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Rabbi Michael M. Cohen

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The Time Has Come to Establish a Nobel Environment Prize

Posted: 01/12/12 12:00 PM ET

At the end of last year two women from Liberia, President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and Leymah Gbowee, along with the Arab Spring activist Tawakkol Karman from Yemen were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. These three extraordinary women shared the award "for their non-violent struggle for the safety of women and for women's rights to full participation in peace-building work." Former Norwegian Prime Minister and head of the Nobel committee Thorbjom Jagland noted, "We cannot achieve democracy and lasting peace in the world unless women obtain the same opportunities as men to influence developments at all levels of society." The overwhelming recipients of the Nobel Peace Prize since it was first awarded in 1901 have been men; this was the first time since 2004 that a woman had been given the award. Many hope bestowing this award to three women on two continents signals a shift in the recognition of the extraordinary and important efforts of women throughout the world.

There is another area of concern where the Nobel Committee should also consider placing more emphasis. While Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change were awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007 for their critical efforts to bring attention to climate change and lay the foundation to counteract the ever increasing alterations to the earth's climate, the acute crisis that humanity faces through global climate change warrants our maximum attention. The Nobel Foundation should create a Nobel Environment Prize.

There is precedent to add an additional Nobel Prize. From 1901 until 1969 Nobel Prizes were awarded in Physics, Chemistry, Physiology or Medicine, Literature, and Peace. In 1968 the Nobel Prize in Economics was established and the first award was conferred the following year. While the establishment of a new Nobel Prize should not be taken lightly, humanity has entered a new century where Alfred Nobel's goal to improve the human condition and the conditions for our survival now face grave challenges caused by the deterioration of our global environment. The Nobel Prize in Economics was established by a large donation by the Riksbanken, the central bank of Sweden, to the Nobel Foundation. The San Francisco based Goldman Foundation, which awards each year the Goldman Environment Prize, could be the catalyst for the establishment of the Nobel Environment Prize by a similar donation to the Nobel Foundation.

There are those who will say that the Nobel Peace Prize is the appropriate venue to recognize outstanding achievements in the field of the environment as was done four years ago. There is a logical connection between peace and the environment. More and more government agencies, think tanks, and academics understand the connection between the debasement of environmental conditions and military conflict. Severe drought caused by climate change has been a factor in the conflict in Darfur. In contradistinction the environment can serve as an agent for peacebuilding as, for example, seen through the bridgebuilding work of the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies.

Despite that connection between peace and the environment they are too great to be shared by one Nobel Prize. This view has been advocated for years by Dr. Tom Benson, President Emeritus of Green Mountain College; the flagship environmental college in the United States. The Nobel Peace Prize should continue to recognize those distinguished efforts to bring about better relations between peoples, while the envisioned Nobel Environment Prize would identify such efforts to bring about better relations between humanity and our common global environment. The efforts to save and adequately care for our global environment are too important and too vast to be subsumed within the Nobel Peace Prize.

Since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded in 1901, global temperatures and sea levels have increased, and glacial coverage has shrunk. Most alarming parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has increased from 300 in 1901 to 392 today and rising. Environmental activist Bill McKibben reminds us that 300 ppm was the top level naturally reached during the previous 800,000 years. 350 ppm, which was passed in 1988, is considered the highest long term safe number for human survival.

The Nobel Prizes were established in Alfred Nobel's will who instructed Prizes go to individuals whose efforts "conferred the greatest benefit on mankind". One Hundred and ten years since the first Nobel Prizes were awarded the care of our global environment has become essential for the survival of humankind. One way to show that we are serious about that critical endeavor would be the establishment of a Nobel Environment Prize.