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‘One day our children will ask us: What did you do in 2021?’

At GIZ in Berlin Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen and Karin Kortmann discuss the three global crises and our generation’s responsibility.

‘We are in an existential crisis’ – and responsible for taking action, not just for our own generation, but for the sake of those who will live on this planet after us. This message hit home amongst the over one thousand staff of Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH who followed a live-streamed conversation between Karin Kortmann, director of the GIZ House in Berlin, and Dr Eckart von Hirschhausen, physician, comedian and creator of the foundation Gesunde Erde – gesunde Menschen (Healthy Earth – Healthy People) on 5 May 2021. 

Their exchange, which was part of GIZ’s ‘Köpfe und Ideen’ (‘Heads and Ideas’) series, focused on three concurrent global crises: climate, biodiversity loss and the COVID-19 pandemic. It moved between scientific facts about the size and urgency of the problems; shared smiles about personal learning and hope; warnings and heartfelt pleas to politicians as well as deep concern: ‘One day our children and grandchildren will ask us: ‘What did you do in 2021?’ In Germany you had freedom, prosperity, all the information you needed, as well as technical solutions. Why did you fail to create the political will?’

Making the most of a historic window of opportunity

When asked about the origins of his current advocacy work for environmental protection and health, Dr von Hirschhausen replied that he had gradually become aware of the interconnectedness of the three ongoing global crises, and of the need to break out of silo thinking and compartmentalised actions in order to get a handle on them:

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I am truly grateful to Fridays for Future

Ms Kortmann recalled that Dr von Hirschhausen had once named Luisa Neubauer, one of the German protagonists of the Fridays for Future movement, when asked whom he regarded as a role model. He confirmed this and underlined how grateful he was to Greta Thunberg, Luisa Neubauer and the other young people who started Fridays for Future around the world. They stood firm and continued their weekly strikes regardless of some politicians’ admonitions that they’d better go back to their studies and leave big issues like climate change to ‘the professionals’. It was this patronising comment, said Dr von Hirschhausen, that motivated him and about 28,000 other experts to found ‘Scientists for Future’ and join the young people’s movement. ‘I am truly grateful to Fridays for Future,’ he said.In a very short period of time their protests generated a momentum that took most people, including him, by surprise.

It only takes a small proportion of the population to start a process of social change

Dr von Hirschhausen referred to research on the size and impact of social movements over the past hundred years. Findings show that the mobilisation of a relatively small proportion of a population – about 3,5% – is sufficient to bring about significant social change. He remembered the hope and enthusiasm he and many others felt when they came together in Berlin in large numbers in September 2019 to protest against the new climate law that had just been passed by the German government. 

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Serving as BMZ Ambassador for Sustainable Development Goal 3 

Karin Kortmann pointed out that, since January 2020, Dr von Hirschhausen has served as honorary ambassador for the Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) for the Sustainable Development Goal 3: ‘Ensure healthy lives and promote wellbeing for all at all ages.’ What does this role mean for him? He replied that it allowed him to bring the topic of health, and how it related to other SDGs, into conversations whenever he could in television appearances, interviews, articles, podcasts or books. He said that, in addition to being the BMZ’s Ambassador for SDG 3, he also serves as Ambassador for biodiversity-related SDGs for the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety. In this context he expressed his support for the BMZ’s commitment to One Health and Planetary Health – concepts that underscore that interdependence of human and animal health and an intact environment. The protection of the biosphere, he said, was a precondition for the attainment of all other SDGs: ‘If we don’t manage to keep our biosphere intact, we can forget the rest.’ 

One important way forward, according to Dr von Hirschhausen, is the conservation of areas of land, seas, swamps and forests as sanctuaries for plants, wildlife and, quite literally, as ‘ventilators’ for humanity, producing the oxygen we need to survive. He lauded Michael Succow who, as vice minister of the environment in the former German Democratic Republic, ensured that all restricted military areas were turned into nature conservation areas – a step that did not get much attention at the time, yet generated immeasurable environmental value. (Just two weeks after this conversation, Minister Dr Gerd Müller, helped to start such an initiative at the global level. Together with other partners he launched the Legacy Landscapes Fund, an initiative designed to help stop the dramatic loss of biodiversity around the world.)  

We need to acknowledge that the global crises already affect us, here and now 

Many of the comments and questions the GIZ audience put to Dr von Hirschhausen in the live chat focussed on the apparent resistance to change: What could be done to get politicians to recognise the urgency of the situation and act? What would it take to get individuals to change their ways? He replied that, to start with, it was crucial to make people see the very real impacts of climate change and loss of biodiversity: ‘One central term at the press conference held by Scientists for Future at the 2019 climate strike was irreversibility. We need to understand that, once a species is extinct, it will not come back. It took evolution millions of years to produce the species that we are currently destroying within a few decades.’  

According to Dr von Hirschhausen, much more thought should be invested in finding ways to break through people’s cognitive distance from the effects of the three global crises: ‘We need to make it clear that ‘global’ means here. We are much more vulnerable to global developments than we always thought — in health and illness, as the pandemic has shown; through our food chains; and when it comes to the big question: Where will all the people from the global South go when we first miss the 1,5 degree target, and then the 2 degree target, so that the heat becomes unbearable and the world’s coastal regions, where 1,4 billion people live, get flooded?’

In post-corona times, we need to re-define the value of community

Towards the end of their conversation, Karin Kortmann – herself an active member of the Catholic church – asked Dr von Hirschhausen if and how his Christian faith motivated his commitment to nature conservation and planetary health. She explained that, for her, the concept of sustainability brought to life the religious call to think beyond oneself, both in space and time.  

He replied that he was very aware that one day his children and grandchildren would ask him what he and his generation had done to halt climate change and environmental destruction at a time when this was still possible. ‘I will at least be able to say that I tried. I do podcasts, I started a foundation, I wrote a book – I am getting on people’s nerves with this whenever I can.’ And he confirmed that communities of faith, or of shared ethics, had a role to play in responding to the crises:

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Growing beyond ourselves – a call for “Übernächstenliebe”

According to Dr von Hirschhausen ‘social justice, peace, respect for the creation – these values are central to Christianity and highly relevant for our world in the face of this climate crisis.’ Now it was time to move beyond the Christian commandment ‘Love thy neighbour’. He explained that, for evolutionary reasons, humans tend to feel empathy with the suffering of people in their vicinity, but are considerably less affected by much greater suffering of those who live far away. In his view this needs to change: People in the global South, and the generations that will come after us, also have a right to a good life. ‘We need a new commandment – “Übernächstenliebe” (= “Love thy neighbours’ neighbours”) – that calls us to grow and care beyond ourselves, our local community and our generation’.  

Karin Kortmann concluded the exchange by giving her full support to her guest’s call for current generations’ care and concern for people already affected by climate change and for those who will come after us. She said to Dr von Hirschhausen that for social progress and innovation to happen, governments and their technical advisors depend on and benefit from the inputs of civil society and vocal activists like him. It is one the central objectives of GIZ’s ‘Heads and Ideas’ series to facilitate and stimulate this exchange. With today’s rich conversation, this goal was fully attained.

Anna von Roenne, May 2021

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