Professor Hans Joachim Schellnhuber (‘John’ to his friends) is an expert. In fact he is iconic amongst climate change experts because he is Mr Tipping Point. He is one of the leading minds behind the establishment of the 2.0C limit adopted by the IPCC (subsequently to be revised, with his encouragement, to 1.5C). He has many peer-reviewed papers to his name, and so in the eyes of someone like John Cook he is your true expert; academically successful — unlike those charlatans who can only successfully apply their expertise in practice. As such, he has been interviewed many times by journalists keen to understand the secret of his success. How did he get to be that good? One such interview is that given by CCB magazine who, after the obligatory ego massaging, got down to business with the following, somewhat blunt question:
“In 2006, Angela Merkel personally appointed you as climate advisor to the German government. To be honest, climate policy achievements have been somewhat disappointing. Did you give the government wrong advice for years, or did they simply not listen to you enough?”
Schellnhuber’s answer was very telling:
This was the hallmark of a true expert. The interviewer had only thought of two logical possibilities but Schellnhuber had thought of a third; one which readily protected his reputation:
“As a physicist, Angela Merkel certainly understood the issue. But it may well have been her party that put the brakes on doing more. That is the paradox of scientific advice: you can determine precisely what needs to be done on the basis of solid research. But politicians usually look for superficial solutions, because voters would immediately punish the imposition of short-term disadvantages in favor [sic] of long-term benefits.”
The reason why this is so emblematic of the expert is because it demonstrates the expert’s primary talent: the ability to provide ex post explanations for personal failure. You will find it will always be someone else’s fault. As Nassim Taleb put it when bemoaning the blind spot that prevents experts from learning from their mistakes:
“There seemed to be a logic to such incompetence, mostly in the form of belief defence, or the projection of self-esteem.”
Schellnhuber, is not short of self-esteem. There isn’t an interview on record in which he doesn’t take the opportunity to point out that his office was once used by Albert Einstein (it’s very inspiring, don’t you know). And he founded the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) all on his own. It’s his baby and he is very proud of it. Also, like Einstein, he is associated with an equation that gets to the heart of how the world works. In Schellnhuber’s case, it is an equation that captures the essence of emergency and how it may be quantified. According to Schellnhuber, the equation combines “standard risk analysis and control theory” to demonstrate that the level of emergency (E) may be calculated as:
E = R x U
Where U represents Urgency, and Risk (R) is calculated using the standard definition R = P x D (i.e. Probability multiplied by Damage).
Schellnhuber is an expert, and so he didn’t need to consult any basic textbooks on risk theory; he worked this out all by himself. How else could he get to refer to it as ‘Schellnhuber’s Equation’? He may have wondered why no one in risk theory had discovered it previously — or maybe he didn’t since the expert never doubts his own ingenuity.
Unfortunately, in this instance, Schellnhuber’s primacy has nothing to do with his superior abilities and a lot more to do with the fact that his equation is gibberish. Risk theorists had not come up with his equation before him because none of them would have made such an elemental gaffe. You see, risk experts do understand the difference between risk priority and risk urgency and they encapsulate it using two equations. Risk priority is simply the scale of risk as calculated using:
Rp = P x D
Risk urgency, on the other hand, explicitly encompasses the problem of limited timescale by using the equation:
Ru = D x U
It is this latter equation that Schellnhuber should have come up with but he didn’t. And he didn’t do so because he failed to understand that the probability (P) is already related to U (events requiring urgent action are more likely to happen). And that’s why his equation (E = P x D x U) is gibberish.1
Even more disturbing than the fact that one of the world’s leading climate change experts – one who has been personal adviser to the German Government on matters of climate risk — should have made such a gaffe, is the fact that no one within climate science seems to have picked up on it. Anyone with an ’O’ Level in Risk Theory (although there is no such thing) could point it out, and yet no one within climate science has. One has to wonder what that tells you about the strength in depth that exists within the climate science community when it comes to the conceptual framework of risk and uncertainty.
Schellnhuber’s background is in physics, in which he was very successful. He moved on to specialise in non-linear systems and this is what qualified him to travel on the climate change bandwagon. Normally, physicists who poke their noses into climatology are immediately branded as fake experts who should stick to what they know (the late Freeman Dyson comes to mind). Schellnhuber seems to be exempt from such criticism because the rule actually states that you can stick your nose in but only if you are prepared to say what the climatologists want to hear. Schellnhuber has passed that test, despite his parlous understanding of risk. Dyson failed. But here is the final irony: Both gentlemen have worked in an institute that included Einstein’s office but only Freeman did so whilst Einstein was still present.
 Some people like to combine Rp with Ru in a matrix to derive a ‘risk severity’, but I believe that is making Schellnhuber’s mistake in a much more subtle form. Even so, if Schellnhuber had proposed a Rp x Ru matrix, at least he would be falling in line with established malpractice instead of inventing his own and more obvious version of the mistake.
If you want to know why Schellnhuber’s ‘scientific’ advice to the German government was so ill-conceived, you need look no further than the following article:
“Nuclear plans threaten UK’s part in renewables revolution, expert warns”
“The UK’s ‘eccentric’ determination to build new nuclear power means it is not fit to take part in the ‘third industrial revolution’ of switching to clean renewable energy, according to one of the world’s most influential climate scientists. Prof John Schellnhuber, the current adviser to the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, and previous adviser to the president of the European commission and other governments, said the UK was missing out owing to its failure to replicate the successful use of feed-in-tariffs (Fits) to kickstart its renewables industry.”
Germany’s anti-nuclear position in favour of grotesquely subsidized and unfit-for-purpose solar and wind renewables has been an unmitigated disaster. It was a ‘third industrial revolution’ that failed to reduce carbon emissions, stocked up massive economic problems, and has left the Germans unable to respond with a viable alternative to recent threats from Putin to cut off gas supply. Some are saying that the answer would have been to invest further in renewables, but that is to fly in the face of history. Germany’s investment in renewables capacity would already have been quite sufficient had it not been for the technology’s abject failure to convert capacity into electricity generation.
This fiasco is not entirely Schellnhuber’s fault but it is clear that he was fully signed up to the anti-nuclear policies that have driven Germany to the precipice, and he was just as deluded as Germany’s Green Party when it came to assessing the potential of renewable technology.
Schellnhuber, take a bow. You really are the iconic expert. It is perhaps befitting that a prime architect of an emergency can’t even work out how ’emergency’ should be quantified.