Hans Joachim Schellnhuber

Founding Director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK); since 1993 Director of PIK and Professor for Theoretical Physics at Potsdam University. 2001-2005 additional engagement as Research Director of the Tyndall Centre for Climate Change Research and Professor at the Environmental Sciences School of the University of East Anglia in Norwich (UK). Former visiting Professor in Physics and Visiting Fellow of Christ Church College at Oxford University as well as Distinguished Science Advisor for the Tyndall Centre.

Three Ways of Going Mad

In the agonizing times of the cold war, the logic of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD) fueled the arms race that brought humanity to the edge of annihilation. Striking parallels exist between the political situation then and the international climate change negotiations today. The United Nations Climate Conference (COP15) in Copenhagen in December 2009 can only be successful if the logic of MAD is turned upside down, transforming it into “mutually assured decarbonisation”. In a novel spirit of trust, each country needs to commit to the most ambitious targets and measures that are technologically and economically feasible, on the firm assumption that all other countries will do the same.

“Mutually assured destruction” was the prevailing doctrine of the US and USSR military strategies during most of the cold war. It was assumed that accumulating enough nuclear arms to be able to “overkill” the opposing side in a counterstrike would deter the enemy from starting an attack in the first place. However, the necessity to retain counterstrike capability resulted in a spiral of nuclear-weaponry build-up that brought about ever-increasing risks to all of humanity.

Driven by the short-sighted fear of economic losses and of declining competitive abilities, many developed countries today hold on to their carbon-intensive industrial metabolisms. For similar reasons, deforestation and other forms of non-sustainable land use continue unabated in many developing nations. If this logic is not broken, a comparable spiral of ever-accelerating carbon accumulation in the atmosphere will irreversibly damage the Earth System and threaten our civilization.

Of course, in contrast to the “well-ordered” bipolar world of the cold war, the climate change challenge must be tackled in a muddled-up, multi-polar constellation. In today’s world, all countries possess the “C-bomb”, i.e., the threat potential to deny cooperation and to stay on the path of fossil business-as-usual, with ultimately disastrous impacts on all of humanity. The peculiar causalities and time scales of climate change further complicate the task of convincing all countries of the mutual interest in fighting global warming. While during the arms race the fatal consequences of using any nuclear weapon were obvious to all nations, the complexity of the Earth System and the enormous time-lags between pollution and damage make it difficult to directly attribute emissions-induced effects to any single actor.

Despite these differences, lessons learned during the cold war may serve as guideposts to success in the international climate change negotiations. At a historic moment in October 1986, USSR Secretary–General Gorbachev met US President Reagan in Reykjavik, the capital of Iceland, to deliberate possible ways to end the arms race. The summit did not precipitate any immediate bilateral agreement and was initially regarded as a failure. However, in retrospect, the meeting can be considered as a crucial breakthrough, which eventually facilitated the first wide-ranging disarmament treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union: the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty signed in Washington in 1987.

The spiral of ever-growing nuclear arsenals would not have been halted without the extraordinary leadership of Gorbachev. He put into action the insight that all would gain if the myopic and self-centered strategies of confrontation between East and West were given up and replaced by a more cooperative mode of international policy operation. By way of analogy, the negotiations of a post-Kyoto climate regime require leadership and cooperation as quintessential ingredients.

Leadership of developed countries
Acknowledging their historic responsibility as well as their financial and technological capacities, developed countries must move first. They need to make a dual commitment, namely to adopt ambitious domestic emissions-reduction targets for the short and the long term on the one hand, and to support developing countries financially and technologically in their mitigation and adaptation efforts on the other. The yardstick for measuring the effectiveness of mitigation efforts should be a total carbon budget: If global warming is to be confined to less than 2 degrees Celsius with a probability of 75 percent, then the cumulative global carbon dioxide emissions must not exceed 700 gigatons between today and 2050. While a price on carbon needs to be established globally, direct incentives through technology sharing and financial support are essential to help developing countries leap-frog to low carbon economies. To establish widespread access to energy in developing countries without jeopardizing climate stabilization goals, the price of clean energy must be substantially reduced in these countries, possibly by global feed-in tariffs for renewables.

Leadership of developing countries
Loss and degradation of tropical forests, which considerably contribute to climate change, will not be stopped without the leadership of developing countries. Forest protection, conservation and restoration certainly require financial commitments of developed countries and a long-term global agreement through a forest protocol. However, developing countries need to take independent responsibility, establishing enforcement and verification procedures for ecosystem protection, assuring national governance structures that are robust and transparent, and implementing afforestation programmes according to their existing ability and capacity. Advanced developing countries should set an example by adopting policies of green growth, demonstrating that there is no conflict between poverty alleviation and climate protection.

Cooperative leaders
It has become overwhelmingly clear that a solution to the climate-change problem can only by found in a world where all are pioneers. This world can come true if each country decides autonomously on its climate protection strategy (within the wide guardrails of a global agreement), yet assuming that all other countries aim to be leaders in the transition towards a low-carbon economy as well. According to their specific national circumstances, different countries may strive for leadership in different sectors. However, the crucial assumption is that all will commit themselves to the strongest climate-protection actions which are economically and technologically feasible. Such a novel spirit of trust would optimally induce a global competition for the most innovative ways out of the carbon trap. In such a leadership race, the disastrous arms-race logic of “mutually assured destruction” (MAD1) would be turned on its head, transforming it into a new cooperative logic of “mutually assured decarbonisation” (MAD2).

Last but not least, the acronym MAD could gain an entirely new meaning. It is only in that world of “mutually assured decarbonisation” where the challenge of Mitigation, Adaptation and Development (MAD3) can be met!


This article is most friendly loaned to us by United Nations' Climate Thinkers Blog, and was originally published here:  Three Ways to go MAD