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Exclusively online: Series "12 Questions to ..."

GAIA 1/2017: 12 Questions to Klaus Hasselmann

Klaus Hasselmann, Professor Emeritus at the Institute of Geopphysics, University of Hamburg, former director of the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology, Hamburg.
Born 1931in Hamburg, Germany. Studies in physics and mathematics at the University of Hamburg. PhD in 1957. Assistant, then associate professor from 1961to 1964 at the Institute for Geophysics and Planetary Physics and Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, CA (USA). 1966 to 1975 professor at the University of Hamburg. 1975 to 1999 director of the Max Planck Institute of Meteorology, Hamburg. 1988 to 1999 scientific director at the German Climate Computer Centre, Hamburg.

1. From your point of view, what are today’s most pressing environmental problems?

Climate change is today’s most pressing problem. It affects all forms of life and cannot be readily reversed. However, many other environmental problems exist that are directly connected to climate change, from endangered species to pollution and water scarcity. There is an urgent need to address these problems, too.

 

2. When looking at potential improvements in our environment, what gives you hope?

The positive outcome of the Paris climate conference in December 2015 makes me optimistic that bottom-up public pressure is beginning to overcome the resistance of interest groups that oppose climate policies. The Paris Agreement, amilestone in international climate policy, will force governments to adopt more progressive environmental policies.

 

3. Is there a particular environmental policy reform you admire the most?

Denmark is an inspiring example: thanks to its investment in wind energy, support of electro-mobility, among other measures, it has an impressive climate record. Denmark’s carbon intensity of electricity generation, for example, is the lowest within the EU.

 

4. Which policy instrument do you consider most detrimental when it comes to achieving climate goals?

Subsidies in fossil fuel energy are still widespread, in the US and Australia, for example, but also in many other countries. Estimated worldwide fossil fuel subsidies lie in the 400 billion US dollar range annually. This is over five times greater than current estimated global subsidies in renewable energy! In the wake of the Paris Agreement, many countries have now agreed to phase out fossil fuel subsidies. But to achieve the Paris goals, we’ll need fossil fuel subsidies to be removed far more quickly than is currently
foreseen.

 

5. Why environmental research?

Many uncertainties still exist regarding the human impact on the environment. But the need for further research should not delay the need to respond now to the currently evident dangers of environmental change. Nevertheless, further research is important in order to continually optimize the response.

 

6. What has your experience been when it comes to transferring scientific insights into practice?

As a scientist, it’s not easy to transfer one’s understanding of complex processes to the public and policymakers. The most effective method is through the media. Media reports are read, seen or listened to by far more people – including decision makers – than a single scientist could contact. Although I’ve personally presented the climate problem to decision-makers such as Angela Merkel and Klaus Töpfer, I suspect they’re more influenced by the general public concern regarding climate change than by
the complex details of climate processes presented by an individual scientist. An important mechanism for the transfer of knowledge from scientists to the media is the impact of cross-disciplinary journals, such as Nature or Science. This is why, together withmany of my colleagues, I’ve regularly published overview papers or commentaries in these journals. The reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) also serve as an important mechanism for the transfer of scientific climate knowledge to both the media and decision makers.

 

7. Besides the one you’re working in, what field of research in the environmental sciences do you find most exciting?

Beyond my own field of climate change – which indirectly in cludes nearly all areas of the environment – I’m mainly interested in the political response to climate change, an important research field requiring the close interaction between climate scientists, economists, social scientists and political analysts. The
long-term problem of climate change cannot be addressed in isolation from the many other urgent shorter-term problems politicians face.

 

8. Can you name any person or event that has had a particular influence on your commitment to environmental issues?

Reimar Lüst, former president of the Max Planck Society, invited me to head the new Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, which was founded in 1975 as an institute dedicated to climate research. Apart from creating a climate research program in Germany, this position enabled me to recruit many young scientists, such as Mojib Latif and Hartmut Graßl, who have since gone on to have an important media impact. It also provided the basis for the later foundation of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, to complement the scientific research of the Max Planck Institute in the important field of climate impacts and climate policy.

 

9. What knowledge about the environment would you like to pass on to young people?

Protecting the environment does not require sacrifices, but rather the enhancement of our awareness and appreciation of the world we’re privileged to live in.

 

10. As a scientist concerned with sustainability, what contradictions do you face in everyday life?

I can’t understand how some people get satisfaction from displaying extravagant disrespect for the environment by driving large cars or Sport Utility Vehicles, flying to remote places of the Earth for pure enjoyment, or simply wasting energy in a mindless way by heating buildings with open windows.

 

11. What are you reading at the moment?

The Modern Mind by Peter Watson. The book gives a stimulating overview of the many interwoven strands of thinking in philosophy, science, economics, art, music, the environment, etc. over the last century. The environmental problem is placed in the historical context of the other challenges faced by humanity.

 

12. Apart from the ones we’ve raised here, what is the most important question of our day?

Will humanity realize that the climate problem is different from all the other problems we’ve been used to somehow “muddling through”? If left unresolved, climate change will permanently affect all living creatures on Earth.

Upcoming Event: GAIA-Jahrestreffen 2017
Die Rolle der Universitäten für eine nachhaltige Entwicklung am 28.-29.4.2017, BOKU Wien.
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