SPIEGEL Interview with Hermann Ott "It's Too Late to Stop Climate Change"
Dr. Hermann Ott is the director of the Berlin office of the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy, one of Europe's leading climate policy research organizations. In an interview with SPIEGEL ONLINE, he says that global warming is inevitable and mankind must take steps for the softest landing possible. It will also mean fundamental changes in the way we live.
Global warming is already happening -- the question is whether we're in for a hard or soft landing.
Depending on whose forecasts you read, the planet could warm anywhere between 1.4 and 11 degrees Celsius during the next century. How significant do you expect the increase to be?
Ott: If we do not act decisively, I would assume an increase of between 3 and 4 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. But it could easily be 6 degrees. That's a little bit greater than the difference between now and the last ice age. Europe will look very different, but of course, the effects are not going to be the same everywhere. In some parts of the world you'll have a change of 10 degrees or 11 degrees. In others you will have only an increase of 1 or 2 degrees. If we talk about skepticism among scientists, it's not about whether or not man-made climate change exists, it's more about what the impacts are going to be. Increasingly, we have computer models that can predict more accurately, but it will take a few years before we know concretely what will happen.
It could be hotter or rainier in some places or it could get cooler in Northern Europe if the Gulf Stream is disrupted. If that happens, we will have temperatures maybe 5 degrees lower than now. Some argue that a 5 degree increase from global warming would offset the effects of a disrupted Gulf Stream, but we already know that fiddling with the system can produce results we are incapable of handling anymore -- and, frankly, we don't know which direction it's going to steer.
SPIEGEL: The Kyoto Protocol is an incredibly watered-down agreement -- it doesn't even require developing nations like India or China to commit to any reduction targets on greenhouse gas emissions. Why bother?
Ott: I'm not one of those to say Kyoto is not worth the paper it's printed on. The main criticisms come from those who want greater emissions reductions and from others who are actually inimical to the protocol. But this is the compromise the global community was able to achieve and to me it is the only realistic political model. If we negotiated Kyoto today, it would probably look worse. If you propose a 50 percent cut by 2040, which is what we probably need, nobody will enter into such an agreement because it's too far away and it is politically unrealistic. Instead you go step-by-step, with very low and modest obligations first that can be strengthened over time.
SPIEGEL: When you speak of antagonists -- or those "inimical" -- of Kyoto, are you referring to the United States and Australia, which refused to ratify Kyoto?
Ott: Yes, but it's also industry, especially the fossil fuel industry -- the coal lobby is still very strong. Nevertheless, I'm pretty certain the United States will be part of the next round after Kyoto, simply because they will be forced to by the people. There will be climate changes and they will be felt. Ironically, it was the US that actually started the whole process when James Hanson testified before Congress in 1988, and it was the US that started the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. As soon as we have freaky weather events in the US again, we'll see a change in attitudes.
The farmers will have to be effected before they move on this -- perhaps through some major event like a serious drought. Farmers are the political base of the current administration and as soon as they are affected, you will see changes. Any administration will join at that point, and then I predict the US will take the lead on the issue, though nobody believes it right now. In the meantime, the Europeans are giving their industry a competitive advantage over their American counterparts.
SPIEGEL: By forcing companies to cut their emissions and make more energy efficient technologies?
Ott: By forcing them to become more efficient and to develop technologically advanced products that can make it on the world market. Look at the oil crisis of the 1970s -- it opened the American automobile market up to Japanese and European automakers with more fuel efficient vehicles. They got their share and still haven't lost it. The same will happen with consumer goods. Conglomerates will change their products to meet the standards of Europe and Japan and they will also sell them in the US.
SPIEGEL: And you think that will be enough to get the Americans to move on the issue?
Ott: We're going to see a change of attitudes in the United States and we will see some concrete actions. By that time, the emissions trading program in the European Union will have been proved, or disproved, its worth. But I presume it will be successful.
SPIEGEL: Rajendra Pachauri, chairman of the IPCC, recently said that we are approaching the point of no return. Another recent report said we are already beyond it. What do you think?
Ott: It's too late to stop climate change, that's for sure, but we can still influence the degree of changes and the degree of impacts. We can prepare for a softer landing. Once the impact of climate change becomes visible, politics will react quickly and forcefully. We saw that in Germany in 2002 during the floods on the Elbe River. They, in fact, determined the result of the (general) elections (later that same year). What we're trying to do now is to steer our boat on a course that is a little more sustainable so that the crash will not be as hard as it otherwise would be.
SPIEGEL: The German government says that emissions need to be reduced by up to 70 percent on the long term. Is that possible using existing technologies? What other steps must be taken?
Ott: We're very optimistic that it can be achieved -- to a great extent even with current technologies. By 2020 we need at least a 20 percent cut in emissions around the world. For the European Union that means something more like 30 percent, or 40 percent for Germany. But the potential for cutting emissions in the US through better energy efficiency, through better use of renewable energy sources, is so vast that reductions could be achieved quickly. Look at the recent electricity crisis in California -- consumption dropped by close to 30 percent within a couple of days. You just have to stop wasting energy. In Germany, between 20-40 percent could be saved without any technological advances and without people noticing any dramatic changes in their daily lives.
SPIEGEL: But you're not just talking about recycling or turning the lights out when you leave a room. Many people are already doing this in Europe and the US. So what kind of lifestyle change are you really predicting?
Ott: I was an avid reader of futurists during the 1970s and '80s. They were so wrong -- about everything. It's always difficult to make predictions about the future. But what you could see is a lifestyle that is completely independent from fossil fuels and very independent from outside energy.
In terms of infrastructure, people will aim at living near where they work. We will have much more localized lifestyles. Travel requires a great deal of energy -- whether you go by car, by bus, by train or plane. We'll likely be using hydrogen as our main energy for transport. Individual transportation has become synonymous for freedom and liberty, so it would be difficult to actually get rid of individualized transport, and in rural areas that would be impossible. So we will have individual transport, but on a much lower scale.
SPIEGEL: So you're suggesting we won't be able to just hop on a jet and fly to some far off beach in Thailand in the future?
Ott: In my pessimistic moments I think we will go in a direction where only a very tiny part of the population will actually be able to lead the kind of life that we have now -- where we have full access to medical supplies and can basically travel wherever we want. In my more optimistic moments I envision the same, but I don't see it as being a major hardship for people. Many won't be able to travel, but we will have much better ways of communicating, through video conferencing, for example, that will allow us to stay local without feeling too remote or isolated. But it's clear we will be traveling less in the future, unless there is some magical technological breakthrough, and I don't see that on the horizon.
SPIEGEL: That's a grim outlook.
Ott: It is, but what part of the population has actually flown, worldwide? Only 1.5 percent. We just can't continue in the future with our current lifestyles. By 2030, international aviation will produce the same amount of emissions that the United States does now. That's a quarter of all emissions and that's not sustainable in a situation where we need to reduce our current emissions by 75 percent. Besides, we're going to run out of fuel. Our resources will diminish in the coming decades at a time when hunger for energy grows dramatically in China and other parts of Asia. Eventually, it will just be impossible to fly -- normal flights will become as expensive as flying with the Concorde.
What we face is an unprecedented challenge: Compared to what we're up against now, the nuclear threat was tiny. What we're faced with now is as destructive as a nuclear war, but unlike the Cold War. There is no individual here with his hand on a launch button. Billions of people have to take individual decisions about what they're going to do -- and it's running up against vested interests. It has massive implications for the way we think about our economies and it runs up against the limits of a capitalist society. Our choices now are simple: hope for a technological miracle or try to steer the tanker a little bit from its current path and hope that that's sufficient. Mankind is, for the first time, in the position to actually do this, to consciously steer a different course. We've never had or even been able to do that before -- but now we can and it's our biggest challenge. Nature does not forgive.
Interview conducted by Daryl Lindsey