"Ignorance is powerlessness"

Sven Plöger is one of the most famous German weather presenters. But he is also a book author, entertainer and scientist. For decades, he has been dealing with climate change, its causes and consequences. A conversation with someone who, despite the seriousness of the situation, has not lost his sense of humor.

Mr. Plöger, since the publication of your German bestseller (“Zieht euch warm an, es wird heiss!”), you have given so many interviews that it is difficult to ask you anything really original. Which questions would you like to answer?

(Laughs.) Well, that's an exciting start: "Dear interview partner, think about what you would like to say!” Well, then let's start with a highly topical subject: COVID-19.

Agreed. We are in the middle of the second corona lockdown. What do you think we can learn from the pandemic to deal with climate change?

We can learn to listen to science. We can understand that science – as the word already says – creates knowledge. That it is a development process. That has always been the case. Knowledge is increasing and this means that there are always corrections. We have now also seen this with the virus. In the first wave of the pandemic, those countries that listened to science did better. COVID can actually be considered the little brother of climate change. If you think of the virus as a 15-meter-high tsunami that you are already afraid of, then climate change is a 500-meter-high wave that will ignite a completely different drama if we don't stop it. Corona rolls over our planet as a shock wave, but we are not powerless. We can intervene with limited means. It is basically the same with climate change. But the big difference is that Corona takes place directly on our time scale and the threat is concrete. With climate change, the threat is abstract and diffuse. And that is a problem.

In what way?

Because we are the way we are. When we have a lot of time, we simply push things in front of us. Everyone can see that for themselves. Evolution is responsible for the fact that we pay more attention to the here and now than to the future. If I build a house to feel more comfortable and protected for the next years of my life and I am surprised by a saber-toothed tiger, it is very reasonable to react at short notice and disappear. And this is exactly what evolution has understood for our survival. Regarding climate change, the time scale is not right, because the threat lies years, decades in the future and even extends beyond our own lives. That's why I'm taking it easy for now, because I seem to have plenty of time left.

So what should we do based on this insight?

First of all, we must be careful not to lose sight of climate change. Corona is right to overlay everything now, but we can't keep putting off the climate issue. There are 7.8 billion people in the world. And there will be more and more. We must change our behavior at key points. Voluntarily – we have proven this long enough – we will not succeed. That's why we need framework conditions, and this is then a political achievement, that practically "trick us". Rules that require certain behavioral changes and ultimately also reward reasonable behavior and sanction unreasonable behavior. The total contribution of 7.8 billion small emission reductions should not be underestimated. And what I think is very important: We need knowledge transfer that separates physics from fantasy. Also media reporting should be more influenced by successes in tackling climate change, also to motivate people to follow and participate.

"It is not the global temperature rise of one degree in a hundred years, but extreme, often tragic weather events that make us look thoughtfully at what is happening around us." © Sebastian Knoth

In your book you write that a central problem is that mankind is becoming increasingly ignorant?

Yes, I mean proportionately. The collective knowledge of this world is growing rapidly. We have more and more detailed knowledge, but the share that the individual can know of this collective knowledge is logically becoming smaller and smaller. Although information is moving faster and faster from A to B, i.e. from scientific knowledge to the population and politics, we are increasingly lacking classification. To discuss this information, which is coming to us ever faster and in ever greater numbers, in a healthy, factually relaxed manner and not emotionally charged – that is a point we really need.

You have a lot of practice in this – not only as an author, speaker and weather presenter in front of the camera. You have also tried again and again to discuss with skeptics of man-made climate change.

That's right. But I'm never concerned with missionary work, but always with information. I talk to climate skeptics and deniers time and again. I have looked very closely at what these people say and why they argue, how they argue. It quickly became clear to me that physics is often trampled underfoot here. After all, there is this much quoted sentence of Sir Francis Bacon: "Knowledge is power". And, if you turn the sentence around, it says: "Ignorance is powerlessness". And this is a huge problem. We have to improve our knowledge and therefore we simply need a physical foundation of thought.

In your job, you meticulously observe the weather for eight to ten hours a day. Is there a moment when you have consciously realized that climate change is now being felt in the weather?

Two moments come together. On the one hand, during my studies of meteorology, in the eighties and early nineties, I naturally understood that there are logical, physically explicable connections. On the other hand, there was the emotional moment, which works much longer than any theory. For me, this was clearly the hurricane Lothar, 1999, at Christmas. There I was standing in a gust of 179 kilometers per hour. (That is a lot, by the way! If you ever drive a car and put the windshield down at 180 and look out, you'll say "Oha!".) I had an apartment at 1150 meters altitude during that time, right next to our weather station. I looked out and saw a third of the forest that surrounded us fall over within minutes. And that's when I realized the forces of nature in a completely different way than in all the theory. And suddenly the question came to me: "Are we humans now both victims and perpetrators at the same time?

Are we?

Yes, we intervene in the climate system and then end up becoming victims and lamenting that. This is actually an unusual chain. What is difficult is that we cannot see the behavior of each individual, which in sum then makes the difference. But, of course, we see the storm and the falling trees. And that was the reason why I started to become intensively involved in the topic of climate change. And I became more and more political at this event because I suddenly realized: We have to come together worldwide because we are all in the same boat and, at the same time, very different interests still play a role in this already extremely complex issue.

In this context you also criticized the system of climate conferences?

Do not misunderstand me. World climate conferences must continue to exist. But why do the obstructionists who say what is not possible determine everything? I think that the pioneers should set the pace and show what is necessary, but also what is possible. I would abolish the rule that the conclusion of such conferences requires unanimity.

In Paris in 2015, the Paris Climate Agreement was unanimously adopted by all parties to the agreement. Do you believe that it will be possible to achieve the goals of the agreement?

We need a well-founded optimism that we can meet the challenges. We must, qua science, be prepared to act. That is what we have already promised ourselves and in the end we have to do what we say. What kind of statement would it be if I said: "We can't do this!” That would be counterproductive! Science tells us that we still have ten to twenty years to change course effectively. Let's use the time!

What do you say to those who demand that we should prepare ourselves now better for the consequences of climate change, instead of wasting a lot of energy on something that we can't control anyway?

Well, what is certainly true: You have to do both! Climate protection strategy must always consist of avoiding greenhouse gas emissions and adapting to the already changed conditions. But having this one thing in mind, we must not forget the other. If I have headaches all the time, it doesn't make sense in the long run to eat more and more tablets and never pursue the question where the pain comes from. This is also a question of cost. If we just keep emitting and ignore the whole avoidance part, we would – as all studies show – have to pay two to eleven euros later for every euro we don't put into climate protection now. That can never make sense. That is why avoidance must be the focus of attention! In my opinion, giving up early would be the most unreasonable and unfair thing we can do, especially with regard to future generations. As long as there is a chance – and science prove that there is – everything should be done to try this.

"We need a well-founded optimism that we can meet the challenges." © Sebastian Knoth

At the moment we are not very good in Germany in terms of "CO2 avoidance"...

We, in Germany, tell every day what we want to do, that we want to be pioneers and all these things. It is good that we have the ambitions, but we must also implement them and do not leave it with good climatic rhetoric or strange techniques to talk the world beautiful. Often I hear the sentence: "We Germans only emit two percent, so the others have to do it first, because we cannot save the world alone!” I am always stunned and call this the "addition problem". There are 194, that is almost 200 countries in the world. That means that a single country may emit a maximum of 0.5 percent, because then we are at 100 percent of the emissions and more is not possible. So at two percent, we are four times too high, or to put it another way: we are currently in sixth place among the countries with the highest emissions. If we then say that our share is so small that it doesn't matter, then the 186 countries behind us can certainly say the same thing. And then we throw ourselves into disaster with collectively perceived innocence like the lemmings? That does not necessarily correspond – I think – to the intellect we attribute to ourselves. Every German emits nine tons of CO2 per capita and year, every Chinese – because there are many Chinese – 6.7 tons, and in order to reach the 2-degree goal, the upper limit for every person in this world would be two tons. Although we once declared 1.5 degrees in Paris.

What do you think are the biggest levers for us to reduce CO2?

For me, it is completely unclear why we will not get out of coal before 2038. In the case of COVID, we found a vaccine a few days ago; in the case of climate change, we have had it for a long time. Namely renewable energies. But we must promote them fairly and equitably. We must also realize that we need a topic like wind energy. How do we create acceptance for it? How do we involve citizens? I think it's good that many technologies are being looked at in parallel. We can rely on technology, we have to do research, we have to adapt, we have to become better, and therefore each individual must be prepared to question his or her actions in everyday life and change things. I think we all agree that we want to maintain our prosperity. But if it is continuously based on the exploitation of people or nature, then it will be recouped all by itself. We therefore need a transformation, a Green Deal, as EU Commission President Ursula von der Leyen has also announced and in which the USA under Joe Biden can and will again play an important role. The old-fashioned style with backward-looking thinking is outdated.

Do you know your own CO2 footprint?

I don't know it exactly, but I know that it is also higher than the 2 tons. However, if I count the energy that I have captured by rebuilding my house, if I take into account that I have completely stopped flying domestically and drive very little by car, but almost only travel electrically by train, bicycle or public transport – then the two tons will work out. But still: I am a member of this society and I will probably be happy to go somewhere in the world again in the future where you can only get to by plane. I will probably continue to eat meat, even if only two or three times a month – but that had never been different. But the challenge is huge. And of course the solution can't be that we are all going into the cave together now. We need a general concept, which really changes many places.

What do you think the automotive industry would have to do to effectively counteract climate change?

Well, you can now feel that something is happening. I also see less advertising for giant cars that are not electrically powered. Unfortunately, the reason for this change is probably not a determination on the part of German policymakers – which I greatly miss here and which would provide the automotive industry with the necessary planning security – but in China. Here, the focus is on electromobility rather than allowing an unlimited number of combustion engines. So, if you want to participate in the not-so-small Chinese market, you have to rely on other concepts.

Which one?

Everything has its advantages and disadvantages. If you take electric mobility, there is still a lot of room for improvement in battery technology. A lot will change. Not only in recycling, but also in the question: what do the anode and cathode consist of? Does it always have to be lithium-ion? My firm conviction: No. I believe that battery technology will develop dramatically. We will get faster charging possibilities, but we will also have to solve problems, such as having enough charging possibilities in densely populated areas - keyword: induction. And how do we actually generate enough green electricity so that in the end everyone who wants to can drive electrically?

And hydrogen?

Hydrogen is also highly exciting when it is produced green. Combined with a fuel cell, and if we apply it to a liquid, we can finally use our infrastructure of pipelines, tankers and filling stations. But I think we need to make technological progress in both areas. I often have the feeling at the moment that people tend to say: "Battery can't be it, hydrogen is great". I also find it interesting when there is competition. But we cannot think forever about what we want to do. Otherwise, the climate problem will be so big at some point that we will be too late. That means we have to speed it up, there has to be political will, and money has to be invested. I am also thinking, for example, of green bonds.

Daimler has also issued its first green bond, Mr. Plöger. So if you would like to participate...

Oh, that's interesting. We don't want to talk about my private financial situation right now (laughs). But in these contexts you feel that many private investors are also thinking in this direction. I also say to many banks at the moment: "You are systemically relevant. Also because you are the ones who really have a lever to make people understand: We can do something by using the money for sustainable investments”. And if banks advise very strongly in this direction and many people invest here, then it is only logical that the prices of these papers rise, while the backward looking ones may fall.

If you could wish for something from Daimler as a company: what would that be?

Don't build such huge cars that are incredibly heavy. Daimler can build very beautiful cars. Also builds electric cars in a beautiful design that appeals to many people. Get away from SUVs! We don't need off-road cars, we have good roads. We almost never have to cross any rivers, we have hardly any earth walls on freeways. Moreover, parking space in cities is very limited and people are looking for more liveable urban design concepts anyway. More and more gigantic cars simply don't fit in there. If possible, go for electric mobility and hydrogen in parallel! Look, which is better. Sit down with the cities in particular - and see what cities that want to change will want and, in some cases, will have to have, and in some cases will have to have, private transport. I think the automotive industry is an extremely important source of inspiration in Germany. Take advantage of this and help shape change!

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