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In this interview, founding Director of the influential Potsdam Institute For Climate Impact Research (PIK), Dr John Schellnhuber stresses that in the wake of the Paris Agreement, “We can save the planet, we can create a very sustainable economy that serves everybody on this planet but we have to do it very quickly.”


Schellnhuber: - Okay, is [1.5ºC] a safe operating space for humanity, is it a safe limit?

So you have to look, if you drive up the global mean temperature by human interference, where are the big accidents, so to speak, in the system. When will the Greenland ice sheet start to melt, and possibly in an irreversible way? When will the Amazon rainforest be transformed into a steppe, a savanna, whatever? and so on and so on.

If you put it all together you’ll find that the big trouble starts around 1.5ºC.

Nick Breeze: If the mitigation efforts being proposed in the form of INDC’s will limit us to 2.7ºC - how do we get from 2.7 to 1.5 or even 2ºC?

Schellnhuber: We found the 2.7ºC would be the global warming by 2100 but it would not be the end of the story. Beyond 2100 the temperature would keep soaring. But by 2100, 2.7ºC would be the implication of the full implementation of all the INDC’s submitted before Paris.

The caveat is, I was saying full implementation. Never trust a politician in a sense that he or she will honour his or her pledge. And of course, reality comes in the way, and will interfere with beautiful plans, so you can rather assume we will see something like 3ºC warming or a bit more if we would just stay put with the INDC’s.

So what can be done? Here are two things that could save the day and could even save the 1.5ºC limit.

One is a sort of warlike top down programme. If it is true, and science can confirm that, that unbridled global warming will have warlike consequences for many people on this planet, wouldn’t it be obvious to react with a warlike set of measures, yes? So like the blood, sweat and tears speech by Winston Churchill to fend off the Nazi threat in Europe, yes?

So there are people in fact thinking of that, in setting up a system, sort of measures which would mean that you would allocate say 10-20% of your national GDP in order to transform the fossil system into a sustainable system starting with the energy system, transportation and so on.

Why not, huh? I mean the world is at stake, yeah, so it would be worthwhile to think in terms of these measures. Again I don't think it will happen for political reasons.

Nick Breeze: But what about the social reasons? Politicians wont act unless there is social pressure.

Schellnhuber: You are absolutely right, COP21 only delivered because of the social pressure, because of all the grassroots, bottom up, activists and so on. Pope Francis, you know, the churches, everybody was sort of weighing in. That gave the COP21, not only a strong mandate, it held the politicians accountable actually, and it asked them not to shirk their responsibilities and really to deliver.

Now this could play out in two ways again. So let’s assume military scale, or warlike, or war scale measures are necessary in order to bring global warming down to 1.5ºC, or limit it to 1.5ºC. Then yes there could be social pressure and a strong mandate to say to the next president in the US, like you did in the second world war, allocate 40% of the national resources to transform the country and to make it sustainable. Again I don't think the social pressure will build up.

But I can think of a different scenario. I could think that social pressure, in combination with rational choices by investors, could do the job actually, and the governments in the end would only finalise the job. But it has to be done by different groups.

So what I can think of is the following scenario: after Paris there is a very strong signal, on the one hand, all these social movements asking for decarbonisation are accepted, are acknowledged. They are even endorsed. So that is the one thing that strengthens the social movements.

on the other hand, it is a strong signal that investing in soft coal, for example in Germany, is very bad idea. It is very risky and you will just go out of business in about 15 or 20 years.

So couldn't this combination of institutional investors, also freelance investors and social movements, couldn’t it create the dynamics which would, in the end, instigate and implosion of the fossil system over the next 3 decades, that’s what what we need?

And actually this scenario is not likely but it is also not impossible. It would be a scenario that would create a completely new narrative, how the world is run. It would be run by people organised through Facebook, and it would be organised by people who sit at Wall Street in their offices. I think it is a possibility.

Nick Breeze: That sounds far fetched but we do live through Facebook and computers. It is a very contemporary way of looking at the issue.

Schellnhuber: It is the way we live now and, actually, if I look at something which is already happening on the ground but is conveyed through virtual reality, through virtual reality, through the internet and so on, namely, the divestment movement.

Then it doesn’t seem so far fetched after all because you have very strange bedfellows coming together now, in the divestment movement. You have the post hippy movement, and those people who just hate to eat meat, yeah, so vegans and whatever, together with the Rockefeller Foundation and Norway State Fund, the Anglican Church and so on.

So you have a strange combination of people for very diverse reasons, saying the only thing I want to avoid is that my money, whether I am an institutional investor, or whether I just have a small bank account, I don’t want my money to be invested in destroying this planet. I want my money invested, however small it is, into preserving creation!

Nick Breeze: Mark Carney, Governor of the Bank of England, speaking at Le Bourget said “what we don’t want to see is an abrupt transition away from fossil fuels. How would you respond to this statement in the context of the timescales?

Schellnhuber: It’s almost a question of what you call quick or rapid? I mean, in terms of geological forces, we have to act super rapidly, actually, a few decades. We have to instigate a transition to renewable energy systems in the industrialised countries, by 2030-2040. Let’s face it, if you say 1.5ºC, it means global decarbonisation by 2050, full-stop!

If you include the countries who are still on a developing pathway, it means the rich countries have to decarbonise themselves even before that and that is, of course, a rapid transition.

The more interesting thing about his statement is that, just pulling out money from oil companies and so on, is just one part of the job, the other part is investing.

Today with the photovoltaics revolution, you have wonderful opportunities to invest your money. The opportunities are safe, that is one factor that is important for an investor, you have to gauge the risk, but also you have a good return on your investment.

If you had a billion to invest today, would you invest into a new coal mine in Australia, or would you go for photovoltaics or wind in India, in South Africa, or in Chile? The choice is obvious I think.

Nick Breeze: This is possibly somewhere politics could play a supporting role because apart from just subsidy, they can supply regulation and support for those investments?

Schellnhuber: No you are right. This cannot just be self organised by civil society plus smart investors, in the end it has to be a co-production between public institutions, elected governments, hopefully, and civil society, plus the smart guys in the business.

It is like a dance you know, somebody takes the lead and somebody follows and then the other person may lead and so on. It’s a strange sustainability tango, you might call it. It simply turned out that public institutions, governments had given up the lead after Copenhagen. They had completely given up on that.

They were even willing to face the break up of the multilateral system because it could not deal with climate change. So other forces have taken the lead now but here or there you had a few things that help to change things.

You have to see the number of schemes and measures, and you will see that one of the hundred flowers will really bloom in the end and you have to amplify that.

So it really is this dance between civil society, entrepreneurs and institutions and if we play this game in the right way, it can deliver a rapid transition.

Nick Breeze: The carbon budgets seem to disappear by the end of COP21? Also, institutional investors are still only pledging a tiny (0.2%) percentage of their total asset value?

Schellnhuber: On the one hand, the inconvenient truth behind 1.5ºC, which is expressed by the carbon budget, which is very small that we still have to spend, this inconvenient truth was just pushed to the sidelines in Paris. So it is the role of science to come back to that, and we have to insist, actually, that only through this rapid transformation of the world economy, we can honour our Paris pledges. That is our job and believe me, we will speak up on that, and stand up on so on, we will do it!

The other thing is, that the investors may begin slow, but what we also find in particular in social dynamics, we have tipping points and you have landslide dynamics and so on, because investment is very much about psychology in the end.

Once a certain brand or whatever starts to slide downwards, you cannot stop that. I guess that if things go right and the right factors come together, I could imagine that the pulling out from the fossil fuel business could happen within a decade really.

That does not mean that you get rid of all the fossil infrastructure, I mean all the pipelines and all the platforms, all the drilling systems and so on, which are all over the planet. You can put them to rest actually in maybe two or three decades.

I guess this investment dynamics, this stampede away from fossil fuels has to happen first. This has very much to do with psychology but, coming back to you, governments of course, can encourage, even enforce such dynamics. Like California has now a very progressive law on that. China will take the lead. If some of the Indian states like Gujarat go forward, this could create a huge attraction for investors. So it is the subtle interplay between institutions, entrepreneurs and civil society that could save the day.

Schellnhuber: Yeah, the biological sinks. So you call it bioenergy, CCS, BECS and things like that. This is something you can take seriously. Why? Because it could be a win-win situation. If you really look at the world’s degraded land, it’s a lot actually, if you would take part of it and try to reforest it for example, this could be turned into a tremendous carbon sink actually. It would even improve environmental conditions and create livelihoods.

We can save the planet, we can create a very sustainable economy that serves everybody on this planet but we have to do it very quickly.

Nick Breeze: Do you have your own message for politicians and institutional investors regarding the path forward fro COP21?

Schellnhuber: The message is clear: don’t fall asleep after Paris. Don’t waste your time in a jubilant mode where you just congratulate each other about how wonderful Paris was. And Paris was a wonderful event in the end.

I think we need to start to work immediately and actually here at the Potsdam Institute within a few months an investors workshop where we will bring together institutional investors, civil society and NGO’s, bank managers and so on. We want to come up with a rapid deployment scheme but this is just a contribution by a small institute. The whole world has to go into rapid deployment mode now in order to deliver this great transformation.


Nick Breeze is a writer and interviewer around climate change science, impacts and policy. More posts at www.envisionation.co.uk

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Just to recap, here is the transcripted answer with Tattershall's response below:  

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Christiana Figueres is persuasive and influential but in light of recent world events that include the destabilisation of the EU as a political block, and the openly anti-climate action administration of President Trump, it is very clear that the world has changed since Paris.

READ THE COMMENT: Does Figueres interview give clues as to why we went backwards from Copenhagen to Paris?


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