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A Warm Slice of Nobel Prize

By Joshua Brown Article published October 24, 2007

Jenkins
A Small Peace: UVM ecologist Jennifer Jenkins serves on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that, along with Al Gore, was awarded this year's Nobel Peace Prize. (Photo: Courtesy of Jennifer Jenkins)

Surely, the Norwegian Nobel Committee didn’t notify Al Gore by email. But that’s how UVM’s Jennifer Jenkins learned of her share. “I am delighted that the enormous team work of the IPCC has earned recognition with the Nobel Peace Prize,” wrote Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, on Oct. 15, “This makes you and your colleagues a Nobel laureate.”

Okay, but Jenkins, a research assistant professor in the Rubenstein School of Environment and Natural Resources, is not ready to add “Nobel Peace Prize, 2007,” to her resume.

“I think it’s a stretch,” she says, with a laugh, “though it is nice to have the work of the IPCC recognized.”

She was one of 450 lead authors who contributed chapters to the reports that the Nobel committee commended for creating “an ever-broader informed consensus about the connection between human activities and global warming.”

“I was really pleased that Gore had been awarded,” she says, “I had been following the leading contenders, and I knew that climate change was going to be highlighted. But I was surprised that a group could be given the prize.”

Taking stock of greenhouse gas sources
Jenkins studies the effects of global-scale processes, particularly the cycling of carbon, on forests as well as urban ecosystems. Her part of the vast IPCC effort — involving more than 3,000 scientists from 130 countries — falls under the National Greenhouse Gas Inventories Program. That team was charged with creating guidelines that nations can use for taking stock of their greenhouse gas sources and removals — ranging from industrial smokestack emissions to cow flatulence to carbon uptake of lawns.

“Many nations, particularly developing nations, don’t have resources to deploy a team of experts,” Jenkins says, to figure out their own approach to this complex accounting. So, instead, they rely on the methods outlined by the IPCC — like the work Jenkins did as the lead author of two chapters in the 2006 IPCC Guidelines for National Greenhouse Gas Inventories.

“They’re obliged to know,” Jenkins says, “for the new international agreements,” particularly the United Nations Convention on Climate Change that gave rise to the Kyoto treaty. “They have to count their carbon, basically.”

“I was not involved in the three working groups you may have heard about. Instead, to understand the impacts, vulnerability and mitigation options that those groups were presenting, we were working in the background to create inventories,” she says.

Nominated by the U.S. government in 2002 to serve on IPCC, Jenkins has traveled to Mauritius off the coast of Africa, Sydney and Moscow to meet with her co-authors from Argentina, Japan and elsewhere. There, they worked together on their assigned task: writing scientific accounting methods for greenhouse gas sources and sinks in plants and soils in “settlements,” like towns and cities, and in the vaguely titled, “other land.”

“We’re talking desert, bare rock, that kind of place,” says Jenkins.

While she received support from UVM and the U.S. Forest Service’s Northern Global Change Program to participate in the IPCC’s work, she, like all its scientists, was a volunteer. “Jen is one of our eminent research faculty,” notes Saleem Ali, associate dean in the Rubenstein School, and she is the “only UVM faculty person to have served on the IPCC.”

An advocate for change
But Jenkins is more than a carbon accountant. She is an advocate for change, serving on the Vermont Governor’s Commission on Climate Change, participating in numerous global warming panels and events, and teaching undergraduate courses on the science and history of climate change.

“There is a lot of emphasis on getting people to reduce their carbon emissions. But it’s just not working! The environmental groups don’t get it: most people believe one thing and do another,” Jenkins says, “So what needs to happen to get people to do what they believe?”

“We need to make climate change mitigation sexy. We need to make it a status symbol to reduce one’s climate impact,” she says, sitting forward in her chair. “I study urban and suburban carbon. In the places I work, there is an innate fondness for a very comfortable life. Telling people they have to live off the grid or kill their own food is not going to work. It has to be fashionable.”

But the consequences of not slowing carbon emissions, as she knows too well, are far more sober than fashion. Or as the Nobel Peace Prize committee warns, extensive climate change will likely induce huge migrations, warfare over resources, and threaten the living conditions of most people.

“The Northwest Passage is now melted,” Jenkins says, and shrugs, “I don’t have words for what’s happening. Scary doesn’t do it.”