Ernst Rauch, CCC Munich Re
Toralf Staud, Journalist

Will climate change get the better of us – Or can we beat it?

Dialogue Forum on 19 March 2013

Despite all the efforts at national and international level, greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise unabatedly. We are already beginning to feel the effects of the resulting climate change today. This gives us a foretaste of what lies ahead of us if we do not take corrective action in good time. Answers to the question "Will climate change get the better of us - Or can we beat it?" were sought by the debaters in the third session of the dialogue forum series entitled "The (im)mobile society – Ready for the future?".

From a scientific perspective, the situation is clear. If we want to avoid irreversible damage to the climate system, we must limit global warming to less than 2°C higher than it was in the pre-industrial era. In this case, the human race may only emit another 750 gigatons of CO2 by 2050.  This is the figure computed by the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU). Justly distributed among all global citizens, this corresponds to approximately 2.5 tons of CO2 per capita per year. In comparison: last year alone, 32 gigatons  of carbon were emitted into the atmosphere , roughly 4.5 tons per capita. To achieve the climate target, scientists such as Prof. Ottmar Edenhofer of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) are calling for a system of global emissions trading. Anyone generating more CO2 than the allocated allowance must purchase a corresponding amount of emission rights. Anyone generating less will be financially rewarded. In addition to this, Edenhofer is also campaigning for the development of technical solutions such as carbon capture and storage (CSS).

Weather-related disasters on the rise
The consequences that threaten us if we exceed the 2°C target were spelled out by Ernst Rauch, Head of the Corporate Climate Centre at Munich Re: "Over the past three decades, we have observed that weather-related disasters have increased globally by a factor of 2.5, while geophysical events, in comparison, have largely remained stable. For us, this is an indication that the weather pattern is taking a negative change for the worse. "Of the 1.4 million fatalities caused by natural disasters since the beginning of the 80s, the majority, at 60%, can be attributed to weather-related events such as storms, floods, heat waves and droughts. Above all, it is the world's low-income population that is facing the greatest risks. "However, we in our cultural circles are not really adapted to extreme events either, as the 2003 heat wave in Europe showed."

The fact that 18 World Climate Conferences have been wrestling with a reduction in emissions since 1995 makes the expert sceptical: "If you consider the developments of recent years, we today must actually fear, if anything, that the climate change will get the better of us, and that all the attempts taken to avoid CO2 emissions are nothing more than a drop in the ocean," he concludes. However, we should not diminish our efforts to turn climate change around, he says.

Consumer decisions influence politics
So what can one do as an individual? "It sounds paradoxical, but one person can do a lot and at the same time also very little," explained the freelance journalist and author Toralf Staud. To preserve resources, individuals can save electricity, for example, or avoid plane journeys or reduce their meat consumption. "But, to be honest, the direct benefit to the climate is marginal," says Staud without illusion. People notice this, and it makes them frustrated. Excessive demands of daily life don't make things easier. Knowledge and information on how much CO2 a certain product generates is often missing. Staud quotes environmental expert Reinhard Loske: "Under present day conditions and the incentives in Germany, it is difficult to lead an environmentally friendly life." However, every individual decision to behave in a climate-preserving manner contributes to changing the social climate and trigger political processes as a result. Without statutory regulations, Staud does not believe it can work: "The way to renewable energies would not have been taken so quickly without the requisite law." The citizens are often further advanced than the politicians realize. If society is in agreement, change can come very quickly. The smoking ban was a good example.

The main problem with climate change is that we are not dealing with a personalised opponent and our moral sensibilities are not strongly affected. "If climate change was caused by eating little kittens, millions of people would take to the streets," Staud is convinced. In addition, the change is taking place too slowly to be perceived as a dramatic development. Or, in the words of Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert: global warming is a deadly threat precisely due to the fact, it does not trigger an alarm in the human brain. It allows us to calmly sleep on, even though our bed is already in flames.

German transformation of the energy system as model for the world
The transformation of the energy system declared by the German government is undoubtedly a step in the right direction. "But we are not an island, and should therefore seek for solutions in cooperation with our European neighbours," proposes Rauch. Germany, with its share of three percent of global CO2 emissions, could not achieve the 2°C target on its own anyway. "But Germany has the function of a role model, and the world is watching us and how we take this radical and courageous step."

What energy politics in this country are missing is a body for central coordination at top level. Rauch suspects that after the next Bundestag elections, Germany will follow the example of other countries and create a separate ministry for energy. The expert considers the one-sided concentration of some politicians on the costs of the climate turnaround as wrong. What is missing, he believes, is a loud voice that can offer alternatives with sobriety and without ideology. Because "the macro-economic outlook, according to all the information that I have, appears to be very positive." 

Staud is convinced that Germany has become an inhibitor of any climate-change initiative in European politics. "This is obvious in emissions trading where politics bowed to the pressure of the economy and issued certificates for free." Flawed emission-trading rules today are the reason that it doesn't work, he says. Angela Merkel is no “climate Federal Chancellor” anymore.

Robbed of our illusions we must now acknowledge that the chances of achieving the two-degree target do not appear particularly good. Technologies such as CCS will not make much of a difference as, at the most, they can only push the problem into the future and burden future generations. "I believe that we will sooner or later have to drop all pretence and relinquish the two-degree target," fears Rauch. In return, the measures for adaptation to the inevitable changes will have to gain in priority.

The next dialogue forum will take place on 9 April 2013 and discuss "Yes to renewables – But not in my backyard!".

CB, 26 March 2013