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Last week's award of the Nobel peace prize signals the coming of age of the public communication of science.

There have been few more significant endorsements of the importance of science communication in bridging the gap between research and policy than the announcement last week that the 2007 Nobel Prize for peace is to be shared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and former US vice-president Al Gore.

The award reflects the extent to which climate change is no longer merely an environmental issue, but one of global survival. It acknowledges that both good science and good communication are required in the modern world if such threats to global security are to be successfully countered.

The IPCC richly deserves its award. Established in 1988 as a relatively novel type of international forum, bringing together both researchers and stakeholders, the IPCC has sought to build consensus around the science of climate change and its likely impact on human activity.

The painstaking work of more than 2,000 scientists has led to widespread agreement that humanity is facing an unprecedented threat due to fall-out from its own activities. The IPCC's fourth and latest scientific assessment, published earlier this year, raises from "likely" to "very likely" (with more than 90 per cent probability) that most of the observed increase in global average temperatures since the mid-20th century is due to the observed increase in human-caused greenhouse gas emissions.

But if scientific results alone were sufficient to persuade politicians to take action, then firm action to tackle climate change would have been taken many years ago. Politics is more complex. While many countries have endorsed such action, most notably by signing the Kyoto Protocol, others have not — particularly the world's largest carbon emitter, the United States. And this, in turn, has deterred major developing countries — in particular China and India — from agreeing to limit carbon emissions, on the grounds that they are not currently the major offenders.

A sea change in public opinion

This is where Gore comes in. It would be misleading to claim that he has single-handedly transformed the climate policy debate in the United States. Many other factors and individuals, from the US scientific community to California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, have played key roles in persuading the Bush administration that global warming is a major threat that will not go away and significant action is needed.

What is true, however, is that Bush is unlikely to have taken this message on board if it had not been for what some describe as a 'sea change' in US public opinion that has taken place.

A year ago, climate change was still widely seen as just another environmentalist scare. Today Americans are asking themselves searching questions about the cars they drive and the insulation (or lack of it) in their homes. For all this, Gore — the most effective public communicator in the climate change community — must take much of the credit, particularly for his Oscar-winning documentary 'An Inconvenient Truth'.

Those who are only familiar with Gore as a somewhat wooden and unimaginative deputy to former president Bill Clinton — characteristics largely responsible for his failure to succeed Clinton — have been surprised at the combination of passion, intelligence and humour he has brought to the task of involving the US public in the climate change debate.

But those who saw him in action as a member of the US Congress at the beginning of his political career will have seen the same sensibilities at work.

Whether battling with the failures of health and safety officials, or defending a raft of regulations against attacks from industry, Gore has a long history of fighting for environmental causes, a response to the allegation that he is merely a failed politician seeking to reincarnate himself as an environmental champion.

The limitations of conventional politics

It must be tempting for Gore to consider another run at the White House. But it would be wrong for him to do so. It is clear that his talents can be used in more effective ways.

There are times when, just as science is too important to be left to scientists, politics is too important to be left to politicians. Or, to put it another way, where a change in perception is required for a change in behaviour, there are limits to what conventional politics can achieve.

Climate change is one such issue. The IPCC has made a solid case for action. Hopefully recognition by the Nobel committee will reduce further the number of climate sceptics. And the nature of the award means that climate scientists can claim they are engaged in pursuing "science for peace", a claim previously the preserve of nuclear energy researchers.

The changes in lifestyle required to adapt to the realities of climate change, and to mitigate its further actions — particularly where this means challenging entrenched interests, such as those of the oil industry — will not come in response to scientific reasoning alone.

To Gore's credit, he recognised this at an early stage, and has complemented the essential science with the necessary passion and political astuteness. And the Nobel committee has, like Gore, recognised the importance of effective science communication in the service of global security.

David Dickson
Director, SciDev.Net

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