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Altered Landscapes Here and There – 3 Questions with Artist Barbara Dombrowski

Barbara Dombrowski fights climate change with her camera in hand – or rather, she fights the public disregard for this fundamental challenge of our time. For years she’s been traveling all over the world to document the changes that climate change induces on landscapes and their inhabitants, humans and animals alike. In her exhibition “Tropic Ice_Dialog between Places Affected by Climate Change“ she combines impressions from two places, that could not be less alike. One experience they all share, however: a changing climate and changing living conditions. Through her work, Barbara Dombrowski illustrates clearly: when it comes to climate change, we are all in this together.

The photographer from Hamburg kindly answered 3 questions regarding her installation art. Starting on September 13th with a press event, you can see her work at the BUND’s property at Hambacher Forst (NRW, Germany) from September 14th until September 22nd. Please feel free to share your experience and thoughts on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram.

From Greenland to the Amazon basin, the desert of Gobi, Tanzania or Oceania –
one can hardly picture more divergent places. Yet, this discrepancy is key to
your project “Tropic Ice”. What inspired your project?

I have been working on this project for the past ten years. Previously I had studied climate change for years, causing it to be at the forefront of my mind when I started “Tropic Ice”. I think my interest in climate change started with the birth of my son in 2000. As a mother, I want all facets of our unique planet to still exist for our children and the next generations to come.
It is disastrous how we are willing to risk our resources and then just completely disregard the situation on political and economic levels. When I started the project, nobody much talked or cared about climate change. Not even in the media. It took somebody like Greta Thunberg to render the society sensible for the challenges and risks that climate change poses to all of us. This development took us way too long.

Only now some movement within politics and the economy is starting to emerge. Today many people are engaged in some kind of climate protection. But the general public very rarely knows about their projects and initiatives. The advocates usually relate to specific groups of people, which means we need more of them so that the general public will fight climate change. Photography and art are my means of contributing to this.

You travelled the world in search of visible implications induced by climate change. You encountered various landscapes, met with different people. What did you learn about the effects of climate change?

I started out by contrasting East Greenland’s people and landscapes with the Amazon basin – representing the Americas and Europe. Climate change affects both continents in such an extensive way, that they are so-called tipping points of the climate system. For many years I frequently visited and lived with the locals there. They are conscious that their contribution to the changing climate is not relevant in any way when compared to big industrial nations. Nonetheless, they experience the fragility and uniqueness of their living environment – and the global climate for that matter – every single day. In these regions, you can feel climate change progressing.

In East Greenland, for example, the population is witnessing the migration of shoals, caused by climate change through the changing of ocean currents, temperature and salt levels. Seals constitute the livelihood for the East Greenland population but because the animals feed of fish, they are bound to disappear from these places if there is no longer enough for them to eat.
In the Amazonian rainforest, the indigenous population is being threatened by large scale deforestation and reckless oil production, resulting in the economic exploitation of their resources. These practices deprive them of their basis of existence and further advances climate change.

From comparing extremely opposite weather regions, I eventually moved on to Tanzania, the Gobi desert and Oceania to complete my work on the remaining populated continents. I used the same way of interacting and interviewing the people there as before in Greenland and the Amazonian rainforest. These five places that I was able to visit are now representations of the five continents. During my stay in Tanzania in 2017, the country was going through an extreme drought, leading to many cows dying and the smell of decay being everywhere. Due to their close proximity to the equator, the barren landscape and the lack of precipitation, the Maasai are very aware of the threat that a changing climate poses to them. Before I was able to ask them about climate change they had already confronted me about it.

This marked a changing point in my work. Climate change had become a reality for some people. The Kiribati archipelago, my last stop in the South Pacific, showed me how fragile populated island chains really are. Every small change in the climate will lead to great consequences. Besides being threatened by rising sea levels, I assume that the salinization of freshwater pockets and the accompanying vegetation loss of e.g. palm trees means a great danger for the livelihood of the population.

Some of the peoples I visited used to be animists and had a meaningful relationship with nature before having been proselytized. They understood themselves to be part of a cycle like every animal, plant or even rocks. In opposition to such a mindset, people in the northern parts of the world understand humans as being at the top of the pyramid. An attitude which has lead to us colonizing the earth and (ab)using its resources.

The relationship animists have with nature-inspired me to create my second installation cycle in the shape of a circle with a centre as the focal point. I wanted to commemorate the way circles are represented in many cultures, alluding to the symbolism and meaning that are often attached. In my installation art, I want to showcase the all-encompassing connection by tying together all five continents through their representatives. This does not mean that I am excluding people from places in the north which are just as much part of the circle. Which is why I have come up with the project “Part of the Art” where everyone who would like to be part of the installation art can upload their portrait to my website I am planning on showcasing the portraits on small Tibetan prayer flags during the big art
installation in the lagoon of Kiribati.

With regards to climate change – what general role does art inhabit?

In my opinion, there is a need for art in society to force people to face great societal issues and come up with ideas on how to engage with such. My art does this without lecturing anyone. It is necessary to create spaces through art where people can start contemplating impulses and ideas that art provides them with. Art can motivate people to engage with issues without being condescending. Most people do care about our planet but are just not aware of the massive consequences that our behavior causes. This is where art is indispensable to create an awareness in society.

All photographs belong to Barbara Dombrowski who kindly allowed us to feature them

By Neele Mühlhoff

Editorial N°4

Fires © Sayler/ Morris


Dear readers,


“I’m not an academic, I’m just a person. What can I do to fight climate change?” This question came from a young woman at our first 42_analog panel discussion in London. Sitting in the row behind her, I admired her courage. But at the same time, I felt a twang of pain at hearing her words. They indicate the wide gap between science and society that so many people sense: The academics are on one side, and the rest of the world on the other – as if there was a dividing line between them. We want to close that gap and make scientific knowledge accessible for everybody, so that we can all profit from it instead of marvelling at it from afar. That is why more than 40 young European people worked on and contributed to this fourth issue of 42 Magazine. At our panel discussion, climatologist Fredi Otto, historian Richard Staley, and digital climate activist Adam Levy, who is more widely known as YouTuber ClimateAdam, talked about the consequences of climate change. The bottom line is this: Political measures are of the utmost importance – and it is just as important that we continue to talk about climate change.

Who can and should do something about climate change is a very complex question. Anthony Patt, professor of climate policy, has identified a clear objective to stop climate change: Our carbon emissions have to be reduced to zero. He calls for a collective rethinking of and changes in climate policy. Even though the scientific community agrees on the fact that us humans bear responsibility for global warming, some people are still in doubt. Among them are, for example, right-wing populist parties, who often openly express their scepticism about climate change. In our discussion with Alexander Carius and Stella Schaller, we talk about how climate protection has to change so as not to provide them with further ammunition.

What happens if our efforts fall short and climate change progresses faster than we can fight it? Many experts focus their research on how to stop climate change entirely. Others try to influence the environment in order to slow down the change. Gernot Wagner is one of those researchers. In his interview with 42 Magazine, he talks about the approaches in the field of geoengineering which are currently being developed by his team at Harvard University and might help to delay climate change. But there is one great concern he has about his work: That these inventions for slowing down climate change get mistaken for an easy solution to stop it entirely.

It is a fact that the planet’s resources are being used up too quickly and our climate is changing. Back in the day, Juri Gagarin, the first man in space, urged us not to destroy the planet. Last year, astronaut Alexander Gerst sent a video message from space, in which he apologised to his future grandchildren for doing just that. Frank White coined the term Overview Effect, which denotes an astronaut’s change in perception after they have seen the earth from above, surrounded only by the emptiness of space. They begin to feel a deep respect for the fragility of our planet and a strong sense of the unity of all people. The works of photographers Susannah Sayler and Edward Morris capture this fragility and their clear view of the current change is their contribution to this issue.

Even those of us who will not be travelling to space in the near future can gain an awareness of the fragility and vulnerability of our planet. In the name of the entire 42 team, I am pleased to present to you ten perspectives on a topic which affects each and every one of us: our changing climate.


Lena Kronenbürger

Editor in chief, 42 Magazine


“All preventive measures are expensive but much more so is deciding to stay inactive.”

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting XLVII: Cordillera Blanca, Peru, 2008  © Sayler/Morris

How Humanity Changes Climate – A Calculation Model 


The past summer in Europe has been extremely hot and dry – the new normal or an exception to the rule? With Dr Friederike Otto, we take a look in the mirror to acknowledge the consequences of man-made climate change as our reflection increasingly gains profile with the help of attribution science.

Dr Otto, you have co-founded the discipline of “Attribution Science”. When you are talking about climate change in your research do you refer to a natural process or the man-made influence on the climate system?

When I talk about climate change, I explicitly mean the man-made, the anthropogenic climate change. Obviously, climate will transform over a certain amount of time without any human assistance, but indisputably, we are currently living in the Anthropocene, meaning a time when humans have a substantial influence on climate processes.

What exactly is the field of attribution science?

“Trend Attribution” is an important and well-researched section of attribution science, which deals with the rise of the global mean temperature, its driving factors and ramifications, so with the long-term consequences of climate change. Admittedly, we have known for a long time that the global mean temperature is rising but this factor alone will not kill anyone directly. However, indirectly it could, mainly through the increased probability of extreme weather events. This is where my research becomes relevant. After the occurrence of an extreme weather event, I try to understand what role climate change has played in the process. I call this approach “Event Attribution”.

How do you make the influence created by humans tangible?

Every extreme weather event is the result of an interplay of various driving forces. Out of this multiplicity of driving forces, we try to isolate the influence of climate change. Our approach is very simple. We determine the probability of a weather event occurring within the world we live in today, and compare this result to the probability of the same event occurring in a world that is just like ours but omits climate change caused by humans. The influence that humanity has on climate change can be narrowed down by comparing these two results.Thus, we are interested in the whole spectrum of possible weather occurrences within the given climate conditions. This is why we cannot derive the probability of a specific weather event occurring from simply looking at how often that specific event has occurred in the observed record. We have to simulate the possible weather events in the form of climate models. The basic idea of this approach is very simple, the execution however is still difficult as it requires high-quality observational data, high resolution climate models and an establishment of a strong connection between the real world damages, and a weather event that can be observed and simulated reliably.

How is a climate model created?

There are three basic principles of physics which determine the climate: the conservation of energy, the conservation of mass, and the conservation of momentum. In the climate model, these three basic principles are implemented as differential equations. The problem here comes from the conservation of momentum which is Newton’s second law. This law for the atmospheric circulation is called the Navier-Stokes equation which can be written down but cannot be solved analytically, and also numerically not everywhere you’d in theory like to, due to the giant effort that would be necessary to calculate the movements of every single particle in the atmosphere. This is why the equation is solved numerically at discrete points only. For that, the world is arranged in a grid so that the equation can be solved at the grid points and not in the spaces in-between. The resolution, meaning the density of the grid points, is the crucial difference between climate and weather models. Principally, a climate model is nothing else but a weather model with a lower resolution.

For your project “” you do not rely on the processing power of one central mainframe but on the capacities of thousands of volunteers instead. Their private computers are running your climate models. Hands-on research. Is that a way to create a higher resolution model?

Exactly. For example, Europe is covered with a grid that has grid points every 25 kilometres. Distributed computing gives us the advantage of being able to run many more simulations for possible weather events. With a modern mainframe and a lot of money, we would be able to maybe run 50 simulations but because of our method, we can calculate possible weather events under the given climate conditions up to 1,000 times. Without this project, we would probably be ten years behind our current state of research.


“The U.S. greenhouse gas emissions made the heatwave in Argentina 30% more likely to occur”


If we talk about proof for the man-made influence we would also have to discuss responsibility or rather blame. Can such concepts be allocated within a complex system like our climate?

That depends on how you define it but the short answer is ‘yes’. For example, for one of our studies we looked at U.S. greenhouse gas emissions and their influence on three extreme weather events: a heatwave in Argentina, extreme rains in England, and a heatwave in the Arctic. In science, you never get one absolute number as a result, but a margin of uncertainty.In our study, we found that within this margin of uncertainty it can be concluded that the U.S. greenhouse gas emissions made the heatwave in Argentina 30% more likely to occur. However, such studies depend on certain assumptions which each impacts the result. In general, these assumptions rather refer to political or social dimensions. For example, looking at all of the historic emissions in the US since the beginning of the industrial revolution rather than just from, say, 1990 when the first report of the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) –which made the consequences of emissions well-known in the first place – was published. The result is obviously a very different one but asking which timeframe is the right one is just no scientific question.

Due to your work on the World Weather Attribution project, you have also done research on the 2018 heatwave in Europe. What was your conclusion?

In this case, there is not just one conclusion but actually seven, since the definition of “heatwave” means something different for each of the seven cities we looked at. However, the general result shows how, from a meteorological viewpoint, the heatwave was not an extreme event, except for some cities located in the very north. It was an event that can be expected to occur every five to ten years even though the highest temperatures had broken records. This shows what it means to live in a world with a strong trend, where record-breaking temperature occurrences are no longer being seen as extreme events from a meteorological point of view due to how more likely they are to occur. From an attribution point of view, it has also become apparent that the likelihood of extreme weather events has distinctly increased because of man-made climate change. Depending on the city, the probability of an occurrence has become two to five times more likely.


“Looking at the distance between cause and consequence partly explains the issues”


In 2018 you went to Katowice (Poland) for the climate summit which ended in disappointing results. Your research delivered proof of human influence. From a Kantian perspective, what is holding us back from using reason and counteracting climate change?

That is a very loaded question. For the most part, there is the issue of perception. Emissions which are, for example, emitted in Asia or America lead to climate change all around the world and not just within the immediate surroundings of the locations and the impacts are very inhomogenous, apparently only affecting far away countries. Looking at the distance between cause and consequence partly explains the issues that arise when trying to handle climate change. However, climate change is not something that will happen sometime in a far away future in a place far away. It is happening right here and now, even where we live. The probability for heatwaves in Europe has obviously gone up considerably, nonetheless, the summer of 2018 was a pleasant summer for most Europeans. Climate change is not being perceived as something which is threatening our very existence. I also believe that a majority of all people have a hard time imagining a lifestyle that excludes fossil fuels.

Cue the term “lifestyle” – climate change is also being called a “catastrophe without event” because the continuation of our daily routines leads to a catastrophe. Is the crux to break with this continuity?

I believe that the fight against climate change does not differ from other processes of societal progress in general. Every advance we make as a society is faced by a certain degree of opposition. Currently, the best way to understand the opposition to change is by looking at the AfD or Donald Trump’s politics, which is all about the attempt to stop societal progress by creating physical or psychological barriers. I believe that the reasons for this reactionary position are basically no different from the reasons which deter an active fight against climate change.

Bangladesh is seen as one of the hotspots for climate change. How do the local politicians react to that?

For a developing country, Bangladesh invests a lot into science and research. Also, as far as I know, Bangladesh is the only country in the world that has created a Loss and Damage-Fund. The term “Loss and Damage” encompasses all damages which resulted from insufficient or unattainable adaptations to climate change. After years of solicitation from the least developed countries, the 2016 Paris climate agreement incorporated the term and all its implications. That might be the best proof for developing countries being capable of having a great influence on the international stage. Nonetheless, the Paris agreement is very vague in its explanation and their recommendations on how implementation would work. Bangladesh on the other hand, put a part of their national budget to the side to be able to help in the case of climate-caused damages.

What role is attribution science playing in terms of compensation claims?

As far as I know, none of the money Bangladesh had allocated has been paid out because the question of what is part of “Loss and Damage” is very difficult to answer. The actual problem is the question of distribution. For example, if an event only shows a low probability, do those affected only receive little money? This aspect entails many difficult social questions which is why the definition of “Loss and Damage” is almost non-existent in the Paris climate agreement. At some point, there needs to be an agreed definition that can work as a base for further discussion.

Is that the reaction to your research you are hoping for: compensation in the case of damages?

It would be fantastic if my research could actually contribute to more justice in climate matters. I am sceptical if my research is suited to actually lead to more feasible compensations. The availability of data is often not sufficient enough and the climate models that are available to us today have their limits. That is why attribution science is a tricky base to build upon in order to calculate any loss and damage claims. What I am primarily hoping for is that we – and I am also including us scientists – gain a more realistic understanding of what climate change actually means due to us not having any overview of the ramifications up until now. All the attribution science that we have worked on over the past years has given us something to highlight here and there but it fails to yield a complete picture of the consequences. On the one hand, I hope that we will be able to isolate climate change hotspots in the future. On the other, it is important to be able to better differentiate which climate events are influenced by climate change and which are not.

What are the specific contributions of your research to more justice in climate matters?

On a basic level, my research can contribute to the ability to communicate in numbers who is actually affected by man-made climate change. It is a big issue that we are lacking the necessary data due to the lack of measuring stations, especially in the poorer parts of the world. This means we do sometimes not know what the “normal” weather really looks like in these regions, disregarding extreme weather events. Consequently, we do not have any reference figures for our climate models. Even within climate modelling we are confronted with a certain degree of eurocentrism due to the climate models working best in the areas they were designed in. None of the world-wide accessible climate models were developed in Africa. Because no climate model is perfect, compromises are unavoidable and most of the time the compromise consists of the model working best in the area it was developed in at the expense of the rest of the world. The problem is not just the observational data but also the distorted models. This is where it comes full circle because the appropriate models cannot be developed without observational data.


“Even within climate modelling we are confronted with a certain degree of eurocentrism”


New-Zealand estimated that climate-caused damages to its country over the last ten years have amounted to 840 Billion USD. You have voiced the opinion that all countries should establish a balance showing all damages caused by climate change. Why is that?

To stress that all preventive measures are expensive but much more so is deciding to stay inactive. The objective that staying passive will be expensive and already is at this point in time, is often overlooked in discussions about renewable energies. In New Zealand, they did just look at the attributable impact of droughts and floods to come up with a conservative calculation. Thus, that number is the absolute floor of the caused damages. Of course, just the assessment of damages does not do much on its own but it functions as a basis for arguments which try to justify the shutting down of a coal plant, for example.

The German philosopher Günther Anders once said that “Man throws further than he can see.” How much can attribution science contribute to bridging the created gap between our short-sighted actions in the present and the resulting repercussions in the future?

On the one hand, attribution science can add to the perception of climate change by making its influence on extreme weather events more visible. However, the crucial step is surely the connection of attribution science and climate projection, meaning the connection of past and future. For example, if we look at the European heatwave last summer. Without climate change that would have been an event that occurs maybe every 30 to 40 years but with the global mean temperature rising even one more degree we will experience a summer like that every other year. This way it is so much easier to distinctly show what a rise of one or even one and a half degrees in temperature would mean. Otherwise, 1.5 or 2 degrees are only politically charged figures which nonetheless remain very abstract in what they express. In my opinion, it is possible to bridge the gap mentioned by Günther Anders by trying to establish the connection between the already experienced and whatever the future will bring.

That makes it sound like prevention.

Of course, if we use the methods which were developed for attribution science to make predictions at specific locations. If we know what kind of event a region or a city is vulnerable to, we can – even without the specific event taking place – say how the likelihood is changing for such an event to even occur and how to best plan and prioritise adjustments.

You have voiced a cautious optimism about the way climate change is being dealt with. However, the GHG-emissions have gone up 3% in 2018 which makes it appear like we do not know anything about climate change. How can you stay optimistic?

Just the fact that the Paris climate agreement even exists and that it was signed by all states is, from a climate political point of view, way more than what was to be expected in the beginning of 2015. On the other hand, in my judgment, it is a generational issue. For our generation, it is very obvious that anthropogenic climate change exists. This trend will progress for generations to come and it will not be much longer until these are the people who make all the important choices. I think that this is what makes me feel optimistic.

Interview: Kurt Bille
Translation: Laura Emily Schulze



Friederike Otto

© Friederike Otto

Dr Friederike Otto is the Acting Director of the Environmental Change Institute at the University of Oxford and Associate Professor in the Institute’s Global Science Program. Furthermore, she is the co-founder of the “World Weather Attribution” project and has contributed significantly to the implementation of the open-science project Her research focus of attribution science concentrates on the influence of human beings on the probability of extreme weather events.

Sayler/ Morris

“Microplastic and greenhouse gases know no national borders”

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting L: Cordillera Blanca, Peru, 2008 © Sayler/Morris

Climate Change: Catastrophe without Event


We love fictional catastrophes, but what happens when the catastrophe becomes reality without us realizing it? Speaking to 42 Magazine, Prof. Dr Eva Horn of the Institute for German Studies at the University of Vienna explains why we fail to acknowledge climate change even though humans have been actively altering our climate for millennia. In order to respond to this ecological crisis, Eva Horn is re-examining democratic processes and calling for alternative models of collective decision-making.

Dr Horn, stories of the apocalypse and the end of the world are a popular topic in both film and literature. Why are we so fascinated with the fate of the last of humanity?

Catastrophe fascinates us because it represents the eruption of something that has always existed as a threat: something we did not recognize, but should perhaps have been able to see. Since we don’t normally experience disasters, but rather live enclosed, relatively and uneventful lives, we often get the feeling that something might descend upon us; something already there, but not yet visible.

Is that why we look for catastrophes in fiction?

Exactly. When I experience a fictional catastrophe through a movie or book, I explore the dark places which I have always noticed subconsciously. What if we were confronted by certain extreme weather events like a snowstorm that prevents us from leaving our homes? Those living on the East Coast of the United States have this problem every winter. But if this threatening situation continues, as in Roland Emmerich’s “The Day After Tomorrow”, what will happen then? What underlying structures of our communal life will then become visible? A catastrophe can also give rise to positive aspects, such as solidarity and communal work. The positive as well as negative potential of our community is revealed when everyday life collapses, which is what a catastrophe represents.

Does that make stories test scenarios for us to analyze?

No. Scientists want to analyze. Audiences want to experience concrete stories and explore new possibilities. Literature and film offer a space for experimentation. Sometimes literature is based on extensive scientific research, but this does not have to be explicit within the narrative. Cormac McCarthy’s novel “The Road” is a realisticportrait of a nuclear winter, but the novel never refers back to the science on which it is based. The science is poetically obscured through the narrative and thus provides a frank perspective on the behaviour of the characters towards each other. The book is therefore of such interest for this reason, that it illustrates the human dimension of a catastrophe. That is what readers are interested in.

Catastrophes are a very old subject; climate change and the role humans play in it are also not new. Already in 1788, the German philosopher and poet Johann Gottfried Herder called humans a “band of bold little giants” who changed landscapes and the climate with their “feeble hands”.

Herder refers hereto the landscape transformationswhich took place in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the Holoceneperiod. In essence, Herder claims in his observations that culture developed through the alteration of thelandscape, through for example irrigation and drainage, and through interference with the local climate. He argues that through this interference humanity is changed: it generates its own culture. The key idea is that humans have to be understood as cultural beings, who distinguish themselves through the manipulation of their ecological surroundings.

Did Herder regard human intervention into nature’s processes as necessary?

Yes. This idea was coined by the French geologist George Buffon, who was a very progressive thinker for his time. He was the first person to calculate, for example, the age of the Earth, beyond the biblical chronology of about 6,000 years,at circa 80,000 years – still quite an understatement, but for his time a revolutionary idea. According to Buffon, mankind had come to be on Earth in order to manipulate the climate, because his theoretical elaborations assumed that Earth had originally been a blistering lump of iron that was slowly, but irrevocably, cooling down. This cooling-off is mainly drivenby bodies of water and forests, which makes it mankind’s task to keep Earth habitable through deforestation, the drainage of swamps or the canalization of rivers. Today you could say: man made climate change is counteracting this alleged cooling effect. Herder adopts Buffon’s idea of humans as climate-changing beings and goes even further when he endorses the manipulation of local climatic conditions, as this created culture. Both of course had no sense of the complex relationships involved in the Earth system, atmosphere or hydrosphere, and were hence relatively optimistic. The geological epoch of the Holocene already held the germ of the idea behind the Anthropocene, in characterising humankind as climate-changing beings.

Where does the term Anthropocene come from?

The term Anthropocene was coined in 2002 by the interdisciplinary Earth system science. Geologists were the first to use it because they felt responsible for the definition of epochs and their change, in this case from the Holocene to the Anthropocene. They did not create the term, but have popularized it. Today, the Anthropocene is a societal term which expresses the idea that we are now in an ecological crisis so severe that we are leaving the climatic and ecological stability of the Holocene. These days the term Anthropocene does not only designate an epochal threshold separating us from this stability, but also a synthesis of the many different symptoms of crisis within our complex Earth system which have been detected since human interference has become measurable: the loss of species, the disruption of important chemical cycles, ocean acidification, land consumption and urbanization, desertification and many more. For this reason,the Anthropocene is not a synonym of climate change; rather, climate change is a phenomenon of the Anthropocene.

Does the climatic period of rest of the last millennia constitute an exception rather than the norm?

The Holocene, i.e. the last 12,000 years, has indeed been an anomaly in climate history in which the intense fluctuation between glacial and interglacial periods, which had characterized the Pleistocene, suddenly leveled out to leave only small swings in temperature. All the achievements of modern civilization – from complex social structures to media – developed in this resting period of the Holocene because the Holocene, as a stable climate period, allowed mankind above all to stay in one place and become a settledspecies. Thus, static societies developed, which became increasingly hierarchical as well as more intelligent, because they accumulated knowledge and preserved it in media like stone tablets and,later, books. Such a period of climatic stability, of balance, which we experience as normality, is actually a rarity in the history of nature.

Is the popular ecological idea of the balance of nature still relevant then?

No, that is a completely inadequate way to describe the way nature works, as we now understand it. According to Earth system science, the Earth possesses a self-regulating dynamic balance, but the term balance is misleading in this case. Balance can also mean that the Earth may experience a new Ice Age, which thaws and in a couple million years looks as it does now. This would also constitute balance; however, from a human perspective this would constitute a gigantic catastrophe. The Earth fluctuates constantly, but normally it does so over very long periods of time. Hence, there is self-regulation but not on the small, local level that we associate with natural reserves instituted for this purpose. We mustunderstand this idea in its historical context, because it was coined by 19th century ecology, and arose at a moment in time when industrialization had already begun to disrupt and destroy large parts of nature; this was a time when we knew quite a lot already about local climate change. In these circumstances the idea of protecting nature arose, with the thinking that,if mankind didnot interfere, nature would uphold a natural stable equilibrium. We mustundo our normal thinking when approaching this reasoningin order to understand why people argued this way.

Does that mean that it’s not the term “balance” that is misleading, but the short period of time we base it on?

Yes, exactly. The issue of balance is actually a problem of scale, a question of magnitude, of the geographic space that is studied, and of time range. It is of course also a product of the scientific approach of viewing biotopes as phenomena within a specified framework. A biotope is only a small sample, but in order to examine regions, one has to utilize Earth system science and, above all, the necessary computing power. As in climatology, calculations were already being made in the 19th century, although effective climate science has only been possible since the appropriate processing power has becomeavailable through the advent of modern computing. But there were already impressive results in the 19th century: already more than a hundred years ago the Swedish physicist and chemist Svante Arrhenius had already described the greenhouse effect as the product of CO2.

For a long time, we regarded the climate as a constant, and that the weather fluctuated from time to time. Has our understanding of the climate changed?

The term “global climate” covers an abstract system and is therefore difficult to comprehend in its entirety. We all think now that we know what the global climate is, but we actually only know computer models, in which arrows indicate wind direction and movements while different continents change colours. Climate, as we know it, is the cycle of seasons or rather a sequence of certain weather conditions. That means that the climate people experience is fundamentally bound to a certain place and certain cycles.


“We must let climate change get to us, not just as something global that is happening elsewhere, but as something that is occurring here and now”


And this experience of weather has changed?

Yes. What we have experiencedmore and more in recent times is that our expectations ofweather conditions, which are based on our experience, are not being fulfilled, and that the weather is different to what our rhythmic understanding of it have it be. That means that climate will continue to be a stable, physically measurablequantity, but less reliably linked to our experience. Climate possesses a kind of unpredictability, which mitigates the familiar feeling of living within a specific climate, which we experience in all its facets throughout the course of the year. This in itself is not a problem, until extreme weather occurs, which the community affected was not prepared for. It is important to allow climate change inside our homes in the sense that we need to understand how the landscape and the parameters of the annual cycle of our immediate surroundings will change. We must let climate change get to us, not just as something global that is happening elsewhere, but as something that is occurring here and now, where we live.


“It is difficult to name the perpetrators when the catastrophe occurs removed from time and space”


You have coined the term “catastrophe without event” and name climate change as an example. What does that mean exactly?

The catastrophe of climate change is occurring slowly and in such miniscule shifts that we do not recognise it as a big bang, a sudden collapse, but are also failing to notice that is it taking its course. That is what “catastrophe without event” means. We have ecological issues today that we did not have 50 years ago; micro-plastic for example, which is found both in soil and water. These are catastrophes not marked by events, acts causing harm that we do not notice, and whose effects are unknown. American scientist Rob Nixon coined the term “slow violence” for this process, specifically in the context of the effects of environmental damage in developing countries. If we talk about violence, then there is always a perpetrator. But it is difficult to name the perpetrators when the catastrophe occurs removed from time and space. I don’t know exactly where the catastrophe is currently happening, because it is happening everywhere. That is why I use the term “catastrophe without event”, because it assumes a neutral point of view.

Nevertheless, we might reach a point of no return in the future. Would such a tipping point not bean event?

The term tipping point originated from Earth system science and strongly relates to cybernetic models, regulatory processes of highly complex systems. An easily observed tipping point is, for example, the eutrophication of a lake: nitrates accumulate, and nothing happens at first until the lake surpasses a certain threshold and the entire ecosystem of the lake collapses and nearly all living beings within it die. This process can often be observed in ecological contexts, because these are complex and self-regulating systems, which are able to buffer some disruptions over longer periods of time until saturation is reached. This culminates in a chain of events. In that sense, a tipping point does constitute an event, because it is followed by a cascade of side-effects. But the lead-up to the tipping pointconstitutes an event of equal value within the gradual process and has to be included in the course of events, even though it remains invisible up until the catastrophe itself. Tipping points are therefore a typical characteristic of complex systems. However, they remain difficult to anticipate and it is even more difficult to predict them. With the climate, at the moment, we are currently at the stage leading up to the tipping point, butcannot gauge the magnitude of this development. For this reason we may have difficulty preventing it.

The cause of climate change is rooted in our collective behaviour. Does that mean that the solution can also be found in collective, democratic behaviour?

Of course, but democracy might not be the right format, because democracy is bound to nations and nation-states. Nation-states represent their citizenry in international committees, whose resolutions possess no binding force. If we want to restructure democracy, then we first need to address the danger of populism – that is, decisions based on misinformation and baiting. Furthermore, in the context of global challenges, we would need to stop thinking solely in terms of nation-states, which are only interested in the popular vote, in order to make unpopular decisions that make sense from an ecological perspective.


“We need to reconstruct our democratic process of decision-making”


How can we solve this dilemma?

We need a new form of collective decision-making. One based on knowledge, or rather knowledgeability, so that decisions can be made on a higher level of abstraction and the force of our habits can be overcome. That means that we need to reconstruct our democratic process of decision-making, which might lead to a system that does not give the same number of votes to everybody. The equality of the vote is something of a sacred cow, but democracy increasingly struggles with unqualified or rigged decision-making processes. To face a global crisis, we cannot be afraid to question these processes.

Modernity has brought about and initiated the Anthropocene without understanding what it has done. The fundamental conviction of modernity is the active shaping of the future, the prevention of hazards and the creation of desired futures through planning and foresight. The problem is that we now have such a detailed appreciation of the interconnectedness of the world that it is becoming more difficult to generate simple preventive measures. Obviously, we can say: the way in which Western industrial countries are consuming goods is not sustainable, therefore it has to change. But how? Rapid industrialization and the immense increase in consumption, which societies like China and India are going through, is an ecological catastrophe, as is the consumer behaviour of Americans and Europeans. Microplastic and greenhouse gases know no national borders. That is why we need new transnational institutions that tackle issues on the policy-level and optimize decision-making processes.

Interview: Kurt Bille
Translation: Hannah Bliersbach



Foto: Helmut Grünbichler; © Eva Horn

Prof. Dr Eva Horn teaches and conducts research at the University of Vienna’s Institute for German Studies. Her work focuses on the cultural and literary debates surrounding climate change as a “catastrophe without event”.


“Humans have long thought that people could change the climate”

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting LIV: Carabayllo, Lima, Peru, 2008 © Sayler/Morris

Antiquity, Colonisation, Industrialisation – A Historiographic Perspective on Climate Change


Historians are specialists in reconstructing the past, but in the case of climate change, they have played a critical role in understanding the present. In his interview with 42 Magazine, Dr Richard Staley explains how historians have changed climate science, and how climate scientists have shaped the history of the climate. He suggests that we need to acknowledge the historical forces that have produced carbon-economies, and the relationship between colonialism and climate change.

We often think of climate change as a strictly scientific problem – but you’ve argued that climate scientists are also historians of a kind. In what ways is climate change a historical issue?

Climate scientists, on one level, have rewritten the history of the climate itself. In the early to mid-twentieth-century, most climatologists understood climate to be little more than ‘average weather’. Scientists acknowledged that such averages might change, but only gradually. They knew that there had once been Ice Ages and did attempt to explain these. These are periods of global cooling and glaciation that have occurred numerous times in the history of the earth, the most recent encompassing the period of c. 115,000 to c. 11,700 years ago.

So, in the early days, climate scientists were looking for evidence of global cooling rather than global warming?

Yes. In the early twentieth-century, searching for evidence of Ice Ages was far more important and some of the measurements their studies produced have been useful to present-day scientists. At this point, scientists thought that feedback loops and the circulation of carbon between the atmosphere, oceans and earth might be important in understanding the causes of Ice Ages.  After the Second World War, the accumulation of carbon from industrialisation took on increasing importance, but it was always understood within a complex network of natural phenomena which included uptake of carbon by the oceans and other factors. In the 1970s climate scientists started to pull all this information from ‘natural archives’ such as ocean floor sediments, ice cores, and fossilised pollen together, in order to develop long-term accounts of past climate change. In the 1980s to 1990s, it became clear that these changes could happen stunningly fast. Through studying these ‘natural archives’, scientists changed our understanding of the history of the climate.

Historical methods such as the analysis of natural archives and historical sources thus shaped climate science?

That’s right, and such evidence has shaped mathematical climate models. After World War Two, meteorologists began to use new computer technologies in attempt to predict future climates, based on concepts of ‘average weather’. They extended models that initially could only forecast a few days ahead to deal with decades or centuries. Historical, empirical evidence forced scientists to create mathematical and computer models that could deal with not just long-term but rapid change.


“Weather records help us understand the effects of major events”


What about archival records, such as meteorological observations taken on-board ships from the 16th to the 19th century?

These records have been extremely important. Weather records were frequently taken in the past because they were critical for transport and agriculture. They are both mundane and, in their extremes, help us understand the effects of major events like the catastrophic Mount Tambora eruption in 1815. Ships took measures in the 16th to the 19th centuries, and scientists and historians have looked at these records, often languishing in archives, and tried to incorporate them into models of climate change. This is difficult work, but one of the most fascinating things about climate change science, as it has led to very interdisciplinary work.

What about the other side of this – the history of the changing climate: At what point do scientists and historians accept that anthropogenic climate change began?

This is a topic in constant debate. Some scientists have placed this very far-back, such as Bill Ruddiman, who noticed that records of carbon and methane concentrations in ice core samples deviated from standard patterns in interglacial periods, the periods between Ice Ages, at around 7000 to 8000 years ago.

Around the time of the dawn of agriculture?

Exactly. Ruddiman wondered what could have caused that change and speculated that early agriculture might have been carried out on a much more widespread scale than we previously thought. His early anthropogenic hypothesis illustrates that practices of slash and burn may have had a far greater and more extensive impact on the climate than we expected. The idea that agriculture might change climate is actually very old.

How far back does this kind of thought go?

As early as the Ancient Greeks, but particularly in the 16th and 17th centuries, during the colonisation of the Americas. Thomas Jefferson thought that the increasing intensity of the wind off the seaboard was a result of colonists cutting down trees. Changing the landscape, he thought, would change the climate, and these changes needed to be studied. This indicates something that is often forgotten in conversations about climate change. We think this is unprecedented. We’re right in that the rate of change, and the idea that climate could be changing globally, is unprecedented. But in fact, humans have long thought that people could change the climate through altering the environment.

You’ve identified two unique factors about climate change in recent years: Its global nature, and its unprecedented speed. When did such changes start happening?

This would mark the beginning of what climatologists call the Anthropocene. In 2000, climatologist Paul Crutzen was in a conference and delegates were talking about the Holocene, the geological era we were once understood to be in. Crutzen was irritated by this term and suggested a new one. Humans, he argued, were changing the climate so fundamentally that we needed to define a new geological epoch – the Anthropocene. He, along with his colleague Eugene Stoermer – who had already been using this term – published a paper defining this concept. Humanity, they argued, was clearly having a major impact on the environment in many ways: from the extinction of species’ to changing urban environments, to sea-levels and climate. This paper discussed eight or nine factors, and all of them were tied to humanity.

The relationships here are so complicated that it is impossible to pull out a single human cause here. But one major cause was industrialisation. The development of fossil fuel economies was the key causal element behind the rise of carbon emissions. Stoermer and Crutzen suggested a rough date of 1800. Their proposal has been taken up by stratigraphers, and also within the humanities. Others have argued for different dates: one example is 1492, since the subsequent settlement of the Americas resulted in the deaths of so many Native Americans in the next 100 years that it may have led to the regrowth of forests in areas they had previously managed, and thereby helped cause the Little Ice Age.


“It is important to consider both an inner and external colonial story”


The year in which Columbus began his voyage, eventually reaching the Americas. This is a critical point. Often, we think about the Industrial Revolution as the starting point for climate change, and this is something usually localised in Europe. But, of course, there is a colonial side to that story.

Yes, and it is important to consider both an inner and external colonial story. The industrial revolution was fuelled by coal and steam, but the product it thrived on was cotton and textiles, and cotton has a very clear colonial dimension: cotton was closely linked to the slave trade.

These large plantations in the Americas also involved massive clearings of land, forests, and other carbon-dioxide absorbing plants.

Yes, which results in greater carbon emissions. But colonialism also transformed numerous economies around the world into coal-based, carbon-emitting economies. A good example of this is 19th Century India, where British colonial surveyors found new coal fields to exploit. Here, the question of labour was pertinent. British colonial administrators had to find ways of enticing local people to work in mines. To accomplish this, they imposed property ownership laws, and demanded that tenants absolve their duties towards colonial landholders by mining. In this way, a region that had previously not used coal and steam power was forcibly shifted towards a steam and coal-based economy.

So, one could argue that colonialism, climate and European proto-capitalism are linked?

They are, and this is one of the places in which the need to decolonise the sciences arises.

How would you go about decolonising climate change science – or has decolonisation of a kind already taken place here?

That’s a very interesting question which takes us to the institutional structures of the climate sciences at the moment, as well as understanding its effects. Here, the research of anthropologists and historians who have worked with people like the Inuit is actually critical. Indigenous peoples are often told that they must change their lifestyles because climate change is occurring. Yet such bureaucratic policies don’t take indigenous people into account as much as one would want. The Inuit, in particular, have their own experience of their land changing in response to climate. It is clear that the arctic regions are changing much more rapidly than the rest of the world, and the Inuit are working to adapt to these changes all the time. But if efforts to meet climate change come only from scientists and bureaucrats outside of their communities, who demand that they change their lifestyle, they simply won’t be as effective. Scientists need to take the Inuit, their knowledge, and culture much more seriously.

Decolonising climate science also means accounting for the needs of formerly-colonised countries which may face some of the most detrimental impacts of climate change.

Through the efforts of the scientific community and the IPCC – the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change – decolonisation in one form has already taken place here. Most of the scientists on this panel are from Western societies – particularly Britain, Germany, Scandinavia, France and the USA. When these scientists began to realise that climate change might be a fundamental global phenomenon in the 1970s to the 1980s, they began attempting to engage their governments in dealing with it. From the outset, the USA argued for the foundation of an international body for studying and regulating climate change, partly because they didn’t want to take on responsibilities on their own!

The USA helped fund the IPCC, which attempted a scientific assessment of global warming, taking into account its enormous social and economic consequences. It set up structures to mediate between local circumstances and the need for scientific assessment. In this framework, developing countries have been able to articulate their perspectives as well. Critically, in the early 2000s some argued that we need to consider not just temperature, but carbon cycles in soil and vegetation, and rising sea-levels as well. A decolonisation of the scientific community and climate models has occurred through that framework.


“Studies of climate change must be carried out in individual locations, place by place”


An international framework has therefore enabled developing countries to articulate their views on this matter. But speaking historically, have there then been tensions between global and local forces in climate change policy? Is there a way in which the expertise of people such as the Inuit can be incorporated into discussions about climate change?

Unfortunately, local perspectives have often been rendered more marginal than they should be. It is central to the biggest problems we will be facing in the next decades that we develop a fine-grained understanding of climate change within the social environment in which it is being met. An early example is the regional study of the Arctic Climate Impact Assessment in 2005, which my colleague Michael Bravo has described really well in a wonderful 2009 paper. Studies of climate change must be carried out in individual locations, place by place. Global temperatures rising are devastating for agricultural communities. Rising sea levels threaten coastal cities. Each needs to be approached individually.

Do you think the colonial powers such as Great Britain, France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, North America, and various others have a responsibility to acknowledge and deal with their complicity in this history?

The question of historical justice is really important, but the language of ‘complicit’ needs to be understood historically. We know things now that weren’t known in the 19th and 20th centuries. We know the importance of carbon in climate change, and that steam engines contribute far more carbon than animal, human, or water power. We need to investigate the relationship between climate and carbon dioxide, and also the historical environment in which the carbon-economy was developed.

This said, the historical relationship between labour, climate, knowledge, and economies does need to be taken on board. We must acknowledge that with or without knowledge of carbon and climate change, the development of carbon-based economies has led to climate change. In Western countries, we need to take responsibility for decreasing our carbon use, and for creating relationships with people in different areas that render them the masters of their own fate.

History can help us understand the forces that have led to anthropogenic climate change. But can it help us fight climate change as well?

Historians have essential skills in tackling the challenges posed by climate change. History deals with the multifaceted relationships involved, and how these relate to different areas of expertise that must be integrated in addressing it. Scientists have an extraordinary role to play in managing climate change, but their knowledge is often highly specialised. Historians are experts at bringing together different forms of knowledge and understanding the social relations that are implicit in them.

So, history is critical in weaving together multiple perspectives – social, political, economic, scientific – when we think about climate change.

Yes, and one way to think about this, is to study some of the most important controversies in the history of climate change, as historians Naomi Oreskes and Eric Conway have. Oreskes has changed how the scientific community viewed itself. One of the big questions raised by climate sceptics in the early 2000s was whether there was scientific consensus that global warming was anthropogenic. Sceptics argued that the idea of consensus on climate change was a misrepresentation of the science and that the issue was not yet settled.

How did Oreskes challenge this view?

In a 2004 paper, Oreskes studied about 1000 peer-reviewed scientific papers on subjects related to global warming to determine whether they accepted that climate change was anthropogenic. Famously, she argued that almost entirely they did. This threw down a gauntlet to climate sceptics. Here, a historian offered a perspective on the scientific community, which helped the scientific community understand itself, and tackle questions of climate scepticism. Later she and Eric Conway offered critical insights into the long-term strategies utilised by climate sceptics, and identified connections between them, scepticism about the ozone hole, and earlier about tobacco causing cancer.

This is their famous book, Merchants of Doubt?

Indeed. It’s a fantastic book where the argument is stated in its title: Merchants of Doubt: How a Handful of Scientists Obscured the Truth on Issues from Tobacco Smoke to Global Warming. She and Conway showed that a small group of influential scientists who had been important on committees on the ozone, tobacco smoke, and global warming, were almost always arguing for the need to promote economic freedom. Critically, they argued that the science wasn’t settled in service of that aim. Oreskes and Conway have shown the strategic work that lay behind that, and the publicity surrounding it.


“Sceptics are not trying to tear down science entirely. Some of the most important rely upon their own status as scientists”


Consequentially, ideas of climate sceptics need to be situated within their particular socio-economic contexts?

Yes, but we can also push the analysis of Oreskes and Conway one step further. Most commentators have tended to approach sceptics as people who try to tear down science. This is true, and an important element of how sceptics operate. But they are not trying to tear down science entirely. In fact, some of the most important rely upon their own status as scientists to present their arguments.

But many of these scientists are not necessarily experts on the topics they are criticising.

You’re right, but they’ve been able to present accounts of the climate science community plausible enough to win political support, especially in the U.S. I’ve developed a concept called ‘partisanal knowledge’ to address this. In some contexts, scientists enter debates as partisans. This is not just an issue of scientific knowledge, but a much broader one which depends on how we understand relationships between politics, science and economic issues. Both sceptics and scientists always present their knowledge within the context of the society in which they are situated. Climate sceptics don’t just deny climate science, they also offer rival accounts of the relations between science, society, and politics, and between academic experts and the public: we won’t understand the sources of the power they still have without recognising that other side of their appeal for conservatives.

Interview: Jules Skotnes-Brown



Richard Staley

© Elisabeth Emter

Dr Richard Staley is Reader in the History and Philosophy of Science at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge. He studies the history of physics broadly-construed and has published widely in the history of relativity, climate change, anthropology, astronomy, and meteorology.

“Solar Geoengineering is not a solution for climate change”

Glacial, Icecap and Permafrost Melting XXXVI: Bellingshausen Base, King George Island, Antarctica, 2008 © Sayler/Morris

Geoengineering – A Glimpse of Hope, but not the Solution


Solar Geoengineering seeks nothing less than to modify the atmosphere of our planet in order to make it more reflective to sunlight. Rather than mitigating the greenhouse effect itself, it is supposed to decrease the amount of sunlight that enters the greenhouse Earth in the first place. Gernot Wagner, the executive director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, explains the basic principles, the state of research as well as the opportunities and dangers of this idea. 

Professor Wagner, as the co-director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program, what is it that you’re trying to engineer?

Ideally, we’d all like to engineer sensible climate policy—now. Specifically, though, our research on Solar Geoengineering is about exploring the possibility of building an artificial sunshade for the planet. How would one reflect a tiny portion of sunlight back into space in an attempt to cool the planet?

How does it work?

There are various ways to make the planet more reflective. Why do people wear white in the summer and black in the winter? The reason is that white reflects sunlight and black absorbs it. You cool yourself in the summer by wearing a white t-shirt. That’s the basic principle. Painting roofs white has the same effect on a larger scale, still locally, though.

How would that work for the entire planet?

Ideally, what one would like to achieve is to turn down the sun uniformly, globally. The most prominent method usually discussed revolves around substances called stratospheric aerosols. The idea is to introduce these tiny reflective particles into the lower stratosphere, in order to reflect a small portion of sunlight back into space. The best analogy here are volcanoes. After Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines erupted in 1991, average global temperatures in 1992 were about 0.5 °C cooler because of the resulting sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere. They all fall out again after about eighteen months, so global temperatures in 1993 were again as warm they had been without the volcano. Of course, all of that is just an analogy. Solar engineering is not about exploding artificial volcanoes. It might involve specifically designed airplanes in order to disperse the material in the lower stratosphere.

Consequently, we are talking about a continuous, long-term effort since these substances would have to be renewed on a regular basis? 

Yes, indeed. There’s also another important feature to consider. It turns out the direct engineering costs—how much it costs to lift the material into the stratosphere—is very, very cheap. According to our one rough estimate, we are talking about less than $10 billion per year to do what, for example, Pinatubo has done; to lower global temperatures by around 0.5 °C.

Solar Geoengineering has the exact opposite properties of mitigating CO2 emissions in the first place. Climate change mitigation is akin to a massive coordination effort that is global, long-term, and expensive. It’s the world’s most perfect problem. By comparison, solar geoengineering is often described as “fast, cheap, and imperfect.” That last term is important, too, as it does not address the root cause.

So it’s not supposed to be a solution for climate change?

No, absolutely not. You could think of it in terms of a medical metaphor. We all know that we should diet and exercise. Eat your kale, and run thirty minutes every morning. We also know that most people don’t do either. Now you have this seventy-year-old overweight heart patient, our earth, and the big question is: what to do? Of course, the doctor will advise him to diet and exercise. But at that stage, what will prolong that person’s life for longer is to pop a pill of statins a day to lower his cholesterol level and to decrease the risk of a heart attack. That is akin to solar geoengineering. It is not a replacement for diet and exercise – for cutting emissions. Solar Geoengineering is not a solution for climate change. It may help buy us time and do some good in the process. But that’s about it. It is not a solution.

If we’re unable to install a working, compulsory global arrangement to cut CO2 emissions, why would a global geoengineering scheme work?

Here is one answer, which is less than ideal, but it’s a crucial consideration in this less-than-ideal policy world of ours: It’s not necessary to have a global plan for solar geoengineering to happen. Global coordination would, of course, be the ideal scenario. But we don’t live in an ideal world, where everything happens in a logical, rational manner. That said, back to the aforementioned properties: It’s fast, cheap, and imperfect. The second—“cheap”—is key here. It’s so cheap that there are lots of countries one could imagine pulling the trigger. So it’s certainly possible to imagine a scenario where the technology gets used without these perfect governance systems in place. So while clearly desirable, global arrangement is not a precondition for deployment here.


“Hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere could help offset the average global warming effects”


But would efforts on a local level, affect the entire world?

Yes, they could. Climate is global. Much like emitting a ton of CO2 anywhere affects the climate everywhere, certain forms of solar geoengineering, too, have these global effects. And these effects are much more powerful than with CO2 emissions—orders of a magnitude more powerful. Hundreds of thousands of tons of sulfate aerosols in the stratosphere could help offset the average global warming effects of billions of tons of CO2. The leverage is amazing—not in the positive sense of the word, but in terms of sheer power.

How far has the research on Solar Geoengineering at Harvard University progressed? Have there been any open air experiments?

Not yet, but things are indeed moving in that direction. There’s funding now for a project called SCoPEx (Stratospheric Controlled Perturbation Experiment), led by atmospheric chemist Frank Keutsch. He and colleagues are designing a small-scale experiment involving a balloon flown into the lower stratosphere in an effort to measure impacts in the real world.

What if the experiment goes wrong?

Well, this isn’t about trying to change the temperature. Even if sulfate aerosols were involved, the experiment would release fewer sulfates than one commercial airplane releases in one minute of flight. There are forty thousand of these planes up there today over the US. But, of course, this experiment is indeed a symbol of something much bigger. While the scientific aspect is important, lots of the conversation is really about what this kind of experiment represents. The sensationalist headlines write themselves, and many have already been written. Meanwhile, we do not yet know when—and, frankly, even if—the experiment will, in fact, happen. There are lots of governance questions to consider, including by a formal, external advisory panel.

How long will it take until the technology allows for global Solar Geoengineering that effectively cools the planet?

In some sense, the technology exists already to be doing this in a rather dumb, premature, and woefully misguided way. Volcanoes have been doing this forever. But that’s a rather dangerous thought. There’s lots of research that’s needed—not least on the social science side of things to explore the all-important governance questions. But would it be technically feasible to design the kind of planes that would be able to do this soon? Yes. Would it be desirable? Probably not. Nobody working here as a researcher would propose to use it soon.

Why might it be deployed sooner than one would hope?

Imagine a mid-sized country particularly affected by climate change, perhaps one located in the tropics. Now there’s the umpteenth “hundred-year” storm hitting yet again, perhaps the third within twelve months. The national security advisor to the president might be remiss not to mention the possibility: “We are not a hundred percent sure whether this thing will decrease the storm’s intensity, but we are desperate. So let’s try something, anything.” This may well be the likeliest deployment scenario. And nobody knows whether that is going to happen in ten or fifteen or twenty years, but it would indeed be technically feasible for a country to engage in such a sizeable crash deployment program. Here, we are interested in doing the research because the technology is out there, but the full ramifications are still unknown, especially also of such a hasty deployment scenario. And, of course, ideally, solar geoengineering would be used much more rationally and sensibly. So we better do the research in order to figure out how to actually do it responsibly, or whether it is desirable to contemplate doing it in the first place. And even if not, there’s always that possibility of the rogue actor.

Are you afraid that your research will be hijacked by the fossil fuels lobby in order to change the public perception of climate change? It might argue that we don’t have to stop using fossil fuels if we can artificially cool the planet.

You’ve put your finger on one of the biggest fears out there when it comes to Solar Geoengineering. It often comes under the heading of “moral hazard” and is one of the reasons why there are lots of social scientists interested in the topic: To study this “moral hazard” phenomenon, to study governance, to study all these other questions that are a crucial part of this conversation. Of course, we need to get the technical side right, the engineering, the risk assessment, but that is only one aspect of what is necessary. The social aspect is at least as important and involves more public conversations and research projects than the “narrow” scientific and technological questions.

In the context of moral hazard, the big question we have to ask is: Could the mere conversation about this topic detract from the need to mitigate CO2 emissions in the first place? To some extent, the trade-off between Solar Geoengineering and mitigation is, in fact, rational. If your doctor tells you to exercise for 30 minutes a day and he also tells you that you can pop a cholesterol-lowering pill, it might well be rational to now work out for, say, 29 ½ minutes instead of the 30 recommended without the pill. Of course, the real problem is: Nobody exercises 30 minutes a day. There is a bunch of enthusiasts who exercise 60 minutes a day. Those are the environmentalists. And they are already doing the right thing. They will continue to shout “carbon taxes!” left and right and vote accordingly. The real problem is that the vast majority of us doesn’t exercise at all, that is to say, does way too little when it comes to mitigation. That’s the classic “free rider” problem: None of us has enough of an incentive to do enough.


“Solar Geoengineering could be a wake-up call to increase efforts in terms of mitigation”


But isn’t Solar Geoengineering going to increase our ignorance of climate change by making it seem less threatening?

Perhaps, or it might do the exact opposite. Call it “inverse moral hazard.” There are indeed too many who do not believe that climate change even exists. Again, moral hazard is real. In some sense, the trade-off is ever-present, and yes, there’s the behavioral trade-off: We researchers mention Solar Geoengineering, and the fossil fuel companies say: “Ha, we can keep on pumping. There’ll be a techno-fix!” However, the opposite may also hold true: If you tell people about Solar Geoengineering and they have never heard of this topic before, their reaction may as well be to say “Wait! If such technology is being developed and if serious people are talking about this, maybe there is something to this climate problem after all!” Solar Geoengineering could, thus, be indeed a wake-up call to increase efforts in terms of mitigation. Some good research points to both possibilities. The big question really is which applies under which circumstances, and—normatively speaking—how to get people to want to do more mitigation when they hear about Solar Geoengineering.

The criticism coming from the left is that the entire idea of Solar Geoengineering does not break with the capitalist narrative of endless growth and development. It is an attempt to solve a problem that is the result of technology with more technology. How would you respond to that?

Well, to be clear, we do need to cut CO2 emissions. We have to price CO2. We have to guide market forces in the right direction. And I realize that Solar Geoengineering appears to be an easy way out. It is not. Just because the direct costs alone are low does not mean it’s a good idea. And just because it’s cheap compared to mitigation does not mean we should do it instead of mitigation. At best, it can be a complement to mitigation. Just because chemotherapy is available, doesn’t mean we should keep smoking. And yes, there are certainly those who look at Solar Geoengineering and say “Oh, that’s the easy way out. It gives us a way out that we shouldn’t have, that we shouldn’t want to have.” The most direct answer to that, I’d say, is: Too late. For one, we have known about this possibility for a long time. The very first report on climate change to a US president was for Lyndon B. Johnson, in 1965. This report mentions one solution, and it wasn’t CO2 taxes. It was albedo modification, which in that particular instance referred to the brightening of oceans to reflect more sunlight. By now we pretty much know that that wouldn’t be technically feasible, and there would be lots of other ecological and other consequences that make that idea impractical, to say the least. Nevertheless, geoengineering has been part of this conversation from the very beginning. That said, there had been a 50-year-long taboo around this topic, and in part for good reason, precisely because of this fear that it would detract from the need to mitigate emissions. Solar Geoengineering isn’t a new idea. It’s not something a couple of scientists pulled out of thin air ten years ago, and now the topic is exploding. It has been around for a long time.

Of course, now that there is more research happening, it also draws more attention, especially journalistic attention, which is why we are talking right now. And yes, finding the right framing for this conversation is crucial. Solar Geoengineering is not a solution to climate change, and it must not be presented that way. All that said, we cannot pretend this idea doesn’t exist, and yes, when done sensibly, it may actually do a lot of good, too.

Interview: Jonas Hermann



Rose Lincoln Photo

Gernot Wagner is an economist and the executive director of Harvard’s Solar Geoengineering Research Program. His research is concerned with the economic, social, and political consequences of climate change. Together with Harvard’s Martin L. Weitzman, he has recently published Climate Shock: The Economic Consequences of a Hotter Planet (2016). Wagner is moving to New York University this summer, taking up a post joint between the Department of Environmental Studies and the Wagner School of Public Service.


“There are reasons that people don’t buy electric cars”

Drought and Fires LI: Niger, 2007 © Sayler/Morris

Can Individuals Stop Climate Change? A Discussion on Responsibility


Anyone who is interested in stopping climate change will inevitably encounter the following questions: “What are governments doing to stop climate change?” and “What is really needed to achieve a change in climate policy?” In conversation with 42 Magazine, Prof. Dr. Anthony Patt explains why governments have to act, instead of asking individuals to change their consuming behavior.

Prof. Patt, can I as an individual tackle climate change?

Anthony Patt: There are some steps we can take as individuals, but ultimately stopping climate change means reducing CO2 emissions to zero. If a few people change their consumption in little ways, that falls far short of what is needed. So we need collective action for two reasons. First, to make it possible, easy, and affordable for individuals to act, namely consuming things produced with and running on renewable energy instead of fossil fuels. Second, to eventually ensure that everybody does this, and not just those who care strongly about climate change.

So even if a large number of people decided to fly less and become vegetarian, it wouldn’t change anything?

It helps, but unfortunately it doesn’t go far enough. Take flying, for example. To get emissions to zero, it means that nobody can fly anywhere, or we need airplanes that run on renewable energy. I think the second option is far more feasible and likely, at least within the next thirty or forty years, and would require jet fuel to be produced from solar energy. Right now, there is no airline that uses this kind of fuel, and in fact it will take at least a decade or two before this becomes possible and at all affordable. This will require a whole new infrastructure for producing these kinds of fuels, in sufficient quantity. Until we have that, the less we fly, the better. You can think of eating meat in a similar way.

So is infrastructure a critical factor for stopping change?

Yes, I think so. Take driving, for example. To stop climate change, we either need to stop driving or to drive without fossil fuels. Both require new infrastructure. More bike lanes, or better public transportation, would allow us to drive less. The cars we still do drive need to be manufactured in a carbon-neutral way. We need enough renewable energy infrastructure to supply our factories. When we drive those cars, they need to run on renewable energy. The most practical way for that is if they are electric, using renewable electricity. So again we need to replace our fossil fuel infrastructure with renewable energy. And instead of gas stations, we need charging stations. So we need to build a lot of new infrastructures and get rid of some of the infrastructure we already have.

Are there pioneering countries which have already done this?

Yes, absolutely. When it comes to driving, for example, Norway is the country which has gone the furthest so far, and they have been incredibly successful. In Oslo, for example, they have converted many of their roads to pedestrian zones, and people are driving less in the city. And they have also been working for ten years now to change all of the cars still on the roads to electric. They did this at first by reducing the taxes on electric cars, and some other measures like offering them free parking. They installed lots of charging stations, including where people park overnight in the city. By 2018, about 50% of new cars sold were electric. It is now possible that in another ten years, that could rise to 100%. Of course, Norway is a small country, but what they have done is really important. First, the growth of electric cars so far has led to their becoming cheaper, as well as technological improvements like longer-lasting batteries. That means that more people will want to buy electric cars in the future, instead of gasoline or diesel ones. Second, they have shown us that it is possible to move towards zero emissions. Other countries can follow their example, and it will be easier and less expensive than it was for Norway. You can see similar stories in all sectors: buildings, manufacturing, renewable energy supply.


“I don’t see the CO2 tax as harmful, but I also don’t find it very helpful”


So do we need a CO2 tax on gasoline to make this happen here?

I don’t see the CO2 tax as harmful, but I also don’t find it very helpful. The reality is that most of us are locked into how much fossil fuel we use in our daily life. If apples double in price, for instance, we just choose pears instead. When it comes to fossil fuels, however, we depend on them, and the options to stop using them are limited. People have to drive every day: to work, to go see friends or for grocery shopping. To change that, given our current infrastructure, people would have to make big decisions in life, such as to stop working or socializing. Even a big gasoline tax, making driving more expensive, has a fairly small effect, and we observe this empirically. If people have to pay more, they will. What can make a far bigger change is to open up new options to people. It is already less expensive to own and drive an electric car, and a higher tax on gasoline wouldn’t change this. There are other reasons that people don’t buy electric cars, and these are the things that need to change.

Can you identify the problems we need to solve?

It really depends on the area of life we are looking at. With electric cars, for example, the cars themselves need to become a bit better, with longer ranges, but this is already happening as the global market grows. For the market to grow in Switzerland, however, we also need to see an increase in charging infrastructure. With electricity supply, new solar and wind facilities are already less expensive than new coal or natural gas generating stations, but the big problem is that solar and wind energy are intermittent: the sun doesn’t always shine when we need it to. So for that, we need to improve and expand the options for energy storage, and also transmission grid. Wind energy from Northern Europe, for example, is the most abundant in winter, exactly when solar energy is least available, so we ought to be working towards letting these two sources of energy balance each other out, which means a slightly different power grid. In some areas, the technology is simply immature. That’s the case with renewable fuels for flying, for example.

…and these technologies are probably still too expensive.

Yes. That’s a major issue. The technology to make jet fuel from air, water, and sunshine exists in the laboratory. It will never become affordable as long as it stays in the laboratory. That happens through private competition in the market place. It’s a chicken and egg problem, though. So we need public policies to create some demand for the product, even while it is still really expensive, to get it out into the market. That’s what past subsidies for solar and wind energy did, for example. Now they are affordable, and subsidies aren’t really needed any more.

What do you think about compensation measures, such as planting trees to reduce CO2 emissions of flying?

Compensation is better than nothing, but in no way is it a long-term solution. If we were to keep on using fossil fuels for things like flying, and plant trees to compensate, we would quickly run out of land area. For flying, we need policies that will begin to make alternatives to jet fuel a real possibility. In other areas, it is already not only possible but in many cases less expensive, to get by without fossil fuels. In Switzerland, one of the largest sources of CO2 emissions is home heating, burning oil and gas. Many communities are replacing that with district heating systems, using waste incineration or wood chips. Elsewhere it makes complete sense to switch to heat pumps and geothermal systems, running on renewable electricity. All of these take an initial financial investment, but they pay for themselves over time.

And that’s a positive development, isn’t it?

Indeed, it is. These are good news! Heating is the area in which we are closest to stopping greenhouse gas emissions. There is almost nothing standing in the way, except for a couple of laws. We need to prohibit the use of fuels and install new heating systems where we currently use natural gas and heating oil. That is the easiest area of climate change where we can act. It just needs political regulation. The European Union is already about to require this, and Switzerland could be next.


“Government policies have been really important for stopping climate change”


Consequently, climate change can only be stopped if governments intervene?

Government policies have been really important for stopping climate change, and will continue to be so for the next few decades. Government research funding has given us the technologies we need to replace fossil fuels, and support for new technologies and infrastructure is what is gradually making these more available. Once it is easy and affordable to do something with fossil fuels, like heating a house already, or driving a car in a few years from now, then regulations can make sure that everyone switches over. There is a widespread belief that governments haven’t done anything about climate change, in part because many people equate climate policy with putting a tax or a cap on CO2 emissions. The reality is that many governments have done quite a lot of other things, and these have put us in a good position to entirely replace fossil fuels over the next 20 to 30 years. Of course making this happen will require a lot more work, but I am optimistic that it can happen. That would stop climate change at a level that would still protect most of our ecosystems, as well as our coastal cities and food systems.

What are the challenges with regard to the goal of eliminating fossil fuels?

Before we can forbid the use of fossil fuels, we face challenges that are specific to each sector. As I said, in the heating and building sector, this work is behind us now because for 30 years, people have developed technologies for efficient buildings that do not use fossil fuels. In every other area, there are challenges to face before we can get to that point. Regarding mobility, we could stop using fossil fuels in road mobility by switching to electric cars. This could be very soon if we solve the infrastructural challenges I mentioned before. In Switzerland, most of our electricity is already renewable, and almost none of it comes from fossil fuels. But if you buy a car made in Germany, it will have been manufactured with energy from coal. There are challenges to replacing coal power with renewables.

For example?

There are really two sets of challenges. The first is simply producing enough renewable energy, and that means a lot of windmills and solar panels. This often takes new sources of finance, and also attention to the issue of public resistance. For example, research has shown that people often oppose windmills when they see that a corporation will make money from their landscape, but support them when they are a community project, and they feel that they can participate in the decision. The second challenge with renewable electricity is their reliability. As I mentioned before, one solution is energy storage, but another is trading in renewable electricity between regions with different capacities for hydropower, wind, and solar energy.

Strong government cooperation is therefore the key to change in the phase-out of fossil fuel use?

Definitively! Swiss power companies are already investing in wind parks in northern Europe, and this makes good sense. But for these investments to really work out effectively there needs to be cooperation between Switzerland and the EU with respect to a common power market. Of course, we need to be sure that the terms are fair, but such arrangements could be very important for maintaining a secure electricity supply while we are replacing our nuclear power plants with renewables, as well as replacing our gasoline cars with electric ones.


“One policy instrument that has so far not worked very well is the European trading market in emission permits”


Do we already see political success that brings us closer to the goal of switching to renewable energies?

The short answer is yes, and the longer answer is that we still need to do much more, and some of the laws we have in place are not working very well. Policies already have given us nearly all of the technologies we need, have developed markets to lead many of these technologies to be affordable and reliable, and in some cases are beginning to prohibit the use of fossil fuels where they no longer are needed. Indeed, the success of some of these laws has created new challenges. European countries are now generating so much wind and solar power that the issues of electricity storage, transmission, and power market integration are becoming crucial. So now we need to address these issues. There are whole sectors where so far we have done very little, such as in construction and industry, agriculture, aviation, and shipping. Our experience shows that these sectors can benefit from the transition to renewable energy, but the political negotiation can be challenging because the benefits are unequal. One policy instrument that has so far not worked very well is the European trading market in emission permits. Taxes on CO2 emissions have also not led to much in the way of change, for the reasons I discussed earlier. But I am convinced if we build on the policies that have worked, and keep introducing them in new sectors, we can solve this problem within our lifetimes.

If it was up to you to act at political level, how would you proceed?

There are three kinds of policies. First, there are taxes and permit markets that put a financial penalty on burning fossil fuels. The second is support for new renewable energy technologies and related infrastructure, like charging stations. Third, we have laws that prohibit the use of fossil fuels in particular sectors, like the European Union is introducing for new building heating systems. Ultimately, that’s the goal we need to attain, in all sectors. A lot of people say we need the first – the financial penalties for using fossil fuels – but I do not see that working in practice, even if in theory it is a good idea. My own belief is that we need a combination of the second and the third: we first need to support the alternatives to fossil fuels, and then as these options become good enough, we can make it illegal to keep on using fossil fuels. This is an approach that we have seen working in plenty of other environmental areas. More and more European cities, for example, are banning older diesel cars because of air pollution and health concerns, now that people have cleaner options to go with.

Sometimes reality proves theories wrong. What consequences does this have for political action?

I think we have to continually look at what is happening around us, be prepared to be surprised, and sometimes change our minds. A good example is what just recently happened in Germany. Germany did a lot to support wind and solar energy, and this led to dramatic cost reductions not only in Germany but globally. A really good thing. But for a long time, this had no effect on German emissions. It had a strong coal industry, and it was politically impossible to shut down the coal power plants, even as more wind and solar were coming online. Many said that the wind and solar support had been an expensive waste of time. But then just in the last few months, the German government negotiated a plan with the coal industry to shut down all of the remaining power plants and mines, and to help the workers put out of jobs. I don’t think that would have been possible without the wind and solar industries also being strong. But it took time, and many of us were pessimistic about emissions in Germany until things suddenly changed.

How do you assess the role of non-governmental organizations in climate policies?

NGOs are incredibly important for generating political momentum as well as for political debates. They often work behind the scenes. The analysis of these issues can be incredibly complex, and politicians do not have enough resources of their own to analyze all of the issues they face. They depend on lobbyists from industries and NGOs to offer them ideas, to give them solutions. That is one role NGOs play. A second role is often to push private sector actors and to help them in the same kind of way. For example, there is a new alliance of businesses that are committing to moving to 100% renewable energy in their supply chains. It is a set of NGOs that initiated this, and are monitoring the companies to make sure that they fulfill their promises.

You seem quite optimistic. Where does your optimism come from?

Surprisingly enough, it comes out of what has happened in the last twenty years. It is true that emissions have not come down. But we did not have the technology and the systems solutions that could allow emissions to really come down. Our only option was to use less energy, and our energy savings could not keep up with the effects of economic growth, particularly in countries like China. But now we do have the technologies and the systems solutions. It is no longer first and foremost about saving energy. Today, we are able to really switch from fossil fuels to renewable energy, and the changeover is beginning to accelerate. To a large extent, it is because the change makes sense for other reasons as well, from reducing air pollution to simply saving money. Some countries are further than others, mainly because of the policies that they have put in place. I was recently in Scotland, for example, and learned that they have already reduced their emissions by almost 50%. Switzerland is not at the head of the pack, but we are also not at the back, and we have been making some progress. But now all countries are beginning to take action, and we are seeing action in more and more sectors of the economy. I really do think this is a problem we can solve.

Interview: Maria Lissek



© Maria Lissek

Anthony Patt, born in Boston, Massachusetts in 1965, has been a Professor of Climate Policy at the Institute for Environmental Decisions and at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, Switzerland, since 2013. His research addresses questions of climate change policy, focusing on how costly the adaption to climate change is for society, as well as on mapping the benefits of innovative energy systems.

„We need to forget about the idea that knowledge requires one hundred percent certainty“

Johan Huibers’ Ark, The Netherlands, 2010 © Sayler/Morris


Facts Are Futile: The Climate Deniers’ Philosophy


The facts are clear: the earth is heating up. Scientific consensus tells us: We are responsible for it. Though some people are still not convinced, nor – it seems – want to be convinced. Why is that? Professor of Philosophy N. Ángel Pinillos talks to 42 Magazine about the theory behind the doubt. About what it means to know something and whether or not it is justified to doubt scientists. He also proposes a strategy for dealing with sceptics on a day to day basis. 

Dr. Pinillos, you’re working on epistemology – the question of what knowledge means – in relation to climate change sceptics. Philosophy has reached a form of consensus where knowledge is analyzed as “justified, true belief.“ Do you agree with this analysis?

This analysis has been commonplace in philosophy since Plato. Most philosophers today think it is approximately correct and I agree. For example, I know that I attended college. This means that (a) I believe that I attended college, (b) my belief that I attended college is justified – through memory, testimony from classmates, the diploma in my drawer, and so on, and (c) it is true that I went to college. It is often helpful to think of knowledge in this way.

Is it philosophically justifiable to gain knowledge by believing in authorities like scientists? Why should we believe them, when they tell us, that climate change is real and man-made?

Let’s think about a simpler example. Many non-scientists know some basic facts about stars. For example, it is common knowledge that many stars are millions of miles away, are very old and contain helium. We know lots about stars. But how does this happen? This is probably obvious to most, but it is worth repeating. The process which leads to knowledge has at least two stages. Firstly, astronomers use the scientific method including recording the movement, luminosity and radiation emitted by stars to determine their various properties. Secondly, this information is disseminated to the public. In the cases where there is consensus, like with the composition of stars, the information will be included in textbooks that you read in school.


“It is important to recognize that just because the system fails once in a while, it doesn’t mean that it can’t yield knowledge”


Does this system fail sometimes?

This two-level system works well enough, although it can break down at each step. At the level of the creation of knowledge, a scientist may fail to collect the appropriate evidence, mishandle data or make the wrong inference. At the level of dissemination, the message from the scientist may be distorted by reporters, blocked by special interest groups, or it may be that the scientist herself misreports her own findings.

It is important to recognize that just because the system fails once in a while, it doesn’t mean that it can’t yield knowledge in normal cases—just as the fact that my auditory system fails me sometimes doesn’t mean that my hearing can’t give me knowledge in normal cases. I know that there is music playing in the background right now even though my hearing has failed me in the past. We need to forget about the idea that knowledge requires one hundred percent certainty. One thing we learned from Descartes is that we can’t have certainty about even the most basic things anyways.

But is it really enough of a justification to listen to the findings of the scientific community without knowing anything about the experiments that led to these findings?

Yes, I think this follows from the idea that knowledge and justification can be transmitted via testimony. If I did laundry and I tell you about it, you now know that I did laundry – even though you haven’t checked yourself whether what I’m saying is true. Of course, this doesn’t always work because people lie on occasion. But testimony works in general. If you are thinking that testimony doesn’t usually transmit knowledge or justification, you are probably over-emphasizing the cases where it doesn’t work and you are ignoring all those boring, run-of-the-mill cases, where it works perfectly.

But at any rate, you could never really be acquainted with all the experiments surrounding a scientific result. There is too much cumulative knowledge in science for anyone to really understand everything that goes into establishing a claim. You always have to rely on testimony, whether it stems from some work you cited, or the technician at your lab, trusting that he reads off the right data from your instruments.


„When this consensus happens, it becomes less likely that something has gone wrong with the science“


How does the two-step-process you mentioned earlier work concerning climate-change? Do you believe it’s succeeding at educating people?

I think it seems to be working well. Scientists gain knowledge using the scientific method and this gets disseminated to the public – though we still need to do a better job in passing it on. But how can I be so confident that the system is working as it should in the case of climate change? There are two clues here. Firstly, you have a lot of scientists independently reaching the same results about man-made climate change. When this consensus happens, it becomes less likely that something has gone wrong with the science – this is why replicability is highly valued. Secondly, although there are thousands of climate scientists who each select a different approach in their research, there have been many collective attempts to summarize and catalogue their findings and bring the results to public attention. Again, there is convergence on these summaries. This makes it less likely that there is some problem with the transmission of knowledge.

Consequently, it’s not so much that I trust the authority of some scientist. It is rather that there is a great deal of evidence that the two-stage system of knowledge creation plus dissemination is working well. All signs point to the idea that human activity is having a significant impact on the environment.

Why do some people find it harder than others to believe these authorities?

The main reason is probably a lack of understanding of climate science, and a simple lack of awareness that there is a great deal of consensus from scientists regarding climate change. Another explanation coming from social psychology, follows from the general idea that people’s alliances and feelings affect their beliefs. For example, if believing in human-caused climate change would create conflict between my family members, I would be less likely to believe it. This is supposed to be an implicit effect, so I might not be aware that my beliefs are being affected by these factors. From my perspective, I may be reasoning impeccably. In addition, I think that people may be afflicted by what we might call “local” philosophical skepticism. I don’t think this is enough to fully explain skeptical attitudes about climate change. But together with the other explanations, it can help sustain those attitudes. At least, this possibility from philosophy has been overlooked by discussants.

Skepticism is widely known as Descartes’ Cogito-Argument. How does one get from the famous phrase “cogito ergo sum”, “I think, therefore I am”, to doubting or even outright denying climate change?

Descartes was interested in figuring out which beliefs we can be certain about. The legacy from this work is the idea that in fact, we can’t be certain of anything our senses are telling us, although we can be certain about a few things like whether we exist – cogito ergo sum – and the inner world of our minds. If you think that it is obvious that we can’t be certain about the external world, you are a recipient of Descartes’ legacy. Descartes’ ideas were not at all obvious at the time he presented them. At any rate, a lot of philosophers take Descartes’ arguments to challenge not only the idea that we can have certainty but whether we can know or have justified beliefs.

Do you agree?

Some philosophers, including myself, think Descartes’ argument follows a certain formula which can be recreated to turn people into local skeptics. That is, we can use his recipe to get people to surgically doubt specific things while not necessarily doubting others. Imagine that you get tested for a disease and the test comes out negative. That’s a relief. But then I remind you, ‘Well, false negatives do happen. How can you know that this isn’t one of those false negative cases? Can you really rule out that possibility without further tests?’. Here, you may feel tempted to agree ‘Ok, sure, I guess I don’t know if it is one of those false negative cases’. Although the exact details of how this creation of doubt works is currently being debated by philosophers, researchers tend to agree that it typically involves mentioning a possibility of error. But it is not the case that raising any old possibility of error is enough to make you doubt, or at least not to the same degree. Going back to the disease case, if I remind you that people’s memory sometimes fails and perhaps you didn’t get tested after all, you may just look at me like I’ve lost my mind.

You mentioned the concept of „local skepticism” a few times.

There are actually two types of skeptical positions in philosophy—global and local skepticism. The global skeptic thinks none of your beliefs about the external world amount to knowledge. The local skeptic is one that finds herself sincerely asserting she doesn’t know in this or that case, depending on how skeptical pressure is mounted. The local skeptic may deny knowing for sure that her medical test is not a false negative, but she will be happy to say she knows other ordinary things – she will still insert that she knows she’ll have a lunch meeting next Tuesday at 2 pm. It’s rare to find a global skeptic. It would thus be hard to motivate climate skepticism in this way. Those individuals, if there are any, will say they fail to know human caused climate change is real. But this is the least of their problems. Global skeptics will also say they fail to know many mundane things. They will fail to know they have bodies and that they are living in the 21st century.

People doubting climate change and people believing in conspiracy theories often use similar arguments and shared beliefs – specifically about society, the government, and science. Is there any structural evidence relating conspiracy theories to skeptical pressure?

That’s an interesting area to explore. I think that any time people ruminate and worry about some possibility, like a conspiracy theory, then local skepticism can creep in to help sustain a skeptical attitude. This can happen with people from all political sides. Just as some people are overly-suspicious of government and science, some are overly suspicious of corporations.

You speculated that an extreme version of skeptical pressure is present in obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). Could you elaborate on this?

OCD is a complex condition with different manifestations. However, it seems to be essentially connected to doubt. In fact, the 19th century French psychiatrist Jean-Pierre Falret called it ‘folie du doute’ or ‘madness of doubt’. Take a case where an agent feels compelled to keep checking if they turned off their stove. They can’t be sure they turned off the stove despite evidence to the contrary. Here are some similarities between the OCD patient and the local skeptic. They both mentally focus on the possibility that a certain belief is false. They are also both aware that in some sense there is great evidence against their attitude, yet they still find themselves pushed to doubt. For example, the patient who feels she doesn’t know the test was not a false negative, still agrees that false negatives are extremely rare. Finally, both local skepticism and OCD appear to be exacerbated when the belief at issue is important to the agent. A significant difference between OCD patients and local skeptics is, however, that the doubt in the former group rises to an obsessive level. I believe this to be local skepticism taken to the extreme. So the idea is that OCD is at the extreme end of a doubt spectrum, whereas ordinary local skeptical doubt is a manifestation of behavior at the more or less normal range of the spectrum. At this point in my thinking, the connection is just speculative. More work is needed, but I think it is an interesting area to explore.


“Once we engage in a discussion about probabilities, participants will find themselves more engaged with the actual data”


Regarding skeptical pressure – how can one argue against this position?

This is one of the great problems in philosophy and philosophers are still working on it. But I think we can identify some arguments that may be helpful. Local skepticism is interesting. One way to meet it is to point out how one’s local doubt appears to be in conflict with beliefs on different topics. Consider again the person who is worried that they don’t know their negative test result for the deadly disease is not one of those rare false negative cases. We could try to assuage this worry by reminding them that they know lots of ordinary things with even lower probability of being true. For example, they know they have a lunch meeting next week at 2:30 pm. Of course, the chances of this being correct are much lower than the chances of their test result actually being a rare false negative case.

Another way to meet local skepticism in our daily lives is to stop talking about ‘knowledge’ and ‘justification’. We can shift to talk of probabilities. So instead of saying ‘I don’t know that my test result is not one of those rare false negative cases’, we can just state the probability, which is actually known for medical tests. For example, you can say ‘There is a .0005% chance that this is a false negative case’. A nice thing about working with probabilities is that it pushes us into more systematic, deliberate “system 2“ reasoning. In addition, it allows us to make cleaner comparisons with other beliefs.

“System 2“ reasoning, could you explain this term?

In the tradition associated with Nobel prize winner Daniel Kahneman and many of his collaborators, “system 2“ refers to a thinking process that is slow, deliberate, conscious, effortful and which taxes working memory. In contrast, “system 1“ thinking tends to be automatic, fast, and subconscious. Both systems are needed for humans to get along in the world. But when it comes to public discourse about the future of our planet, we should be engaging in careful, system 2 reasoning.

So how can this reasoning be used when arguing about climate change?

Talk of “knowledge” and “justification” has some pitfalls. It is sometimes helpful to look at things from different perspectives, like using probabilities. In the case of climate change, this is useful. The person who denies knowing that climate change is caused by humans will presumably accept that there is some chance that it is, in fact, caused by humans. Once we engage in a discussion about probabilities, participants will find themselves more engaged with the actual data.

Interview: Sara Pichireddu




© Angel Pinillos

Nestor Ángel Pinillos is a Professor of Philosophy at the Arizona State University, holds a PhD in Philosophy and an BA degree in Mathematics and specializes in questions of epistemology and the philosophy of language. His works also include experimental philosophy. He is currently working on a new book called „Mind and Doubt“, which will present a theory of how people make decisions and come to conclusions in the first place.

“Ultimately, it is better when people are selfishly motivated to act sustainably than not at all”

Extreme Weather Events XXIII: Coney Island, NY, 2012 © Sayler/Morris

When Humans Act Sustainably


The consequences of climate change are well known, yet many people find it difficult to change their behaviour. One of the challenges is that the necessary global improvement of the climatic situation often entails direct costs for the individual. The psychologist Dr Judith Tonner explains how sustainable behaviour can be promoted with the help of psychotherapeutic methods.

Dr med. Tonner – your research focuses on promoting sustainable behaviour. Why are you interested in the reasons we act sustainably?

Currently, there are enormous technical developments that favour a more sustainable way of life, but sustainable behaviour is still shown relatively little actually. Since individual behaviour is considered to have great potential for sustainability, the latter is also an issue in psychological research. At the beginning of my research, my impression was that so far, the main focus has been on why a great number of people do not act sustainably. That is why I’ve chosen a different perspective and asked why and under what circumstances some people act sustainably. The focus was on ecologically sustainable behaviour, that is, behaviour that has as little negative impact as possible on the environment.

What is the result of your work?

One result, perhaps unsurprisingly, is that intrinsic motivation was considered more effective than extrinsic motivation to promote sustainable behaviour. In addition, and perhaps more surprisingly, we have succeeded in encouraging the intrinsic motivation for sustainable behaviour with a psychotherapeutic approach.


“Interventions to build intrinsic motivation are often more time-consuming, but also more sustainable”


What is the difference between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation?

To put it simply, extrinsic motivation is directed to the outside if you are striving for social recognition, for example. Intrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is directed inward, for example if you want to live up to your own ideals. Interventions to build intrinsic motivation are often more time-consuming, but also more effective and thus more sustainable in the long run.

Where did you start to promote intrinsic motivation?

For this purpose, we have used motivational conversation techniques, a psychotherapeutic method. With this method, to put it simply, reasons for the less sustainable behaviour of the participants can be worked out in the conversation, which has the effect that they themselves find reasons to speak in favour of a more sustainable behaviour. The idea of ​​using motivational conversation techniques to promote sustainable behaviour emerged because we noticed parallels between non-sustainable behaviour and problematic behaviours in a psychotherapeutic sense. In both cases, there is a contradiction between short-term needs and long-term goals. This is not to equate sustainable behaviour with problematic alcohol consumption, but the parallel was an indication to us that the method could also be used to promote sustainable behaviour.

How exactly did the study work?

A group of students worked with three households and visited them monthly over the course of one semester. The aim of the study was to examine the acceptance and impact of this method. The results show that motivational conversation techniques are a promising way to promote sustainable behaviour.

With regard to climate change, we encounter a contradiction: We know about climate change and its consequences, but we do not act accordingly. What is stopping us from changing our behaviour?

The necessary global improvement of the climate situation entails costs for the individual. Of course, sustainable action often goes hand in hand with savings and then has an individual benefit, for example saving energy. In most cases, however, people primarily pay attention to the costs, and not only to the financial costs but also to those in the form of dispensation, for instance. There is a so-called social dilemma between individual needs and collective goals. In addition, as we have said, the individual costs of sustainable behaviour are usually immediately and easily identifiable, while the collective benefit is often in the distant future and perceived as complex. In this context, two constructs are important: self-control and the ability to defer rewards. Self-control is an adaptive behaviour that enables us to suppress spontaneous reactions and replace them with individually or socially desired actions. The ability to defer rewards is reflected in the choice of a later but more useful alternative instead of an immediate but less useful option. Both play an important role in achieving long-term goals.

Is this an individual or a collective problem?

The difficulty in achieving long-term goals is, on the one hand, an individual predisposition, as the degree of self-control varies from person to person. On the other hand, it is situation-dependent, because there are situations that fundamentally promote or hinder sustainable behaviour. For example: by making flying so cheap, a supply situation is created that makes it more difficult for all people to choose the slower and more expensive journey by train, although this is obviously the more sustainable option. Even though the ability to self-control increases up to a certain age, most adults tend to opt for the short-term need in certain situations. Thus, it is also a social problem and a political task to create situations that promote sustainable behaviour.

Is it difficult to achieve long-term goals in other areas as well?

A well-known experiment for deferred gratification is the so-called marshmallow test. A child sits alone in a room and gets a marshmallow. Then they are told that they can eat this marshmallow right away or wait a little longer and get a second one in return. It is only a few minutes, but you can see in the videos how many children torture themselves. They touch the marshmallow, smell it and try not to eat it. It was then measured how long the children could wait to eat the first marshmallow. The children’s ability to control themselves seems to have a long-term predictive power with regard to their later cognitive and social competence. Long-term studies have shown that children who were more patient with the marshmallow later achieved greater educational success and were less likely to suffer from obesity.

Do we behave sustainably for altruistic or selfish motives?

The typical answer to the question about the reasons for sustainable behaviour is that it is done for the sake of the environment and thus, for the sake of future generations. The respondents thus indicate that they act sustainably out of altruism. We do not want to deny the influence of altruistic motivations, but in our research, we have asked ourselves what motivations could also play a role beyond that and investigated possible egoistic motivations. In research on sustainable behaviour, these have so far been seen more as reasons for less sustainable behaviour.


“People doing something for the environment out of love often seems to be an empty phrase”


Is it easier for you to change your behaviour if you benefit from it?

If motivations such as getting recognition from others or meeting one’s own ideals are seen as selfish, it might be useful to use them to promote sustainable behaviour, for egoistic motivations are more concrete than the concept of altruism and can be addressed more easily. For example, you may prefer riding your bike to driving a car because your surroundings reward it immediately rather than possible future climatic effects. It may also be more honest to admit selfish motivations. People doing something for the environment out of love often seems to be an empty phrase.

Thus, selfishness can have a positive effect?

Surely it would be the desirable motivation for people to act sustainably out of their love for the environment. But if addressing this motivation does not work, I find it quite legitimate to take advantage of egoistic motivations. Ultimately, it is better when people are selfishly motivated to act sustainably than not at all.

Is the abstract idea of ​​the “future generations” even a meaningful basis for argumentation in order to promote sustainable behaviour?

Abstraction can certainly help to promote sustainable behaviour. There is a theory, the Construal Level Theory, which describes the relationship between psychological distance and mental abstraction. Psychological distance means, for example, the temporal or spatial distance of an object or event. Mental abstraction means that people can imagine an object or event abstractly, more or less. Both aspects influence each other.

How can I envision that?

What is important in the context of sustainability is that when thinking of a distant future, abstract concepts, such as ideals, influence behaviour. For the near future, however, the behaviour is more likely to be influenced by considerations of feasibility. Provided that people see sustainability as an ideal, it could be an intervention to promote sustainable behaviour, get them to plan their grocery shopping in advance and make a list, rather than being guided by hunger or special offers when shopping.

Is there some kind of psychological trick for adults that could be used to make one’s behaviour more sustainable or is there simply a need for stricter laws?

Using the example of self-control, there are individual characteristics that correlate with sustainable behaviour. In addition, however, the context also plays an important role, for example political and technical framework conditions. Basically, you must take the situation into consideration in relation to the person.

What would it look like if one were to try to use motivational conversation techniques, in a very practical way, to promote sustainable behaviour in the future?

One challenge is that people usually do not go to a psychologist until their psychological stress is extreme, and they do not suffer directly from their unsustainable behaviour. So hardly anyone will decide on their own initiative to get advice on sustainability issues. Therefore, other situations should be set up in which this is possible. This could be easier than it seems at first glance. Even though most of the students who participated in the study came from the field of psychology, they did not have any therapeutic training and had been instructed by an experienced therapist only one day in advance. So teachers could also be trained to use the method in class.

Interview: Nadja Bascheck
Translation: Hannah Riegert-Wirtz



© Judith Tonner

Dr Judith Tonner received her PhD from the University of Basel as part of the doctoral program in Social, Economic and Decision-Making Psychology. During her research and teaching, she was particularly concerned with promoting sustainable behaviour. She is currently working as a research assistant in the Department of Cultural Analysis and Communication at the Zurich University of the Arts.

“If we, the global community, want to achieve something, everybody should contribute”

Extreme Weather Events IV: Plaquemines Parish, Louisiana, 2005 © Sayler/Morris


Few Resources, Large Impact: Climate Change in Developing Countries


What is the present and future role of developing countries regarding climate protection? Dr. Maximiliane Sievert explains the importance of sustainable energy access for the climate and for development. By using the example of resource-friendly cookers, she shows that development and climate protection are not mutually exclusive.

Dr Sievert – at the Katowice Climate Change Conference 2018, the German Federal Environment Minister Svenja Schulze said: “Those who contributed least to climate change are the ones who are affected by it the most.” Who contributed to climate change the most?

From a historical perspective, the now industrialised countries are the biggest producers of carbon dioxide. The developing countries have contributed very little to it. But when you look at the current situation and at the future, too, you will notice a different trend. From the early 2000s onwards, the emissions produced by all non-OECD countries have surpassed those of the OECD countries. So, when we think about climate change and those responsible for it nowadays, we must also consider the non-industrialised countries, or countries that are not, historically speaking, big emitters, such as India or China.

This extreme trend also shows in sub-Saharan Africa: carbon dioxide emissions have increased dramatically over the past decades and will continue to increase in the future. The principal reason for this is the strong population growth in African countries. The economic development, which will hopefully continue in the future, is also a source for further carbon dioxide emissions. Consequently, these countries turn more and more into carbon emitters.

There is also a second aspect, one that is often disregarded. When talking about carbon dioxide emissions, the topic of conventional emissions created by the burning of fossil fuels often comes up. In that regard, sub-Saharan Africa is not a big carbon emitter at present. But when we take into account those carbon dioxide emissions that are the result of the disappearance of carbon sinks – for example forests, which bind carbon dioxide and reduce its concentration in the atmosphere – then we can see that there are some sub-Saharan countries that are already on the same emission level as a medium-sized European country.

Do developing countries suffer more from climate change than industrialised countries?

These days, people are experiencing extreme weather phenomena all over the planet. Let us just think of the exceptionally hot summer of 2018 in Europe, as well as the droughts and forest fires in the United States. There are extreme weather phenomena occurring everywhere in the world, and the developing and emerging countries of the Global South are no exception here. The difference is that we can simply water our gardens some more, and we can buy fans or turn on our air conditions. Regarding climate change, greater wealth also means more and better possibilities to adapt to negative effects of said change.

Our research is focused on countries that are traditionally considered developing countries. We largely follow the definition of the OECD, which is clearly based on the issue of income: if the per-capita income of a country is below a certain level, the country is considered a developing country. When we look at this with respect to climate change, we notice that it is indeed a relevant category, because income is, in fact, a strong indicator for the potential to adapt to changing environmental conditions. Another important factor is that people in developing countries are much more dependent on agriculture, which is affected to a great extent by extreme weather phenomena. Here in Germany, the agricultural sector contributes one percent to the GDP, while in many states of the Global South, that sector is the largest employer.


“The current situation threatens the forests”


Despite the noticeable consequences, the countries of the Global South produce more and more carbon dioxide. Their research is predominantly concerned with energy access. What sources of energy do the people in developing countries use at the moment?

When hearing the term “energy access”, most people think of electricity at first. Currently, one billion people have no access to electricity. But an even more important issue is the use of energy for cooking. That is why one of our main research fields is cooking energy. Three billion people on the planet use biomass, such as firewood and charcoal, for cooking, especially in developing countries. In some regions of the Global South, charcoal is a major cause for deforestation; particularly in the cities it is used for cooking. In consequence, the current situation threatens the forests. Another contributing factor is the massive population growth that goes hand in hand with urbanisation. In the future, this will put further pressure on the forests. Over the next years, we want to research in detail in how far the factor of cooking energy is harmful to the forests. By now, we have access to very good satellite images on which we can see where and how many trees are felled, and thus study how that is connected to traditional energy demand.

Furthermore, traditional energy generation also has negative effects on people in areas where charcoal and especially firewood are used for cooking. On the one hand, searching and gathering firewood requires a tremendous amount of time. On the other hand, these technologies are very dirty, as they pollute the air during the cooking process and hence pose severe health risks. The World Health Organization estimates that the air pollution caused by the use of these fuels leads to up to 3 million premature deaths per annum. Ultimately, this causes more deaths than HIV or malaria.

With regard to cooking energy, are there alternatives to biomass that could protect the climate and people’s health?

Electricity and liquid gas could be possible options here. Even though these fuels are considered the best solution by the international community, they also have their limitations, especially in rural areas. People either do not have any access to electricity, or if they do, the access is neither reliable nor stable. Electric cookers need lots of energy, and if everybody turned up their stoves at noon or in the evening, it could result in severe problems with the regulation of the power grid. That is why there are hardly any households in sub-Saharan Africa that cook with electricity, except for a small number in cities or countries such as South Africa or Namibia. In rural areas, people rely almost exclusively on traditional energy generation. One major problem in these regions is that the supply chain for liquid gas often does not reach remote villages. Furthermore, liquid gas is distributed in relatively large cylinders, which are quite expensive. Compared to a bundle of firewood, liquid gas is a great financial effort.

The international community tries to establish clean solutions, for example cooking with liquid gas, and also attempts to remove barriers such as infrastructural deficiencies. At the same time, efforts are made to increase the efficiency of cookers that use firewood or charcoal. These are technologies that we have already known for many decades: improved stoves that continue to use biomass as fuel but are much more sustainable. Some are able to use less fuel to produce the same amount of food, others can simultaneously reduce air pollution thanks to a cleaner combustion process. These stoves are not particularly expensive; the cheapest models can be bought for about ten euros. For the time being, they could serve as some kind of transitioning technology. So, there are measures that can reduce climate change, decrease poverty and benefit people’s health. At best, we could kill two birds with one stone.

Using less fuels saves time and money, improves health, and protects the climate. Do these efficient cookers spread like wildfire?

The reality looks somewhat different. In urban areas, the distribution works really well: There, people use these stoves because by saving fuel, they also save money, and the investment pays off in the long run. In rural areas, it is more difficult because people often do not buy firewood for cooking purposes but collect it. Of course, the new stove would save time. But when I imagine not having any money, but a lot of time, then I would rather continue to collect firewood instead of making the big investment of getting a new stove. That is at least one explanation why it is still difficult today to distribute those stoves on a larger scale.

We found other possible explanations after we conducted a study in several villages in Senegal, where we investigated people’s willingness to pay for those cookers. We and the Senegalese researchers found out that the willingness to pay is actually high enough to cover the market price of the stoves. But in reality, people do not buy them. This raises another research question: what is the reason for that? Is it poor information policy? Or the fact that possible suppliers do not have enough money to rent trucks in order to drive to the small villages and sell the stoves? We are currently researching these issues with a study in which we attempt to reduce the aforementioned obstacles. Subsequently, we can find out whether the local population then accepts the technology and its distribution.


“In that sense, Germany is also a developing country that has to evolve further”


A little money can have a great impact in developing countries. Should we then focus especially on the non-industrialised countries when it comes to climate protection?

There is a change in the main goals of the United Nations, which used to be called Millennium Development Goals, and are now termed Sustainable Development Goals. All countries in this world commit themselves to develop further. Accordingly, these goals also apply to countries such as Germany. In that sense, Germany is also a developing country that has to evolve further. Climate change is such an enormous challenge. When individual players say “I do not feel responsible”, it becomes more and more difficult to meet this challenge. If we, the global community, want to achieve something, then everybody should contribute.

Nevertheless, it is only reasonable to think about the most efficient ways to do something about climate change. That means: Where does a single invested Euro have the most impact? In industrialised countries, we often have to spend large sums of money in order to save just one more ton of carbon. In the countries of the Global South, the same amount of money can be used much more effectively.

Could non-industrialised countries skip the age of fossil fuels if they were subsidised in the production of sustainable energies?

This is a goal which the international community officially funds with a great deal of money. The great hope is that the now developing countries can adopt the technologies which the industrialised countries have already developed, especially when it comes to energy generation. Industrial technologies such as coal-fired power plants used to be big polluters here. Those could be skipped and the power could be generated entirely through renewable energies. However, in many developing countries the energy demand is immense, and I do not see a course of development that would be entirely carbon neutral. Asian countries in particular still continue to build big coal-fired power plants. Those are also being developed in sub-Saharan Africa. In consequence, those hopes are radically different from reality. Development banks do not necessarily only finance big solar power stations, but also fossil power plants.

Why is that?

This is an interesting question, and there are different attempts at an explanation: Firstly, fossil power plants are a reliable technology that can even be operated without major risks in the countries of the Global South. Here in Germany, we also have difficulties managing the energy transition, feeding renewable energies into our grid and regulating them. It does not surprise me that African countries settle for coal-fired power plants, a much simpler technology. In addition, renewable energies are often more capital-intensive, and in countries with higher investment risks and difficult access to credits, this leads to little to no investments. Of course, developing countries do not start at the same point as, for example, Germany did in the 19th century. During the electrification in Germany, 100 percent of the generated energy came from coal-fired power plants. That will not happen in any African country, as all countries endeavour to create power from renewable energies. However, renewable energies are not expanded to an extent that would be necessary to skip the fossil age entirely.

Interview: Ella Steiner
Translation: Christine Decker



© Sven Lorenz

Dr Maximiliane Sievert is deputy head of the research group “Climate Change in Developing Countries” at the Leibniz Institute for Economic Research. The research team studies cost-effective strategies to reduce climate change and how the population in developing countries can adapt better to a changing environment. Dr Sievert specialises in energy accesses and their effects on poverty.

“We are bound to make more mistakes in climate politics”

Drought and Fires XV: Umatilla National Forest, Washington State, 2006 © Sayler/Morris

The Right Wing’s Relationship to the Issue of Climate


AfD, Ukip or FPÖ: right-wing populist parties stand out because of their statements regarding the reality of climate change. Is there an overall pattern? In a recent study, Alexander Carius and Stella Schaller have researched the attitudes of the European Right on matters of climate change. They talk about the motives and arguments of these parties in an interview with 42 Magazine – and highlight how the protection of climate needs to change so as not to provide them with further ammunition.

Mr Carius, Ms Schaller – right-wing populists attract negative attention with sceptical and hostile opinions in the current debate about climate protection. Why does this part of the political spectrum tend to frequently doubt climate change?

Alexander Carius: This is predominantly tied to the belief of having easy answers to complex questions. Many right-wing populists dispute basic physical facts, doubt man-made climate change, and question climate science as a whole. To them, science is elitist, a conspiracy. They do not address the socio-economic ramifications of man-made climate change but instead they broach the issue of an allegedly negative impact on the national economy and low-income households. Mainly though, they avoid any public discourse which exposes the facts. Finally, their strong nationalist perspective is in conflict with the necessary multilateral actions. In general, climate politics is a surface onto which they can project their nationalist, anti-democratic, and non-liberal worldview.

In a recently published study you researched the positions of European right-wing populists towards the climate. What did you find out?

Stella Schaller: Right-wing populist parties and their positions towards climate politics can be divided into three groups. The first one is made up of climate change deniers and sceptics. They discredit the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, deny the anthropocentric part of climate change and spread, at times, strange ideas, for example that climate change is being caused by cosmic rays. The German AfD belongs to this group, as does the British Ukip and the Sweden Democrats. A second group, consisting mostly of right-wing populist parties does not have a political climate program and their statements are erratic. In this group, statements in election programmes often contradict the statements of their press spokespersons and party leaders. A third group accepts man-made climate change. The Hungarian Fidesz party and the Latvian National Alliance are part of this group and they are involved in radical right-wing marches against minorities. Half of all right-wing populist members in the European Parliament vote against climate and energy laws.

How do you explain the right-wing populist’s ideological differences towards climate change? For example, what distinguishes Fidesz from the AfD?

S: The different levels have various causes. For example, when right-wing populist parties are part of the ruling government their positions are more moderate. Parties from countries with a small carbon-footprint take up far less extreme positions towards climate topics. The Fidesz party has been in charge of the government since 2010. They have had a lot of time to develop climate political positions and pragmatic approaches. Also, Hungary runs on a mix of energies derived from a lot of gas and nuclear energy and hardly any coal, which makes the country’s ecological footprint good. This is similar in the case of the National Alliance in climate-friendly Latvia. Climate protection is fairly unchallenged, the issue cannot become as politically charged there, as in an economy which relies on coal. In Germany the prices for energy have risen because of the energy crisis – that obviously works in favour of parties like the AfD which are trying to pin the public against elites.

C: The Hungarian Fidesz and the Latvian National Alliance show the discrepancy between a climate-friendly attitude on the one hand and anti-democratic and non-liberal politics on the other. The latter undermines what climate politics are supposed to be: strong, globalised, scientifically and socially motivated. In the best case, they ought to be modern and based on ecological and transformative change. That is what most populists seem to fear, because they have no place in such a world.

In your research, Fidesz and the National Alliance form a minority in light of their climate-friendly attitudes. How do other parties argue when they oppose climate protection measures?

S: On the one hand, they claim that climate change has a negative impact on the economy because of energy prices rising. Also, low-income households are disproportionally more impacted. Additionally, the parties utilise arguments in favour of environmentalism: solar and wind plants are supposedly destroying cultural landscapes and lead to the death of birds and the destruction of forests. Lastly, the parties argue that climate protection measurements in Europe would have no effect due to rising emissions in China and India. Parties which doubt the connection between carbon emission and climate change think that national climate politics are pointless. Arguing that low-income households are more afflicted by a carbon tax is in general neither a populist nor a right-wing argument. Sociological reservations are to be taken seriously and democratic parties are increasingly recognising their role in such matters – as can be witnessed in the current debate.

C: Socially unfair consequences of climate change protection measures are utilised by both left and right-wing parties. We saw the repercussions through the example of the yellow vests movement in France: If a carbon tax were to be introduced there it would economically impact poorer households and the rural population disproportionally, compared to the rest of the country. These parts of the population rely on personal vehicles and are unable to fall back on public transport. There are solutions to this issue. For example, Sweden and Switzerland purposefully utilise tax cuts or reduced health insurance contributions to partially give revenues from carbon taxes back to low-income households.


“When climate-political measures aren’t embedded in a whole anthology of socio-political provisions, they are less likely to be accepted”


To what extent should this become the norm?

C: When climate-political measures are no longer embedded in a whole anthology of socio-political provisions, they are less likely to be accepted by society. This mistake is often contrived when climate politics are being constructed, showing a weakness in the implementation of the Paris climate agreement. We cannot try to only adjust one point or another – we have established the goal of living in a carbon-free world, so we have to move away from fossil energies like coal or oil. This means that the way we produce goods and consume them, the way we built, how we eat and how we get around has to change in its entirety. This change can only be successful when the solutions have an appeal to the majority. That is precisely where populists – right and left wing – see their opportunity. The issue of social unfairness has the potential to be instrumentalised, but it is not an unsolvable issue. A carbon tax, for example, is just one method which can be utilised for climate protection. We have to research what consequences which measures have on each other and how they can be cushioned with social policies.

In certain contexts, even climate sceptics will support renewable energies.

S: There is a number of parties – for example, the FPÖ (Freedom Party of Austria) and the Rassemblement National – who are considerably sceptical towards climate issues but still support renewable energies because they understand the economic advantages. The production of modern technologies in one’s own country can create new jobs and reduce the dependence on foreign energy imports. This is the idea of energy self-sufficiency. For example, Marine Le Pen said: We do not want to depend on energy imports from Saudi-Arabia which always tend to come with an ideology. In 2018, the FPÖ, in cooperation with the Austrian People’s Party had presented a strategy to achieve 100% renewable energies while modernising their economy and cleaning up the air.


“Energy and climate politics are only effective across border


But is that not a contradiction? On the one hand, these parties claim that renewable energies are expensive and bad for the environment but on the other side they understand it as an economic opportunity…

S: These parties engage in a “green patriotism” which goes into two different directions. On the one hand, many parties argue against climate protection measures in the name of the environment. The assumption is that the further development of solar and wind power plants will destroy cultural landscapes. They utilise a romanticised nationalism, often even explicitly nationalist rhetoric. The idea of “I want to protect the environment” only goes as far as the national border. This is too short-sighted because climate change does not only endanger the local flora and fauna. On the other hand, they support the expansion of renewable energies on the basis of national economic interest.

C: In general, the term “green patriotism” is nothing bad, it just tends to be corrupted when used. Essentially, what is meant is the action to stand up and protect your own environment’s nature and biodiversity, as well as healthier and cleaner living environments. In our globalised world, this does not really work because of how energy and climate politics are only effective across borders. Nonetheless, protecting climate globally only works when ambitious politics are being pursued on a national level which includes the conservation of nature and landscapes, as well as dealing with contradictory politics.

What do these contradictions mean for the political climate debates?

C: We need this discourse. When we build wind farms it will inevitably lead to a change in landscape – that is why we discuss the advantages and disadvantages of onshore and offshore wind farms. None of our political climate protection measures is uncontroversial. Climate politics are not a technological but a socio-political approach which requires the testing of various models. We are bound to make more mistakes in climate politics. We are bound to experience further contradictions, for example, when trying to replace private transport solutions with electric vehicles. This will not lead to a decrease in traffic density as long as we do not implement other forms and concepts of mobility. The path to a low-carbon economy will not be free from contentions and controversies. But that is what democratic processes are for.

What would be the best way to approach right-wing parties in this debate?

S: Right-wing parties and their often manipulative arguments should not be the focus. What is important is to expose their positions to be able to present the voters with alternatives. Our study has shown that a big part of right-wing populist parties is without a concept for climate policy. Over the past few years, climate science has understood its capability and need to be a whole lot more involved in socio-politics. When facts about the climate are clearly communicated, climate science can point out more distinctly the advantages of climate politics towards competitiveness and energy autonomy. Economy and society, as well as jobs, need to be modernised to allow the transformation into a carbon-free economy. Over the course of the next few years, we need to shape the complete renewal of our industry.


“We have to act now and way more radically than we are at the moment”


How can we achieve this?

C: This process needs to be organised by the parties from within the democratic array. Climate politics is social policy; climate politics is modernisation policy. Social policy, as well as modernisation policy, are both part of climate politics. They only work when we grant certain concessions to the politically disadvantaged – for example, in Germany over the withdrawal from coal-powered energy. We have to give the citizens who are still employed by the coal industry and, by extension, the following generations reasonable alternatives in terms of occupation and life perspectives.

Climate risks are issues which only arise after some time. We have to act now and way more radically than we are at the moment. In Germany, the coal commission, a commission created to bring about changes in the national system, has submitted a few proposals, highlighting the need for massive investments. For this we can utilise the potential of our society.

What potential do you mean?

C: The transition to other energies and the withdrawal from coal energy are favoured by distinct majorities in all German polls. The latest poll has shown that 80% of all citizens are for the withdrawal from coal energy. We have to use this kind of political support more. The question is: How do I design the transition; how do I make it interesting? The transition is going to be difficult – people do not like change, especially not when they are confronted with utterly new concepts of production, consumption and mobility. The European parties have to shape this process and supply it with ideas. This process of creating a future needs to be directed by utilising the strengths of a well-established science community and a strong civil society. We have just started one of the biggest societal projects ever. I believe if this succeeds, the question of right-wing populists continuing to take a strong stand will not matter anymore.

Interview: Eliana Berger
Translation: Laura Emily Schulze



© Peter van Heesen

The political scientist Alexander Carius is CEO of the Berlin think tank adelphi. He is researching issues such as climate change and democracy and advises, among others, the EU Council and the German government.




© Martin Kath Fotografie

Stella Schaller is an expert on climate matters and works for the think tank adelphi. She is the head of projects dealing with climate protection and climate diplomacy. Her focus lies on the combination of sustainable development and peacekeeping within the area of climate diplomacy.