What will they say in 2100 about what (didn’t) happen in 2009?

December 3, 2009

Hans Joachim Schellnhuber can speak eloquently and at length in English, German, French or Spanish about the perils of climate change. But the cold language of science in any of those languages melts away when the director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, 59, mentions his 18-month-old son and the impact that global warming will have on  the toddler’s life. 

“I’ve got a young son,” Schellnhuber says, pictured at the right with the boy, his wife and Britain’s Prince Charles on a visit to Potsdam in April. “I hope this all turns out to be wrong. I would be delighted if it turns out that we haven’t understood the system as well as we think we do, and that we might get a 20- to 30-year ‘breathing period’ when global warming slows or is even halted,” Schellnhuber said in an interview.

“I hope my son can live in a world where there won’t be massive conflicts because the sea level rises by a metre in his life time. I hope he’ll be able to have a happy life. But I’m growing increasingly worried.” 

I’ve had the chance to listen to Schellnhuber on several occasions in recent weeks and his infant son regularly comes up.

It is, for me at least, the drop-dead argument about climate change: What will our children or grandchildren say in the year 2100 about our generation and what happens, or does not happen, to slow climate change in 2009? What will they say about us when the world’s median temperature is 2 to 6 degrees higher and problems abound because of what didn’t happen in 2009?

Schellnhuber asks: “Would you put your child on a bus if you knew someone had cut the brake cable and there’s an 80 percent chance the bus will crash? But what if I say there’s an 80 percent chance the planet will be flooded even if it’s not for 100 years? Would you change your habits? The threat is far away. It’s an indissoluble problem.” 

Schellnhuber says he and fellow scientists have no choice but to warn about the threat of climate change. He says he gets zero pleasure over warning of the apocalypse and finds upsetting the hate mail he receives. “I didn’t pursue this issue – it found me,” he said. “But when you’re deep in your research, you can’t just say ‘this is all too much, it gets to me too much’. It does get to me.”

He says he is guardedly optimistic world leaders in Copenhagen will make progress on addressing climate change — but probably not enough progress. “The potential is there that we’ll make some headway. But not as much as we need.”

Which brings Schellnhuber back to the bus he doesn’t want to let his son or anyone else’s children get on. 

“We’re about to get into that bus and that’swhy it’s so important that we continue to be an irritant.  That’s the uncomfortable situation that we scientists are in. We’re screaming ‘Watch out! The brake cable has been cut!’ But at some point people don’t want to hear us anymore. We know that in the next 10 years we have a chance to get things in place so that we don’t crash through the guard rail of an increase in temperatures of 2 degrees. We still have a choice. That’s what’s so important. That’s why we’re standing up and shouting ‘Stop!’”

PHOTO: Maldives President Mohamed Nasheed signs a declaration during the first underwater cabinet meeting in the Maldives, October 17, 2009. The Maldivian president and ministers held the world’s first underwater cabinet meeting in a symbolic cry for help over rising sea levels that threaten the tropical archipelago’s existence.


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I urge all to read Jared Diamond’s “Collapse”. From his observations it appears democracies are woefully inadequate at addressing environmental catastrophes past and present. Centrally run governments like that of Germany and Japan of the 16th century were effective at reversing complete deforestation. Easter Island, the Maya and the Anisazi were however not successful. The future is not written in stone but rather by us. This chapter of humanity is not yet completed.

Posted by Anubis | Report as abusive

Yea, I think the same thing about my son. But I think about the huge deficit and financial burden that will be left to him and his children. They will be taxed over 50% of there income to pay for a theory that cannot be proven. Especially when those holding the data refuse to release it for peer review and manipulate it to fit their gravy train models. The earth has cooled the last 10 years, but I know. I am suppose to shut up and go away.

Posted by Clyde | Report as abusive

What rubbish. This guy should get an Oscar for over-acting! Has he never heard of Climate-gate? The true believers are becoming more desperate in pushing their case.

Posted by Gotthardbahn | Report as abusive

Anubis is right about the inadequacy of democracies for tackling environmental catastrophes. It is more or less the same inadequacy totalitarian regime have shown and usually show on this same issue. Centrally run goverment systems are not necessarily undemocratic, as Anubis’ comments imply; in this sense, I agree with Anubis that they are more likely to be more effective and efficient than federal systems in tackling catastrophes. Command-and-control is a plus in this case.

Posted by hedagi | Report as abusive

Hi Clyde, what if the scientists are right, though? What will your son (and his son) think of our generation then?

Posted by erikkirschbaum | Report as abusive

Clyde, there is no scientific data to suggest the Earth has cooled in the last 10 years. Roughly 10 of the last 14 years have been the hottest on record. Temperatures do not tell the whole story. Soil erosion, desertification, rising sea levels, retreating glacial ice and associated potable water loss are the big changes the planet has been experiencing for many decades. China now looses farmland the same way the U.S. did in the 1930s, wind/dust storms.

Sea levels are rising and swallowing up densely populated areas of Bangladesh and the Polynesian islands. Sea levels rise because all the glaciers and mountain ice have melted and flowed back into the seas.
What other than global warming could cause all the glaciers and mountain snow to recede?

Posted by eddieblack | Report as abusive