The transformational challenges of climate change: An interview with Professor John Schellnhuber and Professor Ottmar Edenhofer

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Professor John Schellnhuber is Director, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Chair, German Advisory Council on Global Change. Professor Ottmar Edenhofer is Deputy Director and Chief Economist, PIK and Co-Chair of Working Group III of the IPCC

In this interview Professor Schellnhuber and Professor Edenhofer outline their views on the speed and scale of the social, political and economic transformations needed to reduce the risk of catastrophic climate change.

Professor Schellnhuber founded the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) in 1991 and has been its director ever since. He holds a chair in theoretical physics at Potsdam University and is an external professor at the Santa Fe Institute (USA). He holds a range of leadership positions including chair of the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU).

Professor Edenhofer is PIK’s Deputy Director and Chief Economist. He is also professor of the Economics of Climate Change at the Technische Universität Berlin and Co-Chair of the Working Group III of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC),as well as director of the newly founded Mercator Research Institute on Global Commons and Climate Change (MCC).

We talked to them both about the implications of the latest climate science and global emissions trends and their views on the top priorities and possible pathways for achieving transformational change.

The interview is packed with insights and examples drawing on the leading work Professors Schellnhuber and Edenhofer have been involved in at PIK, the WBGU and the IPCC, and on the experience of strong policy support for renewable energy in their native Germany.

For example, Professor Schellnhuber gives the following explanation of the factors contributing to the successful German feed-in-tariff policy:

We talked about transformation, how it could be brought about. I’ll give you an example. The German feed-in tariff which is almost too successful to cope with because it will cost a lot of money, because so many people are buying into that.  But during Easter time this year photovoltaic panels produced for a few hours more electricity than 20 nuclear power stations taken together. Roughly 22 gigawatts, just amazing. Ten years ago solar energy was almost non-existent, people told us it will never make a significant contribution.  Can you imagine just the entire capacity of all these nuclear power stations which took a long time to build and hundreds of billions of Euros to fund.  So what came together? Three things:

First of all a new technology came about. In fact, it is not entirely new. It first solar cell that could be employed to run electrical equipment was invented at Bell Labs in 1953 along with the transistor, so it’s a very old fashioned thing.  But the technology was there already.

So you have the innovation of the technology. The second thing you need is the government setting a framework, maybe an incentive, or a subsidy. In this case it was well-intended and not even well-designed but a well-meant boundary condition.

The third thing you need is public support. Everybody loves the sun and everybody loves renewable energy, at least here in Germany.  The technology is quite easy to understand and you can do it locally. Everybody has the chance to put it on the roof. There are no side effects, no nuclear waste or anything else. You cannot create a weapon out of it, and it’s inexhaustible in principle.

What I’m saying is: Political will, individual psychology, and technological innovation come together to create tremendous innovation dynamics – tremendous substitution dynamics if you like – which in a few years has already overtaken, at least in installed capacity, the nuclear power industry in Germany.  So this is a ‘proof of concept’ that, yes, we can create big transitions.

Download the full transcript here.

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