Conducted in January 2015 in Vienna, Austria

Interview Transcript:

Vienna Jan 2 2015 - Professor Helga Kromp-Kolb

What is the role of the public in proposing responses to climate change?

I think the public has the main role because, living in a democracy it’s really the public that should push the politicians, seeing that the politicians by themselves are not acting and we cannot really expect industry and commerce to be the drivers.

So it is left to the public.

One of the main problems is how the public gets the information. Of course there is science with a whole lot of information but it is not very well presented for the public and my main concern is that science always presents the main concerns, the catastrophes that could evolve and this is not what makes the public act. I think the public would act much more readily if they saw the chances that were involved in appropriate climate policy.

On immigration:

This issue is a very difficult one. Where we should really should start is in making sure people do not have to leave the places we live in now. Any type of infrastructure you put up will not be sufficient to achieve the goal that apparently is we want to have to keep people out of Europe. Thats not a solution. That’s just something that might just help Europe for a limited period time. but it is not a solution on a global scale. So what we really want to do is to make sure that there are places that people can leave, called home, and as far as possible where they live now.

Of course coastal areas will be affected so some moving will be inevitable but to make that as small as possible and as smooth as possible is, I think, what politics is all about.

Intrinsic versus Extrinsic

I think one of the chief issues that need to be discussed is what we call prosperity. Or rather, what we want to achieve because I don’t think it is prosperity in the normal sense of the word, its not having things, it is more like being somebody. and having a fulfilled life and that does not depend on material things and the whole issue of economic growth is about material things. So we are discussing the wrong thing. Really we should be looking at the values that are important to people and help people to find their own values. I don’t think they are so obvious to everyone because we are so covered with all sorts of potential wishes, things we should have and that our neighbour has and so on.

It is only after exceptional situations where people start to think about what do they really want. It’s like after having a serious illness, or somewhere being in danger of life and then people start to think: “What is it I really want?”

And those are the values that I think we need to address. I think we can address those and i think we can fulfill those values and we can come much closer to fulfilling those values under a policy that comes closer to “saving the planet”.

On emissions:

It might be easier to reduce greenhouse gas emissions considerably that it is to reduce them slightly. Sometimes big changes are easier to make than small changes. I am not sure about this but I think it might be worth considering. It is really a mental process. It’s really a question of wanting to change something or being willing to change something.

And then I think we could really achieve big progress in a really short space of time. I still tink the last tonnes of CO2 will be more difficult to get rid of but the first half at least should be no serious effort at all.

Warming in the system

We have a certain amount of warming in the system and we only have a certain limit of greenhouse gases that we can still add if we want to stay within the 2 degrees that are internationally agreed upon more or less. So even if we do not add anything now we still have a temperature rise of about half a degree or so to expect which is considerable on a global scale. The remaining amount if we want to stay just below the 2 degrees means that we can only make use of conventional oil and gas resources, not with reserves of unconventional oil and gas and not with coal. From an energy point of view it means we have to switch very fast to renewable energies and I think we can do that. Combined with efficiency increases and sufficiency, meaning that we don’t need to have everything that we possibly could have.


Essentially we have seen that economic growth is coupled based only to energy and material use and though there has been some progress in a relative decoupling, meaning that material and energy growth are not just as fast as GDP growth, they still grow and what we really need is for them to stabilise and even to be reduced. This means we can not do it with economic growth. So we need to stabilise economic growth, we need to stabilise GDP which does not mean that it has to be static. In some areas, especially the industrialised nations it will probably mean degrowth which means reducing GDP and therefore reducing energy and material resource use because we need some room for developing countries and countries in transition to reach a level of development that makes it possible for people there to live a decent life without fear of hunger or fear of cold or heat.

Degrowth sounds terribly terrifying but it is not, it doesn’t have to be. If degrowth occurs just because growth didn’t happen, then we really have a problem because we have people out of work and so on. But if its a planned matter, it’s something that follows a structure and a plan then we can really achieve more quality of life. A quality of life that is closer to the values we have deep inside us. So I do not think  degrowth is something we have to fear, degrowth is something we have to work towards. Of course, it will not work starting tomorrow but we will have to make sure it starts soon.

I think it is quite clear that an economy in a sustainable world, a world with more equity and a resilient world would look different to the economy we have now. I don’t think anybody would really disagree with that. The question is just: what would it look like? There is not the masterplan… we don’t really have the full picture of where we want to go, and the question is just “how do we get there?”

We sort of know some of the cornerstones. What it should be.. for instance, it shouldn’t grow! But we do not really have a master plan. We have a lot of different attempts and a lot of different ideas out there, and they are great ideas. I don’t think anybody can say which idea will carry the day, will turn out as the best or whether it will be a combination. i think we need this diversity because we do not have this one solution and I think what is necessary is to help these ideas forward, to keep testing. Like the economy for the common good, Nicopias thinking. So there is a lot of things where we could say “just go on try new things… try them on local level, try them on a company level. And then see what works and what doesn’t work and produce a transition in this manner. Of course transition towns are already on their way.

Well, I think there is a difference in the interests of nations but there is not a difference in the interests of people. I think individuals have the same interests everywhere; a decent fulfilled life and I think  we can achieve this together.

Of course, the people representing the nations at the COPS come from a different thinking. Our democracies and other state forms as well, have for the last 2 decades at least have been serving economic interests, that’s not the people. We cannot expect these to find solutions, how can they? Because the economic interests are obviously very divergent. If we go back to the interests of the people, then I think we can find solutions. I am not sure how to do that. I don’t know, it makes no sense to set up a counter COP. I think we really need to get the transition working in the countries themselves.

There’s this idea by Ros Jackson of the small countries who are closer to their people starting out with a new type of thinking and forming a union and inviting others to join them.

This link between politics and economics is a very interesting one. It is very promising that the students of economics are starting to protest against their curricula and the things they are taught because they are only taught one type of thinking and one methodology. So i think there is a movement out there and hopefully things will change!

Can we change in time?

You know in climate we talk a lot about tipping points, that there are points beyond which we can no longer stop developments. Well I think there is tipping points in other fields as well and I think there is also tipping points in public perception and public awareness and public action. I think we are getting closer to that tipping point and if we reach that tipping point where change becomes inevitable then I think it can be very fast.

Science and economics

I find for instance when I talk to people who come up with new ideas about economic growth… about the monetary system, as another example of the driver of climate change that needs to be addressed, very few of them also consider the biogeophysical limits to our planet. So the ecological limits they are not so much aware of them.

So, for instance, the doughnut idea of the Kate Allworth is something which is extremely helpful in thinking about this. he has defined outside boundaries given by ecology, very similar to Rockstrom and coauthors about the safe operating space of humanity. So there is the outer limit. Climate is one of the aspects but she says there is also an inner limit. The inner limit is well being and is education and work and so on. The space between is where economics should be operating. If economists became aware of the fact that they have an inner limit and an outer limit; the outer limit being defined by nature and the inner limit being defined ourselves - what do we consider to be acceptable in terms of societal or social sustainability - then their operating space is quite well defined and they just have to find a model that will keep us in this space. That automatically retracts the economy when it tends to push the limits.

Why start the journey to resilience right now?

I am climatologist so climate is always in the centre of my views and climate does not just wait, climate change is happening and if we do not act now, we will have to employ much more serious measures and much faster in order to avoid tipping points beyond which we can no longer be sure we can stabilise climate. But of course it is not just nature… we have an economic crisis, we have a financial crisis, we have a social crisis… I mean, if everything goes wrong… obviously it does... it is time to act. The way to act in my point of view, and this is an ethical question, is of course to act towards sustainability.

Dennis Meadows says it is too late for sustainability, we’ve gone beyond that point, what we have to address now is resilience. I think he is right to a certain extent, nevertheless, I would strive towards sustainability but make sure we are resilient on the way.

The very encouraging thing is that you take the same measures to achieve sustainability as you take to achieve resilience. So if we are fast and we are dedicated, maybe we can achieve both at the same time.

2015 is a key year

There’s a lot of decisions that are being taken in 2015 and my feeling is that we cannot expect too much of the COP in Paris but we must all try our best to do our own home work at home.. I am trying all I can to get Austria to do its homework, which is a tough job.

IPCC RCP’s viability of CDR

I think it is viable. The question is how and the question is when? I do not think it should be at the beginning. I think the beginning should be to reduce emissions and if we start out by discussing the removal of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere then people will say ‘well then we can continue to emit’. So I think the beginning should be to reduce emissions. then when we have done that and we are the clear path, and we see how it is going and how fast it is going and how far we can get, then it is time to start thinking about removing it from the atmosphere.

Science needs a lot of time before it can really produce results so it makes sense to do the research on that. The question is with what idea in your head do you do the research? It should not be in order to take the burden of reducing greenhouse gas emissions from humanity. It should be to achieve the last tenth of degrees necessary to stay below the 2 degrees limit.

What about SRM?

We have been trained over the last decade to look for technological solutions. I do not think we need these technological solutions if we can rethink our attitude towards the environment, towards the Earth, also towards other humans and towards our own life. I would strongly prefer that we start rethinking process, to look what we can do in terms of changing our lifestyles, new values and then start worrying about technological fixes that are needed for the last few tenths of degrees centigrade.

Because we are so trained to look for technological solutions, I am very hesitant about pushing these now because people again will not find the limit. They will not use them to solve the remaining problems but they will try to evade the problem by these technological solutions.

IPCC projections

I think that we should be aware that the IPCC, the three volumes of IPCC are quite different in their character. The 1st volume is science and is more or less undisputed. The last volume on measures has a lot to do with ideology and has a lot to do with what kind of economic thinking people go into the work. Mainstream economics are not geared to make big changes.

If we talk about economical science and the people writing volume 3, we are not talking about the revolutionary thinkers. So I would not take IPCC volume 3 as a roadmap. I think IPCC vol 3 is a piece of work that shows us, within the present type of thinking, where we can get. And it is obvious that we can’t get there. We can’t get where we should get!

Should it be challenged with new thinking?

There is a divergence of views in the IPCC volume 3, of course there is. But you will not find anything there on degrowth. You will not find anything on new economic thinking because it is not mainstream.

The assessments are really important. I think the IPCC is very important process but you must be aware that the combination of science with policy, especially in volume 3, is something where you have to find consensus. Consensus is never revolutionary. You cannot expect IPCC volume 3 to have the really forward looking and transformational ideas.

Own thoughts on where we are?

I myself keep thinking about what can I do in my own life but that is sort of trivial… if everybody did it then we would get very far but…. the other thing is what can I do in terms of my networks, my job; how can I make a difference? It was very helpful for me to understand that the burden of saving the world is not on my shoulders alone. So I am not responsible for saving the world but I am responsible to do whatever I can and finding out what I can do is something that occupies me. I try a lot of things, some things work, some things don’t work. I have a lot of ideas, I talk with people about these ideas and if everybody did that within his or her domain, within his or her scope, I think we would get really far, because afterall, the sum of all our scopes is what the world is about.

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