Director’s Corner - Politics cannot ignore physics


Yesterday morning the prime minister of the German state Sachsen-Anhalt, Reiner Haseloff gave an interview in the German radio (Deutschlandfunk, here the interview in German) and made when asked about the coal-fired power plants in this state a striking remark: “Politics cannot ignore physics” (“Erst mal muss man sagen, an der Physik kommt auch Politik nicht vorbei”). As far as I understood he was referring to the conservation of energy or the first law of thermodynamics and wanted to say that one cannot generate electrical power out of nothing and there are currently no alternatives to coal available. One might agree on that or not – but the question whether the regenerative energy supply is developed enough to replace coal-fired and nuclear power plants is not the focus here. The question is: why do so many actors in politics ignore the physics of climate change? The Working Group 1 contribution to the Fifth Assessment Report of the IPCC published 2013 has the title “Climate Change 2013: The Physical Science Basis”. It has 1552 pages. This may be too much to read for politicians. Thus, there is a summary for policy makers which among others state:

•    The globally averaged combined land and ocean surface temperature data as calculated by a linear trend, show a warming of 0.85 [0.65 to 1.06] °C over the period 1880 to 2012…
•    It is very likely that the number of cold days and nights has decreased and the number of warm days and nights has increased on the global scale.
•    Since the early 1970s, glacier mass loss and ocean thermal expansion from warming together explain about 75% of the observed global mean sea level rise (high confidence). There is very high confidence that maximum global mean sea level during the last interglacial period (129,000 to 116,000 years ago) was, for several thousand years, at least 5 m higher than present, and high confidence that it did not exceed 10 m above present.
•    The total anthropogenic RF [radiative forcing] for 2011 relative to 1750 is 2.29 [1.13 to 3.33] W m-2 (see Figure SPM.5), and it has increased more rapidly since 1970 than during prior decades. The total anthropogenic RF best estimate for 2011 is 43% higher than that reported in AR4 for the year 2005. This is caused by a combination of continued growth in most greenhouse gas concentrations and improved estimates of RF by aerosols indicating a weaker net cooling effect (negative RF).

If politics cannot ignore physics it has a job to do. The oath of the prime minister of Sachsen-Anhalt says: „Ich schwöre, dass ich meine Kraft dem Wohle des Volkes widmen, Verfassung und Gesetz wahren, meine Pflichten gewissenhaft erfüllen und Gerechtigkeit gegen jedermann üben werde.“ This means he is committed to the „Good of the People“ and „Justice for everybody“. The good of many people cannot be preserved against 5 m higher sea levels, increased extreme weather events etc. The good of many people cannot be preserved by the ignorance of politicians. It is very good that Mr. Haseloff is aware of this. We will be happy to provide further knowledge: the atmospheric CO2 concentration at Gartow, the nearest ICOS station to Magdeburg was about 405 ppm during the interview. According to the latest greenhouse gas bulletin of the WMO the global average increase of atmospheric CO2 in 2016 was 3,3 ppm. This has been a record increase.