Your latest book is on climate change. Is there really anything new to say?
It’s true that a lot has been written about this subject. But my aim was to provide context for all the headlines and reports people are confronted with almost daily. I also want to show that, although the situation is dire, it’s still not too late to prevent the worst. It’s five minutes to midnight, not five minutes past midnight. That’s why the book argues that governments need to set clear policies. It also explains what each individual can do to prevent the earth’s climate from reaching the tipping point.
In 2019 forests burned in Australia, Brazil, and elsewhere. But then came Corona. Is anyone interested in climate change anymore?
Yes, more than ever. Each day I receive many emails from viewers about it. The record high temperatures Germany experienced in the summer of 2018 led to drought, forest fires, and crop failures. This helped make climate change tangible for people in this county as well. Obviously, the coronavirus has overshadowed all other issues because it affects everyone. But so does climate change. Fortunately, the vast majority of people understand that we simultaneously face several crises that require action. We ought not to make the mistake of protecting ourselves from a five-meter tsunami wave – the corona crisis – while overlooking the 500-meter wave of climate change which already looms on the horizon.
Both climate change and the coronavirus could cost millions of lives. But policymakers and the public respond very differently to the two issues. Why?
Probably because we perceive the threat from corona to be acute. My family, my friends, or I myself could get sick or even die from corona. Although the threat from climate change is also real, it seems less acute. We feel that it could happen sometime, somewhere to somebody – but not to us.
Is that the only difference?
No, the time frame is different as well. The corona crisis was like an asteroid impact in slow motion. We had a couple weeks to prepare and prevent the worst. That’s a time frame we understand. Climate change, however, is like an asteroid impact in super slow motion. It will take decades for the consequences our actions – or inaction – to fully materialize. Many of us and our children and grandchildren will experience these consequences. But that still seems very far into the future. Unfortunately, humans tend to procrastinate. Yet it’s very important to act now. By the time the effects of climate change are felt every day, it will be too late.
Policymakers responded to the corona crisis swiftly with measures that substantially restricted people's personal freedom. Most people supported the measures. Wouldn’t that also work for climate change?
The effects of climate change are simply not yet dramatic enough. If the situation were more apocalyptic – a devastating drought every year, for example – there would certainly be greater willingness to take drastic countermeasures. But the need for drastic countermeasures is precisely what we want to prevent.
Policymakers listened to the science regarding corona. Virologists like Professor Christian Drosten have become media stars in Germany: revered by some, abhorred by others. Could climate researchers become the new virologists?
Climate researchers like Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber and Professor Mojib Latif are known outside the scientific community, although they aren’t as popular as Professor Drosten. But they share his fate. When they use scientific findings to point out that we need to change our behavior to prevent a catastrophe, they too are discredited, insulted, and even threatened by certain groups.
Fridays for Future founder Greta Thunberg has also had to endure a lot of abuse online, particularly after she said “I want you to panic” about global warming. Is a state of panic the right approach to climate change?
No, good decisions rarely emerge from a state of panic. Still, I’m a big Greta fan. My first book on climate change was published 13 years ago. In it I wrote that the climate movement needs an icon. Greta is that icon. She sat in front of Sweden’s parliament on a Friday in the summer of 2018 with a cardboard sign. And by doing so she inspired and mobilized millions of people worldwide – mostly young people, but also older people and policymakers – to support climate protection. Of course, Greta isn’t primarily interested in people panicking. She simply wants policymakers and the public to become aware of the seriousness of the situation, to listen to science, and to take the steps necessary to protect the climate.
Do you see the corona crisis as an opportunity to make the economy climate-friendlier? Or are you afraid that the economic stimulus packages will ultimately be bad for climate protection?
During the corona-induced economic downturn, many people wondered whether consumerism should really continue and where it’s taking us. The restrictions have created big economic problems for many people. So it’s important for the economy to get back on track. But I also hope that the crisis will be a turning point in a positive sense. I hope that environmental and climate protection will be an important aspect of the EU’s New Green Deal. Many politicians now realize that environmentally friendly policies can earn them votes.
Will slowing down climate change require more rules, regulations, and bans?
Yes, absolutely. Experience shows that most people won’t change their behavior voluntarily. The greed that leads to the exploitation of nature and thus to climate change won’t simply be overcome. Besides, if only some people are actively protecting the climate but others are doing nothing, we’re not going to make any real progress. Binding rules for everyone, by contrast, would enable us to achieve a lot.
But bans are never popular.
I know. There will always be people who see bans as a restriction of their freedom. I myself am a big believer in personal freedom and wouldn’t want to restrict it unnecessarily. But one person’s freedom is often another person’s constraint. If our behavior accelerates climate change, not only plants and animals will suffer, but also people – particularly people in developing countries who have done little to cause climate change but will disproportionately feel its impact. Humans are the perpetrators as well as the victims of climate change. This too gives them the responsibility to act.