18 August 2010

Schellnhuber in Der Spiegel

Der Spiegel has a very interesting interview with Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, one of the world's leading climate scientists, confidant of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the self-proclaimed father of the 2-degree temperature target (UPDATE: In the comments Richard Tol points to Schellenhuber's 2 degree target proposal, here in PDF.  Tol has written an excellent analysis of the 2 degree target as well, here in PDF.)

[UPDATE: This interview is also being discussed at Die Klimazwiebel.]

The interview provides a candid look into the thinking of a leading scientist who is very influential in climate politics.  I recommend reading the interview in full.  Below are a few aspects of the interview that I found interesting.

First, Schellnhuber seems to struggle with the questions about fairly representing climate science in public debates.  He first seems to say that he does in fact emphasize disproportionately dangers and risks:
As an expert, it's possible that I tend to point to dangers and risks more than to opportunities and possibilities -- similarly to an engineer who builds a bridge and has to make people aware of everything that could cause it to collapse. Warning against a possible accident is in fact intended to reduce the likelihood of an accident.
He then seems to blame the media for exaggerations of climate science:
Naturally, we have to be careful not to dramatize things. After all, scientific credibility is our unique selling point. But I do confess that when you have the feeling that people just aren't listening, it becomes very tempting to turn up the volume. Naturally, we have to resist this temptation. On the other hand, the media often portray my statements in one-sided ways…
Then he cites the political demands for certainty:
In climatology, it would be difficult, even just from a technical point of view, to conduct the entire scientific debate in full public view. That's because politicians and society want the clearest, most unambiguous answers possible. And if we can't provide those answers, many people simply stop listening to us. They're basically saying: Don't bother us with your models and counter-models. Get back to us when you have all the answers.
An interesting set of answers, no doubt.

When asked about the 2 degree target, he is not optimistic (understandably).  He explains that the target was created for political reasons and invokes the need for air capture technologies:
Technically speaking [the 2 degree target] is probably still just about possible. But in 10 years' time it'll probably be too late. After that, it could be that the only solution will be global carbon management, that is, the artificial removal of CO2 from the atmosphere, perhaps through reforestation of degraded areas of land or the direct filtration and permanent disposal of carbon dioxide. That's the ace up our sleeve, which we would then have to play. . .

Politicians like to have clear targets, and a simple number is easier to handle than a complex temperature range. Besides, it was important to introduce a quantitative orientation in the first place, which the 1992 Framework Convention on Climate Change managed to elegantly wangle its way out of. And let's be honest: Even if we aim for the two-degree target, we'll end up somewhat higher. Whenever there's a speed limit, most drivers tend to go a little faster.
Remarkably, he ends the interview where so many arguments from climate scientists end up -- in a need to reform democracy to be less democratic:
Ultimately only democratic societies will be able to master this challenge, notwithstanding their torturous decision-marking processes. But to get there perhaps we'll need innovative refinement of our democratic institutions. I could imagine assigning 10 percent of all seats in parliament to ombudsmen who represent only the interests of future generations.
Who, I wonder will these forward-thinking ombudsmen actually be?  I suspect Schellnhuber has some ideas.