Telephone interview, October 2021
“We’ve been warning against climate change for about 50 years or so”
Telephone interview with Klaus Hasselmann following the announcement of the 2021 Nobel Prize in Physics on 5 October 2021. The interviewer is Adam Smith, Chief Scientific Officer of Nobel Prize Outreach.
Caught entirely unawares by the call from Stockholm, Klaus Hasselmann’s surprise is evident in this brief interview, recorded just minutes after the news of his Nobel Prize in Physics had been announced. “I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and find out,” he says! Pleased that the prize focuses attention on the problem, he discusses the challenges in convincing people that “something that is going to happen in 20 or 30 years is something that you have to respond to now.”
Adam Smith: I was hoping to speak to Professor Hasselmann?
Frau Hasselmann: Yes, Klaus…
Klaus Hasselmann: Hello.
AS: Hello, is this Professor Hasselmann
KH: Yes, this is Klaus Hasselmann. Yes?
AS: How nice to speak to you. My name is Adam Smith. I’m calling from Nobelprize.org, the website of the Nobel Prize. Well first of all, many, many congratulations on the award of the Nobel Prize.
KH: Oh thank you. I’m completely surprised, I can’t quite understand it, but I get it. Okay, wonderful.
AS: [Laughs] How did the news reach you?
KH: I got a call about 10 minutes ago, which my wife took, and she explained that something was going to happen, which I didn’t quite understand, and apparently this was this Nobel Prize. So I was quite surprised.
AS: It sounds as if it’s come from a real bolt from the blue for you.
KH: Well it did, it’s entirely the bolt from the blue. I’m quite… I’m quite [unclear] I can’t understand this. I’ll wake up tomorrow morning and find out. Yeah. [Laughs]
AS: The Nobel committee for Physics emphasise that, you know, with this Prize they want to show that our knowledge about the climate is based on truly rigorous scientific foundations.
KH: Yes, it’s true.
AS: Yep. And of course, this has been the basis of your work.
KH: That’s right, yes. I can… I am a physicist, and I came to climate as a physicist so, this is true, yeah.
AS: And I suppose one of the things that, if there are sceptics out there, they find difficult, is that there is a difference between predictions about the climate, which could be made very accurately, and the weather we see about us every day, which changes.
KH: Yes, of course there’s a question of timescales. I mean, everything beyond a few years can be attributed to climate. And it’s only when you see it over a few years that you’re sure it is the climate change, and not just a weather impact.
AS: And your own work has very much identified the fingerprints of our activities on climate.
KH: Yes, yes that’s right.
AS: And what do you think is most urgently needed now?
KH: Most urgently needed is some action against climate change. I mean there are many things we can do to prevent climate change, and it’s a whole question of whether people will realise that something which will happen in 20 or 30 years is something which you have to respond to now, and that’s the main problem with the climate change. Ever since, I mean we’ve been warning about climate change for 50 years or so, and it’s just that people are not willing to accept the fact that they have to react now to something that will happen in a few years, and this is something we’ve been sort of battling against now for many years as climate scientists.
AS: Does it surprise you that people don’t just look back in history and see that the predictions are correct, and therefore, you know, it’s clear which way we’re headed?
KH: Well it’s not that clear, because there are so many natural variabilities super-imposed upon climate change, that it’s sometimes difficult to recognise that. I mean we have a change over say 10 years where things get warmer, you think it’s climate change, but it actually may just be a natural variability of weather, which occurs over… over several years. And so to distinguish between the long-term climate change and the shorter term of a few months or years that you see on weather changes is sometimes difficult to decide. And you also get many people that make all sorts of statements that appear in the press, which confuse people. So it’s difficult for somebody who’s not actually working in climate to recognise that we are actually changing climate until it’s become quite obvious.
AS: How do you feel about the conferment of the Nobel Prize and that fact that that will suddenly direct a great deal of attention to yourselves, and of course yet more attention to the problem on which there is already much attention?
KH: Well I’m very happy that they put the attention on the climate problem, which is very important. Whether they put the attention on myself I don’t know, we’ll see what happens. Probably not. I forget so many things that the journalists will probably give up pretty soon, interviewing me.
AS: I don’t think that’s going to happen! I think people will be banging on your door for some time to come. Well, it’s been a great pleasure speaking to you, thank you very much indeed, and once again many, many congratulations.
KH: Well, thank you very much, and I really have to wake up and see if this is all true, but it’s good to hear from you.
AS: Thank you. Bye, bye.
KH: Okay, bye, bye.
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Their work and discoveries range from the Earth’s climate and our sense of touch to efforts to safeguard freedom of expression.
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