Nature cannot be fooled!

What the corona crisis teaches us about solving the climate crisis

Thursday, May 14, 2020
7:00 PM to 8:30 PM GMT+2
More information and registration

A recording of the lecture can be found here:

I am delighted to be able to give a public lecture again. This time it will be online and hosted by WWF in Basel.

The title is borrowed from Richard Feynman and I will explain why I believe it is highly relevant.


With media’s attention almost entirely devoted to the corona crisis, it is easy to forget that climate change represents a much larger threat to humanity and that we are rapidly running out of time to fix the problem. We should therefore try to learn as much as possible from the current situation, which offers important insights into the politics of crisis management. The most important lesson is probably that “nature cannot be fooled”. Real threats cannot be countered with wishful thinking or political rhetoric.

The largest obstacle to fixing the climate crisis is in our heads. For almost 30 years, we have been arguing over minimal changes to society, hoping that these would miraculously suffice to solve the greatest challenge in human history. Political convenience was more important than solid facts. The corona crisis gives us an opportunity to change this. In my presentation, I will try to be more ambitious and present a plan to solve the climate crisis.

Quiz: Can you find the oil crisis in the plot below?

Doing what is necessary

Here is a powerful and emotional interview with Christiana Figueres. She makes it perfectly clear that future of humanity lies on our hands and that we must choose whether we want our children and grandchildren to be able to breathe or not.

It has been said before:

It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.

Winston Churchill

Klimaschutz und Wirtschaftswachstum

Ich freue mich sehr, am 25. Februar einen öffentlichen Vortrag am Universitätsspital Zürich halten zu dürfen:

Ort: Hörsaal Pathologie D 22
Zeit: 25. Februar 2020, 17:15 – 18:00
Titel: Klimaschutz und Wirtschaftswachstum – facts & fake news

Ich werde dort u.A. einen konkreten Plan vorstellen, wie wir die Klimakrise schnell lösen können.

Der Vortrag ist Teil der Fortbildungsreihe Surgical and Gastroenterological Grand Rounds des Universitätsspitals.

Global Climate Compensation

Deutsche Version (English translation below)

Können wir die Klimakrise bewältigen? Die Antwort lautet ja, und es würde etwa $1.30 pro Kopf und Tag kosten. Dies ist weniger als eine Tasse Kaffee.

Das Problem ist nur, dass sich nicht alle Menschen auf der Welt so viel Geld haben. Die Wohlhabenderen müssen also bereit sein, den Ärmeren zu helfen.

Fast 30 Jahre nach der Unterzeichnung der Klimakonvention der Vereinten Nationen (UNFCCC) gibt es immer noch keinen praktikablen Plan, wie die Erderwärmung auf weniger als +2°C begrenzt werden kann, und die CO2-Konzentration der Atmosphäre steigt immer schneller an. Zusammen mit einigen Kollegen versuche ich deshalb einen Plan auszuarbeiten, um das Problem im Griff zu bekommen. Die Details dazu finden Sie hier:

Ich meine dies ernst. Das CO2-Budget für +1.5°C Erderwärmung werden wir in weniger als 8 Jahren ausgeschöpft haben. Die Weichenstellung für eine bessere Zukunft muss also in den nächste 1-2 Jahren passieren. Nach COP25 in Paris und der Rede von Donald J. Trump in Davos bin ich der Meinung, dass die Reichen und Mächtigen versagt haben.

Melden Sie sich also bei mir, wenn sie an der Idee der globalen Klimakompensation mitarbeiten wollen. Das Problem können wir nur gemeinsam lösen. Das erste Treffen findet am 31. Januar 2020 in Zürich statt.

English Version

Can we overcome the climate crisis? The answer is yes, and it would cost about $1.30 per person per day. This is less than a cup of coffee.

The only problem is that not everyone in the world has that amount of money. The affluent must be willing to help the poor.

Almost 30 years after the signing of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC), there is still no workable plan to limit global warming to less than +2°C and the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere is rising faster than ever. Together with some colleagues, I am therefore trying to work out a plan to get the problem under control. You can find the details here:

I’m serious about this. We will have exhausted the CO2 budget for +1.5°C global warming in less than 8 years. The course for a better future must therefore be set in the next 1-2 years. After COP25 in Madrid and Donald J. Trump’s speech in Davos, I believe that the rich and powerful have failed.

So, get in touch with me if you want to work on the idea of global climate compensation. We can only solve the problem together. The first meeting will be in Zurich on January 31, 2020.

Amusing Themselves to Death in Davos

[…] the commercial always addresses itself to the psychological needs of the viewer. Thus it is not merely therapy. It is instant therapy. Indeed, it puts forward a psychological theory of unique axioms: The commercial asks us to believe that all problems are solvable, that they are solvable fast, and that they are solvable fast through the interventions of technology, techniques and chemistry.

Neil Postman, Amusing Ourselves to Death

Next week, the rich and powerful will again gather to do business at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Such fairs are known since the Middle Ages and have always be accompanied by spectacle, acrobats, artists, and prostitutes. On this level, very little seems to have changed.

To refer to the attendees of the WEF as the “global elite” is clearly unwarranted, since wealth and power are no personal traits. Every idiot born as the heir to the throne is powerful and it does not take brains to inherit a fortune. There is no evidence for the WEF participants being intellectually or ethically superior to the rest of us.

I don’t know many people at the WEF, but I am sure that most of them are nice and would have been perfectly harmless in a normal environment. However, with power and wealth comes responsibility and I would therefore like to offer them some reading advice.

The first book they need to read is The Affluent Society, written by the eminent economist J. K. Galbraith in 1958. His main message is that the capitalist system, which was invented to raise the capital required for industrialization, does not make sense in a society where all material needs have been met. Why increase industrial production, when we already have everything we need? In the affluent society, the manufacturer creates the demand for a product through marketing. It is therefore not surprising, that two of most powerful companies in the world today – Google and Facebook – are advertising companies. Such a situation was clearly not envisioned by Adam Smith. In short, capitalism became obsolete more than 60 years ago.

The second book is Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman, which deals with the effects modern media has had on our ability to reason and discuss. As the book was written in 1984, his analysis is limited to television, but the invention of the internet and social media has only exacerbated the trend. Anyone brought up on visual media has the feeling that any topic can be treated in less than 60 seconds in an entertaining manner. If the news does not amuse me, I switch to a different channel. Nobody would have listened to Winston Churchill’s speeches, had there been a quiz show running on a different channel. “We will fight on the beaches, but only if we get the chance to win a trip to Las Vegas”.

Finally, you might consider reading The Collapse of Complex Societies by Joseph A. Tainter. He starts from that fact that all complex societies have failed sooner or later. The reason was always the diminishing return on investments in complexity. At one point, the costs of maintaining a complex infrastructure exceeds the income generated by it, which leads to a collapse. Incidentally, Swiss ski resorts are perfect examples of this phenomenon. Despite the fact that global warming will destroy winter tourism, the ski resorts invest increasing amounts of money in equipment for artificial snow. Eventually, the revenue will be insufficient to maintain the expensive infrastructure and there will be no resources left to dismantle it. Thus, ruins are formed.

Which brings us to Davos. The diagram below shows the average temperature in Switzerland for almost 160 years. The WEF was founded in 1971 and has been running for 50 years. If it continues for another 50 years, there will be no snow left in Davos. This is not a political statement, but a simple fact.

The interesting question is whether the WEF has the intellectual flexibility and the courage to face the truth about what is happening to our planet and what needs to be done about it. I am skeptical, since – as Einstein pointed out – it is difficult to solve problems using the same kind of thinking that lead to their creation.

In fact, I believe that the people gathering at the WEF are almost uniquely unqualified to solve the problems facing humanity today. Most of them are marketing experts (including the politicians), who have made a career out of catering to people’s desires for pleasure and fun rather than to their needs. The people who actually understand how the real physical world works, i.e. the climate scientist, the renewable energy expert, the biologist, or even the historian or political scientist, are not welcome. If they do get invited, they are paraded like exotic zoo animals in discussion forums designed not to accomplish anything. In today’s world, the inmates are running the asylum and the arsonists are responsible for fire safety.

The plot below shows the correlation between global energy demand, global carbon emissions, and global GDP during the last 50 years. Unfortunately, economists are not very careful with error estimates, which made it impossible for me to add error bars. Nonetheless, it seems clear that these three quantities are essentially the same.

If we want to lower carbon dioxide emissions by at least 7.6% annually in order to stay below 1.5°C of warming, we also need to reduce energy demand and GDP. It is simply impossible to lower global emissions quickly using new technology, as any investment in renewable energy or energy efficiency has a certain payback time. It takes at least two years for a solar panel to generate the energy needed to produce it. In other words, investments in renewable energy will initially lead to more emissions and not less. This is not an argument against renewable energy, but one cannot ignore basic laws of physics and common logic. Some more unquestionable facts can be found in the public lecture I gave at the ETH in Zurich: You Can’t Have Your Planet And Eat It.

When Galileo was sentenced by the Inquisition in 1633, it was because he threatened the church’s monopoly on The Truth. Likewise, the financial sector and the fossil fuel industry feel threatened by the facts of global warming. To quote Bertrand Russell: “The Inquisition was successful in putting an end to science in Italy, which did not revive there for centuries.” The participants of the WEF seem determined to put an end to humanity. This is very annoying, as the very same people could actually stop climate change.

PS (2020-01-21): Apparently, the current resident of the White House did go to Davos. I wonder why. It is obvious that he has not read any of the books listed above.

BTW, I am not the only one upset with the WEF. Here some other comments: