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Heidelberg’s Designated Rector Professor Bernhard Eitel about Climate Change

”We won’t get around that one; we are already in the middle of it“

It is not only since ”Heiligendamm“ that the serious threat of climate change has been on our doorsteps, some of us feel it literally on our skin. Is a climate catastrophe imminent? Or is global warming part just one of the regular ups and downs in temperature that have occurred at regular intervals on this planet for millions of years? On the occasion of the current discussion about climate protection we interviewed earth scientist Professor Bernhard Eitel, the designated rector of the University of Heidelberg.

Professor Eitel, do we have to be afraid of global warming?

”There are going to be winners and losers here. In the Arctic everything is getting warmer, whereas in the dry areas of this planet everything is getting more humid. This can also have positive effects for some people. The rise in sea levels especially affects the coastal areas and islands.“

Who benefits from this exactly?

”Well, one of the beneficiaries are areas in the north where agriculture has not been possible before. On the other hand, the benefits for these areas go hand in hand with problems like the influx of new insects and disease agents. “

Aren't warmer times also good times for us Europeans?

”For agriculture this may certainly be true. But when the Alpine glaciers no longer supply the rivers with water, then serious shortages will be the result. Of course, humanity has to adapt and we will have to change our behaviour. Personally, I do not fear global warming. I think the adaptation processes are going to be the bigger challenge. But most importantly, we will not be able to get around it; we are already in the middle of it.“

In the past there have often been climate fluctuations on Earth. During the Pliocene, four million years ago, the earth's temperature was, on average, 3 degrees higher.

”We can’t be sure about that. About 7,000 years ago, when people started to settle and the differentiation between cultures picked up speed, the Earth's temperature was also about 1.5 - 2 degrees warmer than it is today. It was warm and humid. An Atlantic climate of this nature may be in store for us again in Central Europe. That would mean warmer winters and more insect plagues. The eco-system will adapt to the climate and we humans will do the same.“

Where did those climate fluctuations come from during the past millions of years?

”Mostly they were caused by astronomical effects. The radial movement of the Earth in its orbit around the Sun led to phases of differing solar radiation. At the moment we are in the middle of another warm phase but heading for the next cold phase in approximately 10,000 years.“

What does that mean?

”We will have a tundra in Central Europe again, with glaciers all the way into the Alpine foothills.“

What happens if the greenhouse effect is not reduced?

”If the global climate rises by more than eight degrees, there is the risk of triggering new processes and changing the climate system fundamentally. But not even worst-case scenarios expect that to happen. The human species itself is not in danger in any of these scenarios. But minor temperature rises can drastically alter regional man-and-nature systems with all the adaptation processes and consequences that involves, including migration.“

What factors can influence the greenhouse effect?

”Carbon dioxide is not only released, it is also absorbed again by the sea or by plants. In fact, methane influences the greenhouse effect a lot more than carbon dioxide. For example, it forms when permafrost soil starts to thaw and humus — for example in wet rice fields — does not decompose properly due to anaerobic conditions. Large amounts of it are also produced in the field of animal husbandry. And last but not least, it is the huge population of the Earth that exacerbates the greenhouse effect.“

How bad is climate change really going to be for us?

”We Germans will be faced by the more indirect consequences. The problems our foreign markets will be confronted with in countries affected more severely by climate change will affect us as well – including the possibility of migration. Climate change is a global phenomenon and its consequences are going to affect us all. We will all have to adapt to these new environmental conditions. So for reasons of self-preservation alone it is our duty to reduce man-made global warming to a minimum.“
Birgit Sommer
(c) Rhein-Neckar-Zeitung

Please address any inquiries to:
Dr. Michael Schwarz
Public Information Officer
University of Heidelberg
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317

Irene Thewalt
phone: 06221/542310, fax: 542317
Editor: Email
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