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Potsdam symposium

Posted by Oliver Morton on behalf of Quirin Schiermeier

A meeting this week in Potsdam, Germany – “Global Sustainability – A Nobel Cause” – ended with the formulation of a memorandum calling for a global contract between science and society and a multi-national innovation programme on the scale of the Apollo programme to meet the challenges arising from climate change.

Earlier at the meeting, the likes of Rajendra Pachauri, Nicholas Stern, Carlo Rubbia and Murray Gell-Mann had reminded the 100 or so participants – among them a dozen Nobel Laureates – about the current state of the science and ecnomics of climate change, and suggested some possible solutions such as solar energy. Convener John Schellnhuber, the scientific director of the nearby Potsdam Institute of Climate Impact Research, who advises the German government on climate issues, brought together an impressive programme. Most talks were interesting, some were brilliant. The German Chancellor Angela Merkel delivered a vivid and informed speech, seemingly without using any notes, which focussed on the issues of equity and carbon ‘justice’. .

What the meeting made clear (again) is that the world has a habit – a carbon habit. And just like some alcoholics, the patient has intellectually grasped his state. It seems to understand pretty well what’s going wrong with it and why, and is capable of lecturing eloquently about the causes and symptoms of its problem (although David Gross, 2004 Nobel Prize winner for physics, sceptically remarked that climate sciences could benefit from a good dose of theoretical physics). What it lacks, however, is the firm will and the capacity, an emotional capacity perhaps, needed to lastingly change its behaviour and stop the abuse.

The world needs carbon therapy. This, if you will, was the message of the most emotional, and emotionally stirring, talk of the meeting, by Sunita Sarain, director of the Centre for Science and Environment in New Delhi, India. Where most other talks had intellectually talked their way round the the ailment using abstract concepts such as “externalities” and “marginal costs of abatement”, Sarain shocked the audience with an unadorned account of how climate change will affect poorer countries like hers, and an equally unadorned accusation of rich societies’ failure to act.

Merkel, who at one point almost desperately appealed to Nicholas Stern for more economic advice (“we politicians don’t know how to do it”), had to admit that even Eurpe – supposedly the paragon in the fight against global warming – is far short of its modest Kyoto targets of reducing by 7 % the amount of greenhouse gas emissions, relative to 1990 levels.

Much debate in Potsdam focussed on the question whether continuous economic growth is compatible with the goal of stopping the warming trend. Yes, say economists – with the right policy incentives, such as introducing global carbon trading, you can have growth and at the same time reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Or actually, you need economic growth to be able to afford the energy technology R & D needed to ‘decouple’ growth and CO2.

The only real objection I heard came again from David Gross, a string theorist! While all the world talks about exuberant growth in China (which currently builds the equivalent of two large coal-fired power plants every week) he reminded participants that even with the realtively modest economic growth rates in Europe and North America these economies will quadruple within only 30 years. A scary thought!

But it was up to British novelist Ian McEwan to gently demonstrate that wrecking the planet is ultimately a case of human weakness. In a much-applauded reading during the evening reception he rang the changes on a bateau ivre motif in a comic account of how small follies add up to utter confusion in the boot room of an Arctic cruise ship.

When Al Gore was added to the tally of Nobel Prize winners on Friday the meeting had already ended.


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