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'The Americans think too short-term'

Barack Obama wants to do more for the climate. But can he? The energy lobby is strong, the population disinterested. In an interview with DW, Meteorologist and climate researcher Mojib Latif offers a few tips.

Portrait of German meteorologist and climate researcher Mojib Latif in front of globe. Der Klimaforscher Mojib Latif steht vor einer Weltkugel (undatiertes Handout). Das ZDF widmet sich in seiner neuesten Dokumentation der «Terra X»-Reihe der Urgewalt des Wetters. «Wilder Planet: Mit Feuer und Flut» heißt der Beitrag, der an diesem Sonntag (05.07.2009) um 19.30 Uhr ausgestrahlt wird. Anhand echter Wetterphänomene wird in der Dokumentation ein Katastrophenszenario entwickelt: Einzelne Unwetter und extreme Ereignisse reihen sich derart aneinander und überlagern sich, dass sie innerhalb einiger Monate «unsere Zivilisation in ein Megadesaster von kontinentalem Ausmaß stürzen können», wie das ZDF dazu schreibt. (zu dpa 0321 vom 02.07.2009) ACHTUNG: Verwendung nur im Zusammenhang mit der Berichterstattung über diese Sendung und mit Urhebernennung Foto: ZDF/Bertram Kropac +++(c) dpa - Report+++

Metereologist Mojib Latif

DW: Mr. Latif, do you take Obama's climate speech seriously?

Mojib Latif: It's good that one of the biggest politicians of our time is addressing the climate problem. But I'm skeptical that he can actually enforce anything major. I believe it's a genuine concern of his, but I fear the reality of politics won't offer him the chance.

Why is the issue of climate change and climate protection so difficult to address in the US?

There are different reasons. First, the topic of climate change is not as publicly discussed in the US as it is here in Germany. In Germany, it's a subject that moves people. In the US, it moves people less. Right now, things aren't going as well for the Americans, as they are for Germans, so the nations have very different interests.

Watch video 01:41

Obama: US to become leader in climate protection

In addition, there is a very large energy lobby in the US. They have a lot of coal and coal power plants. These produce the most CO2. The suggestion of structural change here, would likely be met with considerable resistance. But that's not only true in the US. Germany is happy to present itself as a champion of the climate, but if things got too serious - for example, if more stringent emissions standards were imposed on the auto industry - the German government would be beside itself.

Because the automobile lobby has a lot of influence on politics?

Exactly.

Then again lobbyists in Germany are somewhat more subtle than those in the US. There are quite strong movements in US which are working against climate protection.

That's correct. There is a latent hostility toward science in the US. Not only regarding the topic of climate, but also evolution. There are schools where Darwin's evolutionary theory is not even allowed to be taught. That's an unfortunate trend in the US. There are people who take more extreme positions in the US than you would find in Germany.

Steam rises from the US Capitol coal-fired power plant, which powers government offices in Washington, DC, USA on 08 December 2009. The US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) issued a landmark ruling Monday that greenhouse-gas emissions blamed for global warming represent a danger to public health and can be regulated under existing US laws. EPA/MATTHEW CAVANAUGH

Steam rises from a coal-fired plant, which powers US government offices in Washington

One of Obama's key messages was to reduce CO2 emissions from coal power plants. He didn't say how he wanted to do this. What are his options?

The latest generation of coal power plants produce considerably less CO2 than older coal power plants. In the US, however, there are still many old coal power plants, so there really is potential to reduce emissions. Americans are starting to tap into their remaining natural gas reserves, using a controversial method we call fracking. Nevertheless, natural gas has a better carbon dioxide balance per unit of energy than coal.

It would be extremely important to shift toward renewable energy. The Americans are blessed with options: they have space, they have deserts, they have lots of sun, they have lots of wind - they could do a lot. Unfortunately, the US has been very reluctant so far in that arena.

But renewable energy could be quite profitable.

Yes, but only in the long run, and that's the catch. At the moment, the US is only thinking of the short-term. They have some major economic problems, high unemployment and enormous national debt. These things are on the forefront. Long-term structural change isn't being discussed in the US, which leaves renewable energy in a bad position.

Without the US there is no way further the climate protection dialogue. We need dialogue with China as well, because they are the number one producer of CO2 emissions in the world. Mr. Latif, how is it possible to get these two countries politically active and engaged in climate protection?

BU= Abhängigkeit: Statistisch betrachtet geht in China jede Woche ein neues Kohlekraftwerk ans Netz. Die klimaschädliche Kohle bleibt, trotz aller Wachstumsraten der Erneuerbaren, Chinas wichtigste Energiequelle ------------------------------------------------------------ Arbeiter schaufeln am 30. Nov. 2007 Kohle vor einem Kohlekraftwerk im Bezirk Xiahuayuan, noerdliche chinesische Hebei Provinz. Klimawandel schreitet schneller voran als befuerchtet. Der Leiter des Potsdam-Instituts fuer Klimafolgenforschung, Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, sagte am Donnerstag, 9. Okt. 2008, in diesem Jahrhundert wuerde der Meeresspiegel voraussichtlich sogar um einen Meter ansteigen: Die Situation ist dramatischer als vor drei Jahren. (ddp images/AP Photo/Oded Balilty, File) --- **FILE** In this Nov. 30, 2007 file photo, backdropped by cooling towers of a power plant and chemical factory, miners shovel coal at a mine in Xiahuayuan county, north China's Hebei province. (ddp images/AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

Latif says industrialized nations have shifted production to China and are also responsible for the country's emissions output

Of course China is the largest emitter of CO2. But for the industrialized nations are responsible for the carbon dioxide in the air. Not the Chinese, the Indians or the Koreans. In this respect, the industrialized nations have a historical responsibility.

Therefore Obama's climate commitment is significant. What we need now is for it to be followed by action. Especially considering that China's CO2 emissions are not produced only by the Chinese. We have relocated a lot of production to China, so we can't say that the Chinese are the only ones responsible for those emissions.

We need to build trust in order to make progress. We must accommodate the Chinese during climate talks - this will already put us another step forward.

You said that Obama's commitment must be followed by action. If you were his adviser on climate change, what would you recommend?

I would take a look at where the greatest potential is. On the one hand, that would be the energy industry. I would try to modernize the equipment, which would reduce a large amount of CO2 production. Then I would initiate an efficiency initiative. Because Americans waste energy without end. That would be economically important, but also good for the climate. Thinking longterm, the US should establish a framework which fosters the development of renewable energies.

Prof. Mojib Latif is a meteorologist and climate scientist. He works at the Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany.

Interview conducted by Judith Hartl

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