'I Feel Duped on Climate Change'
02/08/2012 10:35 AM
Breaking Global Warming Taboos
'I Feel Duped on Climate Change'
Will reduced solar activity counteract global warming in the coming decades? That is what outgoing German electric utility executive Fritz Vahrenholt claims in a new book. In an interview with SPIEGEL, he argues that the official United Nations forecasts on the severity of climate change are overstated and supported by weak science.
The articulate utility executive is nervous at the beginning of the conversation. He is groping for words -- not a common occurrence for the practiced provocateur. After all, Fritz Vahrenholt, 62, who holds a doctorate in chemistry, has been a rebel throughout his life. "Perhaps it's just part of my generation," he says.
He is typical of someone who came of age during the student protest movement of the late 1960s, and who fought against the chemical industry's toxic manufacturing plants in the 1970s. His party, Germany's center-left Social Democratic Party (SPD), chose him as environment senator in the city-state of Hamburg, where he incurred the wrath of the environmental lobby by building a waste incineration plant, earning him the nickname "Feuerfritze" (Fire Fritz). He worked in industry after that, first for oil multinational Shell and then for wind turbine maker RePower, which he helped develop. Now, as the outgoing CEO of the renewable energy group RWE Innogy, he is about to embark on his next major battle. "I'm going to make enemies in all camps," he says.
He wants to break a taboo. "The climate catastrophe is not occurring," he writes in his book "Die Kalte Sonne" (The Cold Sun), published by Hoffmann and Campe, which will be in bookstores next week.
He has only given the book to one climatologist, Jochem Marotzke, the director of the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, to read prior to its publication. Marotzke's assessment is clear: Vahrenholt represents the standpoints of climate skeptics. "A number of the hypotheses in the book were refuted long ago," Marotzke claims, but adds, on a self-critical note, that his profession has neglected to explain that global temperatures will not increase uniformly. Instead, says Marotzke, there could also be phases of stagnation and even minor declines in temperature. "This has exposed us to potential criticism," he says.
While books by climate heretics usually receive little attention, it could be different in Vahrenholt's case. "His fame," says Marotzke, "will ensure that there will be a debate on the issue."
The book is a source of discomfort within Vahrenholt's party. No one with the SPD leadership is willing to comment on the theories of their prominent fellow party member, from former Environment Minister and current SPD Chairman Sigmar Gabriel to parliamentary floor leader Frank-Walter Steinmeier, who was given an advance copy of the book.
A lecture Vahrenholt was scheduled to give at the University of Osnabrück in northwestern Germany was recently cancelled.
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vahrenholt, in the week before last, you made the surprising announcement that you are resigning as head of RWE Innogy. And now your book "Die Kalte Sonne," in which you deny the climate catastrophe, is appearing. Were you forced to step down because your ideas could damage RWE's new green image?
Vahrenholt: No. My contract would have expired at the end of the year, anyway. Besides, I will continue to be a member of the company's supervisory board for another three years.
SPIEGEL: How have your fellow executives responded to your provocative prediction that it will get colder instead of warmer in the coming decades?
Vahrenholt: This is not an RWE book. Aside from CEO Jürgen Grossmann, I didn't give an advance copy to anyone in the company. Grossmann, at any rate, found it so engrossing that he read the entire book in one night.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, your precipitous withdrawal from RWE management is reminiscent of the scandal surrounding Thilo Sarrazin, who was forced to resign from the board of Germany's central bank in 2010 following the publication of his controversial book on immigration and integration.
Vahrenholt: This isn't a precipitous withdrawal. Besides, I don't need Thilo Sarrazin as a role model. I also didn't need a role model when I drew attention to risks in the chemical industry in my 1978 book "Seveso ist überall" (ed's. note: Seveso is Everywhere -- a reference to the infamous Seveso chemical spill in 1976 in Italy). Today, I want new scientific findings to be included in the climate debate. It would then become clear that the simple equation that CO2 and other man-made greenhouse gases are almost exclusively responsible for climate change is unsustainable. It hasn't gotten any warmer on this planet in almost 14 years, despite continued increases in CO2 emissions. Established climate science has to come up with an answer to that.
SPIEGEL: You are an electric utility executive by profession. What prompted you to get involved in climatology?
Vahrenholt: In my experience as an energy expert, I learned that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is more of a political than a scientific body. As a rapporteur on renewable energy, I witnessed how thin the factual basis is for predictions that are made at the IPCC. In one case, a Greenpeace activist's absurd claim that 80 percent of the world's energy supply could soon be coming from renewable sources was assumed without scrutiny. This prompted me to examine the IPCC report more carefully.
SPIEGEL: And what was your conclusion?
Vahrenholt: The long version of the IPCC report does mention natural causes of climate change, like the sun and oscillating ocean currents. But they no longer appear in the summary for politicians. They were simply edited out. To this day, many decision-makers don't know that new studies have seriously questioned the dominance of CO2. CO2 alone will never cause a warming of more than 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) by the end of the century. Only with the help of supposed amplification effects, especially water vapor, do the computers arrive at a drastic temperature increase. I say that global warming will remain below two degrees by the end of the century. This is an eminently political message, but it's also good news.
SPIEGEL: You make concrete statements on how much human activity contributes to climatic events and how much of a role natural factors play. Why don't you publish your prognoses in a professional journal?
Vahrenholt: Because I don't engage in my own climate research. Besides, I don't have a supercomputer in my basement. For the most part, my co-author, geologist Sebastian Lüning, and I merely summarize what scientists have published in professional journals -- just as the IPCC does. The book is also a platform for scientists who apply good arguments in diverging from the views of the IPCC. The established climate models have failed across the board because they cannot cogently explain the absence of warming.
SPIEGEL: You claim that the standstill has to do with the sun. What makes you so sure?
Vahrenholt: In terms of the climate, we have seen a cyclical up and down for the last 7,000 years, long before man began emitting CO2 into the atmosphere. There has been a warming phase every 1,000 years, including the Roman, the Medieval and the current warm periods. All of these warm periods consistently coincided with strong solar activity. In addition to this large fluctuation in activity, there is also a 210-year and an 87-year natural cycle of the sun. Ignoring these would be a serious mistake …
SPIEGEL: … but solar researchers are still in disagreement over whether the cycles you mention actually exist. What do you think this means for the future?
Vahrenholt: In the second half of the 20th century, the sun was more active than it had been in more than 2,000 years. This "large solar maximum," as astronomers call it, has contributed at least as much to global warming as the greenhouse gas CO2. But the sun has been getting weaker since 2005, and it will continue to do so in the next few decades. Consequently, we can only expect cooling from the sun for now.
SPIEGEL: It is undisputed that fluctuations in solar activity can influence the climate. Most experts assume that an unusually long solar minimum, evidenced by the very small number of sunspots at the time, led to the "Little Ice Age" that began in 1645. There were many severe winters at the time, with rivers freezing over. However, astrophysicists still don't know the extent to which solar fluctuations actually affect temperatures.
Vahrenholt: Many scientists assume that the temperature changes by more than 1 degree Celsius for the 1,000-year cycle and by up to 0.7 degrees Celsius for the smaller cycles. Climatologists should be putting a far greater effort into finding ways to more accurately determine the effects of the sun on climate. For the IPCC and the politicians it influences, CO2 is practically the only factor. The importance of the sun for the climate is systematically underestimated, and the importance of CO2 is systematically overestimated. As a result, all climate predictions are based on the wrong underlying facts.
SPIEGEL: But you are doing exactly what you criticize climatologists of doing: Using a thin body of data, you make exact predictions. In your book, you estimate the sun's influence on the climate down to the last 0.1 degrees. No one can do that.
'Dozens of Solar Researchers Agree with Me'
Vahrenholt: I don't claim that I know precisely whether the sun is responsible for a 40, 50 or 60 percent share of global warming. But it's nonsense for the IPCC to claim that the sun has nothing to do with it.
SPIEGEL: On balance, you predict a global cooling of 0.2 to 0.3 degrees Celsius by 2035. Why such a risky prediction?
Vahrenholt: If you want to revitalize the deadlocked debate, you have to have the courage to name a number. And we derive this number from scientific studies on climate history to date.
SPIEGEL: So your contention that we are wrong about global warming is merely a provocation?
Vahrenholt: No. I mean it very seriously, and I know that dozens of solar researchers agree with me. I am perfectly aware of the defamation I will have to listen to in the near future. The climate debate also has some of the trappings of an inquisition. I'm curious to see which truth ministry will now initiate proceedings against me. Perhaps it'll be the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which is headed by Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, an adviser to the chancellor.
SPIEGEL: You claim that the standstill in global warming since 2000 has been caused in large part by a simultaneous decline in solar activity. But, in fact, the sun behaved relatively normally until the middle of the century, only becoming noticeably quieter after that. How does this fit together?
Vahrenholt: There are two effects: the declining solar activity, as well as the fluctuations in ocean currents, such as the 60-year Pacific oscillation, which was in a positive warm phase from 1977 to 2000 and, since 2000, has led to cooling as a result of its decline. Their contribution to the change in temperature has also been wrongly attributed to CO2. Most of all, however, the last sunspot cycle was weaker than the one before it. This is why the sun's magnetic field has continued to weaken since 2000. As a result, this magnetic field doesn't shield us against cosmic radiation quite as well, which in turn leads to stronger cloud formation and, therefore, cooling. What else has to happen before the IPCC at least mentions these relationships in its reports?
SPIEGEL: What you neglect to mention is that it hasn't been proven yet that cosmic radiation, which is shielded by the sun at varying degrees of effectiveness, truly leads to more cooling clouds on Earth. So far, it is only a hypothesis.
Vahrenholt: It's more than that. The Cloud Experiment, headed by physicist Jasper Kirkby, has been underway at the CERN particle research center near Geneva since 2006. The initial results of tests conducted in a chamber in which the earth's atmosphere was simulated showed that cosmic particles do indeed lead to the formation of aerosol particles for clouds.
SPIEGEL: But the aerosols demonstrated in the Cloud Experiment are much too small. They would have to grow before they could actually serve as condensation germs for clouds. Whether this happens in nature is still an open question. You present this as a fact.
Vahrenholt: You will find many correlations between cloud cover and cosmic radiation in the book. I'd like to know why the IPCC doesn't thoroughly examine this mechanism. My guess is that the answer to this question would jeopardize the entire foundation of the IPCC predictions.
SPIEGEL: Nevertheless, you should be more careful with prognoses on future solar activity. In 2009, US scientists predicted that there would be no sunspots for years. In fact, they returned in 2010. The truth is that we are experiencing rather normal solar activity at the moment.
Vahrenholt: The solar cycle is everything but normal. NASA scientists predict that this cycle will indeed be the weakest of the last 80 years. Not only did it start two years too late, but it's also very weak. And, besides, you can't just count sunspots. Cosmic particles continue to rain down on us because the sun's magnetic field is hardly shielding us.
SPIEGEL: It's true that there will be a large solar minimum sometime in the next 500 years. But no one knows exactly when. The probability that this will occur in the next 40 years is less than 10 percent. But, in your book, you predict: "It is clear that the sun will be responsible for colder periods in the first half of this century." Do you know more than all astrophysicists combined?
Vahrenholt: The probability of a large solar minimum, as it occurred during the Little Ice Age, is indeed less than 10 percent. But we are at the beginning of a lighter decline in solar activity of the kind we see every 87 and every 210 years. I've spoken with many solar physicists who expect this to happen.
SPIEGEL: We know many other solar scientists who question this. Another maximum is just as statistically likely as a minimum. Predicting what the sun will do in the coming decades borders on fortune-telling.
Vahrenholt: I know only one German solar scientist who has expressed such doubt. Various American and British solar research groups believe that weak solar cycles are ahead. I take this seriously and expect only cooling from the sun until 2050.
SPIEGEL: And what will you do if temperatures continue to rise, after all?
Vahrenholt: Then I'll give SPIEGEL an interview in 2020 and publicly admit that I've made a mistake. But I'm convinced that it won't be necessary.
SPIEGEL: Do you seriously believe that all 2,000 scientists involved in the IPCC are deluded or staying true to the official line?
Vahrenholt: It's not like that. However, I am critical of the role played by the handful of lead authors who take on the final editing of the report. They claim that they are using 18,000 publications evaluated by their peers. But 5,000 of them are so-called gray literature, which are not peer-reviewed sources. These mistakes come out in the end, just like the absurd claim that there will no longer be any glaciers in the Himalayas in 30 years. Such exaggerations don't surprise me. Of the 34 supposedly independent members who write the synthesis report for politicians, almost a third are associated with environmental organizations like Greenpeace or the WWF. Strange, isn't it?
SPIEGEL: Why are you taking on the role of the climate rebel with such passion? Where does this rage come from?
Vahrenholt: For years, I disseminated the hypotheses of the IPCC, and I feel duped. Renewable energy is near and dear to me, and I've been fighting for its expansion for more than 30 years. My concern is that if citizens discover that the people who warn of a climate disaster are only telling half the truth, they will no longer be prepared to pay higher electricity costs for wind and solar (energy). Then the conversion of our energy supply will lack the necessary acceptance.
SPIEGEL: If we take your book to its logical conclusion, it will be unnecessary to reduce CO2 emissions at all.
Vahrenholt: No. Even a temperature increase of only one degree would be a noticeable change. But I am indeed saying that climate change is manageable because the cooling effects of the sun and the ocean currents give us enough time to prepare. In any case, it will be easy for us in Germany to adjust.
SPIEGEL: So, is it a mistake to concentrate exclusively on the reduction of carbon dioxide?
Vahrenholt: Yes. In addition to carbon dioxide, we also have black soot, for example. It creates 55 percent of the warming effect of CO2, but it could be filtered out with little effort within a few years, especially in emerging and developing countries. And, in doing so, we would achieve huge benefits for human health.
SPIEGEL: Would the expansion of wind energy have proceeded as quickly without concerns over the climate?
Vahrenholt: It was a driving force. But it was mainly engineering skills that brought wind energy to a profitable level. Again, I want us to continue stressing renewable energy, which we have to make competitive. I just think that we should proceed sensibly: Wind power and biomass are fine in Germany, but no solar panels, please! They're better off in Africa and southern Europe. It's crazy to install 50 percent of worldwide solar panels in "Solar Country Germany" for fear of the supposed climate disaster and to spend €8 billion ($10.4 billion) a year on it!
SPIEGEL: But aren't you shooting yourself in the foot when you say that climate change isn't really that bad? How do you intend to keep justifying emissions trading if you feel that greenhouse gases are irrelevant?
Vahrenholt: All I'm saying is that CO2 is a climate gas, but that its effect is only half as strong as the IPCC claims. Nevertheless, we still have to reduce CO2 emissions through worldwide emissions trading. And there are also other reasons to burn fewer fossil fuels. We don't have that much coal, oil and gas left in the world, so we have to economize more. We also have to become less dependent on imports from totalitarian countries.
SPIEGEL: Surveys show that fear of the climate catastrophe has declined. Are you preaching to the choir with your all-clear?
Vahrenholt: The fear mongers are still shaping the political debate. According to the German Advisory Council on Global Change, environmentally minded countries should forcibly bring about reduced consumption for the sake of protecting the climate. This takes us in the direction of an environmental dictatorship. And the fearmongering is also beginning to take effect. When I was in a restaurant recently, I overheard a woman at the next table telling her children that it's wrong to eat an Argentine steak -- because of the climate. That's when I ask myself: How could we have come to this point?
SPIEGEL: Mr. Vahrenholt, thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Olaf Stampf and Gerald Traufetter and translated from the German by Christopher Sultan
Related SPIEGEL ONLINE links:
* Emissions Scheme Dispute: China Bans Airlines from Paying EU Carbon Tax (02/06/2012)
* Solar Subsidy Sinkhole: Re-Evaluating Germany's Blind Faith in the Sun (01/18/2012)
* Leading German Climate Expert: 'Kyoto Has Only Carrots and No Sticks' (12/15/2011)
* The Stench of Money: Canada's Environment Succumbs to Oil Sands (10/14/2011)
* The Geopolitics of Climate Change: Will China Become the Green Superpower? (12/09/2011)