An interview with climate expert Professor Hermann Held
Renewable Energy Hamburg: Professor Held, you work in the field of climate research, where you're acknowledged as an expert. What's your assessment of the present situation? Is it five minutes to midnight, or is it midnight already? What needs to happen, throughout Germany and throughout the world, in order to significantly check climate change?
Professor Held: If we still want to meet the 2°C target, or even the 1.5°C target, we should take considerably more ambitious action than was agreed in the 2015 Paris Agreement, even just from an economic point of view. The more we defer tackling the climate goals, the more costly it becomes to convert our energy system. Building coal power stations only to decommission them shortly afterwards is bad economics. And yet we can see how difficult it is to implement even the modest targets of the Paris Agreement – not least in the national debate on this matter.
Renewable Energy Hamburg: What research project are you working on at the moment? What are the key issues?
Professor Held: At the moment we're active in three areas. The first of these is concerned with a problem that perhaps appears very theoretical: how to provide environmental goals with a solid underpinning in economic theory.
Objectives such as the 2°C or 1.5°C target are regarded as less than ideal by mainstream climate economists. According to them, we should weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of prevention efforts ‘rationally’ and then make a decision. At first, that all sounds good. However, we still have insufficient knowledge of the consequences of climate change to enable us to already attach a price estimate in euros to everything. Moreover, most of the consequences lie so far ahead in the future that, in any purely economic consideration, it's easy to underestimate them to such a major extent that they carry only very little weight. This is contradicted by the intuitions of many scientists, who see a long-term danger to the fundamental conditions of life. We're now working on a new assessment process that reconciles solid knowledge with precautionary considerations, and at the same time can also accommodate the fact that new knowledge is always being added. Our findings can, therefore, provide thoroughly practical tips on how emission reduction targets should be adjusted when new information emerges. It would then no longer be necessary to renegotiate budgets internationally every single time. We can also apply this new assessment scheme in the field of North Sea fishery management – our second area of concern – where our work also involves environmental targets.
Finally, in the CLICSS cluster of excellence for climate we're at present undertaking work in conjunction with several other Hamburg research groups to see how the findings of social science might be incorporated into new scenarios for possible futures. We expect this to deliver information regarding which social approaches to solving the climate problem promise success, and which not. Perhaps we might even find new approaches to solutions that no-one else has yet come up with.
Renewable Energy Hamburg: What's your assessment of the influence of movements such as Fridays for Future and Scientists for Future?
Professor Held: In my own personal view, thanks to Fridays for Future we have for the first time a broad-based social force that really wants climate protection. Certainly there was broad sympathy with climate protection before that, but people were contented with politicians essentially simulating climate protection efforts. That’s now different. To that extent, the importance of Fridays for Future can’t be estimated highly enough.
Renewable Energy Hamburg: In your opinion, how might scientists obtain a better hearing among the general public?
Professor Held: For this purpose, it would help if we could find formats that enable people to better imagine their possible futures, including those of their children. In this regard, there are exciting opportunities for exhibition planners, but also for the IT industry to create appropriate apps. But why should citizens want to concern themselves with this problem at all? Are they not threatened by a flood of unpleasant truths they'd rather avoid? I can imagine that information communicated in a more striking combination – ‘Problems and Options for Solution’ – might inspire citizens with a desire to help shape our collective future more enthusiastically than to date. Despite all the problems on the horizon, this can also mean a higher quality of life.