The power of action lies in small steps

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz talks about climate change, possibilities of limiting environmental damage, scientific solidarity and decision-makers' tardiness with prof. dr hab. Mirosław Miętus from the Faculty of Oceanography and Geography of the University of Gdańsk, currently employed at the Institute of Meteorology and Water Management of the State Research Institute, where he is the Deputy Director and at the same time the Permanent Representative of Poland in the World Meteorological Organisation

- We all have the impression that our climate has gone 'crazy'. The recent storms were very violent and caused a lot of damage all over Europe. Meanwhile, at successive climate summits, very cautious decisions are being taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Protesters are demanding that politicians start listening to scientists. Should they?

- Yes, because modern climate change is accelerating rapidly. Human history is one of constant adaptation to different conditions, including environmental conditions. Civilisational development is strongest in temperate latitudes, where climatic conditions are most favourable to humans. In such regions, man develops his activities, which, unfortunately, as research shows, leads to the climate, which is subject to its natural variability, also beginning to change under the influence of human activity. Viewed from the perspective of the Earth's natural history, after each change there is a tendency for a new climatic equilibrium to be established, which is expressed, among other things, by a different average temperature. Scientific research clearly indicates that this temperature will be higher on Earth in the near future. We also know that if we do not reduce our impact on the environment, the new equilibrium will be reached at a level unacceptable to man.

- Will we not survive such high temperatures?

- Perhaps some individuals particularly well adapted to the environmental conditions would manage to survive, but population survival will not be possible. Today's human population numbers nearly eight billion people. At the turn of the 20th century, there were just over one billion of us, so we have grown considerably since then. We have inhabited and developed much larger areas of land and we need to produce more and more food and use water intensively in these areas. This is a resource that is being systematically exploited and without which we cannot survive. The fact that water is a prerequisite for the development of civilisation was recognised very early on. Among other things, the first human settlements and fortresses were established in places where water was available. Towns and settlements were also established in the coastal zones and even directly on the shorelines. The consequence of the development of civilisation and settlement along rivers is that they bring with them the risks of flooding and high water from the sea and strong winds. Modern climate change is manifesting itself in its warming and the consequence is, among other things, rising sea levels, and two-thirds of the global population lives in the coastal zone of seas and oceans.

- Still, some people and even scientists dispute the fact that human activity is behind climate change. They also claim that we are dealing with natural changes that are repeated in human history in certain time sequences.

- These are two myths that have the same genesis. It is worth taking a look at the website, which explains a lot about these issues. The Nobel Prize, which was awarded in physics in 2022, went to half of the physicists working on climate. They are Professor Klaus Hasselmann of the Max-Planck-Institut für Meteorologie in Hamburg and Professor Syukuro Manabe of Princeton University. Both have made enormous contributions to the development of climate physics and modern climate research tools. They have shown that it is possible to model the climate in so-called coupled systems in which all the basic components interact, with measurable qualitative and quantitative results. In simple terms, it can be said that they both demonstrated that processes occurring in one place and on one time scale can be translated into processes occurring on a global scale. The world has given the answer that there is a scientific rationale for studying climate and the processes that shape it. This is evident in a recent report by a group of experts, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), with whom I worked extensively from the second to the fourth periodic assessment. We use around sixty climate models from various scientific centres. The scientific community agrees on a joint experiment: everyone runs their own model. Each works under different conditions and assumptions. They produce a certain result, for example, in the form of a global temperature series. From this data, we calculate an average. If we include only the processes responsible for natural climate variability in the computational models, it turns out that the instrumental, or measured, series diverges from the series from the computer simulations. This 'divergence' occurs in the middle of the 20th century. On the other hand, if in the climate models, in addition to the factors responsible for its natural variability, we also take into account the anthropogenic factor, we see an excellent agreement between the instrumental series and the series obtained from computer simulations. In the last three IPCC reports, there is complete agreement among all countries that man has a significant influence on climate. These reports incorporate the work of many scientific disciplines. They are prepared mainly by climatologists, but also by oceanographers, biologists, hydrologists, physicists and atmospheric chemists.

- We hear more and more often that each successive climate report is a 'red alert for humanity'. Perhaps this is causing us to lose our sensitivity to climate issues?

- The problem is one of communication, for indeed we too often misuse the category of 'red alert', a situation from which there is no return. If someone states unequivocally that there will be a climate catastrophe in ten or twenty years, and after that nothing of the sort happens and you don't need to build another Noah's ark to survive, then we stop trusting such messages. But scientific research clearly shows that the pathways of future greenhouse gas emissions diverge sharply in the fifth decade of the 21st century, and unless we get this under control, there will be a point of no return. Unless we 'switch off' everything, i.e. stop our activities, and wait for the concentration of greenhouse gases to decrease and thus cool down. But the warming potential of gases varies and we would have to wait at least a few decades for the climate to cool down. Today we are no longer talking about cooling, but about how to stop warming at about 1.5 degrees Celsius above the pre-industrial average. We, therefore, need to ask ourselves how to reduce the use of those energy sources and those economic activities that are associated with high emissions and are responsible for accelerating global warming. Exclusively green solutions do not always serve this purpose.

- Is it the case that we find new solutions that in the end turn out to be not very ecological? Like the electric car, for example, which requires electricity and electricity production contributes to greenhouse gas production? What can we do to prevent a domino effect of global warming?

- We should act sensibly because, as I mentioned earlier, the moment when the path of greenhouse gas emissions diverges is imminent. Unfortunately, if we take a very pro-environmental path, this does not mean that the temperature will not stop rising. But at least it will stabilise at or slightly above 1.5 degrees Celsius. This is a critical level according to climate models.

- The youngest generations want to live in a safe environment and they are not surprised. They are calling for radical measures that can halt climate change.

- The problem is that young people are demanding radical change and at the same time want to enjoy the comforts of civilisation, which involves the emission of greenhouse gases. They want to travel the world, for example, and so they fly planes and drive cars. You mentioned electromobility. Today's electric cars do indeed emit fewer gases, but at the same time, they are burdened with an ecological debt. Electric batteries require energy which, in most countries, we get from processing fossil fuels, and we also have problems disposing of them safely. Rapid change is not possible, especially in countries whose energy systems are based on coal, oil and gas. Poland is one of those countries. We must therefore strive to rebuild the energy system. Photovoltaics and wind power can significantly supplement energy needs, but they will not provide us with as much energy as we need. We certainly cannot avoid nuclear power, despite environmentalists' concerns about this solution. It is typical for young people to be extreme in their views, and then to cool down a little because not everything can be had at once. We should certainly act and demand changes from the decision-makers. I have sons and a granddaughter, so I observe climate change with concern, but we must be guided by reason and start with measures that are possible at the beginning, moving to more radical ones over time.

- The responsibility of politicians and decision-makers for the state of the climate is clear. And how does the responsibility of scientists manifest itself? Is it only by conducting and publishing research?

- Scientists can do more than that. First of all, they should speak openly and publicly about modern climate change and the problems it poses. Express doubts, challenge myths, show the complexity of climate processes. I have been talking about this for nearly thirty years, and I have got used to the fact that the vast majority of politicians do not listen to scientists. Sometimes even my discouragement of this kind of public action stems from this. What annoys me more today is the often enough visible indifference of the scientific community to the problem of climate change. As scientists, we should make knowledge available to the wider public and exert more effective pressure on politicians, those in power who make decisions at various levels, both at the lowest - local - and at the highest - in international bodies.

- Can I do something as a scientist, dealing with a completely different field of research, to stop global warming?

- Among scientists, there should be an ethical principle of not denying scientific facts. It is not about hypotheses or conjecture, but irrefutable research results. We should also all reach out to a wide audience with our knowledge of modern climate change. In many different dimensions - including, for example, the economic dimension. But as a scientist, I would like to draw attention to what I consider to be a contradictory state policy on the dissemination of knowledge. If I publish an article in English, it will be read by my colleagues and scientists in other countries, but it is unlikely to be looked at by any of the Polish decision-makers, nor will it reach a wide audience in Poland. A publication in Polish has such a chance, while the system in science, based primarily on points, promotes almost exclusively publications in English. This is quite depressing. There should also be an open discussion involving many circles, including officials and politicians.

- What should be the decalogue of every person who would like to influence the improvement of climate conditions?

- First of all, we should reduce consumption. There is no need to buy more and more new items - technological novelties, as new technologies also mean new electro-waste. Televisions, laptops, computers... Many people change them every year, and we should use them for at least a few years. If we think about it, we will see that we do not need these newer and newer devices, that this need is created by marketing specialists. We also need to change our mentality and give up, at least to some significant degree, convenience. Above all, plastic is a huge environmental hazard. Let's reduce our 'carbon footprint' - you don't have to fly or drive everywhere. Use the railways. Reduce meat-eating. These are basic actions or sacrifices if you like. They could go on for a long time.

- Is there hope for us?

- I still think there is. I believe that we still have some time before we cross the critical mass and that it is more than one-two decades. If we reduce meat consumption and fossil fuel consumption by just fifteen percent, which is after all possible and achievable, we will avoid rapid climate feedback and limit the negative effects. It may even be possible to make the outcome of the changes per se positive. Instead of taking radical action, which may prove counterproductive because it will discourage many people from protecting the environment, let us take sensible steps and introduce systematic changes that limit the damage. I see the power of action in such small but consistent steps.

- Thank you for the interview.

Dr Beata Czechowska-Derkacz
Research Promotion Specialist
Institute of Media, Journalism and Social Communication

Professor dr hab. Mirosław Miętus

Deputy Director of the Institute of Meteorology and Water Management PIB, Director of the Research and Development Centre. Permanent representative of Poland in the World Meteorological Organization (WMO). In 2002-2020 employee of the University of Gdańsk, full professor, director of the Institute of Geography, currently on leave. WMO expert, coordinator of the project 'RA VI WMO Climate of the Baltic Sea Basin'. Member and later head of the WMO Expert Panel on Marine Climatology and the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC UNESCO), member of the data management area of the Joint Technical Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOMM), expert of the Global Climate Observing System (for data-rescue in the region of Central and Eastern Europe). Representative of Poland at plenary sessions of the WMO Commission for Marine Meteorology (CMM) and the WMO-IOC Joint Commission for Oceanography and Marine Meteorology (JCOOM), representative of Poland at WMO Technical Commissions on Polar Meteorology (Arctic and Antarctic). He represented Poland at the plenary sessions of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and the sessions accepting interim reports of IPCC Working Group I in 1996, 2001, 2007. Awarded with IPCC honorary diploma confirming his significant contribution to the IPCC winning the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007. Member of Polish delegations to COP UNFCCC sessions. (Conference of Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change). Since 2002 an academic teacher at the University of Gdańsk, for two terms Director of the Institute of Geography, currently on leave. Author of numerous works on detection of climate change in Poland and its relation to regional processes, as well as scenarios of future climate evolution and effects of these changes in selected economic sectors and areas (in particular effects of climate change in the coastal zone). Contractor and manager of many scientific projects, both national and international.

dr Beata Czechowska - Derkacz