Headline: Mission Accomplished: Klaus Töpfer Honoured as Pioneer of a New Kind of Science in Dialogue with Politics and Society

Honorary Symposium for Departing Director

Today’s major challenges such as climate change or growing numbers of refugees can only be surmounted if science and politics cooperate more closely on finding effective solutions in future. This was German Research Minister Johanna Wanka’s main message in a speech she gave at the Honorary Symposium for Klaus Töpfer. The founding and executive director of the IASS received an official send-off at an evening reception in the Berlin-Brandenburg Academy of Sciences on 11 November with around 200 eminent representatives of science, politics and civil society in attendance, as well as long-standing associates like the Nobel Laureate Paul Crutzen. In September, the 77-year-old former environment minister and former executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) retired as director of the innovative institute he founded in 2009 and helped to establish in the years since then. “Thanks to your renown and competence, the IASS was able to develop into a major centre for sustainability research at the interface of politics and society. You succeeded in linking science to urgent political problems and establishing something completely new in the grand panoply of institutes,” explained Wanka.

Brandenburg’s State Secretary for Science Martin Gorholt praised Töpfer in his speech as a “steadfast bridge-builder between science and politics with impressive skills in both areas,” who had succeeded in establishing a “unique institute with a global reach” to address key global development questions. “Nobody else has flown the flag for sustainability in national and international politics like Klaus Töpfer,” noted Mark Lawrence, Managing Scientific Director of the IASS.

Altmaier: politics and science need to find a common language

Chancellery Minister Peter Altmaier, the German Government’s current Refugee Coordinator and former environment minister, emphasised how important it was in day-to-day politics for policymakers and scientists to find a common language in order to understand each other. Like many of the prominent speakers before him, he highlighted the inextricable links between devastated environments, political conflicts and rising migration: “In the Middle East the modicum of sustainability that once existed there is being completely destroyed. Perhaps what we are witnessing is only a prelude to what could follow if we don’t draw the right conclusions from what has happened so far.”

The publicist and curator Adrienne Goehler argued that cultural diversity is a particularly important prerequisite of sustainability, claiming that culture must be understood as the fourth dimension of sustainability, alongside the ecology, the economy and society. In future, Goehler hopes to continue her work with Töpfer in this area. In answer to a question about his plans for the institute, IASS director designate Ortwin Renn, an expert on risk and sustainability, explained that he hoped to continue the bridge-building started by Klaus Töpfer: firstly between scientific disciplines, secondly between science, society and politics, and thirdly between the people who conduct research on paths to sustainability and the people who have to go down those paths in their everyday lives: “We can only shape the transformation process together with the people it affects the most, and that’s why we need all three bridges.”

Symposium explores transformation processes in the Anthropocene

The evening event was preceded by a day-long symposium at the IASS on “Science, Politics and Societal Transformation in the Anthropocene” in which renowned participants from Germany and abroad debated central sustainability issues, including climate change, the Energiewende and the protection of resources. On what forms of governance does sustainable development depend? Where does the role of science and hence the IASS – lie at the interface of politics and society when it comes to implementing the sustainable development goals adopted by the international community in September? What innovative solutions have already been developed and what further solutions will be needed in the coming years? How can we put existing knowledge into practice in a more effective way and how can we generate new knowledge?

Adnan Amin, Director-General of the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) and a close associate of Klaus Töpfer’s for the last twenty years, showed with reference to the Energiewende just how radically a successful transformation could change society, the economy, science and politics: the business model for large electricity monopolists no longer exists; in Germany alone thousands of citizens have themselves become electricity producers; the challenge now lies in coordinating these initiatives and supporting them with innovative technologies. During the symposium, the Director of the Global Climate Forum Carlo Jaeger returned to this theme and highlighted the opportunities and impulses that sustainability transformations give rise to.

Schellnhuber urges solidarity with future generations

Climate expert Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, director of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK) and one of the founders of the IASS, pointed out that even if the 2-degree target is achieved, the face of the planet will still be altered. A temperature rise of four degrees or more would have devastating consequences for people and the planet; this would prompt ‘tipping points’ in the Earth system and the sea level could rise by as much as 15 metres. To prevent this, Schellnhuber recommended – after Rousseau – devising and implementing a social contract for the twenty-first century: “Based on reason, we need to cultivate solidarity with as yet unknown future generations.”

Alexander Müller, formerly a senior fellow and secretary general at the IASS, stressed that the implementation of the 17 SDGs in all their complexity will only succeed if it is science-based and involves all stakeholders. To this end – and as pioneered by the IASS – knowledge platforms and appropriate processes must be developed at the interface of science and politics in order to demonstrate in the next two to three years in selected examples that the SDG process can in fact be transformative. Ashok Khosla, co-chair of UNEP’s International Resource Panel and another long-standing associate of Klaus Töpfer, pointed out that global warming will only be restricted if we manage to reconcile resource use with the desire of all people for well-being.

In his closing address to all the participants, Töpfer emphasised that transdisciplinarity was the best instrument to bring about the urgently needed societal transformation to sustainable development: “We need an institute like the IASS and we managed to create something that is needed.”

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