Woodhouse/Sysco Professor of Economics Gary Yohe is among the members of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was awarded the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize last Friday. The IPCC shared the award with former Vice President Al Gore.
The Norwegian Nobel Committee commended both the IPCC and Gore for their work in collecting and spreading information about the causes and effects of man-made climate change.
In an interview with the Argus, Yohe expressed gratitude for the recognition and emphasized the collective efforts that go into IPCC’s work.
“It’s 2,000 people that have worked very, very hard for a very long time, trying to be as careful as they can about what the [natural] and social sciences tells us about climate change,” Yohe said. “The idea that we’d be given an award and recognized for having made a contribution to the debate, beyond what it means for the science community…is very rewarding.”
Yohe, who has been involved with the IPCC for over 10 years, served as a Coordinating Lead Author (CLA) for a section of the panel’s Fourth Assessment Report, which provides a summary of the IPCC’s analysis of the literature surrounding climate-change written since the publication of their last report in 2001. Released in September, the Report is comprised of smaller contributions from three “working groups,” which focus on specific aspects of climate change, and the Task Force on National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.
As a CLA, Yohe specifically worked on the closing chapter of Working Group II’s contribution, entitled “Perspectives on Climate Change and Sustainability.” According to the IPCC website, Working Group II “assesses the vulnerability of socio-economic and natural systems to climate change, negative and positive consequences of climate change, and options for adapting to it.”
The process was meticulous and communal, with Yohe responsible for organizing a team of writers from six continents, responding to multiple comments on multiple drafts, organizing the revisions, and ultimately presenting it at the Working Group II Plenary.
The meeting, held in Brussels, brought together representatives from participating governments, who reviewed the contents of the group’s contribution before agreeing to sign onto the Report. Yohe defended Group II’s findings in meetings that sometimes went far into the night.
“It’s the first all-nighter I’ve pulled since college,” Yohe said.
Yohe also serves as a member of the Core Writing Team for the Synthesis Report, which streamlines the Report’s information into a more accessible form. Yohe will travel to Valencia, Spain in November for a plenary meeting where he and others will answer questions on the Synthesis Report. The process of constructing the Report itself, Yohe explained, came with its own set of challenges.
“We are trying to condense 1,800 pages of assessment down to 30. And to give you an idea of the comments we get, we get something like 6,000 comments on 30 pages of text. And you have to respond to each one,” Yohe said.
Yohe has been involved in the study of environmental economics since 1982, when he first took part in a National Academy of Science’s study on emissions trajectory for carbon dioxide. He credits Bill Nordhaus, an economist at Yale who was among the first professors to teach him about environmental economics while in graduate school, with asking if he wanted to become involved in the issue.
“It seemed like a good thing to say ‘yes’ to,” Yohe said. “I’ve been doing it ever since.”
While he doubts the Nobel will affect his own research, Yohe hopes that the distinction will help clarify certain public misconceptions about the IPCC, particularly the idea that the organization arrives at decisions monolithically.
“[The IPCC] is a group of skeptical scientists who argue with each other almost more than they argue with anybody else,” Yohe said.
As for the Prize’s co-recipient, Yohe expressed positive feelings towards Mr. Gore’s work but cautioned against the issue being overwhelmed by the personality behind it.
“His role in getting the message out and raising climate change stature as a problem and something we should all worry about is unambiguously a good thing,” Yohe said. “[But] the movie itself [the 2006 documentary ”An Inconvenient Truth“] is 20 percent about him and 15 percent about the politics. The initial response [to the Nobel] is that he’s going to run for president. To the extent that that becomes the focus, that can be counterproductive.”
Yohe also sees possibilities for Wesleyan students to become more involved in this issue of climate change. A professor for 30 years, Yohe says he’s aware of the campus’ activist reputation and sees the issue of climate change as an ideal issue for students to delve into. He laid out a multitude of ways individuals can become actively involved.
“Become involved and educated and keep the University’s feet to the fire, as it were, but also get involved in campaigns and support people who take this issue seriously,” Yohe said.
“This is an issue where Wesleyan students and the Wesleyan community can get involved and take an institutional and individual leadership role,” Yohe added. “Let’s go do that.”
Yohe will be giving a lecture entitled “Stories and Lessons from Climate Wars,” on Sunday, Nov. 4 at 11 a.m. in the Goldsmith Family Cinema as part of Homecoming and Family Weekend. Visit http://www.wesleyan.edu/hcfw/schedule.html#sunday for more details.