Climate change as an opportunity to build a better quality of life

Maisa Rojas, climatologist

What led you to specialize in climate studies? An experience in nature? A professor?
No, the truth is that working in climate came about separately from an obvious interest in nature. I mean I’ve always had an interest in nature, but I would say that it was something separate until very recently, in the same way that I had a private life. So I liked camping and nature, while I worked at an office, and because I studied physics I didn’t choose that profession because I was interested in nature, but because it just happened. For a long time, within the field of climate, I was just working with models, so it wasn’t because of that either; there are some climatologists that go out to the field and collect data, etc., but I didn’t even do that.

Climate change has become a very complex phenomenon that needs to be addressed from many areas and in a transversal way. Do you think the mitigation and adaptation solutions are now being addressed in a more transdisciplinary way, or is it still a while away?
Good question. I would say that it depends on who you ask, but the answers or questions are definitely becoming more complex in order to find the solutions. To address the causes of climate change we have to mitigate, which means eliminating fossil fuels from our lives. A huge part of this problem is that we basically have to stop burning oil, coal and methane and start using renewable energy. That’s a large part of the problem, and it’s a good thing too, because that’s actually the easiest part – it’s essentially technology. So I think that people are tempted to think that it’s a technological problem, which is a bit misleading. Now, for the mitigation part in particular, other complementary issues are emerging, which are the so-called nature-based solutions which will help reduce emissions. In other words, it is helping nature do the work that it does for us, which is to remove CO2 from the atmosphere through photosynthesis; basically, helping its role in the carbon cycle. Of course, when one thinks about these types of solutions, it’s generally a lot more interdisciplinary. I would say that in adapting to climate change there is a recognition that these are locally-made decisions, which have to then be contextualized for the region, etc. Therefore, interdisciplinary study comes about more naturally. We have to do both things (mitigation and adaptation) and we have to do them at the same time. This requires profound changes in practically every aspect of our daily work, and allows us to quickly realize that it can’t be done just with technology – it requires all disciplines.

What do you think of the process the world has undergone with the pandemic? Has the paradigm shift helped or hindered the way we live?
Oof, I don’t have the answer. If you had asked me last year, when we were still deep into the pandemic, I would have said that it was going to help. Now that we’re coming out of the pandemic…well, you never know. The pandemic shows how interconnected we are, and that requires us to work in a really coordinated way. I think that we’ve seen that when science comes together and wants to do things quickly, we end up with four or five vaccines in record time. In fact, I would say that what we did in 2019 – to convene 600 scientists through the Climate Change Committee – was a great surprise to us because we saw how many people wanted to work on the issues, who were so generous with their time, energy and knowledge. I think that something very similar has happened in Chile with the pandemic; for example, how all of the laboratories have been at the disposal of the people who need PCR tests. So I do think it should make us reflect; but as always – because that’s how life is – it’s still not clear just how much the pandemic will help.

It’s true, we have a capacity to solve things when emergencies appear, which is significant and works very quickly.
Very, very quickly, and we change the way we live. Because that’s the other thing – it’s been said that cultural change is slow, right? But in these circumstances, our ways of living change radically and very quickly.

How do you envision Chilean society educating on climate change in the next few years? How would you like climate change to be addressed?
I would like us to see the fight against climate change as a huge opportunity to build a better quality of life for all Chileans. That especially includes the way we live in our cities. I think there are great opportunities there, as well as in how we relate to each other and to nature. The matter of cities is, in my opinion, a very important one, as more than half the population worldwide lives in cities; in Chile, 90% of Chileans live in cities. Many of our cities are polluted and have a huge number of problems. Facing climate change, for example, will imply removing all polluting cars and swapping them for electric buses and cars, or many other things that will result in cleaner, kinder cities that are more pleasant to live in. I’d like this to be the way for us to go through it, because it’s possibly a very tangible result: the place where I live changes from what it is now to something that can be much better, and I think it can help people to commit to and work for the solution.

And in terms of culture, how do you think it can contribute to promoting actions against climate change?
I think we have to realize that there is no silver bullet for climate change or other complex issues, no easy solution. And sometimes, that’s what people want; like, “What do we have to do?” or “Give me three things to do”, and that’s it. Unfortunately, the answer is usually “Well, there aren’t just two or three things, it’s all of them”. Mostly, it’s about convincing people. You have to convince people, and Juan Carlos (Juan Carlos Muñoz, CEDEUS researcher) says, for example, that you have to convince the head, but also the heart, the emotions. Culture and art are what move those parts of us, so I think they are essential. I also think that culture and art have always been present to show us social issues, so I would expect them to play an important role.

As for mitigation, what individual actions do you think can be of help?
There are various things that I think can contribute to those who make certain decisions. You know what I would like? I’d like there to be an understanding, a compromise, that any trip under, for example, 2 kms, is always done by foot. And less than four kms would be done by bicycle. These things bring a lot of benefits. Let’s say I have a car, a bike and I can also walk. It would be great if it were natural for me to ride my bike if I have to go less than 4 kms, or walk; and if it’s more than that, I would use the car. That would be the mentality. I think that changing the way the city works is very important. In addition, food choices also help, such as not throwing it away unnecessarily. Globally, one third of food is thrown away or wasted. Of course this is from the farmer to your plate, but I think that at least from supermarkets and other markets to your plate, that’s an area you can be responsible for and avoid waste. So there are two actions that can help.

Chile has national and sectoral adaptation plans, but given the emergency highlighted in the latest IPCC report, how would you accelerate the development of these adaptation issues?
That’s a great question. Unfortunately, we’ve actually had these plans for a while. The first adaptation plans are from the silvo-agricultural sector that lasted 5 years, which the comptroller looked at after the implementation period had passed, writing a lapidary report that stated that nothing had been done. So of course, there is work and there are people working, but nothing ends up happening, which is sad. Hopefully this will change once we have a law for climate change, because it will include certain requirements, responsibilities and attributions. For now, things work a bit on the basis of goodwill, which can only go so far when the time comes to act. I believe what we need for the near future is to have a very committed Ministry of Finance. Of course, the Ministry of the Environment can also move things forward, but if we have a Ministry of Finance that understands this as being a development program for the next 30 years and fast-forwards it, then we’ll really get going. Well I didn’t answer the question directly, but it’s clear that the most crucial issue is water, where we have to really fix things, but it’s also the most difficult issue.

On a slightly more symbolic note, mitigation and adaptation for climate is metaphorically posed as a struggle or an obstacle course, as something very difficult; this makes it easy to fall into resignation and feeling a bit hopeless about the situation. What do you think is the most appropriate way to communicate the phenomenon?
Yes, good question; the topic of conveying the most catastrophic outlook always comes up, doesn’t it? And then psychologists say that of course, you have to push yourself a little bit to act. But all of a sudden, when the picture is looking so negative, it produces inaction. It’s like you leave with your arms dragging by your sides. I think – or I imagine – that it depends a bit on the person. There are people who have a greater capacity to mobilize when they see a catastrophe, while others don’t. But I would say we need to be moved by genuine preoccupation. I personally prefer a more positive outlook; that all of these changes are going to fix various problems at the same time, if done right.

Why do you think this urgency hasn’t translated into more committed actions on a global scale?
Well, the answer is kind of easy on a global scale, and it’s that fossil fuels are everywhere. So it’s really a very deep transformation. And corporations are very powerful; they’ve found a way to hide the reality. It’s that simple.

The last question is about the Climate Change Observatory of the Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation. We know that there is a significant gap in research, data and knowledge between the Northern and Southern hemispheres. What do you think are the biggest challenges to closing this gap?
Long-term thinking. Having long-term planning is the most important. It doesn’t make sense to have data on one year, two years, when we talk about long-term trend changes in climate change. To do this, you need an institution that is in charge and that is capable of taking that data and saving, organizing, maintaining and sharing it for many, many years; that’s the value. Now that we have a Ministry of Science, we have the possibility of thinking about science in the long-term, because before it was impossible; it was an agency that had very little capacity for long-term planning, so that is our hope now. In addition, training for scientists is now much longer, it’s not a three-year career. It’s a lot of years and everything is very much related to long-term capacity and thinking. And in the face of climate change, too.

At least at the institutional level – where the Ministry of Science is -, you feel that there has been significant progress, yes?
We’ll have to see now. In theory, yes. But in practice, we still have to see. It could be, but it’s also isn’t something that can be resolved in one or two years. With the upcoming change in government we’ll be able to evaluate whether certain policies will remain, as I would expect them to. So it’s a test; a small test. We’ll have to see.

Maisa Rojas
Climatologist and expert in climate change. She has a B.A. in Physics from the University of Chile and a PhD in Atmospheric Physics from Oxford University.  She also completed a post doctorate at Columbia University. She has been a member of expert panels in several projects that design policies to respond to climate change and she is the principal author of the firth report of the Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change (AR5, IPCC, 2013). She is currently an associate professor at the University of Chile.