Protecting the climate is not a sacrifice, it is our future

Mexican scientist Ana Sofía Varela and journalist Antonio Cerrillo discuss the importance of working against climate change

Today was the second debate of the series Women Scientists for the environment, organised by Casa Amèrica Catalunya in collaboration with DIPLOCAT. This is a series of debates with a female perspective on the major issues that in the future will be the focus of scientific research for the preservation of the planet and our lives, during which leading scientists in Latin America discuss issues with Catalan disseminators, such as the pandemic, climate, water, biodiversity and mountains.

In this second session, Ana Sofía Varela, research chemist at the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), and Antonio Cerrillo, National Prize for Environmental Journalism 2004, discussed the climate. The journalist began the conversation by proposing that humanity must be able to take on "the challenge of changing course" of how we have acted so far, as "climate change requires changes in all areas", from energy and transportation to the rest of the industry. In this sense, she stated that "we know the challenge but not the way forward, because we lack tools". For her part, Varela commented that although there is already a change in attitude in the issue of the importance of reducing CO2 emissions, with the use of renewable energy, these only represent 3% of the total. It is therefore necessary to work in other areas to produce widespread change in the industry, but she agreed that "we do not yet have the solutions".

The Mexican scientist considers that the natural strategy of reforestation is the best option for reducing the effects of climate change, but in any case it is not the only solution and this is where scientists should come into play, "looking for other solutions". Varela, who investigates the transformation of CO2 into non-polluting materials, gave as an example the field of agriculture and construction, where materials (fertilizers and cement) are used that have treatment processes that are not environmentally friendly. These processes need to be improved or changed, or alternative materials found as the case may be. Asked by Cerrillo about the awareness of climate change among the public opinion of his country, a major producer of cement and oil, Varela acknowledged that the issue is not in the public debate and instead the problem caused by pollution of air and water with plastic waste. However, the serious drought problem facing the country is a direct consequence of climate change. "We are lagging behind in the public debate," she said.

Both speakers agreed that political action to combat climate change must go beyond the approaches of technological transformation and the economy or competitiveness and also set a change of values from the grassroots. A massive collective effort is needed and governments must take part, they said. In this sense, Varela has acknowledged that in the case of Latin America, she can see only willingness to act in the scientific community, but governments are not developing plans in the short or long term, while investments in science and technology are stalled in the face of social emergencies. In Varela's words, "climate change is still an abstract thing".

At this point, Antonio Cerrillo has pointed to a "pedagogical error" in linking the consequences of climate change to the melting situation in the Arctic and not to the problems of drought in Mexico, for example. In his opinion, the debate needs to be approached and related to everyday elements in order to raise awareness, and he cited the associated health and daily life benefits of combating climate change as an example.

The speakers also referred to the changes in lifestyle due to the COVID-19 pandemic, with the restriction of both professional and personal flights and tourism, making it clear that we are able to adapt to great changes for the collective good. At the same time, this common interest has put on the table the importance of research to solve problems, a task that must be done collaboratively and globally. In the words of Cerrillo, "the future lies in protecting the climate, it is not a sacrifice".

Highlighting this need to act in all areas and collectively, Cerrillo pointed to the Spanish Law on Climate Change, which is about to be approved, which already raises the need for public companies to develop climate plans so that the Public accountability in this area is very important. Varela agreed on the diagnosis and reiterated the argument that so far goals have been set but no plans have been drawn up to achieve them. "We need to put numbers on the issue," she said

In conclusion, Varela and Cerrillo have agreed that the solution will not only come from technology, but that progress must be made in many areas: scientific, political, legislative and personal consumption. The recipe is multiple and we cannot favour just one formula over another, as the problem must be faced from many fronts. Finally, both of them remarked that the debate cannot focus on the high and uncompetitive costs involved in these types of technological changes, because in the long run they will also be competitive, as has already been shown with renewable energies, for which many companies are now clearly committing to. 

Upcoming talks

The Women Scientists for the Environment cycle focuses on female scientists who have shone for their perseverance and success in defending some area of research into nature. They are women who have become a leading name in their field, who have created a school of thought or made some decisive scientific discovery, who have penned outstanding scientific publications and received international awards.

The next sessions of the cycle will include:  Verena Häussermann, Chilean-German biologist, director of the Huinay Science Center in Chilean Patagonia; Claudia Suseth-Romero, Guatemalan inventor of a natural method of water decontamination; Tatiana Espinosa, winner of the Jane Goodall Hope and Inspiration Ranger Award for her work in the Amazon; Brigitte Baptiste, director of the Alexander von Humboldt Biological Resources Research Institute in Colombia for eight years; and Yolanda Kakabadse, promoter of the Declaration for Environmental Sustainability in Latin America. They will be accompanied by the Catalan scientific disseminators Josep-Maria Gili, Ramon Folch, Àlex Richter-Boix, David Bueno and Vladimir de Semir.