By Mary Jordan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, December 11, 2007
OSLO, Dec. 10 -- Former vice president Al Gore, accepting his Nobel Peace Prize on Monday, called on the United States and China, the world's two largest polluters, "to make the boldest moves" on climate change "or stand accountable before history for their failure to act."
"Both countries should stop using each other's behavior as an excuse for stalemate," Gore said, labeling the threat from rising temperatures and sea levels "a planetary emergency, a threat to the survival of our civilization that is gathering, ominous and destructive."
"The future is knocking at our door right now," Gore said, paraphrasing the Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen during a regal, 90-minute ceremony in Oslo's ornate City Hall.
Gore, 59, shared the $1.5 million prize, widely considered the world's most prestigious award, with the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.
"Make no mistake, the next generation will ask us one of two questions," Gore said. "Either they will ask: 'What were you thinking, why didn't you act?' Or they will ask instead, 'How did you find the moral courage to rise and successfully resolve a crisis that so many said was impossible to solve?' "
Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the U.N. panel that shared the Peace Prize with Gore, said in an acceptance speech that thousands of scientists had spent two decades documenting global warming. "Myopic indifference" to the crisis, he said, threatened further disease and malnutrition, and the swallowing of low-lying lands by rising seas.
The United States and China have been roundly criticized by environmental activists as taking insufficient action to curb greenhouse emissions that scientists say are causing global warming. China has argued that as a developing nation, it needs latitude to improve the standard of living for its people; the United States has opposed environmental mandates that don't address rising pollution levels in countries such as China and India.
Gore said the price of inaction is rapidly melting glaciers, massive crop loss due to drought, the extinction of some species and the displacement of millions of people by flooding. He called on all nations to mobilize with "a sense of urgency and shared resolve that has previously been seen only when nations have mobilized for war."
"Despite a growing number of honorable exceptions, too many of the world's leaders are still best described in the words Winston Churchill applied to those who ignored Adolf Hitler's threat: 'They go on in strange paradox, decided only to be undecided.' " Gore said that just as a previous generation found the "moral authority" to defeat fascism in the 1940s, "so too can we find our greatest opportunity in rising to solve the climate crisis."
Gore received a sustained standing ovation at the event, which was attended by his wife, Tipper, the Norwegian royal family and celebrities including American actress Uma Thurman.
In an interview before the ceremony, Gore criticized the Bush administration's stance on climate change. He said he believed the next U.S. president -- regardless of who it is -- would address the matter more urgently.
"I think it is unfortunate that our nation, which should be the natural leader of the world community, has been the principal obstacle to progress in solving the climate crisis," Gore said.
Asked whether his life as the world's climate-change ambassador had turned out better than if he had become president, he said: "I am under no illusion that there is any position with as much ability to influence the future than that of the president of the United States," he said. "But that was not to be."
Gore opened his acceptance speech by referring to the 2000 U.S. Supreme Court decision denying him the presidency in an election he lost to George W. Bush despite winning the popular vote.
"Seven years ago tomorrow, I read my own political obituary in a judgment that seemed to me harsh and mistaken -- if not premature," he said. "But that unwelcome verdict also brought a precious if painful gift: an opportunity to search for fresh new ways to serve my purpose," he said. "Unexpectedly that quest has brought me here."
Gore drew a parallel with what happened to Alfred Nobel, the Swedish industrialist and inventor. Nobel read his own obituary, mistakenly published by a newspaper before his death, which described him as the "Merchant of Death" because he had invented dynamite. Shaken by that, Nobel went on to establish the prizes that bear his name.
Gore spoke in Oslo as thousands of activists and government officials met in Bali, Indonesia, to begin negotiations toward a new global climate-change treaty. There are growing demands for binding legal commitments to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, based on concerns that human activities are causing temperatures and sea levels to rise. Gore urged negotiators to ratify a new treaty that would cap global emissions as early as 2010.
At a news conference in Bali, the senior U.S. negotiator, Harlan L. Watson, said the United States would oppose the mandatory limits on carbon emissions that are currently in a draft treaty. Including mandatory reductions from the outset of the process "might prejudge outcomes" of a negotiation that is supposed to take place over the next two years, Watson said.
Pachauri of the U.N. panel, addressing the government leaders meeting in Bali, said, "Will those responsible for decisions in the field of climate change at the global level listen to the voice of science and knowledge, which is now loud and clear?"
Over the years, Gore has been ridiculed by critics who assert that his warnings about climate change have been overstated. But his film, "An Inconvenient Truth," won an Academy Award this year. It was followed by the awarding to Gore of the Peace Prize, which has also been conferred on three former U.S. presidents: Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and Jimmy Carter.
"I have had a big ally in reality," Gore said during the interview. "It doesn't always make a difference. It didn't prevent us from invading Iraq, for example. But it does eventually get people's attention."
On Tuesday, Thurman will host a Nobel concert along with fellow actor Kevin Spacey, who is working on an HBO movie based on the recount after the 2000 U.S. election.
"Political defeats can also bring good results," said Ole Danbolt Mjoes, chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee, as an ebullient Gore smiled.
"The Norwegian Nobel Committee rarely raises its voice. Our style is largely sober," he said. "But it is a long time since the committee was concerned with such fundamental questions as this year."