Friederike Otto is a key scientist in climate research. Her interview with WERTE is an urgent plea to do much more to protect against extreme weather.
WERTE: Record-breaking heat scorching Canada, more than 30 simultaneous tornadoes wreaking havoc in the U.S., forest fires burning throughout the Mediterranean region, a flood devastating towns and villages in central Europe: millions of people around the world have suffered from weather extremes in the past months. You’re not going to run out of work...
Friederike Otto: That’s true, unfortunately, yes.
How do you handle this information – with scientific detachment, curiosity or dejection?
It’s undoubtedly a mixture of all those things. Still, even to me, it remains shocking. But what I find most shocking of all, though, is that in many cases we haven’t in the least adapted to the weather we would have had even without climate change. For me, the most notable recent event has been the drought and subsequent famine in southern Madagascar, which the media has repeatedly linked to climate change.
The government and the United Nations were also quick to blame climate change.
But that wasn’t the case. We were able to determine from our calculations that climate change did not play a role in the famine. The absence of rainfall Madagascar has experienced hasn’t increased significantly as a result of anthropogenic climate change.
What caused it then?
The famine occurred because the population is extremely poor and the country lacks infrastructure. There’s no prevention, no resilience to even the slightest fluctuations in the natural variability of the climate system. All the more reason why extreme weather events that are actually related to climate change have to be what pushes us to adapt where we can. And yet almost the entire climate debate focuses on limiting future climate change. Of course, this is important. But we can’t allow ourselves to forget about adapting. That, to me, is the most frustrating aspect of everything that’s happening.
The English version of your book “Angry Weather” was published in 2020. In it, you explained your attribution science research. This research helps you determine if and how much an extreme weather event is related to climate change. Are you satisfied with the response to your findings since its publication?
The public discourse about climate change has got much better, but here and there it overshoots the mark. People still just talk about climate change and not about the fact that current vulnerability also plays an incredibly important role.
So adaptation – that is, adapting to extreme weather – is not as present in the day-to-day political process as boosting climate-protection efforts?
Absolutely. In Glasgow, we had to once again hear political leaders from the Global North tell us that climate change is a problem for the future and it’s primarily about intergenerational justice – so in effect the grandson of Frans Timmermans, the EU commissioner for climate action policy, won’t have to face any problems. But what about all the damage around the globe that has already occurred because we haven’t adapted? This issue hasn’t been addressed seriously.
Where we need to be in terms of transforming ourselves to protect the climate is now clear to many. But what needs to happen to adapt further?
A lot of things will have to change. What needs to change right away is education and the flow of information between agencies. The impact that climate change is also having locally right now needs to be understood. No one has to die from a heat wave. But heat waves are by far the deadliest extreme weather events in Europe and North America. And this happens despite the fact we know what needs to be done to prevent people from dying during a heat wave. But these deaths can, of course, only be prevented if everyone who has a role in planning and prevention knows what to do during a heat wave and what to look out for.
Would you please provide us with a few examples?
It sounds trivial, but drinking plenty of water is a key preventative measure during a heat wave because you have to keep your body temperature down. Unfortunately, many people are still not aware of this. And we need to make sure that people who have pre-existing illnesses and no cool rooms – perhaps because they live in poorly insulated homes – are housed elsewhere. Local authorities could also alter the microclimate of inner cities and ensure more tolerable temperatures relatively quickly by planting trees.
Let’s continue talking about the transformation of cities to achieve climate adaptation. How far along are we here?
I don’t really see a will to modify our cities to both enable climate-neutral living and immediately address the effects of climate change. More green space and better insulated homes help in both cases.
Many major German cities, for example, have focused on creating density as a first step towards solving the housing shortage problem.
That doesn’t seem very sustainable to me. Dense cities covered in concrete and asphalt heat up much more than those that have a looser building density. Here, too, in Great Britain houses are still being built with poor insulation and heating systems dependent on fossil fuels – just to have a quick solution to the housing problem.
"Those who don’t make climate-friendly investments could experience a disaster"
So when you criticise education, you mean that greater awareness also has to reach those who approve such construction measures.
Yes. Education is not just about schools. One of the most important efforts to undertake is ensuring that all agencies have real know-how at all levels. If you really want to implement a transformation, you need to know where the changes are going to be painful.
As with the expansion in renewable energies, will the economy be able to benefit from climate adaptation?
Certainly the construction industry will benefit. And, of course, the financial sector, too, where this is already being seen. It can be a disaster for those who don’t make climate-friendly investments. The agricultural industry will also have to adapt. In the Mediterranean region, where droughts are increasing, it’ll be a matter of securing harvests. This is because the region won’t necessarily be able to continue with its standard farming practices without supplemental irrigation.
You contribute to the World Climate Report. The report includes various pathways to achieving CO2 reductions. Some calculations consider future technologies that will enable us to, for example, retrieve CO2 from the atmosphere. How feasible is this?
That’s right. Various carbon capture processes that can recapture carbon dioxide have been included in the calculations. These technologies already exist, but not on the scale where they would make a difference.
Will we need these technologies?
If global CO2 emissions continue to rise as they have been, we’ll need negative emissions, which means having to extract CO2 back out of the atmosphere to hold warming under two degrees.
You say that you’re a hopeless optimist – even when it comes to saving the climate. What are you pinning your hopes on?
Not on technology! Rather, on the fact that we’ve made an incredible amount of progress in society – especially if you consider the last century. It wasn’t long ago that the growing world population was considered one of our greatest problems. But the rate of population increase is now falling. For the foreseeable future, this will no longer be a problem.
How was this achieved?
The quality of life has improved almost everywhere on Earth, including – and especially – in many poorer countries. Prosperity, better hygiene and improved medical care have led to a decline in infant mortality and consequently to fewer births. The other aspect includes the increasing education of women and a growing number of working women. Greater equality of opportunity and more investment into equal opportunities will have an effect on combating climate change that shouldn’t be underestimated. I think slowing population growth is an impressive example of how things can change for the better in a relatively short period of time.
The U.S. author Katharine Wilkinson has suggested that Earth can only be saved by creating more equality – in developing countries as well as in the rich West.
I believe that, too. But not because women are better people or have better ideas, but because we need a real change in how we do business. That’s going to be incredibly difficult to achieve if questions about how to invest money, what projects to promote, and who holds leadership positions are decided on the basis of whether the other person looks exactly like you. There’s no getting around increased diversity.
About Friedericke Otto
The physicist and climate researcher Friederike Otto left the University of Oxford to join Imperial College in London in 2021. She and the recently deceased climatologist Geert Jan van Oldenborgh co-founded attribution research, which allows us to calculate the contribution climate change makes to extreme weather. For example, this research determined that Europe, depending on the location, will see the likelihood of a heat wave increase by a factor of two to ten. Around the world, Otto received significant recognition for these findings. The magazines “Time” and “Nature” count her among the most important people in climate science worldwide.
This article first appeared in WERTE #25, the client magazine of Deutsche Bank Wealth Management.