Hans Joachim Schellnhuber is director emeritus of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), an adviser to Angela Merkel and a member of the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS).
“It’s as if we are crashing into a wall and we are accelerating,” the 69-year-old German atmospheric physicist told Kathimerini. He says that people who turn a blind eye to climate change remind him of the joke about the man falling from the Empire State Building saying “So far everything is OK.”
Still, while he says the the growing movement against climate change may have come too late, he adds that “at least it came, because it’s worth fighting every tenth of a degree of global warming.”
Is it true that we have fewer than 10 years of emissions left before we trigger irreversible changes?
This is one of the things the report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) concluded. It’s more complicated than that, but if we continue emitting 40-45 billion tons of carbon dioxide per year for the next 10 years, as we do now, we will not be able to hold the 1.5 degrees Celsius line and probably we would also go beyond 2 degrees. We would cross a number of red lines, we would not be able to avoid losing the Greenland ice sheet and the coral reefs. Our research has concluded that in order to avert the worst we need to reach peak emissions by 2020, which is next year.
How realistic is that?
We were more hopeful two, three years ago, because emissions were flat. Now they are rising. Economic forecasts say the world economy will not grow and that might help with emissions, but this will be accidental, not sustainable. If we start using our scientific and technological potential, we could bend the curve in one to two years. In Germany we are in the middle of the Energiewende, so we’re changing our energy system, but we have not started changing our transport infrastructure. It is doable in technical terms but unfortunately not very likely.
We have come up with plans of how to do it. It can be done and people would even become healthier, because for example it’s healthier to eat less meat and to cycle rather than use a car. Our warnings were registered but never taken seriously, because people say, “So far everything was OK.” There’s the joke about the man falling from the Empire State Building passing by the second floor and saying, “So far everything is OK.” I have advised several governments for years. The science was known, the benefits of the switch were known. For example, it’s a lot easier to electrify India by solar energy than by coal and the construction of a huge grid. What was missing was the emotional element. That has now emerged with the Fridays for Future movement and Greta Thunberg. All of a sudden, the world takes this problem really seriously. This hasn’t got to do with science, although our warnings are getting bleaker and bleaker. It’s because people now understand that if we destroy the life support system of the Earth, we deny our children and grandchildren their future. This was not obvious so long as young children were silent. It came very late, maybe too late. At least it came, because it’s worth fighting every tenth of a degree of global warming. Every tenth of a degree in temperature rise causes further effects and every tenth of a degree is important.
You open any newspaper and you get the feeling there are two universes. One is news about the warnings of scientists like yourself and about the climate movement and the other is business news about new hydrocarbon extraction projects and new airports for tourism development.
That has to do with the inertia. I am a systems scientist and I can tell you that very complex systems split into two realities when there is a crisis. The incumbent system, the old system improves its performance and that is what is happening with the oil sector right now. More money, bright engineers and technicians. Of course, the new system, renewable energy, at the beginning is inferior to the old system. Then comes a tipping point where the old system implodes. If shareholders, institutional pension funds stop funding fossil fuel projects, this could happen very fast, within the next five to 10 years.
Bill Gates said the divestment idea was not going to lead anywhere.
He often gets things wrong on climate. I am a member of the National Academy of Sciences and Gates came to talk to us – he has access because he is so rich. I must say he has some very naive ideas about how to solve the climate crisis, including geoengineering, technological fixes. Divestment plays a big role already. I’m talking a lot to institutional investors and I’m telling you it could be an avalanche. The California teachers pension fund, controlling billions and billions, is willing to divest, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund is divesting first from coal and then from other fossil energy. Investors care about return on investment and risk, but also about reputation, and this is becoming ever more important. So divestment is part of the solution.
Do you see a difference between coal and natural gas?
Natural gas is a fake solution. If you could replace lignite (the form of coal that has the highest CO2 output) overnight with natural gas you would save 50, 60, 70 percent of emissions, depending on the quality of the gas. But in 20 years you must quit this too. It is perverse in a way to keep drilling, even for natural gas. We should stop immediately. Your country has tremendous potential for solar energy. People think hydrocarbons will bring quick money, but I’m pretty sure that in 20 years oil revenue will be gone.
Do you believe that?
Yes. If we want to solve the climate crisis, we have to stop burning oil. This sounds complicated but if we let the crisis evolve we will have other problems, so in both cases, business as usual is not an option. Here at the Institute, we have run our climate models into the deep past. We found that changes are happening now at hundreds of times the natural speed. It’s as if we are crashing into a wall and accelerating. In the last ice age, the mean temperature was only 3 or 4 degrees cooler and much of Europe was covered in ice. Imagine what happens if it gets 5 or 6 degrees warmer in the space of only 100 years. I don’t see how human civilization can be sustained. Whenever I give a talk to bankers, investors and they realize how solid the science is, they become very worried.
How about the people who read this interview then continue doing what they’ve always been doing?
Everybody is entitled to their own choice. You can feel cancer growing inside you and refuse to see a doctor because you‘re too scared of the diagnosis. I hope more people get convinced nonetheless.
You’ve been quoted as saying that if we do nothing, the planet will end up supporting only 1 billion people.
I have not made a serious analysis about this and I do not wish to. But this is my intuition. You see how people kill each other when the slightest controversy arises. Imagine if large coastal areas are inundated and crops fail. If we go to 4, 5, or 6 degrees till the end of the century, hundreds of millions would die. In the end, maybe only a billion would survive. I would rather try to stop this.