“Physical laws are unforgiving. They leave us no time to beat about the bush. If someone’s ailing we have to intervene, otherwise they’ll die. The way things are, we can work to alleviate the symptoms, but we can no longer cure them. We should have done that 30 years ago, but we didn’t. We are now witnessing the greatest emergency humanity has known, but no one’s clear about how serious it is and acts accordingly.”
The message of Luca Mercalli, president of the Italian Meteorological Society and popular scientist, famous for his newspaper columns and books (Il mio orto tra cielo e terra – My Garden between Heaven and Earth – to cite one) couldn’t be clearer. We met him to discuss the gravity of the situation.
Luca Mercalli: Evident changes are underway, but they are still manageable: the number of Alpine glaciers has halved in the last century, the sea level has risen by 20 centimeters in the same period, and in Europe we are experiencing unprecedented heat waves. Take the 40°C temperatures in the Po Valley, for example. Each of these phenomena causes changes to ecosystems. One is the appearance of previously unknown parasites that jeopardize agriculture, another is the proliferation of insects well-suited to warmer conditions. Some of these, such as the tiger mosquito, spread dangerous diseases. Drought, hurricanes and floods are events that existed already, but they are happening with increased magnitude and intensity. The real risk is the vertiginous rise in temperatures, a phenomenon that has escalated in the last 30 years, and we only have until 2020 to find a remedy.
Slow Food: Earlier than envisaged by the Paris Climate Agreement…
Which has been late in coming and is too weak. I’ve never been a big fan of it. It contains just a few limited actions to solve a problem that, from a physical point of view, demands immediate intervention. We knew when it was signed that it wasn’t going to limit temperature increase by the required 2°C by 2100. Since it’s a voluntary agreement the signatories proposed individual solutions. Putting their proposals together leads to a temperature containment figure of 2.7°C.
International agreements are often either ignored or slow to be implemented.
When it was ratified in April 2016, the Paris agreement still hadn’t impinged upon people’s lives. But it really ought to have translated into choices affecting all our lives. Incentives for renewable fuels, for example, or disincentives on the recourse to the fossil fuel economy.
Then Donald Trump blundered onto the scene and withdrew from the agreement.
He’s making the situation worse with his awful global communication. Aside from the political gravity of not recognizing the agreement, he is also putting across the message that climate change is fake news. His action is discrediting other governments and science itself. My sensation is that we’re getting closer and closer to a point of no return. As I see it, at this moment in time the conditions don’t exist to achieve a world capable of reaching the goal without delay and making shrewd choices in the space of three years. What I do see is European countries, including Pope Francis’s Vatican, attempting to keep the flame alive and trying to convince the United States not to go back on its word. But the underlying problem is that we have no time left. What’s needed is a global action that cannot be left to single states.
What does the United States’ choice mean in real terms?
First there was the 2°C temperature reduction by 2100 as hypothesized on paper, then the 2.7°C reduction target reached under the Paris Agreement. Now with the United States’ exit, the figure comes to 3°C. Plus, there are problems on the economic front. If the United States stays outside the Paris Agreement, hence outside choices on the taxation of fossil fuels, the world economy will be destabilized. If I’m in business and I have a factory that causes pollution, I’m going to shift it to the USA, just as I would have shifted it to China in the past. We are now witnessing the sixth mass extinction event in Earth’s history, but we’re doing nothing about it. We aren’t trying to reconvert our energy and production system. We’re just turning a deaf ear and ignoring the fact that the area of the planet at high risk of drought will increase from 19% to 35% by 2070, that the number of the world’s hungry will grow by several millions in the space of a few years, that half the agricultural land in Latin America is expected to be hit by desertification and salinization by 2050. It’s worse than being on the Titanic. Not only are we dancing, we are also making jokes like ‘if temperatures rise, we’ll spend less on heating’. This is one of the reasons I think that we’re going to pay dearly in terms of the consequences. We just haven’t got the brains to realize the massive damage we’re wreaking. When we realize the complexity and magnitude of the problem, it’ll be too late. We aren’t prepared, we aren’t ready to imagine alternatives. What with all the information that has been circulating in the last 30 years, this shouldn’t be up for discussion any more. Then there’s our inability of seeing the future. We’re stuck in the here and now, inclined to think that, all things considered, a bit of warmer weather in winter may not be such a bad thing. It’s just a pity that we don’t stop to think that, if it doesn’t snow enough, the consequence will be a water shortage in summertime. And that’s just for starters. We complain if we get ten hot days a year, but once we start getting three months at 50°C our lives are going to be in danger, the Po Valley will no longer be arable and it’ll be like living in Pakistan. This isn’t going to happen geological eras away, but from 2050 onwards. To give an idea of what that means, it’s today’s ten-year-olds, our children and our grandchildren, who’ll have to bear the full brunt of this catastrophe.
But some countries are virtuous…
The Scandinavian countries and Germany are the only ones that have proper educational models, are aware of the problem of the environment and have come up with concrete responses, even though these won’t solve the problem. Chancellor Angela Merkel is fighting hard. In Northern Europe they’re frightened that the parasites created by rising temperatures will attack their forests, for them a source of wealth. Overly rapid variations in nature are unendurable and cause death. Over the long term they can be metabolized, but in the short term—a century, say—they involve more disadvantages than advantages. In Italy the environment is seen as a subject of secondary importance and politicians don’t talk about it. This is a problem since, as a result, what’s lacking is a set of coherent actions. There are a lot of valid minor initiatives but no overall vision. The top priority for our politicians is not the environment but the economy: to save the Veneto banks an urgent measure was passed during the night asking Italians to sacrifice five billion euros. Faced with the prospect of economic failure, we almost all bowed our heads. There’s a law to defend farming land—the land needed to produce our food—but it’s been gathering dust in parliament for the last five years. What’s more important, the failure of the banks or the fact that there’ll no longer be any farming land left for our children? Which decree should have been signed first? This is a colossal cognitive dissonance: everything to do with the economy comes first and anything goes, whereas the fundamental physical elements that allow life on this planet to exist are considered secondary. What prevails is an economy dominated by finance and unearned income.
So what can we citizens do about it?
The so-called green economy offers many answers. But, maybe seeing as how politicians ignore the problem, even citizens don’t regard it as top priority. You only have to see all the difficulties involved in garbage recycling. All sorts of alibis are advanced yet it should be very easy indeed. Then there are more complex initiatives such as renewable energy and transport. We need to find every way possible of saving energy and making the our consumption renewable. This is what the Swiss decided to do in a recent referendum setting out their energy plan until 2050. The plan envisages the use of energy, hence energy sobriety [the word ‘sobriety’ isn’t popular in Italy: editor’s note], conversion into renewable energy sources—hydroelectric energy, solar energy and so on—and the switching-off of nuclear power stations. Last but not least comes food. Between 20% and 25% of global emissions are produced by agribusiness—a sizable amount—and it’s evident that our food habits are influencing the climate and the environment. We are now gearing our efforts toward lower meat consumption, the biggest factor in greenhouse gas emissions in the food sector and one of the major causes full stop, as well as toward eating seasonal and local food.
Is there a form of agriculture that’s good for the environment?
Yes, of course there is, but we shouldn’t harbor any illusions. We’ve gone too far. Agriculture is now a cause of climate change and all sorts of pollution (let’s not forget the whole business of synthetic chemicals for plant protection products, for example) simply because it has become a machine at the service of an overloaded world. To maintain our present lifestyle, we are using the capacity of an Earth and a half and burning up the natural capital of future generations. Sustainable forms of agriculture clearly do exist—take agroecology and conservation agriculture, for example—but my opinion, alas, is that we’ve gone too far with the present population of 7.5 billion people. What will happen in 2050 when, according to recent UN estimates, there are going to be 9.8 billion of us? I believe we have to defend sustainable agriculture at all costs, as compatible as possible with the figures I’ve cited. But I struggle to imagine these forms of agriculture being able to feed a megacity with a population of 20 million. But we can start to improve the situation now by reducing food waste, especially at the consumption stage.