Nation Special


Sri Lankan professor Mohan Munasinghe reveals how a group of dedicated scientists put global warming on the world map by winning the Nobel Prize

Apart from reaching the zenith in their respective fields and the remarkable service rendered towards the betterment of humankind, exceptional people such as Albert Einstein, Maria Skłodowska-Curie, Sir Alexander Fleming, Ernest Hemingway, Martin Luther King Jr, Mother Theresa, have one thing in common. They were all Nobel Prize winners. The influence and recognition of this prestigious honour need no preamble. Hence, when an organisation, headed by a Sri Lankan, is bestowed with this coveted distinction, it is a cause for much celebration. This week, The Nation met Vice Chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Prof. Mohan Munasinghe, who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore, the 45th Vice President of the United States, who served under President Bill Clinton, to pay accolade for his achievement

By Vindya Amaranayake
For the first time in the history of the award, since its inception in 1901, the Nobel Peace Prize has been awarded to a Sri Lankan this year. Apart from the honour and prestige which the award carries with it, is also another remarkable achievement; it is the first time that the award primarily conferred for peace and security, has been bestowed on a group of scientists.
Prof. Munasinghe took time off from a busy schedule to tell The Nation, his reactions on receiving the award, and comment on his work.
“Normally, the award is given for political work. So it is very significant that it was awarded for scientific work. It recognises clearly that science has a role to play in peace and security,” Prof. Munasinghe explained.

With a smile of humility he added, “Of course we are a little bit stunned, but also very pleased with the result.”
It was his tireless efforts spanning across decades, in the arena of sustainable development and climate change, that earned him this honour. He says, his work, especially at the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), had enabled him to disseminate knowledge on climate change and lay out the measures required to counteract such change.

Comprising some of the world’s leading experts on climate change, IPCC can be termed as a, ‘think tank,’ and was created by World Meteorological Organisation and United Nations Environmental Programme. Prof. Munasinghe was responsible for having made a significant contribution to the four major reports prepared by the IPCC in 1990, 1995, 2001 and 2007.
Commenting on the importance of winning the coveted Prize, he emphasised on the main outcomes.

The most important aspect of the Prize, he says, is the recognition it has given to the work that he and his fellow scientists have been involved in. “Here is a bunch of scientists who are relatively unknown. With the award, their work has been recognised. I’m very happy for my colleagues who have put in so much effort”.

Prof. Munasinghe noted that there are people who are quite sceptical about the work of scientists saying that this global warming is nonsense and insignificant: “We have been a very credible body in the past, and I must say, 99% of the scientists agree with the position of the IPCC. Despite that, winning the Nobel Prize gives us that additional credibility, particularly with the public, so that we can send out our message more effectively.”

He, also emphasised the impact the award would have on influencing policy makers, in the future: “As scientists, we are not in the business of giving recommendations to politicians. We lay out the facts. Now we have greater influence in telling the general public and decision makers about the status of climate change today, and, most importantly, urge them to act quickly.”

Voicing his expert opinion on the climate change from a global perspective, Prof. Munasinghe said the news was not good. From a historical point of view, he said, carbon dioxide emission has been accumulating since the inception of industrialisation, 200 years ago. “It acts as a blanket and is basically trapping the sun’s heat and warming up the earth. We predict that if we go along this path, by the end of this century we can expect something like a 3oC average increase in temperature and 0.4 metres of sea level rise, which is quite a significant amount. There will be a change in rain fall variation, mainly for the worse, because the dry zones will be drier so you have more desert areas, while wet areas will get wetter, resulting in more floods.”

Bringing the subject closer home, Prof. Munasinghe explained how climate change will affect the future of Sri Lanka. “Climate has a significant impact on sustainable development in our country. Our water resources, coastal areas and health are the vulnerable areas that will be affected by this.”

Referring to the lifeline of the country, paddy cultivation, which depends entirely on monsoonal and inter-monsoonal showers, he explained that with the changes in rainfall, the dry zones will get drier and the wet zones will get wetter. “ The Dry zone will be seriously affected. Within the next 25 years we will see the rice output falling by 10-15%. This is significant because people living in those areas are poor farmers who are at the bottom of the social fabric,” he said.

Meanwhile, in the wet zone the things will improve a little: “You will have more rainfall, plus, when the temperature goes up the area will become warmer. It is good for tea crops. However, you will have more floods and landslides,” he noted.
“People in the dry zone are poor. On the other hand, in the wet zone are the larger tea estates. Hence, while the poor will lose, the rich will get richer. Resulting from this, there will be a significant demographic change where people will start moving out of the dry areas, and also from the coastal areas,” the Professor added.

The memories of the 2004 tsunami still ring in the ears of the entire country. With the climate change, the sea level will increase and the coastal areas will be faced with the threat of being submerged by the sea.

Prof. Munasinghe also mentioned that there will be a serious threat of mosquito borne diseases
One of the most significant documents laying down the need to introduce immediate measures to arrest the situation of climate change, is the Kyoto Protocol, which is an agreement made under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

In December this year, there will be another world summit on climate change, which could be termed as post-Kyoto Protocol to assess the current situation: “This is a major meeting on climate negotiation, which will take place in Bali, Indonesia. It will be an occasion where ministers of environment will be gathering. Since our influence has been greatly increased for the good, with the Nobel Prize win, we can push for early action in this area,” Prof. Munasinghe said optimistically.

He then explained the worst case scenario that could occur, if world leaders failed to recognise their responsibility to take the necessary action: “The worst case scenario is that we have an outcome called the ‘barbarisation’, not only because of climate change, but also because poverty and terrorism and the battle between the haves and have- nots.”

He described the scenario thus: “Where the rich will live in fortified enclavements, the poor will live in a chaotic world. This, of course, is an exaggeration. It need not happen. This ‘fortress world’ mentality has already begun where there is a need to keep the other people out. This can be seen in Sri Lanka too. Luxury apartments where guards are patrolling the premises, is an example of the phenomenon of polarisation and segmentation. This should stop.”

The future, he said, however could be made rosy too, but it requires a paradigm shift in the values and attitudes of the people. At the moment we are still looking at the issues from a monetary perspective, thinking that giving money to the poor will solve the issue. “This is necessary, but only in the short term. People are trying to adopt western values. Instead of flashy consumption patterns, the fundamental driving force should be on technology,” the professor emphasised.

Only if those values were fundamentally changed will there be a rosy future, he observed, adding that this was something that can be done.
“Climate change is only the part of the problem. Yet, if our attitude can be changed, a better future can be achieved. It can be done,” he reiterated.


Lanka’s first Nobel Prize winner wears many hats

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for work on climate change, was born in Sri Lanka. He has earned post-graduate degrees in engineering, physics and development economics from Cambridge University (UK), Massachusetts Institute of Technology (USA), McGill University, and Concordia University (Canada). He has also received several honorary doctorates (honoris causa). Currently, he is Chairman, Munasinghe Inst. of Development (MIND); Vice Chair, UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), Geneva; Colombo; Honorary Senior Advisor to the Sri Lanka Govt., and Visiting Professor, United Nations University, Tokyo.

During 35 years of distinguished public service, he has served as Senior Energy Advisor to the President of Sri Lanka, Advisor to the United States Presidents Council on Environmental Quality, and Senior Advisor/Director, World Bank. He was Visiting Professor at a number of leading universities worldwide. He has won many international prizes and medals for his research and its applications. Most notably, as Vice Chairman of the IPCC, he shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize (with other IPCC colleagues and AI Gore). He has authored 90 books and over three hundred technical papers on economics, sustainable development, climate change, power, energy, water resources, transport, environment, disasters, and information technology. He is a Fellow of several internationally recognised Academies of Science, and serves on the editorial boards of a dozen of academic journals.


Al Gore’s Prize a vindication for failed dream

After his year 2000 Presidential Election defeat against George W. Bush, former US Vice President Al Gore has dedicated his life to environment and climate change.

The Nobel Prize win for Gore is popularly regarded as a vindication for his failed dream of being the President of the United States. It is believed that his documentary on climate change, An Inconvenient Truth, which won the 2007 Academy Award for best documentary, despite conservatives in the United States denouncing it as’ alarmist and exaggerated’, had been responsible for his having won the Nobel prize.

Gore has in a statement said he was, “deeply honoured . We face a true planetary emergency. The climate crisis is not a political issue; it is a moral and spiritual challenge to all of humanity.”

“His strong commitment, reflected in political activity, lectures, films and books, has strengthened the struggle against climate change,” the Nobel citation said. “He is probably the single individual who has done most to create greater worldwide understanding of the measures that need to be adopted.”