“The key thing is to make a start”

Civil society and governments struggle to take action when it comes to climate change. So what’s the solution? We asked climate researcher Reto Knutti and climate strike advocate Marie-Claire Graf for their perspectives.
Marie-​Claire Graf and Reto Knutti. (Image: Daniel Winkler)

Mr Knutti, you’re a scientist, but right now you often get asked to express your views in social and political contexts, too. How would you define your role?

Reto Knutti: I could simply keep my head down and focus on research and teaching, but I think people expect more from my position. ETH is funded by taxpayers, so if ETH discovers something that is relevant to taxpayers, we have a responsibility to make it public – especially if it could put people at risk.

Where does science end and politics begin?

Knutti: It’s always a balancing act. Presenting figures in isolation is pointless, because numbers mean nothing without context. But the moment you contextualise them, they cease to be purely scientific. The idea of totally separating pure science from social or political realities simply doesn’t work in practice. The important thing is to clarify the assumptions and value judgements you’re making when you interpret the figures.

Ms Graf, you’re deeply involved in the climate strike movement. How would you define your role in the climate debate?

Marie-claire Graf: From one perspective, I see myself as a student acquiring new knowledge. But we also have an additional responsibility, especially if we know the facts and can see that people are not acting in accordance with them. That’s why many young people – including me – saw the need for a movement that would really fight for the implementation of agreed climate goals. I also feel it’s my job to “connect the dots”. That means converting my academic knowledge into political demands and channelling those demands into a pressure group. And it also means embracing multiple strategies: we need strikes, we need civil disobedience to challenge entrenched structures – but we also need diplomacy.

«We need a movement that fights for the implementation of agreed climate goals»      Marie-Claire Graf

As a scientist, what’s your response to the climate strike movement and its demands?

Knutti: Climate scientists like me have made our position perfectly clear. Several thousand signatures support what the younger generation is saying and confirm their concerns are well founded. That doesn’t mean we specifically back the use of strikes and civil disobedience, but we don’t condemn them, either. We can all decide for ourselves whether this is the right approach. Personally, I won’t be chaining myself up in front of the Swiss Federal Palace because I have a different role.

Does the climate strike movement feel it gets enough public support from climate scientists?

Graf: Universities could do more in terms of communication. But I also appreciate that they can’t risk damaging their credibility and their role as research bodies. The communication of scientific facts is a hugely important part of encouraging politicians to take action.

Did that influence your choice of what to study?

Graf: I initially signed up to study environmental sciences at ETH. We certainly learnt plenty of facts on that course, but I felt they were keeping the crisis behind the numbers at arm’s length. So I decided to switch to political science, because I wanted to learn how to put solutions in place to accelerate the transformation we so urgently need. That’s something we should be incorporating much more in other degree programmes as well, because, ultimately, we need a society in which everyone gets involved.

The decision to act always has a political dimension. Are democratic structures suitable for tackling a problem like climate change?

Knutti: We need to initiate a process that we will have to shape together for decades to come. It must be endorsed by society – and for that you certainly need a democratic process.

Graf: Democracy is hugely important for these issues. Remember that, in many cases, citizens’ assemblies have actually proposed much more ambitious measures than governments. Scientific studies show that if people know what kind of crisis we’re in, then they’re willing to act.

Knutti: Several prominent studies have also shown that factors such as intelligence and education do not necessarily correlate with concerns about climate change. Just because people are more informed, that doesn’t mean they’re more concerned about climate change per se. It seems to be more about personal priorities, political beliefs, and values and ideologies. But studies in the US have also shown that there is a fairly big group of uninformed people sandwiched between those who are concerned about climate change and those who don’t want to accept it. And that’s where facts could make a big difference.

Right now, coronavirus is occupying all our attention. Can this crisis teach us something about how to deal with climate change?

Knutti: There are some obvious parallels. Both things started out as quite abstract and poorly 
understood. They seemed quite distant, and perhaps the threat wasn’t immediately obvious. Yet, in both cases, quick action pays dividends. Those who take the facts seriously end up doing better – and those who wait get a nasty shock. And there’s something else the two problems have in common: in both cases, you don’t see the results of your actions immediately, but the situation can blow up in your face if you act too late! However, there’s also an important difference in the timescales. Climate change won’t kill us from one day to the next – and that makes it easier to ignore.

Graf: Another thing that helped with coronavirus was the decision to officially classify the situation as a crisis from a very early stage, initially by the WHO, and then by many governments. That freed up funds and paved the way for new political measures. In the case of climate change, we still haven’t really had an official acknowledgement that we’re in a crisis. That’s why one of the key demands of the climate strike is for governments to recognise climate change as a crisis by declaring a climate emergency.

Knutti: If we interpret “emergency” as meaning we have an urgent problem that we need to tackle now, then I would sign up to that as a political statement. But I don’t see the justification for declaring a state of emergency in the legal sense. That’s because climate change is neither a situation that we couldn’t have foreseen, nor a situation that we can solve within a short time frame. We can solve climate change with our established political processes, but we need to take more effective action much more rapidly.

Graf: We’re not calling for the legal declaration of a state of emergency. We simply want this to be acknowledged as a crisis, so we can respond to it as a crisis.

Has corona detracted from the climate debate?

Knutti: In the short term, yes. But climate change hasn’t completely disappeared from the political agenda – for example, in autumn the revision of the CO2 law was approved by the Swiss Parliament. The coronavirus crisis has also taught us that we can do things people previously thought were impossible. It just requires the political will to get them done.

Graf: Coronavirus has drastically disrupted our plans. That’s because we chose to respond to it in a responsible manner, based on science and solidarity. It’s certainly made things much harder. As well as affecting the climate strikes, it has also pulled the plug on other key events. Last December, I was part of the Swiss delegation to the 25th United Nations Climate Change conference. Key negotiations were due to continue this year, but they’ve all been postponed, even though we always talked about 2020 as “the year to act”. We’ve also lost a lot of momentum internationally.

Knutti: You might also see an argument emerging now that we should help the economy first and that we can’t focus on environmental protection at the same time. But scientific studies have shown us that the economy and environmental protection are not mutually exclusive. It’s another example of a situation where, in the long term, it’s cheaper to solve the problem rather than waiting.

How is the business community responding?

Knutti: We’ve seen a big increase in calls for action from businesses over recent years. Banks and financial service providers – even the big, well-established names – have clearly stated that we need to get to grips with climate change. Those companies are starting to realise that they might be affected by increasing risks, changing consumer behaviour and needs, liability issues and much more. They also see a chance for innovation.

Graf: Banks have seen that they have to respond, in part because many young people say they don’t want an account with a bank that isn’t sustainable. But the banks’ reaction is often superficial. What we need is a complete shift from a destructive business model based on the exploitation of natural resources to a business model that is inherently sustainable and based on solidarity. And that’s still a long way off. The problem from a scientific perspective is that there is only a window of about 10 years in which there is a moderate probability of reaching the 1.5-degree goal.

Knutti: It’s true that we haven’t made nearly as much progress with the principles of a circular economy as we should have. But one really positive development is that some parts of the business world are no longer arguing with the research. Instead, they’re now acknowledging that the net-zero target is the right way to go and are willing to move in that direction. Many of them are even pushing for the state to set clear guidelines.

Are you optimistic that we can hit the target?

Knutti: The 2-degree goal is technically feasible and economically affordable. I’m more sceptical about the 1.5-degree goal, because it would require us to reduce emissions at a rate that is hard to square with today’s system and the level of knowledge we currently have. But I would argue we need to reframe the question. What we should really be asking is: how do we start? Because the key thing here is to actually make a start. Obviously we’ll make mistakes along the way, but we can learn from those and improve as we go. Waiting until we have a master plan for the next 30 years before we start would be completely nonsensical, in my opinion.

Graf: I’m very optimistic. Much of what’s holding us up is simply a lack of political will. But the coronavirus has shown us how quickly we can act once we realise the situation is critical.

Knutti: It’s important that we don’t just focus on the problem but also develop a vision of where we want to be. By starting the climate strike movement, young people have found a positive way to address this topic and get people behind it. If we can manage to develop this vision together, then I’m optimistic.


Reto Knutti is Professor of Climate Physics at ETH Zurich and the author of various IPCC reports. He plays an active role in communicating climate science to the general public.

Marie-​Claire Graf is an active member of the climate strike movement and part of the Swiss delegation to the UN Climate Change conference.