David Nelles and Christian Serrer just wanted to understand the consequences of climate change when their research began. What came out was the book "Kleine Gase – Große Wirkung: Der Klimawandel“ (Minor Gases - Major Effect: The Climate Change). The book has sold 150,000 copies in the German-speaking region up to date. An English version is slated to be published soon. The two economics students explain all aspects from the greenhouse effect to the ecosystems in a concise and clear manner. In our interview, they give us an insight into how the book came about, their discoveries and future plans.
What prompts two future economists to delve deeply into the subject matter of the greenhouse effect?
Christian Serrer (CS): When we discussed climate change in the dining hall, we realized we did not know what it specifically means for us. What costs are associated with it? How does climate change affect our health? There was no book that explained the whole issue in a concise and comprehensible manner. That is why we began to compile facts ourselves. Originally we thought we could do this during the semester break. But the issue is complex. In the end we studied the matterfor 20 months with the assistance of a host of scientists.
How did you end up collaborating with the science sector?
CS: First, we looked at the scientific primary literature. Primary means what scientists published directly when they discovered something new. As there was so much information and different subjects it was almost impossible to get a complete picture. So, our next step was Google: which scientist is doing research on agriculture, who on oceans, who on the cryosphere? We wrote emails asking them to look over our shoulder during the creation of the book and check our texts for errors. That worked out rather well. We received support from more than 100 scientists. Most of them realized that a book like ours was needed to take stock of the situation in a way that everybody can understand.
David Nelles, who is from near Koblenz, and Christian Serrer, born in the Black Forest, both 23 years old, met in 2016 at the start of their Corporate Management & Economics studies (CME) at the Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen. They rarely put in an appearance at the apartment they share with four other roommates ever since being in demand as lecturers throughout Germany. They intend to complete their interdisciplinary bachelor's degrees in 2020.
Do you see yourselves in the same vein as Greta Thunberg with Fridays for Future as the voice of your generation?
CS: Yes, in part. However, for us it is less about appealing than it is about informing. Neutral and focused on facts. We frequently get positive feedback for this sober assessment at our lectures, because the people get objective scientific yet easy-to-understand facts in order to form their own opinion. The fact alone that we demonstrate in an unbiased way how pressing the problem is makes it seem like an appeal.
Is there a finding that particularly touched or even astonished you?
CS: Yes. When you follow the reporting on climate change, you could think that all it meant was melting glaciers or rising sea levels. We were extremely astonished by how directly climate change affects each one of us. It represents the greatest health risk of the 21st century because higher temperatures have negative effects on cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and increase the risk of heat stroke. In addition, the establishment of new species is also accompanied by the risk of tropical diseases in Europe.
What do you expect from the German automotive industry in matters of climate protection?
David Nelles (DN): One should see climate change and the associated changes not as a threat, but as a huge chance. Something has to happen in the transport sector urgently. That is why it would be good if the automakers recognized the potential associated with environmental protection and sustainability. We can use new mobility concepts not only to protect the climate, but also to make a lot of money and create jobs. We have to be careful not to miss the boat. The technologies we need in the transport sector are also being developed in other countries – other companies could become ahead.
When you talk about technologies, you are not only talking about electric mobility, but also about other powertrain technologies?
DN: That’s correct. For one, it is about the powertrain of the means of transport. The goal is clear: in future, transport must be climate-neutral. It is not clear yet whether that is possible with 100 percent fuel cell, e-mobility, synthetic fuel or other technologies. That is why you must not put all your eggs into one basket, but should research different technologies with an open mind. Ultimately, it will probably be a mix, for example synthetic fuels in aviation or for heavy-duty transport, and electrified vehicles in cities. For another, the aim is not just to equip transport with a new powertrain, but to reshape mobility fundamentally. If we convert everything to e-mobility and everyone around the world drives the way the Germans do, then we would have four billion cars on the road. There are not enough resources for that. We need less individual transport overall, but not less mobility. This requires new mobility concepts that the automakers can help to design.
Did you also look at technologies in practice during your research?
CS: No, for the book we focused on the causes and consequences of climate change. In order for me to develop a motivation to contribute to the solution first requires me to understand the problem and its causes. Currently, we are spending a lot of time on potential solutions. We will publish them at a later time, but then not only as a book, but rather by means of two, three film projects.
Is there a potential solution that you deem particularly highly promising?
CS: We waited too long before engaging in serious climate protection. That is why it is no longer about which measure is the best, but about us using all the technologies and possibilities we have at our disposal to reduce the emissions of greenhouse gases to the greatest possible extent. An important aspect frequently overlooked in this context are so-called negative emissions. These are natural and technical possibilities that succeed in removing CO2 from the atmosphere again. We can only encourage companies to continue researching these currently still very expensive technical possibilities. Because without these technologies we will not be able to meet the climate targets. Due to the increasing demand, their advancement will offer the opportunity to make a lot of money in future.
How important are sustainable criteria for you in choosing your future employer?
DN: Extremely important. A company that does not advocate sustainability is out of the question for us. We know from friends that they feel similarly. This issue is becoming increasingly important in choosing a profession. Our generation is not about making money. Instead, we want to make a useful contribution. That is why we want to work for companies that try to make their contribution.
How did you actually succeed in presenting the complex issue of climate change in such a condensed form?
DN: As laypersons, we did not run the risk of somehow trying to cram all scientific results into the book. We read and summarized a lot of scientific literature, discussed it with scientists, and then had friends and family read it with a fresh set of eyes. We were able to ask ourselves what do I as a layperson have to know in order to understand the problem. The major challenge was abridging it. The key issues emerged from the alternating exchange with laypersons and scientists.
How do the scientists you worked with evaluate your book as a whole?
DN: We sent it to them already before its publication and received really enthusiastic feedback. That was the most important validation for us: regardless of how well this book will sell now, when the scientists are so enthused, especially the ones who were skeptical at first, then we achieved our goal.
How does the response to the book affect your studies and your career plans?
DN: Severely. The studies are still taking a back seat, because we have so much on our plate with the book project. Bayerische Rundfunk (Bavarian Broadcasting) is planning a TV production with us. A ten-part documentary series will start in 2020 and an even bigger film project is planned for 2021. We cannot tell you any more about this. We are giving three to four lectures a week throughout Germany these days. Many companies approached us after the first television appearances: "Can you give a lecture for our employees so they understand why we are making changes? As impetus to press ahead with them?“ To be honest, we are flooded with requests at the moment. However, if nothing unexpected happens, we will be done with our bachelor's degrees by the middle of next year. Professionally, we will continue to deal with climate protection. We are most likely drawn to business in order to press ahead with technologies there that help to get a handle on the climate problem.