Robert Koch and Louis Pasteur; today we still associate these names with successful basic research, follow-up analysis and possible cures. In the 19th century, scientists succeeded in cultivating infectious diseases outside organisms and developing possible therapies. Before then, sometimes primitive means were applied to achieve progress in the mortality rate of infections with an early form of inoculation against virus diseases; so-called variolation. This method seems to have been developed in Central Asia at the beginning of the second millennium. Infectious material was taken from the pustules of sick people and introduced into healthy people via small wounds.
At the start of the 17th century, after six convicts and orphans in England survived the experiment, Catherine the Great was also vaccinated in this way.
Today, we are again experiencing restrictions to our lives, this time due to a pathogen from Asia known as coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). Statements and prognoses made by virologists now determine the political decisions taken and, through them, our daily lives. Did we fail to ask ourselves the right questions early enough? To consider whether a belief in the potency-boosting or medicinal effects of turtle eggs, meat, ground rhino horn or other exotic animal substances first turns these animals into victims of market demand, then makes us ourselves victims of such myths and weird desires?
Tens of thousands of deaths worldwide have brought normality to a standstill.
Catastrophic accidents like the Fukushima nuclear disaster in 2011, or natural disasters such as the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, or the current climate crisis are seared into our collective memory. Yet a defence mechanism of our brains tends to erase painful experiences as unnecessary ballast so that we leave them behind. Admittedly, the ability to wipe traumatic events from our active consciousness may be a useful evolutionary trait.
The famous natural scientist Alexander von Humboldt collected knowledge and data during his travels. In the spirit of the Enlightenment, he believed that "science and technology will give us a better life and promote common welfare¹". Prussian ideals and the environment activism of a Greta Thunberg hardly go together, but maybe what unites them is their sense of moral responsibility to take action.
Of course, unlike the current coronavirus crisis, climate change is a gradual process that plays out over decades. Scientists have been warning of "drastic consequences" for many years. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) established by the UN in 1988 documents the scientific findings on how the global climate will change depending on the development of greenhouse gas emissions. Scientists demand that recommendations which are binding under international law, yet still not recognised at many conferences, are "immediately implemented".
As early as in the 1960s, Robert Jungk wrote about "America's omnipotence and impotence" in his book "The Future has Begun". "Tomorrow is already here, but it masks itself as harmless. It disguises and reveals itself behind the familiar".
At the beginning of the 1990s, working with geoscientists and geographers in the research programme "Climate Change and the Coast", the Oldenburg mathematician Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ebenhöh² calculated how the global climate system "will react according to the laws of physics". The coastal regions, globally the most densely populated areas, are "under the greatest threat" from climate change.
Hermann Scheer, a "Social Democrat of the 1968 protest movement³" and a visionary of his time, recognised the significance of renewable energies in the social and political context. Together with the Green MP and "mother of the Renewable Energies Act" (EEG), Michaele Hustedt, the "fathers" were Hermann Scheer, Hans-Josef Fell and the Oldenburg-based politician Dietmar Schütz. It is now 20 years since they helped create the EEG from the Grid Feed-In Act (StromEinspG) of 1990.
Inspired by the vision of these pioneers, and especially after the Chernobyl disaster, climate protection and energy experts have tirelessly worked on conveying to the public an exit strategy from nuclear power and its replacement with renewable energies. Most mainstream economic politicians have for years denied the necessity of and the economic opportunities offered by renewable energies to our region, quite apart from their crucial role in protecting our environment, coasts and climate. They seem trapped in the outdated structures of coalmining and oil-based technologies.
Now the coronavirus crisis reveals once again that broad sections of politics and society have failed to reach a consensus about achieving the necessary goals of climate policy. The German government's "Climate Protection Program 2030⁴" includes the aim to "motivate the population to support climate protection". Should we not, as long demanded by experts, take action now and do what needs to be done before other events with catastrophic effects force us into drastic measures?
Considering the 20th anniversary of the EEG and the current share of renewables in electricity generation in Germany⁵ of more than 70 %, a positive effect of the current crisis would be a new willingness to listen to the experts in this field as well while there is still time! And to even more forcefully drive ahead the decisions needed to further develop the EEG, e-mobility, sector linking and carbon pricing.