Hands under a tap, no water flowing from it

Climate and Transformation

Measurements have clearly shown the direction in which the climate is developing: the average global temperature has risen by about 1 degree Celsius from the pre-industrial age to 2017. How far it will increase by the end of the 21st century ultimately depends on how quickly and extensively humans can change their climate-damaging behaviour. Scientists from various Max Planck Institutes are working on making climate forecasts even more accurate. They are investigating which measures are required to limit climate change to a tolerable level.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which also includes Max Planck scientists, gives a clear message: as stated in its Fifth Assessment Report, it is highly probable that greenhouse gas emissions from human activity – especially CO2 emissions from coal, oil, and natural gas combustion – are causing global warming and that this is already being measured and felt today. Even if the development of the average global temperature is still in line with forecasts, it is not yet clear how severe global warming will be by 2100. A key inconclusive factor is human activity. Can we substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the coming decades? Or will the CO2 content of the atmosphere continue to increase? But even the physical formulae used by climate researchers to calculate their forecasts still contain uncertainties. For example, IPCC predictions for global warming indicate a range of 1.5 to 4.5 degrees Celsius for a doubling of the CO2 content compared with the pre-industrial age, when the atmosphere contained 285 parts per million of CO2. The relatively large interval results from numerous imponderables in the climate system. This is because global warming can result in a feedback effect, which can either further aggravate climate change or mitigate it. The climate researchers of the Max Planck Society hope to reduce the uncertainties in the calculations. They are working on robust climate forecasts for the next one or two decades. They are also looking into how the worst consequences of climate change can be averted. How quickly do we need to reduce CO2 emissions in order to limit global warming to 2 or even 1.5 degrees Celsius as agreed at the Paris Climate Conference in 2015? Is geo-engineering (the targeted release of dust that blocks sunlight) a feasible way of achieving this goal?

<span><span><span><span><span>"It is only through international cooperation that we can make progress"</span></span></span></span></span>

In this joint interview, Anne Peters and Axel Ockenfels discuss legal and economic approaches to tackling the global climate crisis more

Coral Bleaching around the Maldives in the Indian Ocean in April, 2019.

In many areas of the oceans, coral reefs are losing their colour and threatening to die – the cause is the high temperatures of the world's oceans more

Aerial view of the Max Planck Institute for Sustainable Materials building.

The Max Planck Institute for Sustainable Materials will explore methods for producing, utilising, and recycling materials in a climate-friendly way more

Max Planck Society presents Climate Action Plan

The research organisation aims to halve its emissions by 2029 compared to 2019 more

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<span><span><span><span><span><span><span><span>The roots of the Anthropocene</span></span></span></span></span></span></span></span>

Even the earliest human interactions with tropical forests had irreversible consequences that will continue to impact the environment well beyond the 21st century. more

Research highlights 2023

Many publications by Max Planck scientists in 2023 were of great social relevance or met with a great media response. We have selected 12 articles to present you with an overview of some noteworthy research of the year more

Philipp Sauter (2nd from left) was a member of the Max Planck delegation at the World Climate Summit in Dubai.

This year’s World Climate Summit in Dubai ends with a strong commitment to science more

Illustration to symbolise how the melting of ice sheets leads to a rise in sea level. The pictures shows ice sheets, in white, against a turquoise background. On the top left corner, there is a stylised sun, emanating heat. On the bottom left, there are three stylised snowflakes. To the left of the picture there is a scale from 50m to -20m. The word "Tipping point" is written vertically across the image on the left hand side.

Today, ice sheets cover an area that is almost as large as South America. Even though this equals only about three percent of the Earth’s surface, they play, similar to Arctic sea ice, a major role for the climate. In order to investigate ice sheets and their interaction with the climate, we are developing a climate model in which the extent of the ice sheets changes over time. Such changes and interactions have so far been insufficiently represented in conventional climate models. more

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Climate: how the earth breathes

Researchers understand Earth’s climate system very accurately by now. For a long time, however, an important piece of the puzzle remained very elusive - the role played by vegetation and soils. Markus Reichstein has now finally succeeded in clarifying this important question.Further information more

A heat pump in the ocean

A heat pump in the ocean

Video February 22, 2013

How can we better prepare ourselves for tropical storms or droughts? Jochem Marotzke investigates fluctuations in the Atlantic’s ocean currents, which are a major factor in such extreme climatic conditions. He can precisely forecast them until 2014. more

On a research voyage with the 'Meteor'

Scientists discover newe hydrothermal vents in the Atlantic more

In view of the rising CO2 emissions, it is becoming increasingly difficult to limit warming to 2, let alone 1.5, degrees Celsius by the end of the 21st century. As researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology have calculated, this is still possible. But only if people start emitting considerably less greenhouse gas. However, even if all emissions had been completely eliminated in 2017, the average global temperature would still rise by about 1.1 degrees by 2100. The calculations also show that at the current emission rate, it will only take about 15 to 30 years until the risk of exceeding a global warming of 1.5 degrees reaches fifty percent.

The time window for the 1.5-degree target is closing
Even if all climate-relevant emissions were immediately stopped, the Earth would warm up to around 1.1 degrees by the end of this century more

Whether the 1.5 degree target will still be met not only depends on political decisions – each individual must also make their own contribution. A study by researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology investigating the influence of climate change on Arctic sea ice underlines the fact that the contribution of individual humans really is relevant. The scientists have found a simple correlation for how many square meters of Arctic sea ice disappear as a result of a specific CO2 emission. For example, every passenger in an aircraft from Frankfurt to San Francisco leaves a CO2 footprint that melts five square meters of sea ice.

My contribution to Arctic sea ice melt
Measurements reveal the relationship between individual CO2 emissions and the Arctic's shrinking summer sea ice more
Voters prefer to be represented by extortioners
A climate game and a game theory model show that people prefer representatives who adopt an extortionate strategy in negotiations more
A winning formula for climate change conferences?
The likelihood of damage caused by climate change in the medium term could bring poor and rich countries to effectively reduce carbon dioxide emissions more

Perhaps such concrete statements on how our own behaviour affects the climate will help persuade people to act. The relatively abstract scenarios of what could happen at the end of the century if we cannot slow down climate change do not seem to be working. This is confirmed by a study by scientists from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology and the Max Planck Institute for Evolutionary Biology. According to this study, people are more driven by short-term rewards than the prospect of their behaviour preventing catastrophic climate change in the distant future.

...and now for tomorrow's climate
What will the Earth’s climate be like 10 or 15 years from now? Researchers have yet to find a satisfactory answer to this question – especially as random changes that occur in such medium-term periods play a significant role. Natural fluctuations are probably also the reason why global temperatures have hardly risen at all in the past 15 years. Jochem Marotzke from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg and his colleagues all across Germany are working intensively on a system designed to generate reliable forecasts for the coming years. more
More rain in winter, more droughts in summer
A new report summarizes how climate change is affecting the water cycle in Germany more

This human behaviour, which is still reflected in political decisions, has motivated Hamburg climate researchers to make the threat of global warming more tangible for people today. They are working on models that provide reliable predictions for the coming decades. Such medium-term forecasts are hindered by the fact that the climate is generally subject to relatively large statistical fluctuations. It is therefore difficult to reliably identify clear trends in the near future.

Forecasts of the regional impact of climate change can also show us the urgent need to emit significantly less greenhouse gas. Scientists have calculated how the water balance in Germany will change as the temperature rises. According to their predictions, it will rain more in winter, and there will be more droughts in summer.

Scientists are trying to make plants more resistant to drought in order to reduce the risk of poor harvests in a future with drier summers.

Breeds that can cope better with water shortages are likely to be in demand in southern Europe, where less precipitation is expected as a result of climate change.

In addition to such small-scale adaptations to climate change, researchers are also discussing far more far-reaching and comprehensive measures to respond to global warming: geo-engineering. The purpose of these measures is to cool the earth despite an increasing CO2 content in the air, or to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Such activities are controversial, mainly because although they may slow global warming, they could also have undesirable side-effects.

Geo-engineering raises issues not only relating to climate science, but also to international law. If, for example, a state were to single-handedly release sulphate particles into the atmosphere to screen out sunlight, this would have a global impact and could lead to conflicts with other states in which the measure would have harmful consequences.

'There could be conflicts and wars'
Ulrike Niemeier from the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, on measures that should keep climate change in check, such as geoengineering more
Controlling the climate
The global climate is changing – the world is facing global warming. Researchers are working on technologies to fight the causes and impacts of anthropogenic climate change. Yet, are such methods – if they even work – compatible with international law? Researchers such as David Reichwein at the Max Planck Institute for Comparative Public Law and International Law in Heidelberg are investigating just that. more

Reforestation is being discussed as a possible means of combating global warming caused by the greenhouse gas CO2 and is already being practised in some cases. It is intended to actively remove CO2 from the atmosphere by permanently building up biomass in forests. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology have investigated how much this could limit global warming and whether other proposals for geo-engineering might be more effective. Reforestation is a modification of land use that could potentially slow climate change. However, such alterations often accelerate global warming, such as when tropical rainforests have to give way to pastures. The connections are not so clear all over the world, however. Although forests bind CO2, they have a lower albedo (i.e. they do not reflect sunlight from the Earth’s surface as well as a grass landscape, for example).

Climate slashing
Public debates on global warming focus on one main cause: CO 2 emissions from the combustion of fossil fuels. But humankind is also changing the climate by clearing forests and through farming, forestry and animal husbandry. Together with her Research Group at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology in Hamburg, Julia Pongratz is investigating the consequences of these activities for the climate – and how these interventions could be used to counter global climate change. more

What is certain is that the Amazon rainforest is particularly important for the climate system because it stores massive amounts of carbon, which are released as CO2 during clearing and continue to fuel global warming.

The importance of tropical rainforests in the Earth system and the various effects of land use illustrate how complex the interrelationships in the Earth system are. The same applies to the interaction between species diversity and climate.

This complexity in the Earth and climate system makes it difficult for climate researchers to make accurate forecasts. Global warming can trigger developments that it could intensify in the form of feedback. However, some consequences may possibly also mitigate them. Against this background, it is particularly uncertain how the cloud cover of Earth and precipitation will develop if it becomes increasingly warmer on Earth – and also how this change will affect the climate. Max Planck researchers are working to clarify these relationships.

Water with a nebulous effect
To date, all climate models still suffer from one thing: they are not good at taking into account how global warming affects clouds and, conversely, how changes in different types of clouds inhibit or contribute to the observed warming. Bjorn Stevens, Director at the Max Planck Institute for Meteorology, is shedding light on these interactions. more
The Seeds of Climate
Aerosols are the salt in our climate soup. Meinrat Andreae and Stephan Borrmann from the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry are studying the impact of aerosols – tiny particles in the atmosphere – on clouds and precipitation more
Droplets on a Roller Coaster
Whether gases burn, planets form, clouds disperse or it rains – the determining factor is always turbulent flow. Although turbulence is so important, physicists still know very little about it. Eberhard Bodenschatz and his colleagues at the Max Planck Institute for Dynamics and Self-Organization want to change this. more

Another unknown factor in the forecasts for the future climate is the feedback between global warming and a possible thawing of the permafrost soils in Siberia. These soils store large amounts of carbon. If the deeper soil layers do not remain frozen in summer, this carbon could escape in the form of greenhouse gas and exacerbate climate change.

'The effects of climate change are visible in many places'
Mathias Göckede, a scientist at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry in Jena, talks about the consequences of global warming for permafrost soils more

Such feedback has always played a major role in climatic changes that have occurred repeatedly throughout Earth’s history. According to all that researchers currently know, the climatic changes of the past have never been as rapid as the global warming we are currently experiencing. Moreover, they have never been triggered by an increase in the CO2 concentration in the atmosphere – and certainly not by an increase caused by humans. However, by studying past developments, climate researchers are learning a lot about the feedback we can expect today.

Extreme weather events – especially droughts – could also lead to a feedback that intensifies the current climate change. This is because plants absorb less CO2 during periods of extreme drought. In general, climate change affects the carbon cycle between the atmosphere and vegetation. Geoscientists refer to this as the biosphere. Scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Biogeochemistry are investigating how this affects the CO2 content of the atmosphere.

It is not yet clear whether such weather extremes have become more frequent and more violent in recent decades. With regard to flooding, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for the Physics of Complex Systems have analysed this question using time series. According to current data, they have not yet observed any trend towards more frequent and severe flooding of the River Elbe, even though exceptionally high water levels were reached in 2002 and 2013.

It has also not been clearly proven that the extremely dry summers of recent years in southern and western Europe, including some parts of Germany, can be attributed to climate change. However, according to climate forecasts, increased and longer-lasting droughts can be expected in certain parts of Europe. Climate change will probably lead to another type of extreme in North Africa and the Middle East. This is likely to result in intolerable living conditions, especially in the affected regions. This will increasingly force people to migrate, as calculations by scientists at the Max Planck Institute for Chemistry in Mainz have shown. One example of the political consequences that climate change can have at national and international level is the civil war in Syria, which can be partly attributed to a drought lasting several years, and which resulted in hundreds of thousands of people fleeing the region.

Climate change might not lead to more hostile conditions everywhere and in every respect. For example, there could be more rain in the Sahara. In some parts of the desert, vegetation is likely to spread.

Times in which current desert areas were more humid and thus greener and less hostile to life already existed in the course of the earth’s history. Such phases may have even played an important role in the history of humankind.

Examples such as these show once again just how much humanity is dependent on the development of the climate – for better or for worse.

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