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Created on 03.05.2021

Climate crisis: “We know so much, and yet we’re doing far too little”

Reto Knutti is one of the best-known climate scientists in Switzerland. In our interview with him, he shows us where we can have the greatest impact as individuals as far as sustainable living is concerned, and why, in addition to facts, we above all else need real-life stories to get society to act.

What climate change factors concern you the most?

This all depends on your perspective: from a Swiss point of view, it’s the rising number of heat waves, heavy rainfall and dry summers, the decrease in snowfall and the melting of glaciers. If we look at the global impact, then it’s the rise in sea levels and the melting of vast parts of Greenland and Antarctica. If I then interpret “Climate change factors” more broadly, we’re looking at the inability of society and politics to respond to these factors and take them seriously, and to act accordingly. We know so much, and yet we’re still doing almost nothing. Or, to put it another way: transforming what we know into actions is easier said than done.

What would help us transform what we know into actions?

We need technological advances that really work, are exciting and better than what preceded them. Take cars, for instance: for people to buy an electric car, it needs to be superior to a conventional car. We then need some sort of guidance, be it in the form of rules, economic incentives, or a combination of the two. We also need to be prepared to recognize the climate crisis as a real crisis, and to act with the urgency required, just as the activist Greta Thunberg is calling for. And ultimately, we need real-life stories that people can identify with. The Fridays for Future movement is a good example of a story that has really captured people’s imagination. Because, at the end of the day, climate change figures alone can only go so far.


The numbers are of course important. They provide the framework we need to grasp the problem at hand. We can use the numbers from climate research to show the impact of the climate crisis, and the potential solutions there might be. But we can only do so much with figures alone. Society needs to come up with visions and to show what the future of Switzerland and the world might look like. This is a process of which the numbers are only a part. 

Exactly how important is each person’s contribution towards reducing CO2 emissions?

The way to solve a collective problem is always through a host of smaller contributions. Everyone should and indeed can do their bit. We all make decisions on a daily basis about using resources: this could be what car we drive or whether we use a car at all, how we eat, and where we go on holiday. As such, we can exert a lot of influence ourselves.

Where do we have the most potential as individuals to contribute towards reducing CO2 emissions?

Our goal must be net zero. If our ultimate goal is to emit no greenhouse gases whatsoever, then absolutely everyone everywhere must reach net zero. Yet there are areas that will have a bigger impact than others, for instance road transport. In Switzerland, this sector generates 26 % of all greenhouse gases, the majority of these caused by leisure travel involving private vehicles. A person can make a significant contribution either by driving less, or at the very least by using a smaller, lighter vehicle or electric vehicle, and the same is true for flying, which accounts for a further 20 % of Switzerland’s total greenhouse gas emissions. We can see how high this proportion is by looking at the global average, which is about 3 %. This can be attributed to the wealth in Switzerland and the associated desire to travel. A return trip to Australia roughly equates to the total greenhouse gas emissions of a Swiss person for the whole year. You can expect to double your carbon footprint with a flight like this, or to halve it if you do away with it. There is more potential for cutting down on emissions if we look at replacing oil-fired heating systems – if this is something you have a say over as homeowner – or if we consider reducing our consumption of meat and other animal-based products. But here’s the crucial point: we cannot leave absolutely everything to personal responsibility.

Why is personal responsibility alone not enough?

When it comes to the environment, we have never solved a problem by leaving it up to the individuals themselves, be it a problem of sewage, air quality or the hole in the ozone. We can only solve problems if there are clear rules that apply to everyone. The coronavirus crisis is a good example of this: we needed a rule that made wearing a mask mandatory.  

On the coronavirus crisis: what is its impact on the climate?

The direct impact on the climate is negligible because industrial production and various other processes that emit CO2  have continued operating as normal. If the coronavirus crisis has taught us anything, perhaps it’s that we finally realize a crisis should be treated as a crisis, and that it needs to be given the urgency it deserves. Swiss mediocrity is not enough to tackle a crisis.

Why did you become a climate scientist?

By chance. I studied physics at university and decided to get into computer modelling. I’ve also always been fascinated by the weather and the environment – I did grow up in the mountains, after all! This ultimately led me to write my thesis on climate research, and I’ve kept up my work in this field ever since. In other words, I wasn’t a climate activist who became a climate scientist to save the world. I’ve only become publicly known during the past few years. I’ve worked on many different international climate reports, and it’s been dawning on me that talking about plain numbers isn’t enough. What we really need to do with these numbers is put them all together and interpret what they mean. The climate is not just a question of physical and chemical processes, it also needs to be viewed in the general context with all the legal, economic, psychological and political dimensions involved. This is why I started to campaign. We need some voices that can put the figures from climate research into context and convey them to the public.

How important is it for the current climate change movement to continue?

I don’t know whether they need to carry on with the climate strike in the way they are now. But what is certain is that it’s thanks to the younger generation that the issue has suddenly now gained traction in economics and politics, and more and more people are saying: “Something needs to happen now.” The climate change movement has also caused many people to want to actively help shape the future. This potential should definitely not be allowed to go to waste. 

How much longer do we have to change course?

We need to do as much as we possibly can, as soon as we possibly can. Every year counts, every tonne counts, every tenth of a degree counts. The Paris Agreement climate objectives give us a solid framework here: we need to halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 and to reach net zero by 2050. This means a revolution in the global energy system over the course of the next 30 years. This is a challenge we need to tackle head-on, and we need to do it now.

Reto Knutti
Photo: Manuel Rickenbacher

The link will open in a new window Reto Knutti is a professor in climate physics at the ETH Zurich, and one of the best-known climate scientists in Switzerland. He is the co-author of several national and international climate reports.

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