace Prize will influence U.S. foreign policy on nuclear weapons, war, and global climate change.

The Prize is, in part, a stamp of approval on Obama’s stated policy on climate change. While the Peace Prize has been given to groups and individuals for climate and environmental work before, in this case it is based on the expectation that Obama will follow through with his stated goal of “vigorous” engagement with other countries to establish a new, world-wide policy on climate change.

The President’s chance to do so comes in December, when leaders from over 170 countries will meet in Copenhagen and attempt to produce a new Protocol before the 2012 expiration of the Kyoto Protocol. The U.S. signed the Kyoto Protocol in 1997, but it was never ratified, and in 2001 the Bush Administration withdrew the U.S. altogether, on the grounds that the Protocol was “fatally flawed.”

Obama’s scope in Copenhagen will be determined in part by action in Congress over the next couple of months. Although the House (narrowly) passed a version of a new climate bill in June, a Senate version of the bill was just introduced at the end of September. The Senate bill stands partially incomplete, awaiting what will most likely be lots and lots of negotiation. Both bills call for major reductions in greenhouse gas emissions that, while still not meeting standards set by the European Union, represent a major change in policy from the Bush Administration.

On December 10, right in the middle of the Climate Change Conference, Obama will be picking up his Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway. The medallion weighs only about six ounces, but it might feel a lot heavier on the trip home if no resolution is reached in Copenhagen.

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Ben Nevis says:

Nice job i didn’t realize the peace prize was given for climate related work. Makes sense though.

Emily Elert says:

Thanks for the comment, Ben. Climate change isn’t one of the three criteria for the Prize mentioned in Nobel’s will (and it would be pretty alarming if he HAD mentioned it, back in 1895), but the Committee has set a precedent for awarding the prize this way. And I agree with you that it makes sense– sustainability on a global scale is perhaps one of the most important requirements for peace between nations, even in the not-so-distant future.

Lee Howard says:

Very well written, thank you! Helps me to better understand what just happened….

Anya says:

Wow — first sentence perfectly encapsulates the situation! While I’d like to be supportive of our president, I couldn’t help feeling pretty uncomfortable about the whole thing. Although I do hope this gives the U.S. a bit more weight in bargaining, particularly with climate change (and nuclear disarmament).

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