“Many climate scientists still have not woken up to the fact that nothing is being done to stop a catastrophic outcome”
Dr Wolfgang Knorr
Above left: Greta Thunberg,
the Swedish activist who sparked school climate strikes around the world
Above right: XR protesters demand climate justice
Right: Dr Wolfgang Knorr, climate scientist and activist
Peters also highlights the need for her fellow students and academics to do more. Her medical degree offers an optional module in sustainable healthcare, a rapidly expanding field, yet only four of 150 students have chosen to take the module. She is concerned that awareness of the real-world implications of climate change is low even among her student peers and that there is a certain level of passivity. “We would be shocked if doctors did not know how to manage epidemics of infectious diseases or how to minimise their occurrence – why should it be any different for the much greater health threat posed by the climate crisis?”
OFFERING ADVICE AND EXPERTISE Climate scientist Dr Wolfgang Knorr has recently decided to move away from academic research to commit more of his time, skill and knowledge to fight the climate crisis in different ways, including advising activist groups such as XR.
After initially working in theoretical physics, Knorr moved to climate science in the early 1990s. His research has looked at atmospheric CO2 and how plants and soils are influenced by changing atmospheric conditions, how the climate is changed by land vegetation and how forests could play a part in stopping the rise in CO2. While still retaining a visiting scientist position at Lund University, Sweden, Knorr now acts as an adviser to XR on the interpretation of scientific research, such as the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.
“What scientists tend to overrate is our own knowledge,” says Knorr. “Climate scientists, in particular the IPCC, base their decisions around climate models that show results with gradual transition to some warmer climate state.” The reality of climate change could be very different, he adds, with “a catastrophe arising from something unexpected that has never been thought about before, marked by big, disruptive changes, such as the recent pandemic, or a similarly unexpected insect pest outbreak that destroys crops”.
For Knorr, it was “outrage at the inability of the establishment to come up with viable solutions” and governments “outright denying the existence of a problem, playing it down or engaging in initiatives they know will be inadequate” that led him to join groups taking direct action. He believes that many climate scientists still “have not woken up to the fact that nothing is being done to stop a catastrophic outcome”.
Knorr stresses that this includes threats to human systems and points to the current coronavirus crisis.
“If climate change leads to a lasting deterioration of the world’s food supply and questions of inequality are not addressed, the number of malnourished [and vulnerable people] could skyrocket.” The next pandemic could be an even bigger threat to humanity if nothing is done to mitigate the effects of climate change, he says.
ACTIVISM AND OBJECTIVITY
One reason that many scientists are reluctant to publicly campaign for or align with activist groups is
20 / The Biologist / Vol 67 No 3