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Transform the world: Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

INTERVIEW: In Paris, COP21 is drawing to a close... but is it too late? Is the Earth doomed? After 25 years of climate change research, Schellnhuber, advisor to Angela Merkel and the Pope, assesses our progress.

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Illustration by Catherine Franck

After 25 years of climate change research, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, advisor to Angela Merkel and the Pope, assesses our progress.

A scientist with over 250 papers to his name, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is the founder and director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), one of the most important climate research institutes in the world, located just outside of Berlin. But it’s through his roles advising the powerful on the science of climate change that he’s had the most influence.

Transform the world, or you shall be transformed by it.

Not only did he help shape the views of a young Angela Merkel when she was Germany’s environment minister in the 1990s, he was also the principal scientific advisor on Pope Francis’ encyclical Laudato si’, the document the Vatican put out this summer which passionately called for swift and unified global action on climate change. He continues to advise the German government on climate matters through the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).

With the UN climate change summit COP21 taking place in Paris through December 11, we asked Schellnhuber how far we’ve come on the issue and what our next steps need to be.

You first turned your attention to the climate change issue 25 years ago. How would you judge the progress we’ve made since then?

When I started 25 years ago, I thought we would have a lot of time. It was a big problem, but we could and we would solve it in time. But because nothing’s really happened so far, we are now in this very dire situation where we are risking running down the entire human enterprise. Given everything, I think we are precisely where we deserve to be in 2015. We haven’t taken the steps required yet, but this year actually still holds the opportunity to change the course and enter a path towards global sustainability.

Has your conception of the issue changed over time?

On climate change, we’ve got the science right. We understand the economics. We understand how institutions work, but I think we neglected human nature. This year, through my involvement in the encyclical, I really learned that climate change is ultimately a moral issue. And that’s what we’re finally coming to understand. But it took us such a long time to really understand the core of the problem.

How is climate change a moral issue?

I coined this phrase, “the dictatorship of now”. People my age, who are 50, 60, 70, run the world these days. We’ve benefited from exploiting fossil fuels – resources which were created by nature over millions of years, but which are now being used up almost in their entirety in a generation or two. It’s crazy. And we’re putting the burden and waste on future generations. This is just not fair.

And that’s where the moral question comes in. If you’re well-off and privileged, you could say: forget the rest of the world, and forget the consequences, I’m going to simply enjoy the rest of my life. Or you can look at this situation and say, “No, this is not acceptable.” The newer generations, the young people – they’ll be much more impacted by the things my generation is neglecting to do. So whenever I talk to young people, I say, “Show your anger. Show that this is not okay, yeah?”

How did your work on the encyclical come about? Did you just get an email out of the blue from the Pope asking you to come down to Rome?

Well, there was an email out of the blue, which simply said, “We will present the encyclical to the world on the 18th of June. Would you be willing to present it?” And I said, “Oh my god, the first PowerPoint presentation in the Vatican in 2000 years!”

But I can’t disclose the full story of it all – maybe in 50 years, one will know precisely who made an input and so on. The Vatican has long debated about global warming. Some 10 years ago they had a symposium on global warming, which was more or less dominated by climate sceptics and denialists. But over the years, and then especially when Pope Francis came into office, things changed. And as it shifted, I was drawn into the process somewhat. They had a few workshops and symposiums on sustainability and I presented a couple keynote talks on the issue at the Vatican. Then I had the chance to meet with the Pope. But the encyclical was really written by Pope Francis. This was so near and dear to his heart. Initial drafts were circulated. In the end, he took a week and just wrote it down.

What was the Vatican presentation like?

I presented the encyclical together with Cardinal Turkson, who wrote the initial draft, and the Patriarch of Pergamon. Afterwards we had a long conversation with Pope Francis, who thanked us, and we exchanged thoughts about the Paris conference and everything. It was extremely touching and extremely impressive. He’s a very charismatic personality.

Was there anything that particularly struck you about how the Vatican approached the issue of climate change?

It was striking how strictly the Vatican adhered to scientific evidence. You expect them to say, “It’s all about faith.” But, in strict contrast to the US Republican party, they say, “We will honour the scientific evidence.” And they did! The other thing that struck me is how bold the document is. If you read the IPCC and the encyclical next to each other – it’s amazing. You have the scientists tending to be extremely careful not to say one word which goes beyond their expertise, and then you have the encyclical, which just speaks out in a forceful tone and says, “We are risking our common home, we have to act.” Even going so far as to say that capitalism won’t be able to solve it. When I first read the Spanish draft, I said, “Oh my God.” In the true sense of the word.

Aside from helping with the encyclical, you’re also famous within climate circles for being the scientist who first put forward the two-degree target, the ‘red-line’ that shouldn’t be crossed, when you were advisor to then-environmental minister Angela Merkel in the 1990s. That target has now been adopted internationally. Can you tell us more about it?

Well, any target is all about avoiding consequences that we cannot manage. For example, if the Antarctic ice sheet melts, it would mean a 50-metre rise in sea level. We clearly can’t manage that. So my thinking was, what would a global metric be – the simplest global metric – which would encompass the most severe impacts we need to avoid? And in a sense, that is where the two-degree threshold came from. Of course, the climate is a very complicated thing. There are many different factors and variables. But in the end what you learn is that a good political target has to be extremely simple. As Albert Einstein said, “A good theory has to be as simple as possible, but not simpler.” That’s precisely what the two-degree threshold is.

Some people might say two degrees doesn’t sound like very much…

One of the most compelling metaphors is comparing the Earth’s system to the human body. Both have vital organs and processes. And global mean temperature is very similar to internal body temperature. Your body temperature as well as mine is roughly 36.8 degrees. If you have a fever, and your temperature goes up to 39 degrees, you are fairly seriously ill. At five degrees’ increase, you are dead.

So what will happen if you drive up the global mean temperature? First the coral reefs will go, then probably the Greenland ice sheet – then Antarctica, then the Amazon rainforest. This is a fascinating field of research, because it’s all about non-linearity and abrupt change and irreversibilities. But it’s also very scary. Because even holding the two-degree line is a big gamble with our planet.

So staying within that two-degree threshold doesn’t mean we’re safe?

That is the scary thing really. Based on our insights, we can write or draw a rough map where all the tipping elements are, and where the uncertainties are. And what you see is you have a cluster around two degrees, where things can tip. You have a big cluster around four degrees, and the final cluster around eight degrees – where east Antarctica would melt down as well. But the two-degree cluster’s really the worrying one. Because it means, even if we can stop global warming at that level, that we may have some big hits. But the jury is still out on that. It may turn out that our intent to stabilise the climate before we have the big hits will be the closest call seen in human civilisation.

You’ve compared it to Russian roulette…

I even called it American roulette. American roulette is a new version I came up with where instead of having only one bullet in a six-shooter revolver, you have five bullets. With the recent positive steps being taken, I feel like maybe we’re moving back to the Russian roulette version, which isn’t exactly a comforting idea!

In the end I think we’ve gotten off track. I mean, fossil fuels have propelled us into the industrial age – the industrial revolution was very good for humankind. We have modern science and medicine and transport and everything. But it has gone too far. We are overdeveloped now. Not in Bangladesh of course, but my god, in the United States and Canada, in Germany – we have much more material resources than we need. So we need to transform this, and this will mean, ultimately, that we have to de-carbonise the world.

That sounds like it will be a big challenge. What kind of transformation will need to take place to avert disaster?

You have the scientists who are extremely careful… and then you have the Pope’s encyclical, which boldly says, ‘We are risking our common home, we have to act.’ It was striking how strictly the Vatican adhered to scientific evidence.

I actually called it “the great transformation”. It means more or less moving from a wasteful, exponentially growing civilisation to a circular economy. This means, in the first place, replacing fossil fuels with renewables, and reducing energy consumption. Secondly, we have to close many material loops, where you do not just produce something and then throw it away. I once saw a very nice advert in London saying, “Don’t throw anything away, there is no away.” It’s true.

So the great transformation to sustainability in my view is the third big revolution in human civilisation – the first one was the Neolithic revolution when people settled down and invented agriculture; the second was discovering the use of fossil fuels in the 18th century. And now it’s the sustainability revolution. Which, by the way, does not mean there is no growth. But the growth will be more intellectual growth. We will all become creative people, and not just take pride in driving an even bigger car every year.

What will happen if we do nothing and the global temperature rises, say, four degrees?

The latest projections of the United Nations are that there will be 11 billion people by 2100, with four billion of them living in Africa. Even now, it’s almost impossible to adequately feed the one billion people who are in Africa. If you add four degrees to global mean temperature – which would mean at least six degrees for Africa – with quadruple the population, I can’t imagine how you would stabilise the situation. It’d be hell on earth. In the best case, these people would be allowed to migrate to Europe, Asia, America, or wherever. But we are already despairing being faced with two million refugees from Syria. So how could you manage 200 million or two billion? It’s impossible to think about it. Angela Merkel once said, “Don’t think that nothing happens if nothing happens.” And that’s precisely the case. So the choice we have is – transform the world, or you shall be transformed by the world. I think it’s better if we are part of shaping the future, instead of just being shaped by it, in likely an extremely unpleasant way.

You’ve said social movements are key to tackling the climate problem. Which is surprising coming from someone who advised important political leaders for such a long time…

Well, what I learned is a few enlightened leaders can make a huge difference. But I also learned that they have to ride on a wave of public support in the end. You cannot do it against your population. For example, Angela Merkel has never faltered in her assessment of the climate problem. But after Fukushima, because of the support on the ground, she was able to move fully forward with the German Energiewende mandate. Something which would not have been possible before. Without public support for it, politicians will just give up and turn to a different theme. Because in the end, they want to be re-elected. So we have to help the politicians and they have to help us.

Do you think the sense of urgency among the general public is starting to spread?

We’ve had ups and downs in the public concern about this problem. For a while in 2007 it was seen as cool and chic to be a climate activist, and then after 2009 in Copenhagen the issue mostly disappeared. But I think people are coming to their senses. If you asked people in Germany now whether they support the energy transition, you’d have the support of 80 to 90 percent. You still have the odd denialists, but the overall level of support is extremely high and very stable. So I would say finally the world is coming to understand the tremendous risk we face, and they expect the policy makers to deliver. I’m more optimistic now.

And yet, if a Republican wins the US presidency, it’ll likely be one of those denialists.

Yeah. Let me come to the singularity in human civilisation. I think for 98 percent of the world, it’s a clear-cut case: We either just forget about the future, and future generations will be transformed by global change, or we act now. With the Republican Party, I think this is the phenomenon of decadence. When a system becomes dysfunctional – and the US political system is dysfunctional – strange things happen. If a system is threatened, its general reaction is to do more of the same. If you are in a deep hole, you stop digging – but dysfunctional systems keep digging. That’s precisely what happened to big empires in ancient times, and I think this is a sort of a last-stage empire phenomenon we’re witnessing in the United States. I don’t think it will happen, but if Donald Trump actually becomes the Republican Party nominee, it would simply be an indication that the system is close to collapse.

But global warming is bigger than the United States of America. If the world has to be transformed for the sake of a better future for our descendants, it can also be transformed without the US. And without Canada and without Australia. The majority of the population of this world lives in Asia, and many of them live in Africa. The transformation can’t be stopped anymore. I’m pretty sure that we have already gone beyond the social tipping points.

So how are you feeling going into the climate talks in Paris?

I’m actually pretty optimistic. We see that targets are being upped ahead of Paris, and once we start to see the needle move, and understand that we can actually bring emissions down, I think the world will further up its ambitions. Like if you want to lose weight. The scale keeps saying 90-something kilos, but then for the first time, the 8 appears. And you feel, “Oh, I’m on the right course.” That’s precisely what is happening now.

It all seems impossible until it happens.

Like Mandela famously said, yeah. “It all seems impossible until we get it done.”