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Testing Obama's Medal

How Obama can overcome incredulous reactions and truly earn his Nobel Peace Prize in Copenhagen.

They're still scraping jaws off the floors of the U.N. center in Bangkok. For it was at the tail end of the last day of the two-week session of climate change talks, during which the United States stood tall and stubborn as the biggest obstacle to an international agreement to be achieved Copenhagen, that word of Obama's Nobel Peace Prize buzzed through Blackberries and laptops, cascading like a wave through the closing plenary. The reaction, it must be said, was far from positive.

It's hard for me to emphasize enough the thickness of the international resentment towards America at the climate negotiation level. I can't tell you how much time I spend defending the American position in these negotiations, explaining the frustrating nuances of our domestic politics (if you ever want to see a face achieve superhuman levels of confusion, try describing the filibuster to someone from another country) and the infuriating disinformation machine that runs amok through our national media. But it's simply the sad reality that anyone from another country (besides Canadians, who share our sense of shame) who cares a lick about climate change is still outrageously disappointed with America's hindering positions in these talks and for most folks the blame lies on Obama's shoulders.

I'm not saying I totally agree with it, but that's the world's take.

So the contrarian argument has been an easy one for folks to make, and it goes something like this: The United States is the biggest obstacle to reaching a global climate treaty, and climate change is-it's no hyperbole to say-the biggest threat to global peace the world has ever known. Therefore, the United States is the biggest threat to global peace the world has ever known. Therefore, Obama doesn't deserve the Peace Prize.

Obviously, this is an entirely climate-centric view, and the Nobel folks have a lot more to consider. Apparently, his nuclear disarmament efforts gave him the edge. But I also like to think that this was something of a politically calculated move by the Nobel Committee directly related to climate. Obama will have to go to Norway to accept the award on December 10th. It just so happens that there are some pretty big international climate talks happening really close by at the same time. (And I'm certainly not the first to consider this proximity.) You might recall that Gore accepted his prize in Oslo in 2007, and immediately flew off to Bali to speak at those climate talks that set the course of action for these two years leading up to COP15. Last I checked, Copenhagen is a heckuva lot closer to Oslo than Bali.

So could the Nobels be teeing Obama up for a huge, world-shaking action to "justify" his award? "It's hard to imagine a more directed appeal for President Obama to come to Copenhagen," said Center for American Progress Senior Fellow and international climate policy expert Andrew Light. If Obama showed up in Scandanavia empty-handed for COP15, he'd be opening himself up to a raft of "Emperor has no clothes!" jokes and derision (a Danish fairytale, ironically). The Nobel announcement even did touch upon climate change directly, stating that "[t]hanks to Obama's initiative, the USA is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting." You'd be hard-pressed to convince attendants of the Bangkok climate talks that the United States is playing much of a "constructive role."

"This is probably an encouragement for him to act," said Polish President Lech Walesa, a 1983 Nobel Peace laureate. Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who won the prize the following year, agrees that the award shows great things are expected from him. "It's an award coming near the beginning of the first term of office of a relatively young president that anticipates an even greater contribution towards making our world a safer place for all," Tutu said. It's absolutely true that nothing will make this world a safer place for all than preventing the wholesale deterioration of a stable climate similar to that which all human society has developed. Will Obama feel prodded by this award, feel sufficiently pressured to be bold on the international climate front? Let's hope so.

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