Obama wins Nobel Peace Prize to surprise of many and congratulations from Bellona

Publish date: October 8, 2009

Written by: Charles Digges

WASHINGTON – In what is seen more as a spur to action than a recognition of accomplishments past, President Barack Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today for what the award’s committee said in part was for a “more constructive role in meeting the great climactic challenges the world is confronting.”

Obama was also congratulated by the committee for his work in trying to rid the world of nuclear weapons.

It is hoped that the prize will give the young president and his administration more clout in both arenas, especially on climate negotiations, which have recently faltered from the US angle as many other issues in US Congress are taking a little of a month since it reconvened from its summer recess.

Bellona President Frederic Hauge offered the US president hearty congratulations, saying, “We congratulate President Obama warmly on his receipt of the Nobel Prize. He is honoured for his vision and his work for a world without nuclear weapons.”

Hauge added that the prize was well deserved for Obama’s  work to promote alternative energy and to take the challenge of climate change seriously. He won the award, said Hauge, “no less for the fact that he replaces George Bush, who was a major sinkhole for international climate politics.”

Jonathan Temple, director of Bellona USA, said, “We congratulate President Obama for his outstanding support of measures to increase world peace and protect our climate.”

“Bellona looks forward to to working with the United States and other parties to bring about a successful conclusion to the forthcoming negotiations in Copenhagen," said Temple.

Thorbjørn Jagland, head of the Nobel Committee said Obama has won because “He has captured world attention and given a hope of a better future through values and attitudes.”

On the nuclear side, Obama has worked actively against nuclear weapons since his work with the Nunn-Lugar programme, a US-Russian cooperative program to eliminate nuclear weapons in Russia. Obama has effectively buried former President Ronald Reagan’s plans for a nuclear missile shield, and, recently, Obama led a United Nations summit on disarmament.

The surprise decision to award Obama the prize only nine months into his presidency came as a surprise to the White House.

"Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning," Obama told reporters during a Rose Garden speech.

“Let me be clear, I do not view it as a recognition of my own accomplishments, but rather as an affirmation of American leadership on behalf of aspirations helf by people in all nations,” he said.

“To be honest I do not feel that I deserve to be in the company of so many transformative figure who have received this prize.”

He added that, ”I know that throughout history, the Nobel Peace Prize has not just been used to honour specific achievement – it’s also been used as a means to give momentum to a set of causes, and that is why I will accept this award as a call to action.”

Yet, despite the demure initial response. Obama readily recounted the early efforts of his presidency in the field of nuclear cuts and climate change. 

"These challenges can’t be met by any one leader or any one nation," Obama said. "And that’s why my administration has worked to establish a new era of engagement in which all nations must take responsibility for the world we seek."

Honing in on global warming, Obama said. “We cannot accept the growing threat posed by climate change, which could forever damage the world that we pass on to our children – sowing conflict and famine, destroying coastlines and emptying cities. And that’s why all nations must now accept their share of responsibility for transforming the way that we use energy."

The Nobel Committee’s Jagland told reporters in Oslo that, "Only very rarely has a person to the same extent as Obama captured the world’s attention and given its people hope for a better future," Jagland said. "We are not awarding the prize for what may happen in the future, but for what he has done in the previous year. We would hope this will enhance what he is trying to do."

Danish Minister for Climate and Energy Connie Hedegaard asked an informal gathering of reporters, “How many years is it since you had an American president that a new youth generation, not only in Denmark, not only in Europe, in Asia, in Africa … who through his presidency has allowed hope in the United States?" said Hedegaard. "It’s fantastic that a new generation of youth worldwide sees this new hope in American leadership," according to news agencies.

Denmark’s capital, Copenhagen, will be hosting the international UN climate talks in December, where it is hoped a substitute to the Kyoto Protocol can be hammered out.

"I know all the troubles back home on your domestic scene," she continued. "But those of us who love the US, it is a fantastic and unique possibility of reinventing the American strong position in the world," Hedegaard said.

But commentator Kate Sheppard, who writes a climate blog for the San Francisco-based Mother Jones magazine commented that she was surprised about the amount of credit Obama is getting on climate issues, drawing attention to the Nobel Committee’s words that Obama was more constructive in meeting climate challenges.

“I was disappointed by his recent speech at the UN on climate, and I’ve been disappointed by the administration’s unwillingness to take a hard line on climate policy or even prioritize it, considering there’s a major international summit (in Copenhagen) coming up in 60 days,” Sheppard wrote in her blog.

“We’re well past the point where ‘playing a more constructive role’—i.e., not denying climate change is happening, actually talking about the issue—is adequate,” she wrote.

Indeed, in comparison to other countries, including Denmark, Norway and many EU nations, will be bringing far more impressive climate gas cut goals with them to Copenhagen than the will the United States.

The EU in general is on board to cut carbon emission to 20 percent below 1990 levels by 2020, and could go to 30 percent if they get wider cooperation.

Norway, at this week’s UNFCCC meeting, said they would cut emissions 40 percent by 2020, conditional on the outcome at the Copenhagen summit, and 30 percent even without a stronger deal. The Japanese government has committed to 25 percent cuts. Even China is now willing to commit to at least a quanfiable reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.

But after eight years of the Bush administration, it seems like the bar has been set low for the United States to receive accolades from many EU leaders for its  current promise to drop carbon emissions to 17 percent below 1990 levels by 2020. Denmark’s Hedegaard, for one, was quick to applaud it, even though it is only 3 percent lower than the 1990 baseline the rest of the world is using as a measure for effective cuts that will avoid catastrophe.

"The rest of the world is not ignorant of the challenges that the US political leaders face," said Hedegaard. "What the rest of the world just asks from the US is you must be as much into this as the rest of us. We understand your challenges and your problems. Don’t believe it’s easy for the rest of us. But you must take your fair share of responsibility."

Hedegaard did caution that Obama needs to have something to show here in December if he’s to live up to the promise of the Nobel and the expectation of young people around the world.

"That is what is at stake here,” she said, "but I think that there is the possibility for the US to take this leadership position in the world that has been a traditional role for the Americans to have."

Former Vice President Al Gore, a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winner for his work on global warming, called Obama’s award "thrilling."

"It’s extremely well deserved," Gore added during the annual Society of Environmental Journalists conference in Madison, Wisconsin.

"Much of what he has accomplished already is going to be far more appreciated in the eyes of history as it has been by the Nobel Committee in their announcement early this morning."

Yet it is clear that more needs to be accomplished for the US to have a dazzling effect on the Copenhagen talks.

In Washington, Congress remains several giant steps away from passing the global warming legislation that Obama has sought. But Hedegaard said Obama’s next big step toward that goal would be to “show up” in Copenhagen.