Brian Schmidt: Climate change is a real, existential threat that should be dealt with immediately

By Dan Drollette Jr | November 11, 2016

In 2015, just in time for the upcoming Paris meeting on climate change, something very rare happened. On the last day of a weeklong conference of dozens of physicists and 650 young scientists on an island in Lake Constance in Germany, 71 Nobel laureates issued a call to action and signed their names to it.

They unanimously agreed that there is overwhelming evidence that human-caused emissions of greenhouse gases cause global warming, and pleaded with the world’s political leaders to act immediately to lower current and future emissions. Known as the Mainau Declaration 2015 on Climate Change, their manifesto compared the dangers of unchecked global warming to that of nuclear war. This was an apt comparison, as 2011 physics Nobel Prize-winner Brian Schmidt noted: “Nearly 60 years ago, here on Mainau, a similar gathering of Nobel Laureates in science issued a declaration of the dangers inherent in the newly found technology of nuclear weapons—a technology derived from advances in basic science. So far, we have avoided nuclear war, though the threat remains. We believe that our world today faces another threat of comparable magnitude.”

Schmidt—the driving force behind the declaration—is based in Canberra, Australia, where he is now the new vice-chancellor of the Australian National University. In this phone interview from Australia's capital city, Schmidt tells the Bulletin’s Dan Drollette how the idea came about, his efforts in spearheading it, the responses of his fellow Nobel Prize-winners, the resistance he encountered from climate-deniers, the role of science in the climate debate, and the threats to democracy.

(Editor’s note: This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity. This interview was conducted before the US presidential election.)

BAS: Hope that you’ve been well since I interviewed you in Mainau, at that physics conference.

On to business: If I understand correctly, the only other time that all the Nobel laureates got together and signed a manifesto like this was in Mainau in 1955 or thereabouts? Which was an appeal against nuclear weapons?

SCHMIDT: That’s correct.

BAS: And that one started out with maybe 16 laureates as signatories, and it was up to like 53 after a year or so. From what I’ve seen, you guys started out with a much greater number, and you’re up to 71 or something like that now?

SCHMIDT: Seventy-three is what I think the official number is. But I would have to check for sure. I mean we haven’t actively been adding to it. My goal was to get it up to a decent number in time for the Paris conference. But I also have a fairly soft diplomatic style. So I didn’t keep pestering people. I ask them once, and that’s it.

I wanted people who really believe in it. And I want people to engage. We could have gotten more if we had, you know, poke, poke, poked. But that’s not my style.

BAS: You’re the person who spearheaded everything—is that right?

SCHMIDT: Yeah, I guess I was the originator. I did contact a number of people whom I trust, like Stephen Chu, and had a chat with him about whether or not that he thought it was the right type of thing to do. And after taking advice from a handful of laureates, I got them to sort of get together as a group to present this in Lindau—the village next door—before the meeting. We just sort of talked things over and helped write it. Dave Gross played quite a substantial role.

And so, yeah, in the end I was the guy who started it, but I think it was a team effort.

BAS: What was the original inspiration for it? What made folks come out and say that climate change is just as much of a threat as, say, nuclear weapons?

SCHMIDT: Well, over the previous couple years, in talking to my fellow laureates at both Lindau (home of the annual Nobel Laureate Meeting) and things like the World Economic Forum, we were kind of despondent, I guess, over climate change. And I did an actual thing at Davos about existential risk. And we were talking about some of the existential risks facing humanity as just sort of an evening dinner session—a nice, light conversation, you know. (Laughs)

And climate change emerged among those people as being, you know, a profound existential risk that humanity faced. And I say existential not in the sense that every human is going to die tomorrow, but in the sense that probably it would do in civilization over time by breaking down prosperity and profoundly changing civilization as we know it. And I call that existential to the life that we all live. And so that was probably the place where I started thinking: ‘My god, what are we going to do about this?’

And I knew that we were going to have to make the Paris meeting successful.

And so that was sort of the impetus. We didn’t want over 2015 to have this international meeting on climate change fail and we not having done something. And many of my fellows said, yes, it is time to speak and make sure that it is very clear to the world that the vast majority of researchers—like Nobel Prize-winners—strongly believe that climate change is real and profound and needs to be addressed. And needs to be addressed at the Paris meeting. That’s sort of how it started.

BAS: I read an essay comparing climate change to nuclear war in terms of its overall effects. Maybe it’s not as immediate or as dramatic as a short fast war, but just as much of a threat to life on this planet. Do you think that’s a fairly good comparison?

SCHMIDT: Oh, yes. Although while nuclear war is fast and scary and has this immediacy to it that really engages people, climate change is more insidious. Climate change will sneak up on us, causing dislocations, wide-scale smaller skirmishes, the breakdown of civilization as we know it, and then slowly and probably end up leading to nuclear war. Ultimately climate change would be the trigger for much bigger things.

So I see climate change as being equal scary as nuclear war: starvation, lack of water, lack of resources, mass movement of people. And that will all be horrific. We’ve seen how well Europe’s dealt with a million refugees; imagine a hundred million people or a billion people on the move? I don’t think society can handle that. And I don’t quite know what’s going to happen. But it is going to involve war, dislocation, mass starvation, the breaking down of free trade and all the things that make life, quite frankly, possible on planet Earth, and to have 8 billion people here. I mean we’re all hunter-gatherers. Eight billion people are not going to live on Planet Earth successfully. We’ll all die of starvation.

BAS: Say you’re on an elevator, and someone asks you what is the Mainau Declaration on Climate Change? Do you have a 30‑second explanation you can give? What’s your quick summary of what it is and what it’s trying to do?

SCHMIDT: The Mainau Declaration was a group of 70‑some Nobel Prize-winners coming together to state categorically that climate change is real, it’s profound, and the world community needs to act on it. And failure to act on climate change would lead to existential risk, or the crash of global civilization as we know it.

BAS: I’m pretty impressed about the fact that you can sum that up in the space of two sentences.

SCHMIDT: As vice chancellor, that’s one of my jobs—to be profoundly short and succinct.

BAS: And then this wasn’t a question that I had thought of before, but I’ll just throw this out there. If you don’t want to comment, that’s okay. But would you be comfortable with a President Donald Trump having his finger over the nuclear button, and making decisions about things like climate change?

SCHMIDT: The concern I have with Donald Trump is on almost anything, and so his direct finger on the trigger of nuclear bombs, on climate change, I actually think are secondary risks to him. The thing that concerns me about him is he does not understand, as near as I can tell, governance, of how the nation’s Constitution is meant to work and the fragility of the structures of the United States. So I think he presents a profound risk to the United States as we know it, as operating as a free democratic nation and as the strongest, most powerful nation of the world. That concerns me in a whole variety of ways.

So I will be honest. Donald Trump is a different type of risk, but one that I think even transcends nuclear war and climate change as being a higher, more immediate threat. And because he will lead to many, many problems, nuclear war being one of them. As I said, I see him as the potential to destroy US democracy as we know it.

Now, whether or not he’ll do those things, I don’t know. But he certainly has broken any convention, and any idea of bipartisanship. All the fundamentals of democracy seem to me to be greatly under threat by him in so many ways that I’d really—it’s hard for me to imagine quite where the world would go.

BAS: I guess it’s an unfortunate time to be an American based overseas. [Though Schmidt has lived and worked in Australia for nearly two decades, and won his Nobel for his work as an astrophysicist at Canberra’s Mount Stromlo telescope—in which he showed that the universe is expanding at an accelerating rate—he is an American, born and raised in Montana.]

SCHMIDT: You know, I have not met anyone in Australia who says: “Oh, you must like Donald Trump.”

BAS: Oh?

SCHMIDT: It was different just a few years ago. Ten, 15 years ago they assumed that as an American, I automatically adopted all of American policy. But I think that Australians—I think the world realizes how divided the United States is. The only thing they want to do is understand why it is that so many Americans think Donald Trump is the answer.

And, you know, I provided an answer, which is I think correct, which is that unfortunately many Americans in the last 30 or 40 years of economic growth have been left behind and disenfranchised. They just know they’re unhappy, and to them Donald is at least going to cause change, and they don’t really care about the consequences. They really don’t care. That’s the only thing that makes sense to me.

And it’s a warning, I think, for other democracies: You cannot disenfranchise everyone in making your economies more efficient. That is, the average is one thing, the median is another. And the median is probably more important than the average.

BAS: Right. When I was overseas and people would ask about Trump, I would say “Hey, what about Marine Le Pen in France or Silvio Berlusconi?” I would mention places where people are unhappy, feeling left behind, and wanting to strike out blindly, maybe not really thinking things out. They just know that they’re upset, and they look for an easy answer.

SCHMIDT: I think it’s very common and happening in some form worldwide. I think the difference between, for example, what almost happened in Austria, or Marine Le Pen, or the UKIP guys in the United Kingdom, and the United States is that the US political system is different than almost any other major democracy in the world. The very balanced three types of power, a very strong executive, that have very specific external rights and the fact that the United States is still the superpower make for a very different equation than, for example, Marine Le Pen in France. And so that is why I'm concerned. I don’t think someone within a Westminster system, like Marine Le Pen, would be able to wreak the same havoc that we have compared to the US system. The US system requires the respect of all parties, major parties, to operate effectively. That’s what the US is based on. And the Westminster system, really, says that whoever is in charge is in charge. You know, whoever is the prime minister, the head of the Parliament is in charge. No questions asked.

BAS: Speaking of getting consensus and people having different opinions, did you encounter resistance from your colleagues? Was it hard to get all the Nobel laureates on board with Mainau 2015?

SCHMIDT: Again, I’m a softly softly type. I told people this is what we’re doing. If you want to be part of it, fine; if you don’t, no questions asked. I will ask you once. I will not ask you again. I will not ask you to justify your reason not to want to sign. So most people just wanted to sign it. There were a few people who didn’t want to sign it for various reasons. They wanted to micromanage the words, say it slightly different. I said: “Sorry, people have already signed it. I’m not prepared to do that.”

They said: “Well, then I won’t sign it.”


There were a few people who just actively disagree. And that’s fine. As I said, I respect that. I don’t harass them. I believe in freedom of expression of ideas, even those that I strongly believe to be wrong. But I do believe in that.

And so as I said, a few people were a little uncomfortable with certain aspects of it. They didn’t want to sign. One or two absolutely did not believe in it. That’s fine. But most believed more or less what we had to say and were happy to sign.

BAS: I hesitate to ask this, but I did notice that when I was first invited to cover this event as a journalist this summer that physicist Ivar Giaever was on the schedule to give a one‑hour talk. He called it Global Warming One Last Time, and it was basically denying all of the scientific evidence for climate change.  


BAS: And then obviously when I got there this summer, that talk was canceled. I don’t think that he even showed up.

SCHMIDT: He did give the talk at Mainau once before, several years earlier, but not now in 2016. I saw that talk in 2012. So I have seen what he had to say. I strongly disagree with it. I felt that the talk that he presented was not compelling. It was entertaining, I will tell you that. He’s actually a very good speaker. And it was entertaining. It was funny. But I didn’t find it scientifically compelling.

And fair enough. He’s allowed to speak. And I don’t believe he should be censored. Quite the opposite. I think he should be able to go out and tell people that he disagrees with the rest of us. That is of fundamental importance. Some of my colleagues don’t agree. Well, I’m sorry, I think if we get rid of that, then we’ve completely lost the plot.

BAS: So at some point I guess he had written an open letter to the American Physical Society, dropped his membership, I guess—

SCHMIDT: Yeah. He strongly believes that whatever is occurring is not attributable to emissions of greenhouse gases. And as I said, as a scientist we have to respect people who disagree with us, though I’m happy to pick holes in his argument. And I’m not even a particular expert. I mean I have a fair bit of knowledge in this area, but I did not find it compelling. I felt I had enough information not to believe what he was saying.

But again, I have people come up and—you know, there was a paper last week saying I shouldn't have won the Nobel Prize because the universe isn’t accelerating. So that’s fine. That was published in Nature.

BAS: Oh, really?

SCHMIDT: Equally compelling in my vision to Ivar’s argument. But that's another story.

BAS: I’m curious—what do you say to people who are climate deniers?

To give you some background, at the Bulletin we had published a 4,000‑word piece by Michael Mann, the climatologist. And he said that he encouraged scientists to get out there, to communicate, to explain the nature of scientific evidence, and to keep their sense of humor, which I thought was interesting.

SCHMIDT: It’s important.

BAS: And I guess his big thing was to communicate the information about climate change directly to the public. It could be lectures, appearances, blogs, Web sites, joining things like Skeptical Science, things like that.

SCHMIDT: Can I say I think it is really important, especially for the experts, to communicate their findings, whatever they say? Sometimes things—you know, science is messy. And sometimes not all roads point to Rome. We need to be extraordinarily honest in our communication and not get sucked into taking the same approach that the other guys are doing and, you know, lie when we need to, manipulate the truth when we need to. No. We’re scientists. We must speak the truth.

But I think that it is also important to make sure we let the experts do the talking as much as we can. So I never go out and give a talk on climate change. I’ll talk about it indirectly. But I refer to the expert evidence. I don’t claim to be, you know, a world expert in this. And I’m happy to appear with experts where I can help liven up the conversation, add some humor, add whatever. I think it is important to communicate effectively.

But it’s also important not to overreach. Because by overreaching we then undermine the whole basis of how science works.

BAS: Right.

SCHMIDT: That’s why I also think it’s important to let other people speak their mind and not, you know, essentially bully them. And I think we do that some. And I’m not proud of it. And I don’t do it. I always try to be respectful of people, in the end, having really good relationships with the people that matter. And so with politicians here in Australia, for example, I have reasonable relationships with all of them, all parties, all beliefs. And so I am prepared to talk to them about climate change, even those who don’t believe in it. And I’m happy to have a civilized conversation with them. And I think that is incredibly important.

But I do think it is important, when I give talks, to talk about the history of science, and how science works. I do talk about those things and why I’m concerned as a scientist about climate change. And I try to refer to my fellow scientists’ profound work in this area and try to explain it, but make sure they understand it’s other people’s work, not my own.

BAS: What is your next step now that Mainau 2015 is out? Are you planning to do anything further?

SCHMIDT: Well, I’m vice chancellor here at the Australian National University, Australia’s premiere research university.

BAS: That keeps you pretty busy.

SCHMIDT: You better believe it. We run a climate change institute here. We run an energy change institute here. So we are working in this area. I am trying to get the Australian government, along with another institution here and an institution in Germany, to fund essentially a climate transition program where we bring in lots of joint students and researchers to really say, okay, here’s the mounting evidence. This is what we think’s going to be occurring. So we do that type of work.

But then we also say, here’s the economics, the societal effects, the politics of how societies need to adjust to this. Because, you know, a two‑degree change is already going to be hard. And we need to be adaptable. And so it’s really important, I think, to put lots of work into helping society make the transition between now and what has to be essentially zero emissions in 2050. And boy, that is a grand challenge.

BAS: And then I guess the last comment here, are you optimistic about us meeting that challenge? What is your measured—

SCHMIDT: It scares the hell out of me. Am I optimistic? No. I’m probably even—I’m not a pessimist, but I’m scared, I am pessimistic.

Although things are changing. And once you get the whole of society behind something, once you get industry, government, defense, why, humanity is amazing. I just hope we pedal fast enough. Because I think this is a really profoundly challenging thing that we’ve never asked global society to do, which is to work collectively. We have a giant prisoners’ dilemma here where, you know, the nations that don’t act actually have an advantage in the short term. You can ride on that. And so we need to collectively act.

But I also see that there is a will, a will of this emerging. And so I’m more hopeful now than I was a year ago.

BAS: Really?

SCHMIDT: Much more. I mean I was genuinely sickened by the prospects last July at the Mainau Declaration. I really did not think the Paris meeting was going to come off. But it did. And it hasn’t been perfect, but I actually am more optimistic than I was a year ago. So that’s good.

BAS: I don’t want to take up too much of your time, but are there any last comments that you wanted to make?

SCHMIDT: I encourage my fellow scientists to, you know, have civilized discussions with people. Keep it civilized. Keep it to the facts. No hyperbole. No overreach. But at the same time it needs our attention, and it needs each of us to connect the expertise within our scientific community in as many ways as we can, through industry, through government, through our students, through the multidisciplinary work that we are all working on. It has to be a huge priority if we’re going to succeed.

(The author thanks the Lindau Nobel Laureate organizers for their journalism fellowship, which enabled this interview.)


Together, we make the world safer.

The Bulletin elevates expert voices above the noise. But as an independent nonprofit organization, our operations depend on the support of readers like you. Help us continue to deliver quality journalism that holds leaders accountable. Your support of our work at any level is important. In return, we promise our coverage will be understandable, influential, vigilant, solution-oriented, and fair-minded. Together we can make a difference.

Get alerts about this thread
Notify of

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments