'It’s nonlinearity - stupid!'

| 3rd January 2019
Professor Schellnhuber
Nick Breeze interviews professor John Schellnhuber, who set up the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in 1991 to study climate.

I think we have more than a 5% chance of succeeding but it is definitely less than 50%, in my view. But what is the option? If we have a final chance to save our culture and our civilisation, I am just compelled to do it.

Nick Breeze (NB): Thinking back to the beginning of the Potsdam Institute, and where we are today, how do you feel society has responded to the threat of climate disruption?

John Schellnhuber (JS): It is actually paradoxical: society, in the beginning, was more attentive of climate change and global warming, than it is today. I recall very well, in 1988 I was a visiting professor at the University of California, and in the Spring of 1988 there was a famous Senate hearing in the US where Jim Hansen said, 'this is 99 percent due to anthropogenic global warming'.

At that time it made headlines all over the planet because it was a distant threat. It is a threat where you can play around a little bit. 'Wouldn’t it be terrible if it happened?' Today we are in the midst of global warming. You can see it everywhere, and because it is so overwhelming, people just try to push it out of their consciousness.

And this is the problem, actually. We have waited so long to tackle it that we now seem to be overwhelmed and we declare defeat, and this is the worse thing that can happen because still, we can, not solve the problem, but we can minimise it to something that we can still manage.

If we now find reasons to give up, when it will turn into an outright catastrophe, and now I know as a scientist based on the papers we have published in the last two or three years, that we really face the question of whether human civilisation can be sustained over the next century.

NB: You have said that we are in a position where we can manage the situation, but on the flip-side, we are questioning whether civilisation can be sustained. There is a very stark difference!

JS: Okay, if we get I wrong, do the wrong things, policy, economics and psychology, in science, then I think there is a very big risk that we will just end our civilisation. The human species will survive somehow but we will destroy almost everything we have built up over the last two thousand years. I am pretty sure.

NB: What sort of timeframe would you put on that?

JS: Oh, it can happen pretty soon and pretty quickly, because, you see, if a minor conflict in Syria is sending so many shockwaves, through migrants for example, to Europe, so, it is all about nonlinearity. 

It’s the nonlinearity stupid, huh?

This goes in both ways. On the one hand, we can have climate disruptions coming very soon, but in the medium term, clearly, if we don’t do a lot now, we will send the Greenland ice sheet into irreversible collapse, and so on, you talk about all of these.

So, the nonlinearities are our biggest enemy when it comes to the Earth System. On the other hand, why I am still optimistic, is that in society, you also have nonlinear dynamics. Tipping points that are social, economic and psychological. 

You know the German feed-in tariff was a tiny little law which was done at the margins of this government. It instigated a landslide development in renewable energies. So we are currently writing a paper where we identify eight or ten socioeconomic tipping points, and if we transgress these lines, we can instigate a nonlinear dynamic which will deliver change, reducing emissions within the next thirty years.

So, you see, you have good nonlinearities and bad nonlinearities, and the question is, if we use our policies and our imagination wisely, the good nonlinearities will win!

NB: And this is the management side isn’t it? How we overcome this horrible situation?

JS: Yeah, you have to identify a portfolio of options, you know, disruptive innovations, self-amplifying innovations. You cannot predict precisely. You need to look into whether there are high nonlinear potentials, whether it is in electric cars, construction for wood instead of concrete, instead of cement, and so on. 

Then you have to bet… say you identify twenty horses, you then have to send all of them into the race, and maybe three of them will make it across the finishing line. But they will instigate the change you need.

The other thing which is very important, the conventional economist will want to be efficient but efficiency is the enemy of innovation. You have to strand assets, you have to waste capital, because you invest into the wrong things, because you cannot know beforehand. But you also invest in the right things.

So I would say that we somehow trapped in this efficiency thing, and we dig deeper and deeper. So we have to have the courage to squander money. To throw money at things that have potential.

It is venture-capital at a global scale we have to muster. We cannot efficiently get ourselves out of this predicament. So we have to save the world but we have to save it in a muddled way, in a chaotic way, and also in a costly way. That is the bottom line, if you want to do it in an optimal way, you will fail.

NB: A moment ago you said that ignoring climate change is the worst thing that could happen, but when news comes out that the US, Russia and Saudi Arabia, are denying the latest climate science, a lot of people get very angry and say what’s the point?! What would you say to them?

JS: Sure, I will very silently work behind the scenes to maybe influence that, through my friends in science and so on. Let’s see what happens. But you see, giving up is not an option. Why? Let me give you an example: I have a ten years old boy and let's assume he has an accident and the doctor says, 'okay, we might save his life if we do this type of surgery but there is only a five percent chance otherwise he will die!' Would you say, 'no, we don’t do it'? Of course, you will do it.

So this is the situation we have now. I think we have more than a five percent chance of succeeding but it is definitely less than 50 percent, in my view. But what is the option? If we have a final chance to save our culture and our civilisation, I am just compelled to do it.

Here, clearly for the planet, there is no alternative. We definitely have a chance which is above zero, as I said, definitely we have no chance whatsoever if we want to be optimal. Optimality is the completely wrong paradigm for the situation we are in!

This Author

Nick Breeze is a climate change journalist and interviewer posting also on envisionation.co.uk. He is also organises the Cambridge Climate Lecture Series (climateseries.com) where Professor Schellnhuber will be speaking on 21st February 2019. Follow Nick Breeze on Twitter at @NickGBreeze

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