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“Geo-engineering only provides an excuse” – Joachim Radkau in an Interview

© Sergey Tokarev - Fotolia.com© Sergey Tokarev - Fotolia.comWith his study “Nature and Power” (Natur und Macht), published in German at the turn of the last century, the historian Joachim Radkau gained a worldwide reputation for his intimate knowledge of the history of the environment and man’s treatment of it. Since then, history has moved on. While some fear that man can no longer control the climate change he has set in motion, others believe that now at last the hour of “geo-engineering” has struck. Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann spoke with Joachim Radkau for goethe.de.

Warnings about climate change enjoy considerable public attention. How reliable are these warnings?

That a progressive warming due to increasing CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is a plausible interpretation of the findings can’t be reasonably doubted. The only cogent counter-argument is the chaotic nature of climate development, which can’t be captured by models. To date, the thesis of global warming has no serious rival that makes a creditable case for how our earth could cope with the immense rise in CO2 emissions in a way that is safe for human beings. The essence of the counter-position is rather scepticism or rejection. However, even the confession of not-knowing can be scientifically respectable.

Then we don’t need to take these sceptics seriously?

Joachim Radkau; © Gruppe 5 Filmproduktion KölnIn the 1990s a formal anti-climate protection lobby was formed in the United States, the Global Climate Coalition (GCC). Leading oil companies such as BP and Shell distanced themselves from it. When you consider that the biggest economic powers of our time, the oil and automobile industry, were the born enemies of global warming alarmists and promised their opponents lavish financial backing, it’s remarkable how few convincing counter-proposals have been brought forward.

Is there no alternative to reducing CO2 emissions?

Richard S. Lindzen of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) has attributed a climate regulating function to water vapour, which increases with warming and reduces solar radiation. But how far this model, which is plausible in itself, is in fact relevant to the warming of most of the earth’s atmosphere remains to be seen. Fred Singer doesn’t dispute the possibility that the global warming hypothesis may apply, but, he says, it is an hypothesis, nothing more, and it would be a huge scandal if the U.S. and other industrial states were to ruin their economies merely to mitigate a hypothetical climate “catastrophe”. If we absolutely want to do something, he says, then we should fertilise the oceans so that the increased micro-organisms would then absorb more CO2. That would be infinitely cheaper and also more effective than attempting to control industrial and automobile emissions. There the idea of “geo-engineering” raises its head!

Wild technocratic fantasies

But in view of the political difficulty of enforcing the reduction of CO2 emissions, shouldn’t we try to find other responses to global warming?

Björn Lomborg, an economic statistician, doesn’t deny the reality and man-made origin of global warming, but he has sought to calculate how much of the resources spent on combating it could effectively be used elsewhere for the benefit of mankind: an all-round argument that can in this form equally well be brought to bear against all projects. In the United States there are already wild technocratic fantasies of geo-engineering that seem to be inspired by an idea taken from the effects of volcanic eruptions and that would spray sulphur dioxide in the stratosphere so as to reduce solar radiation. Of course, we would have to reckon with certain residual risks: not only that this would make the bright blue sky a thing of the past, giving it a tinge of sulphur yellow, but also that it would disturb the Asiatic monsoon, upon which the food of hundreds of millions of people depends.

The fatal effect of such science-fiction ideas, even if they’re never put into effect, is above all that they provide American politics with an excuse to declare the reduction of CO2 to be no longer urgent. Even if the historian knows from experience that he should be as chary as possible of prophecies, he also know that the evidence suggests the path to globally sustainable and environmentally friendly climate protection lies rather in afforestation, bicycles and birth control pills than in geo-engineering, underground CO2 sequestration and gigantic wind parks, not to mention the nuclear energy plants ballyhooed as climate saviours!

“Desperate cry for political action”

Cover of the book “Die Ära der Ökologie”; © C.H.BeckSo if the proposals of geo-engineering appear dubious, is alarmism called for all the more?

The internationally highly respected founder of the International Panel for Climate Change (IPCC), Bert Bolin, has in retrospect openly admitted that the climate forecasts of the 1980s and afterwards could hardly be said to have been certain. In early 1989 he commented sarcastically on an alarm raised by an international climate conference in Delhi to the effect that global warming is the greatest crisis which has ever confronted mankind. That, said Bolin, is a “desperate cry for political action without adequate foundation in scientific analysis”.

But doesn’t that weaken the forces working for a successful climate policy? Why not openly admit that climate forecasts have their uncertainties and that, even if the long-term probability indicates a steady increase in global warming, a catastrophe in the very near future is by no means assured? This admission needn’t lead to inaction; it could even prevent an unreflective activism. If we seriously believed in an impending disaster, then we’d have to rush to take rash and gigantic counter-measures, which would create a bigger problem than climate change itself.

Hans-Martin Schönherr-Mann
conducted the inter view. He is an Essayist and Professor for Political Philosophy at the Ludwig Maximilians University of Munich and Professor for the philosophy of Science at the Leopold Franzens University of Innsbruck.

Translation: Jonathan Uhlaner
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Online-Redaktion
February 2011

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