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Dozens Climate-Change Researchers To Gather At I-House

October 23, 2008

Some 2,000 scientists contributed to the Nobel Peace Prize-winning IPCC report on global warming. Next week, the local contingent will be honored.

On the wall of Professor Kirk Smith’s office in the School of Public Health hangs an embossed certificate honoring his contributions to the United Nations’ Nobel Peace Prize-winning climate-change organization.

Because of his groundbreaking work on the deleterious health effects of air pollution caused by indoor cooking and heating fuels around the world, Smith was invited to be part of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s painstaking assessment process, which shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with Al Gore.

Next week, Smith will lead three of his fellow East Bay prizewinners in a discussion of the value of the IPCC, not just in reaching scientific conclusions about the dangers of climate change but as a model for the process of bringing worldwide expertise and consensus to bear on urgent global issues.

The occasion will be a celebratory dinner and ceremony being held by the United Nations Association of the East Bay on Friday, Oct. 24, at International House.

Honored at the dinner will be the 45 or so East Bay scientists and academics “” from UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley (LBNL) and Lawrence Livermore (LLNL) national laboratories “” who contributed to the IPCC’s massive, ongoing reports on climate change. The evening also marks the 63rd anniversary of the founding of the United Nations in 1945.

Since 1988 the IPCC has sought out the top experts in a wealth of disciplines related to climate change, health, and the environment to take part in a process that Smith says is “by far the most developed” of any such international effort to bring science to bear on policy.

More than 2,000 individuals, many of them university researchers, submit their own research, vet each others’ work, analyze and crunch numbers, map out solutions, and write and rewrite to reach scientific and international consensus on a problem whose existence is still not universally acknowledged. The IPCC’s Fourth Assessment Report, the most recent in the series, was issued last year.

According to Herb Behrstock, who became president of UNA-East Bay after a 30-year United Nations career, local recognition for the East Bay’s IPCC contributors has been modest “” a pizza party at Livermore Lab, coffee and cake at Berkeley Lab.

Even rounding up the names of the East Bay winners has been tough. Forty-five is Behrstock’s estimate after concerted efforts to pin down all the names, which are sprinkled through the long IPCC report, often with no campus or other affiliations listed.

On the Berkeley campus, no office keeps track, but at least six contributors held Berkeley appointments while working on the IPCC assessments: Smith himself; Dan Kammen, professor in the Energy and Resources Group; Norm Miller, adjunct professor of geography; William Collins, a professor of earth and planetary science; Inez Fung, professor of atmospheric science and co-director with Kammen of the campus’s Institute of the Environment; and Barbara Allen-Diaz, professor of environmental science, policy, and management.

A seventh contributor, Lee Schipper, received a certificate for his contributions to the second and third IPCC reports while he worked for LBNL and the International Energy Agency before arriving in the Global Metropolitan Studies program at Berkeley this fall. Margaret Torn, adjunct associate professor in the Energy and Resources Group, says she contributed to the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment but not to the extent that she received a certificate “” a category that likely includes other Berkeley researchers as well.

Smith, professor of global environmental health, chair of the graduate group in environmental health sciences, and associate director for international programs of the three-campus Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, contributed to two sections of the IPCC’s Fourth Assessment.

He was the first scientist to measure the often-lethal effects on human health of pollution caused by the burning of wood, coal, and other fuels indoors for cooking and heating, starting with a study of women in India in 1990. His ongoing research on the health impact of climate change on the poor in the developing world figured into the IPCC report, as did his work on mitigating co-benefits “” the idea that you can do things that would both reduce greenhouse gases and improve health at the same time.

The IPCC’s latest report, which reached an international consensus among governments that climate change is real, measurable, and potentially catastrophic, has had a huge impact, says Smith.

“It got the Nobel Prize. It’s the thing that’s cited about climate change,” he says. It contains a vast amount of useful information that’s available free online to anyone who wants to teach with it or use it to plan for the future, he adds, noting, “That alone is a major advance.”

At the UNA-East Bay dinner, he and fellow winners Surabi Menon and Jayant Sathaye of LBNL and Karl Taylor of LLNL will focus on the IPCC’s process.

“It’s quite systematic, it’s not biased, it’s heavily peer-reviewed, when they write an assessment they use only published results,” Smith says. “That has its limitations “” you can’t use new studies.”

Critics say that leads to conservative results, but Smith says he believes that’s inevitable in a process on which its member governments sign off.

“On the other hand, when they come out with something, it’s really solid,” he says. “If we came out with something a little more extreme, it would be easier to shoot it down. It’s an interesting tradeoff in a fast-changing world like climate change.”

For his part, UNA-East Bay’s Behrstock wants to make sure the light of the Nobel Prize shines on the United Nations as well as the IPCC.

“There are more than a dozen people and parts of the U.N. organization that have been recognized for Nobel Peace Prizes since 1945,” he says. “It’s important that it should be well understood that the United Nations as a body and all the people who work for it are working so well to achieve the goal of peace.”

Image Caption: The Nobel Peace Prize for 2007 was awarded jointly to Al Gore and the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), headed by Rajendra Pachauri (at left above). Thousands of scientists and researchers contributed to the IPCC’s definitive reports on climate change, dozens of them from Berkeley and two Bay Area national laboratories managed by the UC system. 

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