On Winning the Nobel Prize

by Lenny Bernstein, 1941-2016

Lenny Bernstein

Lenny Bernstein

I won the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize. Well not really, even though for a few glorious months I thought I could make that claim.

How could I not know whether I’d won a Nobel Prize? Shouldn’t I have gotten a phone call from the Nobel Prize Committee congratulating me on being the winner, a trip to Oslo, and a check for a large sum of money?

It all started innocently enough. I was in Miami visiting my mother. I took her to a doctor’s appointment and sat with her in the waiting room trying to read while listening to the morning news on TV. About halfway through, the program announcer said that the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize had been awarded to Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

That got my undivided attention. I put my book down and turned to my mother. “That’s me. I just won part of the Nobel Prize,” I said, not quite believing the words myself.

My mother didn’t say, "That’s nice," or any of the similar things you might say when someone announces such an accomplishment. One look at her told me she knew what a Nobel Prize was, and she wasn’t about to believe that her son had won even a small part of one. My mother has always been one of my biggest fans, but there are limits to maternal love. Even at sixty-six, I had trouble dealing with the questioning look that comes into her eye when she thinks I’m trying to put something over on her. I had some explaining to do.

“Mom,” I started. “You know that for the past ten years I’ve been telling you that I was working on UN reports on climate change. Well, the IPCC, the group I’ve been working with, just won part of the Nobel Peace Prize. So I won part of it.” She seemed to accept the logic, but I still had the feeling that she wouldn’t fully believe it unless I showed her a check from the Nobel Prize Committee.

When I got back to Asheville, I found that fourteen experts from the National Climatic Data Center on Patton Avenue, one of the leading climate research centers in the world, had worked on IPCC reports and, like me, could claim that they had won part of the Nobel Prize.

IPCC reports are massive documents, three telephone book-sized volumes totaling 2,500 pages. Teams of twenty to fifty chapter authors, led by two Convening Lead Authors (CLAs), spend a year writing each of the roughly forty chapters that are the body of a report, then spend the next two years responding to three rounds of review by experts and governments world-wide. I was a chapter author for the IPCC report published in 2001 and a CLA for the report published in 2007. As a CLA, my job was to cajole an international team of authors into providing their input, and, without bruising egos, to turn it into readable English.

No one expects government officials, the target audience for IPCC reports, to read all 2,500 pages. A team of forty authors boils the full report down to a fifty-page Synthesis Report, then to a six-page summary. I drafted the section of the 2007 Synthesis Report on controlling greenhouse gases, and the few sentences in the summary on that topic. Each of my words was scrutinized and edited by representatives of over one hundred governments and, to my amazement, the published version bore a striking resemblance to what I’d first written.

Eventually, the Chairman of the IPCC sent an e-mail to all of us who had worked on the reports, explaining that we really couldn’t claim that we had won the Nobel Prize, only that we had contributed to the IPCC’s winning the prize. And, by the way, the prize money was going to an education fund for climate change researchers in developing countries. We weren’t going to get any of it.

Mayor Bellamy and the City Council were still sufficiently impressed with what the Climactic Data Center experts and I achieved to hold an award session for the fifteen of us. They gave each of us a certificate identifying us as exemplary citizens of the city.

I also got another certificate, this one with a copy of the actual Nobel Prize diploma. That was enough to convince my mother.

While I didn’t win the Nobel Prize, some people in Asheville, especially the manager of the fish department in my local Ingles, still like to make that claim. He greets me as a Nobel Prize winner every time I enter the store. It’s a little embarrassing, but I can live with it.

Lenny Bernstein is a retired chemical engineer trying to learn how to write fiction. He spent the last twenty years of his career working on climate change. He’s an avid hiker, who has completed the Appalachian Trail and currently serves as a member of the Appalachian Trail Conservancy Board of Directors.