“We mustn’t focus solely on apocalyptic scenarios”
What the coronavirus pandemic has in common with climate change, how science communication should respond – and what opportunities are now emerging for the research community. Part two of the conversation between science journalist Ranga Yogeshwar and Helmholtz President Otmar D. Wiestler.
Mr. Yogeshwar, will the interest in science persist when the coronavirus pandemic is over?
Ranga Yogeshwar: I’m going to go out on a limb and say that, as soon as the crisis is over, interest in epidemiology and virology will drop to almost zero. I’m not clinging to the hope that some people will have gotten hooked and will stick with it. We’re currently experiencing an acute problem, and as soon as it’s solved with the help of science, interest will rapidly fall away.
But a second, very dangerous problem is lurking in the background – the climate crisis...
Otmar Wiestler: ... I see parallels between the coronavirus and climate change. Just as the pandemic can ultimately only be overcome through ingenuity – I’m referring to the breathtakingly fast development of vaccines –, we’re also dependent on innovations to slow down climate change. I’m thinking, for example, of new energy systems, the way we’ll get around in the future, and how we can ensure our security of supply. But when it comes to climate change, we’re talking about an issue of a very different magnitude and a very different timescale from the coronavirus...
Ranga Yogeshwar: … climate change is coronavirus XXL…
Otmar Wiestler: … Everyone sees the coronavirus as a direct threat, whereas many people still believe that climate change won’t be all that bad.
Ranga Yogeshwar: That’s why I would like to see a clear statement from the scientific community. Let's remember: back in 2013, the scientific community published a report warning of the threat posed by particular viruses. Nobody listened to it. I think it’s time to say: Listen, folks, we warned you about the pandemic and you ignored us. Now we’re telling you there’s a real threat from climate change. So please don’t make the same mistake – it’s finally time to take this seriously!
Otmar Wiestler: I completely agree. Climate change is also a great opportunity to put many areas of life on a new footing and bring about real innovations. It’s a subject that appeals enormously to the younger generation. We’re seeing this in the scientific community at Helmholtz – smart, dedicated young scientists are particularly committed to this topic.
Otmar D. Wiestler is President of the Helmholtz Association. The physician was previously the Director of the Institute of Neuropathology at the University Hospital of Bonn and Chairman of the Board of the German Cancer Research Center in Heidelberg.
Do you share this positive outlook, Mr. Yogeshwar?
Ranga Yogeshwar: Yes. If the coronavirus pandemic has shown us one thing, it’s this – when there’s an emergency, people are willing and able to change their behavior and take action against it. This is a lesson that also gives me hope for the issue of climate change.
During the pandemic, politicians and civil society sought out advice from scientists. Are you seeing any sign of this experience rubbing off on the subject of climate change?
Otmar Wiestler: No, I haven’t noticed that directly yet. But we have to become more active ourselves – by the way, I see this as a real shared task for science communication and science journalism. I definitely believe that, in the wake of the pandemic, many people are thinking differently about climate change; they’re sensing how advanced the problems already are.
That sounds very gloomy.
Otmar Wiestler: That’s an important point. We mustn’t focus solely on apocalyptic scenarios. There’s no disputing the fact that we need to send out a wake-up call, but we also need to emphasize that climate change offers us an opportunity to reshape our future. The scientific community definitely has to put the facts across even more persuasively and in a way that’s more relevant to its target audience – thereby gaining greater support from the general public.
Ranga Yogeshwar: I can only echo that point. Don’t forget that the Fridays for Future initiative had much more influence on climate change policy than scientific advice did. Politicians were virtually forced to respond to this solidarity between young people and scientists. We should consider who we actually need to target if we want to do something about climate change – and it’s not just policymakers, as we still tend to think. I’d also like to agree with Otmar Wiestler on another point.
Ranga Yogeshwar is Germany’s most well-known science journalist. A degree-educated physicist, he hosted the science show Quarks on the German television network WDR from 1993. He works as a presenter and author. Several of his popular science books have been bestsellers.
Which point is that?
Ranga Yogeshwar: Up until now, scientists have often been the bearers of bad news. With respect to the coronavirus, they’re the ones who say that the lockdown measures are not enough. On the subject of climate change, they warn that our world cannot continue as before. The death threats currently being received by virologists clearly show that they’re being identified with these messages...
Otmar Wiestler: ... but the opposite is true – the fact that a vaccine has been developed in such a short time is something we should really be celebrating!
Ranga Yogeshwar: And we have to take lessons from this for climate change. This term “climate change” has already lost its impact for many members of the public, who say, “You’ve been talking about this for decades now!” We need a new narrative: let’s make our lives better together! Incidentally, I see another connection to the coronavirus right there. The pandemic has made us realize that there are alternatives to our “business as usual.” I ask people about it when I give talks, and most of them tell me that they want to keep many of the changes – that they won’t drive to the office through endless traffic jams every day just to sit in front of a screen again. This will result in a dramatic reduction in mobility, which is why we now have a pretty strong advantage – we’re improving our quality of life and helping the climate in the process.
Mr. Wiestler, isn’t painting science as the bearer of good news just a PR ruse?
Otmar Wiestler: No crisis can be overcome without science, whether it be a pandemic or the climate crisis. I think it’s crucial that we offer a positive narrative that highlights not just the consequences of a crisis but also the opportunities it opens up. I see this as a major shared task for researchers, for communications experts, and for science journalists.