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Interview with Javier Martín-Vide

15 October 2009

Interview with Javier Martín-Vide, organizer of the symposium «Water and Climate Change».

«As a result of climate change, we have no option but to change our habits».

For the second year running, the UB Water Research Institute has organized a water symposium. This year it is titled ‘Water and Climate Change' and will be held on 13 November in the UB Faculty of Law. Javier Martín-Vide explained the scope of the event.

Climate change is no longer a topic just for scientists and experts in the area. Now more than ever, it is essential for the debate to include actors from a wide range of disciplines, including representatives of the natural, social, economic, legal and political spheres, and the approach must be both local and global.

Javier Martín-Vide, the organizer of the symposium «Water and Climate Change», explained the importance of maintaining the continuity of and consolidating this comprehensive, intensive conference, which focuses on various aspects of the issue. The importance of this topic cannot be underestimated: climate change is one of humanity's most serious environmental problems of the twenty-first century. In fact, it is not only environmental, but also economic, social and political.

What is the main aim of the symposium?
The UB Water Research Institute's main activities are the organization and teaching of a university master's degree on water and the water symposiums. This is the second water symposium, titled «Water and Climate Change». Climate change is closely related to water. For a Mediterranean region such as Catalonia that receives only moderate rainfall, this topic is of particular interest. We know that the planet's temperature has clearly increased, apart from some exceptions. Global warming is our new reality, and many countries are now hotter than they were 25 or 30 years ago. In contrast, we do not have such clear information about water and about precipitation in particular, as this is a climatic variable that is highly changeable in space and time. It is almost impossible to deal with precipitation statistically and it has extremely high variability. As a result, we cannot unequivocally describe its recent trends or forecast its future patterns. Thus, there is greater uncertainty than there is with temperature, about which there are no longer any doubts: the planet has warmed up and will continue to do so, whatever we do, for decades. Existing climate models for this region of the Mediterranean indicate that there will be a reduction in rainfall, but there are several uncertainties. Hence, the title of the symposium 'Water and Climate Change', as we aim to advance in our knowledge of water in this new context of climate change.

What are the differences between this symposium and that of 2008?
On this occasion, participation in the symposium is limited as it focuses on specific topics presented by a small, but select, group of professionals and researchers who work in different fields and aspects of water and climate change. Thus, the format is different from that of the first symposium, in which there were many very brief contributions from members of the Water Research Institute. Now, there is a specific topic addressed by specialists who are mainly from outside the Institute.

Who is the symposium for?
Despite the fact that the Water Research Institute is a relatively young organization (although we consider that it is already consolidated), the symposium reaches beyond it. In other words, it is not only open to Water Research Institute members, but also to a wide range of people and organizations who may be interested: universities that work closely on this topic and those that do not, political and technical representatives, representatives and professionals from the natural sciences, law and applied sciences, representatives from the state government and the Catalan government in particular, other professionals, scientists from other universities, and the media, who will doubtless find aspects of interest to disseminate to the general public.

Some climate change critics, including scientists, argue that the statistics used are recent or that climate change is part of the Earth's evolution. What do you think?
Climate change is nothing new. The planet Earth, which is over 4.5 billion years old, has been through many climate changes, some even greater than the one we are beginning to experience. Climate change has always existed; it forms part of the natural variability of the climate and basically has two causes: one that is external and mainly solar and one that is due to endogenous factors. The solar aspect is related to the Earth's orbital cycles, which are repeated every tens of thousands of years, and to solar activity itself. We do not always receive the same amount of energy from the sun, as it passes through periods or more or less activity (sunspots, maculas, etc.). Endogenous causes are volcanic activity and continental variations due to plate tectonics. All of these factors, which have led to natural climate change in the past, will continue to act in the future. However, there is a new factor. The temperature increase that has been observed in recent years is totally abnormal and inexplicable if we only consider natural variability. It is true that the meteorological data that we have to assess only covers 150 to 200 years, which is a very short period in the Earth's history. However, this period is complemented and extended by numerous paleoclimatic studies using a wide range of methods and techniques. For example, studies of the air bubbles trapped in Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, as well as analyses of river and lake sediments, etc. enable us to reconstruct the climates of the past. These paleoclimatic studies show that the current global warming is extremely fast and unlike most changes in the past. As this current change cannot be explained by climatic variation alone, a new hypothesis is required that involves a new agent. Such an agent could well be greenhouse gas emissions. If we introduce greenhouse gas emissions and natural variability into the climate models, the estimates closely reproduce the temperatures experienced in recent years. Without the human factor these changes are inexplicable. The planet should be cooler than it has been.

If we delimit the problem, what is the current situation?
Whatever we do, the planet will continue to warm for several decades. The climate system has a high degree of inertia: emissions from years ago and those from the present time will continue to act on it for decades, even if we drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gases. This is because the ocean, which also forms part of the climate system, has inertial behaviour: it gets warm slowly and cools down slowly. So, what should we do now? What is the key word? Mitigation. For one thing, we should try to ensure that the planet remains as cool as possible, and this can be achieved by reducing greenhouse gases, by reforestation and by sustainable and everyday practices for saving water and energy. Mitigation, as some studies indicate that if the planet gets hotter and the temperature rises 2ºC higher than current levels, some irreversible or catastrophic processes will occur in the previous phase. Another keyword is adaptation; that is, to adapt to the new climatic conditions, and to live with them, as adaptation also means benefitting from the new opportunities provided by climate change.

So climate change means that we must change our habits?
Yes, we have no option. We must change the models of energy, growth and development. We live in a finite system, the planet is clearly finite. Humanity cannot grow and consume more every year, because resources do not come out of nothing, they do not come from outside, but belong to the planet. There is a clear limit to continued growth.

It is also said that domestic saving activities, such as use of the bicycle, make a very much smaller contribution than that of the real pollution caused by industry.
Clearly, we should now change this idea. The large industries in the country are highly controlled and regulated, as they are included in the commitments that Spain has made to meet the requirements of the Kyoto Protocol. Now, the major industries have got their act together. They have systems for increasing efficiency and for reducing emissions. If not, they are fined. Industry, which is often seen as the villain in our particular arena, is complying with its commitments to a reasonable extent. The more diffuse emissions are now the main concern. These are comprised of domestic and transport emissions and are more difficult to monitor. These are more difficult and very abundant, to the same or a greater extent than industrial emissions.

Tags: Noticies Simposium-2009
Updated: 15 October 2009

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