Dealing with our Climate
Dealing with our Climate
We’re standing by the observatory at the top of the Telegrafenberg (Telegraph Hill) in the German city of Potsdam. The neoclassical building towers over its surroundings. The hill is situated in the former German Democratic Republic, close to the place where the Berlin Wall once stood. Through the slight haze, we can make out the contours of Berlin and the smoking chimneys of power stations. To our right is another hill, the Teufelsberg, with an American listening post as a relic of the cold war. Successive kaisers developed the Telegraph Hill in the nineteenth century, building a community of leading scientists there. Karl Schwarzschild used the telescope to produce his star catalog, the first in the world, while in the basement of the same building some 30 years earlier, Albert Michelson had studied light, measuring its speed and identifying certain inexplicable characteristics in the process. Albert Einstein worked here, too, basing his special theory of relativity on Michelson’s discoveries. “Fundamental natural phenomena have been isolated at this place,” says Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, which now occupies the brow of the Telegraph Hill. “For many years, scientists have withdrawn to the quiet of this hill to develop their ideas. My task today is to reverse that movement: Rather than isolating it, we want to bring knowledge together. And instead of withdrawing from the world, we have to engage with it—to make clear to people just where our climate is headed.” Schellnhuber has thrown himself into that task with considerable verve. He has been discussing scientific issues with German chancellor Angela Merkel, for instance. He knows that his climate message is a complex one, which is why Schellnhuber avoids statistically detailed predictions and focuses instead on a number of crucial “tipping points.” “How much change can the earth sustain? Can we afford to allow the West African monsoon to collapse? Or the Himalayan glaciers to melt away? Will we be able to preserve the ice in the Antarctic? What happens if the Amazon rainforest disappears?”
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