The difficult processes of climate change
Prof. Dr. Peter Wiesen / Physical and Theoretical Chemistry
Photo: Malte Reiter

"For they do not do what they know"

Atmospheric chemist Peter Wiesen on difficult, political processes in climate change and scientific support for implementing decisions

Climate change, climate crisis, climate fight. The changes in our world are steadily increasing and people are feeling it first hand. Young people are rising up and sending clear signals with the Fridays for Future demonstrations. Scientists worldwide have been aware of the consequences of these changes for years. But action by politicians is still a long time coming. Global environmental changes and their consequences can endanger the continued existence of mankind, as we can learn every day from the media. Prof. Dr. Peter Wiesen, atmospheric chemist and vice chairman of the board of the new Interdisciplinary Center for Atmosphere and Environment (IZAU) at Bergische Universität, talks about the possibilities of how politics could implement scientific know-how in the Transfer Talk.

"I don't like the word climate fight in this context," he says right at the beginning, "because you're not fighting against the climate, but you're trying to fight against the fact that the climate continues to change as massively as we can observe at the moment. I also don't believe that science is not being listened to very much," he stresses, because the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change is an intergovernmental committee on climate change, also known as the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change - editor's note -) came out with a major new report last summer to clearly set out the state of the art on climate change. "I think the problem is that for many people, especially young people, the decision-making processes in our society are much too slow. Now impatience is certainly something that characterizes youth, but democratic processes, unfortunately, are just often a bit slow. There are many interests to weigh up so as not to throw the baby out with the bathwater in the end."

The climate has been changing forever

Weather forecasts on TV used to be a nice gimmick to let viewers know whether they should have an umbrella or sunscreen ready for the next day. Today, our TV meteorologists are increasingly becoming political climate activists, pointing out more extreme weather disasters, but these have been known since the 1980s. “Pointing out extreme weather events is certainly an important point and also the task of meteorologists,” Wiesen counters. But saying too much about climate in weather forecasting is also not the way to go, the expert says, because weather is commonplace and climate examines weather over a thirty-year period. Of course, Wiesen also knows that there will always be people who consistently deny the changes that can be observed in the atmosphere. “What you can argue about is certainly not whether the climate is changing, because it has been changing for ages, because there is no such thing as a constant climate, but the question that perhaps needs to be discussed more intensively at one point or another is how much of what you see in terms of climate change has actually been caused by humans. Opinions differ on that. Those who deny visible climate change are probably doing so against their better judgment or because they have some other interests in mind.”

Scientific scenarios calculate increasing costs due to extreme weather

Wuppertal was also affected by extreme weather last year. While cleanup is relatively quick and financial grants are approved, the question is: What will the climate crisis cost us if we don't finally act? "I'm not an economist, and it's very difficult to estimate," the scientist says. Of course, he adds, we don't know exactly what direction the climate will take by the end of this century. "What you do in science, those are scenarios. Models are created in which one considers what would happen under different framework conditions by the end of the century? Of course, no one knows exactly how much of this will actually happen. The uncertainties involved are comparatively large." Nevertheless, Wiesen knows that over the last few decades there has been a significant increase in the costs caused by such extreme weather events. In the case of hurricanes in the Caribbean, for example, major insurers have also blamed building development, which has grown in size, especially along the coasts. This causes more damage, which in turn leads to higher reconstruction costs.

A great example of successful environmental policy: the Ruhr region

One of the focal points of research at the Interdisciplinary Center for Atmosphere and Environment is the Ruhr region, which can now look back on more than 50 years of air quality research and control policy. But how does collaboration between science and policy actually work?
"The Ruhr is a great example of what can be achieved through consistent environmental policy," Wiesen enthuses at first. "In 1963, during the Bundestag election campaign, Willy Brandt once said in a speech in the Beethovenhalle in Bonn: `The sky over the Ruhr must become blue again!' Today, thank goodness, it is blue again, and it probably wouldn't be if some people hadn't stepped on the toes a little with the help of laws. A lot of mistakes were made in those years back then." Among them, he said, was the so-called high-chimney policy of the 1960s and 1970s. During that time, people built chimneys as high as possible to spread the dirt they were creating, thinking the solution to the pollution problem was to dilute it over a large area. Today, we know that's nonsense." The findings from that time were sensibly transported to policymakers, Wiesen says, and some of that is still happening today through relatively short channels between researchers and policymakers. One example, he says, was the averting of the impending diesel driving ban, in whose decision-making process his working group was involved. "Through the city of Wuppertal, we were then also present at the court hearing before the OVG (Higher Administrative Court) in Münster, where we were then able to avert these driving bans in favor of a reasonable settlement that could be reached at the time." Short distances are possible and there are also close contacts, for example, to the Federal Environment Agency in Dessau.

Complex problems require simple legislation

Bringing about change processes seems to be a fight against windmills. "You could sometimes get that impression," says the expert, but immediately contradicts, because the gain in knowledge of any measure is perse something useful. The complexity of the processes, as well as the interlocking between the environmental compartments, i.e. soil, water and air, is extremely complicated and very difficult to convey, he says. "To me, someone from the Federal Environmental Agency once said, 'The problems may be complex, but the legislation has to be simple.' ` That's sometimes the problem."
Whether corona deniers or climate change deniers, instead of action, policymakers still rely on education and conversation. That's also the right thing to do, Wiesen is sure, because some things can already be pushed in the right direction through legislation. "Claus Leggewie, a colleague from another discipline in Essen, once wrote the beautiful sentence in a book he co-wrote with Harald Welzer: 'For they do not do what they know,' in a variation of a biblical quotation. We actually know quite a lot about certain aspects of global environmental change, but it is typical human behavior to take such things very slowly at first. You have to remember, climate change is also a slow phenomenon." If, for example, there is no snow around Christmas for a few years, it seems as if it has always been like that, because people get used to it. On the other hand, people also believe that in our childhood there was always snow around Christmas. In the case of fast-moving changes, such as the hole in the ozone layer in the 1980s, a problem that suddenly appeared, people quickly got together, says Wiesen, and tried to halt the progress of ozone depletion through the Montreal Protocol. With climate change, however, changes come very slowly, he says. "That's the dangerous thing about it, because there are actually recipes already on the table that would then have to be implemented consistently."

Isn't climate change a topic worthy of media attention?

An initiative that wanted to replace the ARD's "Börse vor acht" ("Stock Exchange before eight") on television, which is only relevant to a very small part of the audience, with a program called "Klima vor acht" ("Climate before eight"), which is really essential for everyone, was not listened to by the television makers. Scientists and climate professionals are stunned by the inaction of politicians and public broadcasters on climate change. Wiesen sees the problem primarily in communicating the complex topic. There is quite a lot on this topic in the public broadcasters as well, he said. "I think if you make an effort, you can find a lot about climate change in the media." However, even he, as an expert, sometimes finds it difficult to critically scrutinize the large number of articles on the Internet. There is a lot of information available, but one should not stylize every thunderstorm and every heavy rainfall directly into a major catastrophe, because, he emphasizes, "not everything that happens in terms of extreme weather events is directly related to climate change.

University research group involved in multi-million research project

Germany is getting a new infrastructure for research into fine dust particles, clouds and trace gases. Distributed among eleven research institutions, this German contribution to the EU research infrastructure ACTRIS (Aerosol, Clouds and Trace Gases Research Infrastructure) will enable better forecasts for air quality, weather and climate in the future. Wiesen is also involved in this major project, which is worth millions, and is investigating aerosols, i.e. fine dust particles, for their influence on air quality and the climate. "First of all, I'm very happy that my research group is actively involved in this new research infrastructure, because this opens up a long-term perspective for atmospheric research in Germany." The smallest fine dust particles behave like gases. Anyone can find that out at home in a small experiment with an orange peel, he said. "You take an orange peel and press on it once. If they have ozone in the air, then they see how so-called secondary, organic aerosols form from this scent of the orange peel -these are terpenes- with ozone. These are very fine particles, some of which are so small that they actually behave like a gas. And that's the problem, because they have a big impact on health. In terms of air quality, they play a role because when we breathe them in, depending on how big they are, they can reach different depths in our respiratory tract. The smaller they are, the deeper they penetrate. If the aerosol particles are very small, they can reach the pulmonary alveoli and from there even the bloodstream. It is known that, above a certain concentration, they can cause inflammation in the heart or elsewhere. That's why there are very strict limits. The WHO proposed new air quality guidelines as recently as September." Air quality, he said, is essentially about health. "There is a whole bouquet of possible so-called cardiovascular diseases that can result from this. What's particularly difficult is evaluating what concentration is tolerable or not."
In terms of climate, particles matter because they change what's known as the atmosphere's sunlight reflection efficiency, the researcher explains, and thus affect the atmosphere's heat balance. The issue is not solar energy, he said, because there is more than enough of it. "The problem is how we harness the energy."

A general problem with democratic processes

Professor Wiesen, who has children of his own and constantly follows how slowly the official mills grind, knows about the complicated decision-making processes in political bodies and says: "You can really ask yourself whether everyone has to express their opinion on everything, or whether it can't be tightened up a bit at one point or another. That's a general problem with democratic processes. They are very slow compared to autocratic systems." And not to be misunderstood, he concludes by adding, "I'm happy that we can live in a democracy like we have in Germany, and I think my children are happy about that, too. You shouldn't forget, with all the problems we face or have, how damn well we're doing today compared to people who lived 50 or 100 years ago."
French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry said, "The future is not something you should want to foresee, but make possible. Science is constantly working on this.

Uwe Blass (conversation from Dec. 20, 2022)

Prof. Dr. Peter Wiesen is an atmospheric chemist in Physical and Theoretical Chemistry in the Faculty of Mathematics and Natural Sciences at Bergische Universität. Under his leadership, the Institute for Atmospheric and Environmental Research, founded in 2021, participates in the ATMO-ACCESS project of the European Commission as well as in the European research infrastructure ACTRIS, whose German contribution is coordinated by the TROPOS- Institute of the Leibniz Association in Leipzig.

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