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:

“Neither.”

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.

Footnote:

[1] 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.

Postscript:

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”

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2011/nov/15/nuclear-renewables-schellnhuber

“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.

16 Comments

  1. It’s worth reading the interview by following John’s link. One long paragraph can be split into two rather startling parts. First:

    “Staying well below 2 degrees and even below 1.5 degrees seems to me hardly feasible at the moment. To achieve this, we would have to limit the carbon dioxide content in the earth’s atmosphere to a maximum of 450 ppm. Global emissions would have to fall to zero well before 2050. The chance of that happening is maybe five percent. I was surprised anyway that the 1.5 degree guard rail was agreed in Paris. That was – understandably – wishful thinking right from the start. Now I’m even assuming that we’re going to overshoot the two degrees.”

    Secondly:

    ” If nothing is done, the earth’s temperature will rise by as much as eight degrees in the next few centuries, and by four degrees by the end of this century alone. In terms of earth history, that would be like living 30 million years ago, with brutal weather extremes and sea level rise in the tens of meters.”

    I find both statements to be remarkable.

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  2. I have seen fit to add a postscript to this article, just so that the reader may be left in no doubt.

    Like

  3. John, that’s a powerful postscript. What a difference 11 years makes. The quote was silly at the time. It’s preposterous now.

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  4. Maybe it’s all my misunderstanding. Perhaps, R stood for Renewables and U stood for Ukraine. Hence:

    E = R x U

    Yes, now it all starts to make sense.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Here is another interview with the great man. Oddly, he fails to mention that he works in Einstein’s former office but he does reveal a bit more about his views on nuclear power:

    “We Are Looting the Past and Future to Feed the Present”

    https://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/leading-climatologist-on-fukushima-we-are-looting-the-past-and-future-to-feed-the-present-a-752474.html

    He says:

    “The entire affluence-based economic model of the postwar era, be it in Japan or here in Germany, is based on the idea that cheap energy and rising material consumption are supposed to make us happier and happier. This is why nuclear power plants are now being built in areas that are highly active geologically… It’s the dictatorship of the here and now.”

    However, when he is taken to task on why he hasn’t been more vocal in the past in his opposition to nuclear power, he says this:

    “But neither was I a supporter of nuclear power. My position was: Let’s take advantage of the cost benefits of the existing nuclear plants to quickly develop renewable energy systems. It was my hope that something good would emerge from something bad.”

    So I get it. The dictatorship of the here and now is fine as long as it is funding his idea of utopia, but not when it is funding someone else’s.

    What’s the German for ‘tosser’?

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  6. Professor Schellenhuber’s overweening self confidence would seem to comply with karl Popper’s adverse effects on civilization.quote from ‘The Open Society and Its Enemies.’

    ’If in this book harsh words are spoken about some of the greatest among the intellectual leaders of mankind, my motive is not, I hope, the wish to belittle them. It springs rather from my conviction that, if our civilization is to survive, we must break with the habit of deference to great men. Great men may make great mistakes; and as the book tries to show, some of the greatest leaders of the past supported the perennial attack on freedom and reason. Their influence, too rarely challenged, continues to mislead those on whose defense civilization depends, and to divide them.The responsibility of this tragic and possibly fatal division becomes ours if we hesitate to be outspoken in our criticism of what admittedly is a part of our intellectual heritage. By reluctance to criticize some of it, we may help to destroy it all.’

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Whenever I’m struggling with an equation I find it useful to write out the units. Then you can work out whether your answer has the units you’re looking for. Question: what are the units of “emergency”?

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  8. Beththeserf,

    That’s all very true. Another problem is that great men will often act as sages in areas that are outside of their expertise. A good physicist, for example, isn’t necessarily the person to go to for economic, sociological or even technological advice. Schellnhuber is a member of the Club of Rome and so can be assumed to share its ideological position regarding mankind’s relationship with nature. I think it is this ideological position that drives Schellnhuber and it is an ideological opinion that he is peddling; not one that stems from his understanding of physics, or indeed his understanding of non-linear systems. The science is a cloak.

    In ‘How to Become an Uberdogg’ I emphasised that good scientists can often engage in dodgy ideology. It’s a conundrum. When they speak, is it as the scientist or the ideologue?

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Jit,

    Since emergence is a factor, one can expect time to feature in the dimensional analysis. This will combine with whatever is necessary to describe the damage function. There are two possible approaches:

    1) Introduce an expression for ‘Urgency’ in which the time element features, and combine this with Damage.

    2) Express the probability using a formula that incorporates the time element, and combine this with Damage.

    What you can’t do is both at the same time. Probability and urgency are not orthogonal variables.

    Like

  10. John,

    From the same book, Socrates, I only ‘Know’that I do not know’ Serfs; love it so….

    What makes elites like, say,Chomsky, experts in one particular field, think that that
    equips them to decide that they know what is best to be done for the rest of us-
    in a complex world field far removed from their own experience? A serf asks…

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Beth. Is this true that sages in one subject should not expect their opinion/judgement to be listened to upon other subjects, especially those far removed from the topic that they are recognised as experts upon? I know this seems reasonable, but I do question its universality. Many topics have subtle links that make opinions from apparent non-experts relevant. Only heeding the wisdom of sages is also commonly destined to result in grief. Even the wisdom of crowds may apply.

    After all we at Cliscep commonly and repeatedly comment here on a whole range of topics that we are not experts upon. (Like I am currently doing!) Some of us even expect and lust after likes!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Alan,

    I suspect it isn’t so much a case of sages not being allowed to comment outside of their area of expertise so much as making sure we don’t place faith in such statements just because of the status bestowed by their expertise.

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Ahah John, I would support a more half-way motion – that we could place greater faith in the opinions/pronouncements of those with status bestowed upon them by their expertise in other subjects. Skill in acquiring expertise upon a topic is commonly bestowed by having acquired knowledge in another topic. After all we expect such multitasking of our politicians, when and where a minister responsible for one government department may be switched to another with scarcely a decent interval transpiring. Johnson replaced the Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Health Minister in a matter of hours. The media were seeking comments from the incomers shortly afterwards. Keep up, keep up!

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  14. Alan,

    I guess it depends to what extent there are common skill sets and how arcane the subject areas are. Climate scientists do seem to think they are a highly specialised group but also think nothing of ‘advising’ in matters of policy and economics. In Schellnhuber’s case there may also have been an element of ‘I cracked physics so how hard can risk management be?’ I also made that mistake.

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  15. Alan,

    Serfs think hubris is one of the worst deadly sins. Everyone has a right to an opinion on policies that ultimately affect their lives. Those who make policy or have undue influence, not related to the policy in question, someone very wealthy, a famous movie star or an academic linguist, can manipulate power to influence actions that impact on our lives. We don’t want them to succumb to hubris and regard themselves as philosopher kings who know, over the long experience of the many, what is good for us, a philosophy of blood and soil, say, or a great reset.

    [Typos edited out. Because I thought it was that good. — Richard]

    Liked by 2 people

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