POTSDAM, Germany Germany's top climate researcher says he hopes he and his fellow scientists around the world have got it all wrong about global warming.
Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, head of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told Reuters he gets no pleasure at all in being a prophet of doom and hopes he and his colleagues have overlooked effects that could still arrest climate change.
"It would be wonderful if some mechanism that we haven't yet been able to understand could still have an impact and manage to stabilize global warming at a high level for a while," he said in an interview in his institute's office outside Berlin.
"I would be delighted if it turns out that we haven't understood the system as well as we think we do and that we might get a 20- to 30-year 'breathing period' when global warming slows or is even halted," the physics professor said.
But Schellnhuber, who advises German Chancellor Angela Merkel and the European Union on climate change, said it was also possible scientists were erring in the opposite direction and underestimating the climate change dynamics.
Most scientists say heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels are nudging up global temperatures. A minority say the rises are entirely the result of natural fluctuations.
Schellnhuber will join world leaders next week in Copenhagen when they will try to work out a new U.N. pact to address global warming.
"It's like we're on the Titanic," said Schellnhuber, 59. "But this time we've got a clear view of the horizon. We're not up there in the look-out with a pair of binoculars in the dark but rather with a radar system, a scientific radar system.
"The problem is there are 192 captains on the ship," he said, referring to the number of countries involved in the talks on fighting climate change. "And that is a fatal situation. But I'm nevertheless hoping for a magic moment in Copenhagen."
Schellnhuber presented a "Copenhagen Diagnosis" last month with 25 experts that said global warming is happening faster than expected and sea levels could rise by up to 2 meters (6-1/2 ft) by 2100. They urged action to cap rising greenhouse gas emissions by 2015 to avoid the worst impact of climate change.
Skeptics, who call the report more scare-mongering, have recently seized on hacked emails as evidence the case for climate change has been exaggerated.
"I personally wish it were just 'scare-mongering', that this is all exaggerated," Schellnhuber said when asked about the skeptics. He said scientists face intensive peer scrutiny that ensures high standards of quality, integrity and accuracy.
"What special interests are supposedly being represented? Our findings have nothing to do with special interests. The system is constructed to ensure the greatest credibility."
Schellnhuber pointed out Albert Einstein was among the scientists who worked in the same offices he now occupies.
"No one goes into science to earn a lot of money or to become famous or to meet beautiful women," he said. "People go into science because they're interested in finding the truth. It's total nonsense (to accuse scientists of scare-mongering). Those people will never believe us."
(Writing by Erik Kirschbaum; editing by Ralph Boulton)