President Obama won the Nobel Peace Prize today in part for what the award's organizers said was a "more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting."
The stunning decision to honor Obama just nine months into his first term caught even the White House off guard.
"Well, this is not how I expected to wake up this morning," Obama said during a Rose Garden speech.
Moments later, the president highlighted his early efforts to rid the world of nuclear weapons and halt the threat of global warming -- work cited by the Nobel Prize committee that is a long way from completion.
"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."
Turning to global warming, Obama added, "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."
In Oslo, Thorbjørn Jagland, the chairman of the Norwegian Nobel Committee and a former prime minister of Norway, explained that Obama's early international diplomacy efforts helped him beat out more than 200 other nominees to become the third sitting U.S. president to win the award. The sitting presidents to win the prize were Theodore Roosevelt in 1906 and Woodrow Wilson in 1919. Former President Jimmy Carter won the award in 2002.
"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."
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, Wis. "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."
(Click here to listen to and read the transcript of Gore’s comments.)
But the connection between the Nobel Peace Prize and Obama's work on climate change caught many by surprise.
In Washington, Congress remains several giant steps away from passing the global warming legislation that Obama has sought. And Obama administration officials have been under fire on the international front for not taking bold enough steps as world leaders negotiate the contours of a new U.N. treaty to succeed the Kyoto Protocol.
Alden Meyer of the Union of Concerned Scientists, for example, issued a statement this morning as a preliminary round of U.N. negotiations wrapped up in Thailand. The headline: "U.S. stance retards progress at Bangkok climate talks."
Asked for a reaction to Obama's award, Meyer replied via e-mail: "My guess is he was awarded the prize as much for his efforts to change the tone of the global conversation, re-engage the U.S. with the rest of the world, and listen to others' points of view with respect. The contrast with the previous U.S. president is pretty stark on these fronts, and it's a change that clearly appeals to the Nobel Committee.
"The award is likely more for the promise of what Obama hopes to accomplish on global warming, nuclear weapons reduction, Middle East peace, and other issues than it is for what he's accomplished to date. Whether the award helps the president achieve those objectives remains to be seen."
Timing for Nobel ceremony, U.N. talks
Other environmental groups remained cautious about the Nobel Peace Prize award, given the pressure on the Obama administration to show greater leadership headed into this December's major U.N. summit in Copenhagen, Denmark, where much of the treaty is expected to be finished.
Friends of the Earth President Erich Pica said Obama's award "reflects his commitment to tackle profoundly important issues and re-engage the world community, as well as his ability to inspire hope and optimism that bold change is possible."
"We have concerns though, that the Norwegian Nobel Committee awarded President Obama this award on the basis of expectations that have not yet been met," Pica added. "While President Obama has pledged to solve climate change at the international level, it is important to note the United States is still playing a counterproductive role in the ongoing climate negotiations. At this moment, U.S. negotiators are in Bangkok attempting to undermine existing agreements and shirk wealthy nations' responsibility to lead the way in solving the climate crisis."
"If President Obama is to be a true Nobel Peace laureate, he must engage personally to reverse his country's current blocking role in the climate negotiations to secure a fair, ambitious and binding deal for the climate this December," said Gerd Leipold, executive director of Greenpeace International. "He must use his power to avert future climate conflicts and chaos."
Several environmentalists highlighted the coincidental timing of the Nobel award ceremony in Oslo on Dec. 10 to the Copenhagen negotiations, which run Dec. 7-18.
Gore said in Wisconsin today that while he had no inside information, he was "certain President Obama will go to Copenhagen." In 2007, Gore flew from his Nobel award ceremony in Oslo to Bali, Indonesia, for the U.N. climate talks there.
But Meyer said the timing may be awkward, considering that the Danish organizers hoped to bring together heads of state closer to the end of the talks.
"So the logistics are tricky," Meyer said. "He wouldn't likely fly directly from Oslo to Copenhagen, the way Gore did from Oslo to Bali in 2007, as it would be too early to join other leaders in presiding over the final deal. But the optics of going twice to Scandinavian countries in three months for other reasons, and then skipping the climate summit, might give the White House pause, especially if other prominent world leaders have committees to go."
"I hope this encourages President Obama to bring an ambitious target to Copenhagen," Yvo de Boer, the United Nations' top climate official, said via e-mail from Bangkok.
Several top Republicans, including then President George W. Bush and Sen. James Inhofe of Oklahoma, praised Gore in 2007 when he won the Nobel Peace Prize alongside the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (Greenwire, Oct. 12, 2007).
But some of Obama's critics from the right were not as kind in their interpretation of the latest Nobel Peace Prize award.
"The real question Americans are asking is, 'What has President Obama actually accomplished?'" Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, said in a press release. "It is unfortunate that the president's star power has outshined tireless advocates who have made real achievements working towards peace and human rights."
Obama, Steele added, "won't be receiving any awards from Americans for job creation, fiscal responsibility, or backing up rhetoric with concrete action."
Iain Martin, deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal Europe, questioned the timing of the award so soon into Obama's administration.
"Of course, traditionally it has been standard procedure that winners of the prize do their peacemaking first and are only given the prize after they have achieved something," Martin wrote this morning. "But this innovation sweeps aside such old-fashioned notions of reward following effort. Think about it, it's so post-modern: a leader can now win the peace prize for saying that he hopes to bring about peace at some point in the future. He doesn't actually have to do it, he just has to have aspirations. Brilliant."
On Capitol Hill, Texas Republican Rep. Joe Barton spokesman Larry Neal issued this statement in response to a question about Obama's award:
"The earth and I are more like cousins than actual friends, but I have to admit that it and the sun did a darned good job with the tomatoes in my back yard this summer. I can assure you that represents a decisive break from the past. I don't expect a Nobel for my bright promise of next year's tasty Beefsteaks and Early Girls, but now that they've started giving Nobel prizes for good things that could happen in the future, I'm as eligible as the next guy, right? As for now, well, I'm no Hendrick Danckerts -- who is? -- but I'm still a little disappointed to be overlooked. I even think they knew about my plans to build a shed."
Danckerts was a 17th century Dutch painter and engraver.
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