Vidar Helgesen, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation

© Nobel Prize Outreach. Photo: Clément Morin.

“The Nobel Prize has a strong role to play”

We speak to Vidar Helgesen, Executive Director of the Nobel Foundation and previously Norway’s Minister of Climate and the Environment, about how the Nobel Prize and its laureates can help us tackle the challenges our planet faces.

How did your interest in climate change and the environment start?

Vidar Helgesen: I think anyone concerned with society and societal issues eventually should and will become concerned with climate change and planetary challenges associated with it. I think my first encounter was around the Brundtland report, the Rio conference in the early 1990s and the environmental wave that was a mark of that time. Later, on various occasions, I’ve been engaged with issues related to climate and environment culminating in being minister for climate and environment in Norway for some years.

Why do you think it’s important that we have this summit and what added values do you see that the Nobel Prize can bring to this event?

The value of the Nobel Prize is first and foremost, the quality of the laureates. We have several prize categories, several of which have been awarded to people with engagements on climate related issues – the peace prize, the prize in economic sciences, the chemistry prize. I think the fact that we’re providing a table for laureates to engage with other experts, policy makers, activists is our value in this. We’re not an advocate, but we are an institution with the most impressive alumni I think the world has seen and providing an opportunity for them to discuss and address the biggest challenges of our time is a natural thing to do.

What global challenges do you think are the most urgent right now for us to address?

I do think the planetary challenges that are on the agenda for the Nobel Prize Summit are on top of the list of what we need to address. Climate change and depletion of natural life is undermining economies, making societies more fragile, potentially magnifying conflict in society and between countries over resources. There are so many aspects to the fundamental workings on the planet and our society that relate to what is happening today to climate and biodiversity. That’s why the issue on the agenda here – the planetary boundaries issue and what can be done to stop the destruction of nature and put in place and accelerate and scale solutions – is really one of the most important, if not the most important challenges of today’s world.

What kind of collaborations do you think are needed to tackle our future challenges?

Today we have problems that are accelerating and taking place at high speed. Ecosystems are changing at speeds we haven’t seen before and at the same time they’re very complex and they’re interrelated. Climate change is not only about temperature. It’s about how ecosystems function. Climate change is also a big factor in diminishing biodiversity globally, for example, and interacting with other issues – pollution, overfishing, and other over exploitation of resources. The fact that these are interlinked problems that are accelerating fast requires an ongoing interaction between scientists and policy makers, so that actions can be taken to address these problems in a timely way. On the other side, there is a need for solutions that need to happen fast. Decisions need to be taken fast, but the solutions are also complex. What may appear as a good and effective solution may have side effects that we haven’t thought of. That’s why if you’re in urgent need of complicated solutions, you also need that policy-science dialogue. I think having scientists across a range of sectors and policy makers across a range of sectors interact in order to identify the problems and identify the solutions at the time and scale needed is an urgent challenge.

When talking to children and future generations what would you say would be the most important thing to address right now?

At a household level there’s a lot we can do, but the major challenge is really to get the resources globally – the financial resources and investments, the big money to go to the right places, the right technologies, the right solutions. That might not be an easy thing to communicate with children, but when we’re talking about the need for urgent scaling of solutions, it’s really about getting money, technology and policy frameworks to match. That’s complicated but it’s urgently needed.

And there the Nobel Prize and the Nobel Prize laureates can be really key to accomplishing these things.

Yes – we need both to understand the problems and to identify solutions. The disciplines of the Nobel Prize are relevant – we need physics and chemistry to find the right solutions. We need economists to tell us how we can act efficiently to curb problems and scale solutions. If we don’t succeed there’s going to be more instability and it’s not a coincidence that the peace prize has been awarded to climate activists and environmental activists several times. So the Nobel Prize and the laureates have a strong role to play.

We need a science policy dialogue. That means we need political decision-making that is based on knowledge produced by science and the world needs scientists to be willing to, and able to, interact in a direct way with decision makers. The fact that so many laureates and other experts have teamed up for this Nobel Prize Summit is an exciting indication that they’re willing to do so.

So we’re hoping for a Nobel Prize Summit for the benefit of humankind also for the future.

That’s the purpose of the Nobel Prize and the vision of Alfred Nobel. It’s still very much alive.

Learn more about the Nobel Prize Summit, taking place on 26-28 April 2021.