What can we do to stop climate change? Why has so little of it been implemented so far? And why does science not always get through to politics? Elmar Kriegler is Head of the Research Department “Transformation Pathways” at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, where he puts his focus on the Research Area “Mitigation and Sustainable Development Pathways”, and Professor for Integrated Assessment of Climate Change at the University of Potsdam. His research focuses on the integrated assessment of climate change, scenario and decision analysis. For “Portal Wissen” he answered “33 Questions”.
Can the world still be saved?
Our planet has already been through a lot. It will also survive the intervention of humans. The question is rather how we humans can still be saved on this planet. If we are smart, we will put our knowledge of how to stop human-made climate change into practice. Then we can still save “our world”.
Is the glass half-full or half-empty for you?
In the heat of the moment, it’s often half-empty, but after a bit of reflection, usually half-full. The assumption that the glass is half-full usually takes me further.
Car or bike?
The bike for daily errands, except for grocery shopping with the family.
How would you respond if someone said that we can still address climate change “tomorrow”?
The nations of the world already agreed at the Earth Summit in Rio in 1992 to avoid dangerous human intervention in the climate system. Since then, greenhouse gas emissions have risen year after year, with only a few exceptions. “Tomorrow” was yesterday, now it’s the day after tomorrow.
You said last year that “around the middle of the century, we would have to be at zero net Co2 emissions globally” to reach the 1.5°C target. Is it still possible to achieve that?
We have just published a study on 1.5 degree scenarios, which shows how difficult this has become. Only if we are able to get all the options for climate protection ready and running worldwide without delay can we hope to limit warming to 1.5°C in the long term. Time is not on our side. Since the Earth Summit in Rio, we have spent 30 years with rising emissions. Now we must bring the increased emissions to zero in another 30 years. We can’t waste any more years.
What has to be done to achieve this?
We must transform our energy and land use completely to emissions neutrality within 30 years. To achieve this we must take seven steps: rapid decarbonization of electricity production, electrification of energy use, reducing the demand for non-electric energy sources, conversion to low-carbon fuels, reduction of emissions from agriculture, sustainable land use, and CO2 sequestration from the atmosphere. For all this to happen in a coordinated way and to provide sufficient incentives for climate-friendly innovations, we need to fix a high price on greenhouse gas emissions that covers as many areas as possible. Our model calculations determine 100-200€/ tCO2 in 2030. To ensure that this does not exacerbate social and international inequalities, the revenues from greenhouse gas pricing would have to be redistributed in favor of low-income households and to support developing countries in the process of implementing the transition.
Why does politics not listen to science?
That’s a good question. Politicians have privileged access to scientific advice, and they make use of it. However, the fact that politicians listen to science does not mean that they do what is advisable from a scientific point of view. This was also evident during the Corona pandemic. Politicians must react to high pressures from various sides. It is a matter of winning and retaining majorities. And, in this regard, the path of least resistance is often the most tempting. That’s a key reason why little has happened in climate protection over the past 30 years, even though our understanding of the dramatic consequences of unchecked climate change continues to improve.
Has the Corona pandemic changed anything in this respect?
We will probably have to wait a few more years to be able to answer that conclusively. During the first wave, I was still enthusiastic about the rationality and science-based character of the political and public discourse. That turned into the opposite after the second and third wave. It didn’t take long before there was a vociferous movement of Corona deniers. Some politicians and media tried to disparage science or to play its representatives off against each other. Climate researchers know these patterns all too well. What disillusioned me was the fact that even the immediate presence of the pandemic did not seem to make a real difference. Although the consequences were not globally distributed and would not occur years into the future but in close proximity at the intensive care units of neighboring hospitals, policymakers did not effectively respond to the second and third wave, even though they could have known and probably did know better. That makes me think. Democracies depend on decision-making in a broad social discourse. If these are rational at their core, the democratic process is unbeatable. We have a problem if we increasingly lose our collective mind in such discourses.
Have you ever said, “I told you so!”?
Nobody wants to hear that, and I can understand why. Even if I think it, I try to keep it to myself.
Do you prefer setting yourself long-term or short-term goals?
It really depends; I don’t have a system for that. Long-term goals are important for giving direction but also tempt you to lapse into comfortable idleness. The analogy to climate protection also applies here. There is a lot of talk about long-term targets. In the Paris Agreement, the targets were even raised from the 2-degree limit to well below 2°C and 1.5°C, even though emissions had been rising for 25 years. So we need both: short-term and long-term goals. Right now, for example, it’s important to talk about how – and not whether – Germany and the EU will achieve greenhouse gas neutrality by 2045 and 2050 respectively.
Has your research already had an impact on your lifestyle?
Yes, I have significantly reduced my meat consumption over the past three years.
What would be hard for you to give up?
Right now, I miss the direct exchange with international colleagues at conferences and workshops. The pandemic has shown that more exchange than we thought is also possible virtually, but it can’t replace every physical meeting. Sitting together in a room and discussing scientific issues can, if things go well, develop a specific quality that is difficult to reproduce virtually.
“The Day After Tomorrow” (Roland Emmerich) or “An Inconvenient Truth” (Davis Guggenheim/Al Gore)?
“An Inconvenient Truth”. The way Al Gore climbed up on the scissor lift to illustrate the current rise of CO2 concentration in the atmosphere was impressive. The speed of human-made climate change is unparalleled in the Earth’s history. Within 60 years, CO2 concentration has risen to levels that have not existed for millions of years. Al Gore was able to get the threat of climate change and ways to address it into the minds of many people. Emmerich’s Hollywood blockbuster did what such blockbusters usually do: show much action with a background story that has little to do with real climate change.
Why did you study physics?
As a student, I was very fascinated by how the material world could be traced back to basic equations and fundamental forces. I wanted to study physics to understand what held the world together at its core. It turned out that this wasn’t on offer. Physics is not metaphysics, and rightly so. You find, of course, little in physics about the things that concern societies at their core. Nevertheless, studying physics was very important for me. It honed my analytical skills and gave me the quantitative tools for my current research.
How did you “become” a climate researcher?
I am not a classical climate researcher but would describe myself as a researcher at the interface of various disciplines, which transdisciplinary topics such as climate change can create. We use coupled energy-land-economy-climate models, so-called integrated assessment models, to achieve an integrated assessment of climate change mitigation strategies. In my diploma thesis, I analyzed data from a particle physics experiment at CERN. I enjoyed that very much but it was far away from social issues. After graduation, I took a few months and toured Germany to check out different topics for a possible PhD thesis. Climate protection was still a marginal topic at the end of the 1990s, but it immediately fascinated me because of its connection between society and nature. That’s how I came to the then still young Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and my current research topic.
Who is your role model?
I don’t have one specific role model, but fortunately I have met a few people who are role models in different areas.
What has been a key moment in your work as a researcher?
The thematic reorientation for my doctoral thesis was certainly the most important key to my career as a scientist. This already started with my first working group meeting at PIK. There, physicists and economists were dueling over whose concepts should dominate the research. It was immediately clear to me that this was not the first time they were doing this. Eventually, this friction led to new ideas that pushed the research. Some other key moments were my work as an author for the Fifth Assessment Report and the special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The summary reports for decision makers must be confirmed verbatim by the countries in week-long meetings. Those were exhausting days and sleepless nights. And at the end, we came to realize that it could work. The reports’ scientific integrity was preserved, and countries found the reference points they wanted. The IPCC is a success story of scientific political consulting.
What does success mean to you?
Success feels good and is important for your academic career. But it is not everything. Failure is a part of it too, and you can often lean more from failure than from success. And sometimes you achieve success in a non-linear way. My experience is that an exceedingly linear focus on success, the constant question of “What’s in it for me?”, does not necessarily lead to success. Passion, intuition, and cooperation are the better companions.
How do you measure success?
Success is when your own work is received and discussed by specialist colleagues – and even more so when it also reaches decision-makers and the broader public. Ultimately, success is any substantive discussion that generates new thoughts and allows me to learn.
What was your biggest failure?
Failure is part of an academic career. A submitted article is rejected, a third-party funding application fails. This is disappointing, but these are also important experiences that teach you how to deal with them and to improve things. My biggest failure perhaps was the failure of a comprehensive EU application that I had coordinated and of which we were very convinced as a consortium. We had just successfully completed a research cycle, including several EU-funded projects, and many of our findings had been included in the Fifth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. We then thought we could start the next research cycle with this project. The rejection brought us rudely back down to earth. Building the new research cycle then turned out to be much more strenuous than we had hoped.
Why did you come to Potsdam?
To write my PhD thesis at PIK.
Why did you stay?
For a while, I was on a research stay at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh together with my family. But the PIK is a unique place to conduct research on the natural scientific, economic, and social aspects of climate change and to provide science-based policy advice. That and the fact that we feel very comfortable in Potsdam made us return and stay.
Early bird or night owl?
Night owl. I have always been one.
What do you want to achieve as a scholar?
With our research, we want to help find pathways toward a sustainable future. For example, we have just developed a number of climate scenarios to assess financial market risks for a network of central banks.
The integrated assessment of climate change strategies uses scenarios of possible futures (“What could happen?”), as well as goal-oriented futures (“What would have to happen to achieve a particular goal?”). They are designed in such a way that they can be used to analyze the implications of different possible actions and assumptions. In this way, we try to bridge the gap between aspects of the natural and social sciences, between short-term measures and long-term considerations, between national and international debates, and between achieving climate targets and other social goals. To be able to achieve that with the necessary concreteness is an ongoing challenge.
What topic are you currently researching?
As head of the Research Department “Transformation Pathways” at PIK – together with my colleague Katja Frieler – I am fortunate to be able to work with a large team of excellent researchers on a variety of issues. Our department covers a range of topics, from the assessment of future climate-related damages, the analysis of energy and land use transformation at the German, European, and global level to questions of policy instruments to design and implement these transformation processes. I am leading an EU project on the development of a new generation of integrated assessment models, I research the embedding of climate change mitigation pathways in a broader sustainability context, and I am involved in the 6th Assessment Report of the IPCC Working Group on Emissions Reductions.
Who would you like to do research with?
We are already well connected internationally, conducting research in various projects with researchers from Europe, Australia, Asia, North and Latin America. I would like to do more research on political economy and institutional issues of social transformation pathways, with colleagues from the social sciences who are also interested in modeling and scenario building. I also find research on digitization, the future of work, inequality, and energy use very interesting.
Which discovery would you like to have made yourself?
This question doesn’t mean much to me. I think that many discoveries are great, but why would I want to have made them myself? It’s good that they were made, completely irrespective of me. I’m rather motivated by the question, what would I like to find out? A number of things come to mind, all requiring to link process understanding and modeling: Where does climate change interfere most with the growth process, and what does that mean for future climate-related damage? What strategy best combines social justice, innovation, and climate protection? And which new ideas on reducing emissions exist that could make global CO2 neutrality more achievable by 2050?
What do you like most about your profession?
To be able to look at the whole picture, the privilege of being able to think about the future of the world for a living, and the richness and transdisciplinarity of the climate issue. There are few topics of our time without a reference point to climate change. And it is the daily work in an inspiring team that is dedicated to the integrated assessment of climate change and climate protection.
And what not at all?
The race for third-party funding becomes a treadmill when more than half of employees are financed through it. Third-party funding enables us to cover a broad and socially relevant range of topics in line with the potential we have. But it also leads to a constant cycle of applications, project meetings, and reports, which can wear you down. The most difficult part is the fact that we are unable to offer long-term career prospects for many young and outstanding researchers even if we would like to keep them.
What advice would you give to young researchers?
I would advise them to listen to themselves and follow their own intuition and passion, even if their future prospects are still unclear. Good science starts with a good question. For those who can ask such questions, want to get to the bottom of things, and seek knowledge for the sake of knowledge or social progress, science might be the right path. But science inevitably also means competition, because a new discovery can only be published once. You have to be ready to face that; it’s not stress-free. What makes the situation more difficult for future researchers in Germany is the lack of a clear career path. It therefore remains an adventure to set out on this path. Whether you want to do this is an individual decision and of course also depends on factors other than scientific aptitude.
Which book that you have recently read has remained in your memory?
“Life 3.0: Being Human in the Age of Artificial Intelligence” by Max Tegmark. In fact, the phrase that AI is neither artificial nor intelligent is on many people’s lips. But Tegmark has convinced me that the ingredients for a new age of autonomous, self-learning machines with cognitive skills have already been prepared when you think beyond the next few years. What makes Tegmark’s book so interesting to me is that he looks at the question of what it will mean to be human and organize the economy and society in the face of such machines. We are facing a drastic upheaval that is taking place simultaneously and closely interwoven with the fundamental changes caused by climate change, the struggle for social justice and equal economic access, and the struggle between democracy and autocracy. And as such upheavals demand, Tegmark asks the pressing question of how we want to shape the new machine age.
How do you create a balance to research?
Activities with the family, going out into nature, immersing myself in exciting stories, and just doing nothing for a change. Admittedly, I do that far too rarely at the moment.
In which situation in your life were you lucky?
I would say that I have been very lucky overall. To be able to grow up in peace and prosperity in a free society and in an intact home, to start a family with my wife, and to see the children grow and become independent, that is happiness.
Prof. Dr. Elmar Kriegler studied physics at the University of Freiburg and received a PhD from the University of Potsdam. He is Head of the Research Department "Transformation Pathways" at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK). Since 2021, he has been Professor for Integrated Assessment of Climate Change at the University of Potsdam.
This text was published in the university magazine Portal Wissen - Two 2021: Departure (PDF).