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Eco-Justice Notes
The E-mail Commentary from Eco-Justice Ministries

The Peace Prize and Conflict
distributed 10/19/07 - ©2007

This week's issue of Eco-Justice Notes is underwritten by Thomas Pakurar, of Midlothian, Virginia. His generous support helps make this publication possible.

One week ago today, the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize was awarded to the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Albert Arnold (Al) Gore Jr. To the best of my knowledge, this is the very first time that the official announcement of the Peace Prize has included two sets of parentheses.

That pair of parentheses may be the most extraordinary detail this year. It is not the first time that the peace prize has affirmed an environmental effort as an act of peacemaking. And it is certainly not the first time that this prestigious award has been controversial.

I'm assuming that many of the regular readers of these Notes are pleased with the selection for the peace prize. Many of you have been honored indirectly, because you, too, have been working long and hard on the climate cause. I'm probably preaching to the choir in celebrating the award to the IPCC and Gore.

But not everyone has been singing songs of praise this past week. This year's award has sparked lots of lively comments -- perhaps I should even say outrage. Today, I offer my thoughts on why it is quite appropriate that the award addresses the climate crisis, and that it was given jointly to the IPCC and former Vice President Gore.

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Some of those who have objected don't see how the scientific and public efforts to stimulate action on climate change have anything to do with peace. As narrowly conceived, "peace" has to do with the end of wars and conflicts. That's why there was some confusion and resistance a few years back when Kenyan activist Wangari Maathai was honored for her tree-planting movement.

Three years ago, the head of the Nobel committee explained, "Peace on earth depends on our ability to secure our living environment." At the time of the 2004 award, the head of the UN Environment Program, said, "Understanding is growing throughout the world of the close links between environmental protection and global security."

The press release issued last week once again explained that connection: "the Norwegian Nobel Committee are highlighting the link they see between the risk of accelerating climate change and the risk of violent conflict and wars."

According to the Nobel website, "In addition to humanitarian efforts and peace movements, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded for work in a wide range of fields including advocacy of human rights, mediation of international conflicts, and arms control." Arms control measures don't often quell an active conflict, but they are effective in reducing the threat or scope of war. Thus, the 2005 Peace Prize went to the International Atomic Energy Agency "for their efforts to prevent nuclear energy from being used for military purposes". Peace that avoids war is just as real as the peace at the end of a conflict.

If disruptions to our planet's climate are likely to trigger war and conflict -- and they are -- then efforts to reduce those climate impacts are worthy acts of preemptive peacemaking. They are of the same ilk as arms control. This recognition fits well within the Nobel committee's expansive and ever-expanding understanding of peace.

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There are some people who claim to be shocked -- shocked! -- by the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize might deal with a political topic, or be awarded to a controversial person.

Their reaction might be warranted in regard to some of the other Nobel awards. It is normal for the awards in fields like medicine and physics to be given for research that took place years, or even decades, before. Those honors are given to people who have triggered decisive and unquestioned advances in their chosen field of study. The research prizes affirm clear-cut success in advancing a discipline.

Sometimes, too, the Peace Prize honors a settled accomplishment. For example, the 1993 award went to F.W. de Klerk and Nelson Mandela for their roles in ending apartheid and fostering reconciliation in South Africa. Very often, though, the prize is intended to give affirmation, support and recognition to one side in a current conflict. It is absolutely traditional that the Peace Prize takes sides, and takes a stand.

That was certainly true in 1964, when Martin Luther King, Jr. was honored. In many parts of the US, including the US government, Dr. King was both feared and hated. In 1984, the prize was given to Desmond Tutu -- then a leading figure in the struggle against apartheid. Indeed, the 1984 announcement said, "the Committee wishes to direct attention to the non-violent struggle for liberation to which Desmond Tutu belongs, a struggle in which black and white South Africans unite to bring their country out of conflict and crisis." The prize has often, and intentionally, been a public statement of support to very controversial causes.

Some of those Laureates and the conflicts remain in the news. In 1989, the Peace Prize was given to the 14th Dalai Lama. Just this week, public recognition of the Dalai Lama by the US Congress and President Bush triggered a "furious" protest from the government of China. The 1991 recipient, Aung San Suu Kyi, is still under house arrest in Myanmar. Her leadership from confinement is significant in the ongoing struggle for democracy in that country. Both of those figures have been influential through the years, in no small part, because the Nobel committee blessed their cause and their leadership.

Sometimes that leadership is on the front lines, and the figures involved risk their lives or their freedom by continuing their courageous witness. Other times, though, the Peace Laureates work in the realm of policy and diplomacy. The International Atomic Energy Agency, like the IPCC, did its work for peace in the context of position papers and international conferences. There's nothing new about honoring a body like the IPCC.

The current chair of the climate panel noted, "The IPCC's strength lies in the processes and procedures that it follows. Most important is its ability of carrying out rigorous scientific assessment, which undergoes the scrutiny of government representatives and therefore is accepted by governments. There is no other body in the world that is able to meet these twin objectives simultaneously." Their process leading to political acceptance is just as important in their peacemaking as is the meticulous science that they review.

Many of the comments that I have seen this past week have a special disgust about the recognition given to Al Gore. There is something very visceral and personal in that reaction. Whether they like the man or not, though, whether they agree with his conclusions and his recommendations, I would hope that all people could agree that Mr. Gore has been amazingly influential. While his work on climate change has spanned decades, the public leadership he has provided within the last five years has been unparalleled in raising awareness and commitment, especially in the US.

The Nobel Peace Prize is often controversial. It gives credibility to leaders and affirmation to causes that are hotly disputed. We see this year, as has so often been seen before, that those who stand on the other side of a cause are not pleased when their opponents are honored. In essence, the Nobel Peace Prize makes two statements. It affirms those who are working for peace, and it suggests that others are not.

As we listen to, and talk with, those who disagree with this year's prize, let us give thanks for the helpful and hopeful discernment of the Nobel committee, which reaffirmed the ecological dimensions of peace, and which gave its blessing to leaders that others would marginalize and ridicule.


Peter Sawtell
Executive Director
Eco-Justice Ministries

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