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At the Climate Frontline – Potsdam climate scientist Stefan Rahmstorf not only conducts excellent research but also engages in science communication

Prof. Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf. Picture: PIK

Prof. Dr. Stefan Rahmstorf. Picture: PIK

For the climate scientist it was a highlight of his career, although a somber one. His article on new findings about the impact of climate change on the Gulf Stream system was the cover story in the prestigious scientific journal Nature Climate Change in May 2015. The key message: The overturning circulation in the Atlantic Ocean has slowed down - even earlier than predicted. The heating system of Europe has flagged. The reason is probably global warming, among other things through the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet. Lead author of the study is Stefan Rahmstorf, researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and Professor of Physics of the Oceans at the University of Potsdam.

Proxy data – data gathered from ice cores, tree rings, corals, and ocean and lake sediments – made it possible to reconstruct the temperature data of the past 1000 years and provided new insights into the climate system. But beyond the scientific success, the father of two children is concerned about the results but also views them with some detachment. “I am not happy about it, of course, but after 20 years as a climate scientist I have got used to the findings about climate change being not necessarily uplifting.”

Nonetheless, he puts his heart and soul into climate research. The foundations for a life as a natural scientist were already laid during his childhood, Rahmstorf says. Between the ages of 6 and12 he lived at the Dutch North Sea – his father had a job there. The days at the seaside left their mark. “My whole family spent a lot of time building sand castles and the like,” the researcher tells us with a smile. “It inspired my enthusiasm for the ocean.”

After school Rahmstorf first enrolled for physics and later specialized in physical oceanography. The path from a physicist and an oceanographer to a climate scientist was not long. “In the final analysis, climate is physics,” Rahmstorf says, “and the ocean is one of the most important parts of the climate system.” The huge water masses of the Earth are in constant material and energy exchange with the atmosphere. It is impossible to imagine the climate models the researcher is developing at PIK without these heat and CO2 buffers.

Actually, he was drawn to this topic by the high social relevance. “My diploma thesis was still about the theory of relativity and cosmology, but I wanted to dedicate my work to a topic that is not only scientifically interesting but also of benefit to the people.” After all, climate change is the biggest challenge for humankind in the 21st century.

He has a quiet office on the hill Telegrafenberg, a bit away from the bustling city center. Photos of cloud formations, ice lumps in the Arctic Ocean, beaches, and landscapes are on the walls. Taking photos, dancing salsa, kayaking, and swimming are ways to balance out his academic working day, which he usually spends at his desk. Analyzing data, programming mathematical models, answering e-mails, drafting conference papers and academic publications – climate research mainly happens at the computer. Besides his work as a researcher Rahmstorf still finds the time to engage with the public. He is one of the initiators and author of two climate blogs – RealClimate and KlimaLounge. He writes columns for environmental magazines and articles for the daily press. He has also authored several books about climate change. In 2011 the children’s book “Wolken, Wind & Wetter” was published – a book close to his heart and his favorite publication, he says. “As a child I was thrilled by popular natural science books. I would like to pass that on.”

In his professional life Rahmstorf is not only dealing with data, analyses and models. Sometimes he must also deal with his fellow men, perhaps more than scientists in other fields. “There is a small but very vociferous sector of society who aggressively rejects the findings of climate research, sometimes using personal attacks and even physical threats,” Rahmstorf explains. “You simply have to get a thick skin.” By now he has become relaxed about it and puts these inconveniences into perspective with a historical example. “Compared to the problems Galileo Galilei had because he stood up for his research results, these things are negligible.”

Nevertheless: Does it not sometimes drive him to despair when political and economic stakeholders and the public do not recognize the urgency of the topic, if one climate summit after another goes by without significant results and valuable time seeps away? “The so-called skeptics have succeeded – with great financial support – in delaying important climate protection measures. That does not affect me so much as a scientist but it will have serious consequences for humankind,” Rahmstorf clarifies, who lives without a car and with solar panels on his roof. “We risk to slide into a world of massive conflicts if droughts and crop failures cause hunger crises and large-scale migration that will eclipse by far what we are experiencing now.”

Rahmstorf is looking optimistically into the future though. “Surveys show that the majority of people consider climate change a serious problem, at least in Europe.” The full implications and urgency, however, have not reached them yet. The problem is not for a lack of accessible facts but results from other reasons. Climate change slowly creeps up. There is not just one clear perpetrator, and the problem seems to be so big that many people feel helpless.

Solutions to climate problem are already available but hampered by economic and power interests, the researcher emphasizes. He sees the upcoming climate summit in Paris in December as a potential turning point. “There are many positive signs, for example that the USA and China came to an agreement. The International Energy Agency, the World Bank, and also the Pope have issued clear statements in favor of phasing out coal. The conditions for reaching a successful climate agreement are much better than in 2009, but there are only a few years left to change course and turn around the trend in global emissions.”

Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research

At the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) on Potsdam’s Telegrafenberg, researchers in the natural and social sciences from all over the world work closely together to study global climate change and its impact on ecological, economic, and social systems. They examine the Earth system’s capacity for withstanding human interventions and devise strategies and options for a sustainable development of humankind and nature. The Institute is organized in four research domains: Earth System Analysis, Climate Impacts & Vulnerabilities, Sustainable Solutions, and Transdisciplinary Concepts & Methods. PIK is part of a global network of research and academic institutions dealing with global environmental changes. It plays an active role in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) of the United Nations.

Text: Heine Kampe, Translation: Susanne Voigt
Online-Editing: Agnes Bressa
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