Close-up of extreme weather

German Environmental Award for Researcher Friederike Otto

Osnabrück/London. Heat records and droughts, heavy rain and floods: the impact of climate change on weather has become increasingly clear in recent years, due to scientific research. One climate researcher has made a particular contribution to this scientific discipline: Prof. Dr. Friederike Otto (41) from Imperial College London. For this achievement, the Kiel-born scientist will be receiving the German Environmental Award 2023 from the German Federal Environmental Foundation (Deutsche Bundesstiftung Umwelt, DBU). She shares the award, which is endowed with a total of 500,000 euros, with timber construction pioneer Dagmar Fritz-Kramer. German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier will present the prize to both of them on October 29 in Lübeck.

Research on extreme weather: consequences and costs of climate crisis

Climate scientist Otto is rapidly investigating the causes of extreme weather occurring worldwide, such as this year’s heat waves in North America, Europe and China. “Her timely and high-profile presentation of the results makes it clear what the climate crisis is costing society and what measures will make the affected regions more resilient,” says DBU Secretary-General Alexander Bonde.

Links between extreme weather and global warming

Otto co-founded the World Weather Attribution (WWA) project in 2015 with Prof. Dr. Geert Jan van Oldenborgh of the Netherlands, who died in 2021. She has played a decisive role in developing the methodology to attribute individual weather events to human-induced climate change. With the studies being published in the immediate aftermath of an extreme weather event occurring, such as this year’s heat waves, scientifically sound facts are available “even while the effects of the event are still being discussed in the media, politics and society,” says DBU Secretary General Bonde. “The rapid publication of the study results has a groundbreaking impact on the discourse about consequences and measures because of climate change.” For one thing, he says, it stands up to those who sow doubt and spread false news among the population. For another, it creates awareness to reduce emissions of climate-damaging greenhouse gases and a push for local-regional climate adaptation.

The studies provide causal analyses of the drivers of weather-related disasters

Without man-made climate change, this year’s heat waves would not have been possible, as a WWA study showed in July. Bonde: “This makes it clear that we have to get along without fossil energy sources very quickly. Because the burning of oil, natural gas and coal contributes decisively to global warming.” The studies are also groundbreaking, he says, because Otto’s team not only analyses causes, but at the same time recommends solutions. “Many communities and cities now have heat action plans,” says physicist and philosopher Otto, referring to another finding of the heat wave study: “Given increasing vulnerability due to aging societies and growing inequality, there is an enormous need to roll out these heat action plans more widely.” The climate scientist is a lead author of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s (IPCC) Sixth Assessment Report and is part of the core writing team of authors of the IPCC synthesis report released in March. She is professor at the Grantham Institute Climate Change and the Environment at Imperial College London since 2021.

Action requires sophisticated strategy and the highest level of innovation

According to Bonde, only causal knowledge allows specific solutions to be developed and financial resources to be consistently invested in measures that make society more resilient. According to him, this approach requires scientific know-how and international cooperation. For instance, WWA works together with local or national Red Cross staff. In addition, says Bonde, a sophisticated strategy and the highest level of innovation is necessary – all under high pressure of time and expectations. If, for example, a current flood wave is the subject of a WWA study, Otto’s team evaluates existing climate models from national weather services and combines the data with current on-site observation data. Shortly thereafter, the public will be informed.

Awards as one of the world’s most influential people in science

In November 2022, Friederike Otto received a professorship of excellence from the Petersen Foundation. In 2021, she was recognized as one of the most influential people in the world on the prestigious TIME100 list because of co-founding World Weather Attribution. Furthermore, Nature magazine named her one of the world’s top ten scientists in 2021.

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