Navigation and service

40 Years Ago: First World Climate Conference

It’s the year 1979. The Federal Republic of Germany celebrates its 30th anniversary and Karl Carstens becomes its fifth President. Europe elects its parliament directly for the first time, and the Voyager 2 spacecraft delivers spectacular images of Jupiter. In early February, a severe snow storm raged in Northern Germany – the second already since the beginning of the year. Even then, the question arose as to whether the “once-in-a-century winter” was a single extreme weather event or an indication of global climate change. A question that also occupied a group of scientists who met at the same time about 1000 kilometres southwest, at the first World Climate Conference in Geneva. At the invitation of the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), almost 400 experts from more than 50 countries met to discuss climate change, its possible causes and future impacts.

A number of new scientific findings, as well as the experience of man’s vulnerability to the devastating force of climatic events, were decisive factors in bringing the conference about. According to Robert M. White, the chairman of the conference, this vulnerability would continue to grow as the underlying causes were also increasing. Three years earlier, Europe had groaned under extreme drought in the summer. In 1974, the world grain harvest was catastrophically poor due to the climate. Floods and long periods of drought led to famine. At the same time, the influence of man on the atmosphere became ever clearer. Among other things, measurements on Hawaii’s Mauna Loa at the end of the 1950s clearly showed a trend: the so-called Keeling curve, named after climate researcher Charles David Keeling, was the first evidence of the man-made increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide in the history of science.

Ausgetrockneter Boden

The meeting of experts in Geneva was by no means the first world conference to address the impact of global climate on humanity. The United Nations Conference on the Human Environment, held in Stockholm in 1972, was the first milestone in international environmental policy to address these issues. The same applied to the 1974 World Food Conference and other UN conferences on water and desertification. The World Climate Conference, however, was the first to explicitly look at the climate as a whole. It was to be followed by two more conferences (in 1990 and 2009). Even though the initial impetus and the first conference had a clearly scientific focus, the conferences also played a decisive role in shaping the climate policy debate of the following years – from the development of the World Climate Programme and the appointment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change to the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change and the UN Climate Conferences, such as the one recently held in Katowice .

At the end of the two-week conference in Geneva, the participants summed up their findings in a joint statement. In an urgent “appeal to the nations”, they warned of the consequences of man-made climate change and called on the world community to act quickly.

Questions to Prof. Dr. Andreas Wahner, Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Research IEK-8, Troposphere, at Forschungszentrum Jülich.

When experts from around the world met in Geneva 40 years ago to talk about climate change and its impact on people, you were still a student. Back then, did you hear anything about the conference?

Prof. Wahner: Yes, I heard about the World Climate Conference and the CO2 problem at that time. During my studies in Bochum, there was a close cooperation with the Max Planck Institute in Mainz, where Paul J. Crutzen worked. Crutzen was very active regarding climate change matters and an expert in atmospheric chemistry. In 1995, he was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work. We were joking back then: if sea levels rise, we’ll be safe in Bochum.

How substantiated was the state of research at that time?

Prof. Wahner: The results were uncertain in the quantitative statement on, for example, the questions,’How much does the temperature change?’ or ‘In what time will the changes take place?’’. However, the fact that the increase in the CO2 content in the atmosphere has a warming effect was already fully clear at that time and was also part of the lectures I attended at the university. Exactly this was the reason why it was possible in the first place to bring together so many states for the first World Climate Conference.

What significance do you attach to this first World Climate Conference from today’s perspective?

Prof. Wahner: I think it was a great success. Especially when you see this in connection with the hole in the ozone layer. Atmospheric researchers from all over the world joined forces here and searched for the causes. Based on their results, it was finally agreed to limit emissions of chlorine compounds that reduce ozone in the stratosphere. At the time, it was actually expected that, with the help of international agreements, it would be the same for CO2.

Prof. Dr. Andreas Wahner, Institutsleiter des Instituts für Energie- und Klimaforschung IEK-8- Troposphäre am Forschungszentrum Jülich.Director of the Institute for Energy and Climat Research IEK-8: Troposphere.
Copyright: Sascha Kreklau

At the end of the conference, the participants made an urgent appeal to the world community. Did this appeal fade away without consequences?

Prof. Wahner: No, it didn’t fade. This conference and the following ones as well, communicated their concerns in an effective way regarding both publicity and politics. Take the example of the ozone hole. When we look at the CO2 measurement curve, however, we also have to state: the CO2 increase is continuing unabated. That’s disappointing, of course.

How has the understanding of human influence and its consequences changed over the last 40 years?

Prof. Wahner: The basic statements have not changed. What has significantly expanded during this time, however, is the understanding of the concrete effects of a higher temperature on individual domains such as the water cycle, precipitation or storms. Ocean, biosphere, land surface, atmosphere – today we know much more about the interconnection of these different parts of the earth system.

There are scientists who consider the Keeling curve to be the most important data set of the 20th century. Do you share this view?

Prof. Wahner: I’d agree with that. The Keeling curve is a series of measurements started in Hawaii that shows very precisely and graphically how the CO2 concentration has risen over the years. Even today, this curve is still a reference point for CO2 changes. For some years now, comparable measurements have also been carried out in Antarctica and have come to the same conclusion.

You were at the last UN climate conference in Katowice . What impression did you get?

Prof. Wahner: I expected more of it, of course. More and more strong and better proven data are being brought to these events, but unfortunately, they do not have the effect one hopes for or one is convinced is necessary.

The coming meeting in Chile is less than a year away. What do you expect from the next meeting?

Prof. Wahner: The international process must continue, but one should see clearly that we need a change. We do a lot in Germany and Europe. The goal of getting CO2 emissions to zero by 2050 at the latest is necessary. As time goes on, however, the measures will have to be more drastic, although they will then become increasingly difficult to implement – economically as well. The hope of limiting the increase in temperature to 1.5 to 2 degrees by the end of the century is becoming less and less tenable. We will probably have to prepare ourselves for more, which will have serious consequences and will cost us considerably more in economic terms everywhere in the world than if we had acted decisively in the past or even today.

Philippe Patra