Taking a Moment to Save the World

Paleontologist Reinhold Leinfelder helped to develop a graphic novel about the consequences of climate change that has now been nominated for the German Science Book of the Year award for 2013

Sep 27, 2013

„Die große Transformation. Klima – Kriegen wir die Kurve?“ ist der Titel des Comics. Die kreative „Übersetzung“ eines 410 Seiten umfassenden wissenschaftlichen Berichtes wurde bereits mehrfach ausgezeichnet.
A feverish planet in the graphic novel. For a translation of the speech bubble, see article. Image Credit: Verlag Jacoby & Stuart

In 2011, when Reinhold Leinfelder wrote a report on the climate at the request of the German federal government, he wanted the news of the Earth’s poor condition to spread to more than just politicians – instead, he wanted to reach the entire German public.

Working with colleagues from the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU), Leinfelder, a bio-geologist, started looking for a new way to disseminate the dramatic findings from years of research on the consequences of climate change. In the end, he decided on a graphic novel. The creative “translation” of the 410-page report has garnered various awards and has now even been nominated for the Science Book of the Year (Wissensbuch des Jahres) award for 2013.

The graphic novel, arranged in interview form, is entitled Die große Transformation. Klima – Kriegen wir die Kurve? (The Big Transformation. Climate – Can We Handle This Curve?). In it, experts from the WBGU – well-known climate researchers, economists, sociologists, cultural, and legal scholars – take a stance toward the threats facing the Earth. Leinfelder is not just one of the book’s editors and creators, but also one of the protagonists: Right in the second chapter, a fictitious version of Leinfelder travels from Frankfurt to Panama to go diving on a coral reef study trip.

With water temperatures on the rise, coral reefs can no longer survive – with dramatic consequences. “The extinction of the coral reefs is destroying the basis for life for many fish,” Leinfelder says. “And that means economic and existential ruin for many people who make their living from fishing.”

Entertaining and Scientifically Accurate

The prologue and nine chapters in the black-and-white graphic novel were designed by six different illustrators in all – and yet, a single recurring theme ties them together. “I thought it was important to introduce readers to the issues facing the Earth in a fun and entertaining way,” Leinfelder says. The graphic novel was supposed to be entertaining, but at the same time, it also needed to be scientifically accurate.

Leinfelder is convinced that researchers need to take their findings to the entire public if change is ever to be achieved. After all, only if each and every one of us and all the generations to come understand the effects of climate change will it be possible for humans to halt the destruction of the Earth. “With that in mind, we plan to take the graphic novel to schools now, urging them to read it in class,” he says. The book has received very positive responses from the public so far.

Well-known Climate Experts Have Their Say

What makes the project special is its interdisciplinary approach. Well-known climate experts, such as Hans Joachim Schellnhuber of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, have their say, but they are also joined by legal and economic scholars, who take up the topic from the perspective of the humanities, legal studies, and social sciences.

In one chapter entitled “Wer soll das bezahlen?” (Who’s going to pay for it?), economics professor Renate Schubert argues forcefully that a climate-friendly shift is necessary not only for ecological reasons, but also for economic ones. After all, if temperatures in Germany rise, with recurring heavy rainfall and flooding as a result, our cities and regions will no longer be usable either as vacation destinations or as places to live.

Graphic Novel Makes the Global Threat Understandable

To prevent that from happening, Leinfelder says, the increase in global temperature has to be kept at less than two degrees Celsius, compared with the level before the start of industrialization. Doesn’t sound like much? The novel uses a comparison to bring the threat home to readers: If a person’s body temperature rises by more than two degrees on a long-term basis, one organ after the other fails, and sooner or later the entire organism collapses. It’s the same with the Earth, he says. “So we have to understand that climate change is an issue for all of us,” Leinfelder says. “It’s going to take a long time to slow the process down, so we have to start changing our lives now.”

Population density around the world is rising – increasing the consumption of food, which leads to elevated carbon dioxide emissions. The Earth also cannot withstand the rampant use of petroleum much longer. The graphic novel shows this in visually appealing, informative stories that also offer insight into the everyday work of researchers in the field.

“We Need a Revolution”

Alternatives are presented, among them solar or wind energy. “Technologically, we have reached the point that we could use solely renewable energies for our entire power supply. All that is lacking now is the implementation,” Leinfelder says. He is optimistic: “If everyone does their part, we can stop global warming.”

What is needed, he says, is a revolution like the one people experienced during the Enlightenment. At that time, people became aware that every mature individual could take his or her destiny into his or her own hands. “Humans have shown that we are capable of changing. That’s the kind of revolution we need now, too.” Until that happens, Leinfelder’s goal is simple: to get the word out and convince people about climate change. The graphic novel marks the first step.

Translation of the speech bubble: "By way of comparison: If human body temperature rises by just 2 °C (3.6 °F), we say that someone has a fever. When their temperature gets above 40 °C (104 °F), one organ after another fails, and sooner or later, the whole human body collapses."