Warming to Al Gore
There is an assumption that the leader of the world's most powerful nation, the United States, is the most important person on the planet. For now this is certainly the case but, come this evening, when the foremost international award - the Nobel Peace Prize - is announced, it could quickly shift. A campaigner on the world's most talked-about issue, climate change, is this year widely tipped to take the US$1.5 million prize: former US vice-president Al Gore.
Mr Gore and Canadian Inuit activist Sheila Watt-Cloutier have been jointly nominated by two Norwegian parliamentarians. The 181 nominees also include US President George W. Bush.
Mr Bush controversially beat Mr Gore to the US presidency in 2000 but, if global warming is on the prize-giving committee's mind, the tables will be turned. Climate change is without doubt a hot issue and the hottest person associated with it is Mr Gore.
He has done more than anyone else to push the issue up the international agenda. In the 1980s, he was among the first politicians to publicly raise the topic. His excellent book, Earth In The Balance, published shortly before he became vice-president in 1993, pinned his colours firmly to the environmental mast. Last year's book and Academy-Award-winning documentary film, An Inconvenient Truth, lifted him from being an activist to an environmental rock star.
Mr Gore is already a household name. He made Time magazine's 2006 list of the world's 100 most influential people and regularly tops popularity polls. If he were to win the Nobel prize, his status would soar; a shot at - and winning - next year's US presidential election could be on the cards.
I have taken some convincing. Greenpeace International's former executive director, Steve Sawyer, rightly pointed out that Mr Gore took little action on climate-change issues during his eight years as vice-president and worse, from the peace perspective, cast the deciding vote in favour of the first Gulf war in 1991. The latter point has never been an impediment for the Nobel committee.
Over the years, it has made some curious choices, among them American imperialist and US president Theodore Roosevelt in 1906; two of the men responsible for the Vietnam war - US secretary of state Henry Kissinger and North Vietnam politician Le Duc Tho - in 1973; and the 1994 co-winner, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, who advocated the destruction of the state of Israel.
Of the dozen environmentalists and scientists I contacted regarding Mr Gore's worth, half said he would make an admirable winner, the others gave alternatives like German Chancellor Angela Merkel, California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ex-director of the WWF's climate change programme, Jennifer Morgan and Nasa's James Hansen.
My initial choice on hearing the possibility of a peace prize related to climate change was Dr Hansen, also on Time's list. His three decades of research and testimony to the US Congress in the 1980s took global warming out of scientific circles into the broader community. If not for his work, Mr Gore would never have picked up so early on the problem.
What tipped my vote was the scientist's written response to my query. He said: 'Al Gore has criss-crossed not only the US, but the world, giving his presentation hundreds of times on the dangers of global warming. He has gone to great efforts to make his story scientifically valid, requesting review by various scientists. One can quibble about a few details, but he has the essence right. He foresaw the importance of global warming way before other politicians. He showed a great deal of insight ... In my opinion, he deserves the honour.'
If the person I respect most in the fight against climate change is willing to tip his hat in such a lavish way, I can only concur.
We will find out in a matter of hours if the Nobel committee has decided whether the issue of climate change is to be given even greater prominence through its award. If Mr Gore gets the nod, he will rise from rock star to the most powerful person on Earth.
Peter Kammerer is the Post's foreign editor