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Scientists’ peace

IPCC, the UN's panel on climate change, with its participating Brazilian scientists, shares the Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore

PARAMOUNTAl Gore: efforts to communicate the dangerPARAMOUNT

There was already speculation that the Nobel peace prize for 2007 might be awarded to former US vice-president Al Gore, in the year in which his Oscar- winning documentary “An Inconvenient Truth” was seen all over the planet and revealed to laymen the consequences of global warming. But what caused a certain surprise in the Norwegian Nobel Committee’s announcement was that the prize would be shared between Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), comprised of scientists from 40 countries, including Brazil. Not that the panel, a body set up by the United Nations in 1988, which assesses matters related to climate and that every five years evaluates scientific knowledge about global warming, is not without merit.

Between February and April this year the IPCC disclosed a new batch of reports that drew together the scientific evidence collected since 2002. Nearly 600 scientists worked on preparing or reviewing the reports and it is estimated that a further 2,000 contributed to the initiative. Results of the international scientific community’s colossal effort to evaluate scientific literature and communicate the effects of climate change, the documents showed that there is virtually no doubt about the causes of the progressive increase in the planet’s average temperature (the release of carbon into the atmosphere as a result of human activities) and its damaging effects (models indicate a rise in sea levels, the appearance of vast numbers of climate refugees and the extinction of species), but also indicated ways of reducing the damage. “This is special recognition for the scientific community that should be shared with those governments that supported us as well”, says Rajendra K. Pachauri, the Indian climatologist that heads the IPCC and personified the winning of the Nobel Prize.

Humanitarian causes
Surprise regarding the  awarding of the prize to IPCC is based on the fact that the panel’s work, despite its political impact, is eminently scientific and that it is not a Nobel Prize routine to award researchers in this category prizes merely for doing their work correctly – a rare exception was the North American microbiologist, Norman Bourlag, the winner in 1970, whose research in the field of agriculture resulted in a food production increase. Militants fighting for humanitarian causes and politicians involved in peace negotiations are the most frequent laureates.

IPCC’s recent reports were written with the direct participation of 12 Brazilians from a universe of almost 600 researchers. Eight of them worked with the main authors: Paulo Artaxo, a professor at the Institute of Physics of the University of São Paulo (USP), José Antônio Marengo, a meteorologist at the Weather Forecast and Climate Studies Center at the National Institute of Space Research (Cptec/INPE) and Pedro Dias Leite, a director of the National Scientific Computing Laboratory (LNCC), in Group I, which evaluated the climate system’s physical bases; Carlos Nobre, also from Cptec/Inpe, and Ulisses Confalonieri, from the Oswaldo Cruz Foundation, in Group II, who analyzed impact, adaptations and vulnerability to global warming; Emílio La Rovere, Suzana Khan and Roberto Shaeffer, from the Federal University of Rio de Janeiro, in Group III, who investigated ways of mitigating global changes. A further three researchers worked as reviewers: Antonio Rocha Magalhães, an assistant with the World Bank; José Roberto Moreira, an USP professor, and Philip Fearnside, from the National Research Institute of the Amazon Region (Inpa). Thelma Krug, the Environment Ministry’s Climate Change secretary, worked as an IPCC executive. Another 16 Brazilian researchers collaborated in some way or other with the 2007 reports. “The prize stands for recognition of climate science and the work of hundreds of scientists, some of them from Brazil, whose research forms part of the IPCC’s compilation”, says Paulo Artaxo.

For Carlos Nobre, Brazilian participation could have been greater. “Instead of 12, we have at least 20 researchers with the competence to be on the panel directly”, he says. “But there was no discrimination. Perhaps the youngest need to become a little better known internationally”, he adds.

The IPCC researchers meet in large plenary meetings over three years to discuss the validity of scientific climate studies and the information is compiled into reports that are thousands of pages long. The three working groups consist of two types of members. There are the  main researchers in charge of writing the reports and there are the reviewers, whose task is to guarantee transparency. They check whether each observation about the scientific studies presented was considered and elicit a response from the main authors, thus ensuring that all criticism relating to any piece of research is taken into account. This entire process is repeated every five years. “There’s nothing like it in the traditional peer review system”, says Carlos Nobre. “In scientific journals, the editors play this role when they ask authors to provide additions and explanations about articles, but they don’t have to account for the replies to any of the criticism.” In the final phase, all this reviewed knowledge gives rise to a major report, accompanied by a short summary of recommendations for the decision-makers. It is only in this attachment that there is any political interference, since the texts are approved by representatives from member countries. But the backdrop, which is  state of the art climate research analyzed by scientists from the first team, is untouchable. It is estimated that the global scientific production over the last five years that formed the basis for the current batch of reports exceeds the sum of the studies that formed the backbone of the 1992, 1995 and 2001 reports.