27.10.20 Scientists’ responsibility: an interview with climate researcher Wolfgang Knorr Hans-Joachim Ziegler • 10 min.

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Science has reported on the anthropomorphic causes of climate change for at least 40 years. Although policymakers and the general public now have a much greater awareness of the issue, there’s still considerable doubt whether the climate strategies adopted so far will be sufficient. Climate researcher Wolfgang Knorr believes that scientists are partly responsible for this: they’ve either presented humanity’s ability to manage climate change too optimistically or refrained from taking part in the public debate. He calls on the scientific community to rethink its role.

More and more people say they’re anxious about the planet’s future. Foremost among them are climate researchers, marine biologists, and polar experts. Each day they’re confronted with climate change’s adverse impact on coral reefs, glaciers, and rare species. When they believe that policymakers and companies aren’t doing enough to avert a catastrophe, their reaction can therefore be vehement.

Eminent climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr is very familiar with the phenomenon: "Many scientists have a bad feeling about current developments. The fact that policymakers don’t seem to listen to science is frustrating. Some of us ignore it, others retreat into our particular scientific niche.” But Knorr, who has done research at the renowned Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, and other institutions, believes that this is precisely the wrong attitude. That’s why he took time to talk to us about two recent articles in which he urges his fellow researchers to rethink their approach.

Klimaforscher Wolfgang Knorr

Climate scientist Wolfgang Knorr

"Scientists see climate change first and foremost as a physical problem and not as a problem related to lifestyles or social injustice. This makes sense initially but ultimately leads to a very theoretical perspective.” This perspective is, to a certain degree, Knorr’s own: he uses elaborate computer models to predict how climate and ecosystems could change in the decades ahead. Although these models have become increasingly complex, Knorr believes that they retain a fundamental flaw.

How realistic are climate models?

“The models used to calculate how to achieve the 1.5 degree target are in many ways unrealistic. They not only assume that humanity will stop emitting carbon after 2050 but also that it will manage to remove carbon from the atmosphere on a massive scale. Supposedly, more than a third of current annual carbon emissions will be captured and sequestered each year after 2050. But whether this is realistic is hardly ever examined. It’s simply assumed that it’s theoretical feasible.”

In a recent article Knorr is more direct: “The Climate Action Tracker initiative estimates that given existing pledges, the world is heading towards 3 degrees of warming. As citizens we all know the difference between a politician’s words and deeds. … And yet, the IPCC’s various assessment reports have repeatedly relied on highly idealized so-called integrated models that know and admit nothing of these things, and therefore be easily bent to produce results that fly in the face of common logic.”

According to Knorr, the IPCC’s reports tend to exaggerate potential technological advances and policymakers’ willingness to act, but usually downplay the magnitude of climate change: “That’s how scientists work. They’re very cautious and avoid making statements that might be refuted later.”

Painting a rosy picture

Knorr believes that another reason that climate research has so far been unable to exert sufficient influence on policymakers is that the reports can also be used to paint a rosy picture of the future. In the same article he states: “After decades of climate system research, much of it coordinated with a political process to mitigate climate change, global carbon dioxide emissions keep rising in a quasi-exponential fashion. As far as the atmosphere is concerned, there has been no action on climate change whatsoever.”

Knorr is frustrated. He’d probably prefer to live in a world where scientists could simply do their research and let the facts speak for themselves. Besides, taking part in the public debate can have dangerous consequences for him and his colleagues: "Many of my colleagues are afraid that it will harm their careers if they speak up beyond their research.” Yet he’s convinced that there’s no other option. So what, in his opinion, needs to change?

The scientific community needs to set an example

At a minimum, simply carrying on isn’t an option: “My silence could send a message. Scientists must therefore develop a feeling for the subliminal messages their work sends.” For Knorr, this starts with travel habits: “When the same people who talk incessantly about climate change are also constantly jetting between climate conferences it undermines their message. The scientific community should become more aware of its function as a role model. If we demand radical changes from society, we need to set an example ourselves.”

Even more important for him is the question of which topics scientists should address: “The focus of my research isn’t a purely objective decision. But my choice affects the message I send.” In another article he states: “In the face of a genuine existential threat to our civilization, we scientists need to shift our focus from long-term models that give a false sense of control over the climate crisis and paint drastic emissions cuts as easily achievable. Instead, we should focus on vulnerability in the here and now.” He adds that “worryingly little” is known, for example, about the fragility of the global food supply chain.

Knorr calls on scientists to stop leaving opinion leadership to policymakers or the most outspoken members of society. "Climate scientists should be more than just experts, more than just providers of data. Instead, we can help create more clarity and make the whole discussion more honest.” This, however, would require the scientific community to relinquish its illusions. “Giving a sense of security to those affected is precisely the wrong message to send in an emergency like the one we have today,” Knorr explains. On the contrary, he advocates basing policymaking on worst-case scenarios.

Knorr emphasizes that he doesn’t blame scientists for what he considers to be the energy transition’s ponderous pace. “But the crisis is now more urgent than ever, and our current approach is beginning to make us part of the problem.”


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