Who will win this year's Nobel Peace Prize? Maybe WHO.

The Nobel Prize.
(Image credit: Illustrated | iStock)

On Monday, a trio of scientists won the 2020 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for their joint discovery of the virus that causes Hepatitis C. While their prize is deserved — the Nobel Committee cited the breakthrough as resulting in "blood tests and new medicines that have saved millions of lives" — it feels in some ways like the calm before the storm. If all goes well, it will be the 2021 Nobel Awards that recognize the scientists who discover the first proven COVID-19 vaccine or treatment.

Some believe the Nobel Committee's awards for pandemic responses could start much sooner, though — possibly as soon as Friday, when the organization announces its most prestigious honor, the Peace Prize. But while bookmakers regard the World Health Organization as the current favorite to win it, there is another elephant in the room: climate change.

With coronavirus news having been in the headlines for months, it can be easy to forget that 2020 began with the devastating Australian bushfires, and was followed by news of the invasive "murder hornets" reaching the United States, a historic hurricane season, California wildfires that blanketed the American west beneath hazardous air, and on Monday, a new report that Greenland's ice sheet is melting at a rate faster than any time in the last 12,000 years. Some experts have even gone as far as to suggest that "2020 is our last, best chance to save the planet."

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Bookmakers say a climate-related Peace Prize indeed has a chance: the 17-year-old Swedish environmental activist Greta Thunberg, who led school strikes for the climate last fall, is considered a favorite behind the WHO and New Zealand Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern (Ardern has been praised for her handling of the virus, briefly eradicating it from the country, but was also in contention prior to the outbreak for her leadership following the 2019 white supremacist terror attack in Christchurch). Henrik Urdal, the director of the Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO), told CNN he has his doubts about Thunberg though, noting: "What I'm questioning is the link between climate change and armed conflict, which is very often overstated."

Other scientists strongly disagree. Plus there's precedent: Al Gore and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change won the Peace Prize in 2007 for "their efforts to build up and disseminate greater knowledge about man-made climate change." And we know age isn't a factor: Malala Yousafzai was also 17 when she became the youngest Peace Prize laureate in 2014.

Both the World Health Organization and Thunberg would be sure to draw furious criticism of the famously scandal-averse Nobel Committee, which will in all likelihood honor an obscure mediator of a lower-profile crisis instead (and no, it won't be Donald Trump). But while there are future opportunities and unknown discoveries yet to be made in the race to beat COVID-19, the science behind climate change is known and it is urgent. An environmental Nobel Peace Prize in 2020 would be the crowning acknowledgment that the crisis needs.

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Jeva Lange

Jeva Lange was the executive editor at TheWeek.com. She formerly served as The Week's deputy editor and culture critic. She is also a contributor to Screen Slate, and her writing has appeared in The New York Daily News, The Awl, Vice, and Gothamist, among other publications. Jeva lives in New York City. Follow her on Twitter.