Scientific Advisory Board A world government for climate protection?

Jörg Hacker
Jörg Hacker | Photo (detail): © David Ausserhofer for Leopoldina

The international community continues to search for answers to the problems generated by climate change. One important step in this direction is the closer cooperation between politics ands science, says top researcher Jörg Hacker.

Professor Hacker, you are a member of the UN Secretary General’s Scientific Advisory Board (SAB). This international panel, appointed at the beginning of 2014, advises the General Secretary of the United Nations on various questions, including those concerning climate and environment. What more can you do than, for example, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which already exists?

The General Secretary’s idea was to bring together scientists from various disciplines. Climate changes also have effects on the medical system and the spread of infectious diseases. The 26 members of the SAB will treat specific subjects across disciplinary boundaries and also deal with the role of the sciences in answering important questions about the future. How can research contribute to sustainable development? In 2015 the United Nations Millennium Development Goals will be replaced by new targets. Again, science can also make a contribution here – for example, through the SAB.

Have science and politics not worked together closely enough up to now?

I wouldn’t say that necessarily, but the world, as it presents itself in the twenty-first century, is strongly shaped by science. The broad goals can and should be defined by science. So it’s only logical that research is gaining importance in the political arena. Especially against the backdrop of megatrends such as global climate change, population growth and rising life expectancy, the integration of science in this area is crucial. The interest in our work has markedly increased, both in Germany and internationally, though it’s certainly less pronounced in some countries.

“The decisions are ultimately made by the elected representatives”

What exactly can you “offer” politics?

Policy-makers rightly expect from science that it calls attention to trends, analyses new developments and presents options for action. The decisions must ultimately be made by the elected representatives. Science can only offer advice, can function only as an “honest broker” pointing out processes and outlining ways to deal with them.

Perception and attention are one thing; bindingness is another. The former mountain climber Reinhold Messner has recently called for a “world government to ensure a good climate”. The United Nations can’t fulfil this function, says Messner, because it can’t make laws.

The fact is that if the United Nations didn’t exist, we would have to invent it. We need a global body for exchanging ideas, identifying themes, creating international attention. But Messner has in fact pointed out a genuine existing dilemma: on the one hand, the global situation must be evaluated, and in this the United Nations undoubtedly plays an important role. Laws or binding standards, on the other hand, can be made only at the level of national states or by associations such as the European Union. I think we need both in future: worldwide action, in which we have to create as great a degree of bindingness as possible, but also implementation through individual countries and, for example, within the framework of the EU, which already has a great deal of regulatory power in the field of environment.

It has already transpired, however, that even within the EU agreement on a common energy and climate policy is difficult: how then can the international community ever develop a concerted approach?

It’s true that the decision-making process isn’t simple. Precisely for this reason it’s necessary to bring up the subject again and again until the introduction of practical arrangements. We mustn’t give up; we have to initiate the discussion on climate change over and over again.

“As researchers, we have a duty to contribute”

One could get the impression that many people still don’t see the climate problem with sufficient urgency.

It’s urgent of course, but there are obviously always constraints, including economic ones, that hamper a comprehensive response. Then too there are the various mentalities. Science must therefore more and more seek a way to the public. Ultimately, political action is bound up with the making of opinion, which takes place in society. As researchers, we have a duty to contribute. For instance, we at the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina together with the Robert Bosch Foundation offer a programme in which we exchange ideas with journalists about issues in sustainable science, and not with science journalists but with writers from the fields of politics and the arts.

So it’s not so much about “world government” as it’s about worldwide information?

It’s about both. The more bindingness, the better, but bindingness and pressure arise only when the subjects of climate, sustainability and population development land on the agenda thanks to the effect of information and public opinion.

Jörg Hacker was Vice President of the German Research Foundation (DFG) and President of the Robert Koch Institute before he was elected President of the National Academy of Sciences Leopoldina in 2010. In early 2014 the General Secretary of the United Nation, Ban-Ki Moon, appointed the professor of microbiology to the newly founded Scientific Advisory Board. The SAB consists of 26 researchers from all regions of the world.