Paulo Artaxo. Crédito: Divulgação/USP

Paulo Artaxo: “sustainable development is our only way out”

Extensively awarded scientist, Paulo Artaxo explains how climate change may make life on Earth unfeasible and talks about the importance of preserving Amazon and Brazilian science

Paulo Artaxo is among the scientists studying climate changes worldwide and has received the most extensive list of awards, titles, homages and honorable mentions. Holding his habilitation in Atmospheric Physics from the USP (University of São Paulo) and a Post-doctoral from Harvard University, Artaxo is a full member of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences (ABC), World Academy of Sciences (TWAS) and eight international scientific panels, including the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) - where he took part of the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize winning team.

Son of a notary public, he started his professional life as an office assistant at the register office his father used to work in São Paulo City’s North region, before passing entrance exams for Physics at the University of São Paulo (USP). He wanted to understand how the world operates and has dedicated his last 40 years to science, especially science applied to the Amazon and climate change events.

Throughout his career, the USP Institute of Physics (IFUSP) teacher has published over 400 scientific journals, 19 of them in the two most important magazines in the segment, Science and Nature - and he was also listed as one of the most cited researchers in the world by the platform Highly Cited Researchers.

Learn more:
Science Magazine publishes Brazilian scientists’ critical manifesto
Fire in Brazil’s National Museum: 5 collection items lost in the fire
Google is helping to fight deforestation in the Amazon

Paulo Artaxo received the bluevision team to talk about the importance of the Amazon, climate change effects, environmental protection actions and public policies for science and sustainability. 
Check it out.

How did you get interested in science and how did your interest move towards climate studies?

Paulo Artaxo: Since I was a teen, I was always curious and interested in knowing how things on our planet work. These feelings came up really early in my life. So, to get a degree in Physics and becoming a scientist was an automatic process. I always wanted to understand the physical processes and what could be observed in the atmosphere and on the planet as a whole. Then I got a degree in Physics and started to get interested. I studied for a Master’s degree in nuclear physics to learn the basis of science and the scientific method, and then I started to get interested in physics applied to the environment. Then, I moved to matters related to air pollution and climate changes.

What about the Amazon studies?

As for the Amazon, it’s an ecosystem that is barely understood and has a complex relationship with more general planetary issues, such as biological cycle, carbon cycle, and also mechanisms forming clouds. The Amazon is a region where the forest biology is closely connected to the atmosphere chemical mechanisms and climate physical mechanisms. It’s an optimal platform for interdisciplinary studies involving biology, chemistry, physics, social studies and so on. The Amazon is a perfect lab, from a scientific point of view, to understand relevant matters regarding our planet climate.

You’ve been studying the Amazon and its degradation consequences since the 70’s. Why is the Amazon so important for global climate and what are the risks if we keep exploiting the region indiscriminately?

The Amazon stores huge amounts of carbon, around 100 to 120 teragrams of carbon. Just to have an idea about what this means, it’s the equivalent of ten times the amount of carbon emitted by the burning of fossil fuels every year. The Amazon is strategic in global climate changes. 

If all carbon stored in the Amazon is released into the atmosphere, even if slowly, this will worsen greenhouse effects more significantly, raising the number of extreme climate events and hydrologic cycle changes, with significant consequences to the global climate. The Amazon is one of the largest sources of water vapor in global atmosphere and that’s why it has an important impact on rains in the United States, Europe and around the globe. The Amazon is key to climate and biodiversity matters, since it has the largest biodiversity on the planet in any terrestrial ecosystem. Understanding the relationship between this diversity and the planet’s environmental mechanisms is the key to climate changes.

You lead the Large-Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere Experiment in the Amazon (LBA). What does this action do for the Amazon?

LBA is a research program funded by the Ministry of Science and Technology that has already completed 25 years. Over these 25 years, LBA has tried to study how the Amazon works naturally and how deforestation and climate changes have been impacting the basic ecosystem mechanisms. It’s a research program crucial to Brazil, for we can understand and develop better public policies that can explore Amazon without destroying it. It’s not an easy task, but it’s strategic for Brazil.

What about the GoAmazon project, that you helped to build? How does it work?

GoAmazon was a scientific experiment conducted for the last four years, starting in 2014, with the purpose of understanding the city of Manaus, which has a unique situation on our planet: a city of 2 million inhabitants surrounded by forest along 1,500 kilometers in all directions. 

There’s no other region on the planet in a situation where we can study how emissions of an urban area like Manaus interact with a natural ecosystem and what the products of such interaction are. This is very important because if in 20 years, 50 years or 200 years we have tropical regions based on urban agglomerations, we need to understand chemically, physically and biologically the impact that daily urban emissions have on natural ecosystem mechanisms. 

Some studies show that the Amazon doesn’t sequester carbon dioxide as before. Is this true?

Until 2013 and 2014, the Amazon was absorbing atmosphere carbon at the rate of 0.5 tons of carbon per hectare a year. But, unfortunately, in the last few years, this environmental service the forest provides for the planet, of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, has seen a drastic reduction. This happens mainly because of: first, deforestation; second, an increase in the number of extreme climate events in the Amazon. The 2005 and 2010 droughts caused a great water stress in the ecosystem and made the ecosystem start losing carbon. The other aspect is the increase in deforestation: 5 thousand square kilometers have been deforested between 2011 and 2012 in the Amazon; 8 thousand square kilometers have been deforested in 2017. This increase in deforestation rate is making the Amazon forest lose carbon to the atmosphere, making greenhouse effect worse.

What are the best Amazon preservation practices to revert this situation?

Brazil had a huge success in reducing Amazon deforestation from 2004 to 2012: a reduction of 27 thousand square kilometers in 2004/2005, to about 5 thousand square kilometers in 2011/2012. So, extremely efficient public policies have been implemented, which worked and showed that it’s possible and feasible to reduce deforestation if the government wants to, and this doesn’t cost an arm and a leg - political willingness is all that it takes.

Is it possible to reduce the Amazon rate of deforestation? Yes! With which instruments? A series of them, for example: better surveillance, actions to inhibit funding for farming projects associated to deforestation, incentives to products from the Amazon with certificates from non-deforested areas and so on. It’s a set of public policies that needs to be applied coherently and history has shown that, with all this, it’s possible to reduce Amazon deforestation significantly. We can balance this, it’s possible, but governance is needed. We need a governance in which the Brazilian State is present in the Amazon region, so the region isn’t at the mercy of cattle farmers – if we depended on them, not a single tree would be standing in the Amazon now.

What about other Brazilian biomes, Cerrado (savannas) in special: which risks do they face? 

Cerrado is an ecosystem that is disappearing, and it’s key to Brazil central region. Cerrado originally comes from many drainage basins such as the Rio São Francisco basin. The way that Cerrado soil is being used is significantly changing the hydrologic cycle of these large basins that arise there. As opposed to the Amazon, which has protection environmental policies, we can say that the Cerrado is an abandoned ecosystem in Brazil. This is a very big mistake, because it’s an ecosystem as important as the Amazon ecosystem and there should be public policies on Cerrado preservation, such as environmental preservation areas, very clear demarcation of which areas can be explored by agriculture and which areas shouldn’t be explored, and so on.

And from a global point of view: what are the biggest threats to the environment?

Without a doubt, the burning and emission of greenhouse gases, coming from consumption of fossil fuels. Today, to cover our economic activities, our planet is emitting about 40 gigatons (billion tons) of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere every year, and this is changing the atmosphere composition. This terrestrial atmosphere composition is making temperatures rise steadily. Until now, temperatures have risen 1.1°C and it is expected that by 2050, we can see a rise of temperature between 1.5°C and 2°C. This will strongly impact all terrestrial ecosystems’ mechanisms, increase the number of extreme climate events significantly and bring huge socioeconomic damage to the planet as a whole.

Global warming is a big concern for many environmentalists and scientists like you. What may happen to the planet if the estimates for rise in the average temperature between 1°C and 2°C are confirmed? 

There are many ways global climate changes will impact people’s lives. The first of them is changing the hydrologic regime - that means rains. The city of São Paulo, for instance, over the last four years, has gone through crises of imminent water shortage. The trend is that these hydrologic cycle changes are going to increase. Australia is also facing big problems, as well as South Africa and regions in the United States, such as California. We are already noticing, and that’s not a future thing, deep changes in rain patterns. 

What about coastal areas?

For those living in coastal areas or cities, sea level rise is one of the biggest threats. Until now, this rise has reached the level of 20 centimeters, on a total global average, and it may reach 60 centimeters to 1 meter by 2050. This widens erosion in coastal areas and causes enormous damage to infrastructure, such as roads; for leisure, such as beaches; and to buildings that, in general, haven’t been designed to withstand this sea level rise. 

Recently, Brazilian scientists have signed articles for important international journals complaining about lack of incentives for science. How does this weakness in science harms society in our country?

Today, we live in a knowledgeable society. If you look at the most valuable companies at the stock exchanges around the world, you have Google, Facebook. They are companies arising from high technology, arising from scientific development. When you see laser, GPS applications, all these strategic applications that keep our world working originally come from scientific and technological development. Science development is getting more strategic for any country. In Brazil today, we can notice a drastic reduction in the resources available for this scientific-technological development, which will obviously delay Brazil’s economic development significantly. And this is going to last for many decades. A small reduction in resources today may damage Brazil’s next generations very badly. 

What can be done to revert this?

The country should broaden resources available for scientific-technological development, support universities, support research institutes because development will come from them and they can make Brazil become a world-leading nation. We rely on these investments to make Brazil a world power, instead of only exporting soybeans or iron ores, and soon allow access to science and technology to a great share of the population, who don’t have such access today.

Which attitudes can we have on our daily lives to avoid this environmental impact? What can I do, as a citizen and consumer, to guarantee a sustainable future?

It’s important to note that the planet relies on public policies. Individual actions can help, but in no way they’re going to solve the problem. By riding a bike instead of driving, you can feel better, but if the other 8 billion people on our planet keep driving, your efforts are completely useless. This is a new trait in our global society. We need strong, well-oriented governments with public policies based on science and not on big corporation economic interests. This is the only way out for the planet. You can recycle materials, this is going to help - and a lot! -, but let’s not fool ourselves, this is not going to solve the planet’s environmental problems. No, it won’t. We should elect representative governments who are aware of the severy of the crisis the planet is going through, both climate and environmental, and who can take actions to mitigate these climate and environmental changes in general.

Basically, we depend on government public policies. Unfortunately, public policies for the past few years have reflected business interests of political groups. In the case of the Amazon, devastation isn’t the people’s desire in general, and people are aware of the need for preserving the Amazon. But for now, the interest of ruralists, at the National Congress, has prevailed over the population’s interests. We have to revert this course. 

Many people, including world leaders, deny global warming, for example. Do you believe that science is experiencing a credibility crisis by society? Do you think this topic gets deserved attention?
 
Yes, science has been closely followed by society. Today, you’ll hardly find someone who doesn’t support a better sustainable energy matrix, preservation of the Amazon forest or preservation of the planet’s natural resources more smartly. Denial of science does not come from the people; this is used by some governments. The United States for example, clearly defends the corporate interests of certain society industries, like the oil industry, for instance. I don’t believe that science is in denial at global level; science has been used to employ economic policies for certain economic groups with the purpose of weakening scientific knowledge against economic interests of these groups.

This is happening in Brazil with the Amazon deforestation question, but it doesn’t occur in countries like Sweden, England, Portugal. They’re countries with medium-term and long-term sustainable development programs. Sweden, for example, plans to be a completely CO2 emission-free country by 2050. As you can see, this is not a global phenomenon, it’s a localized phenomenon, particularly in far-right governments, like the United States, and Brazil may follow the same route. And even within the US, there are states like California that address scientific development and energy usage management very intensively. All these strategies are based on science. 

We need to combat the misuse of science in order to benefit outdated sectors that can’t see that technological development is the future of mankind.

The good thing about science is that it motivates you into keeping working on this topic. Is that right?

No doubt about it. The good deal is surely developing an ever-increasing solid science, working to publicize scientific results that millions of scientists are developing around the planet in order to develop methods that make our planet more sustainable. Because this is the only way out we have. The other possibility is to simply keep burning fossil fuels until all planet’s reserves of coal, oil and natural gas deplete, then, rise the Earth’s average temperature by 7°C or 8°C, basically collapsing our civilization. This is the other side. It’s vital that we have a balance in the country’s scientific and technological development along with social and economic development.

Has the National Museum fire directly impacted your studies? How do you see science being harmed by this?

It didn’t impact my work at all, but listen. In Brazil, there’s no governmental culture, although people have a very individualistic culture. For example, the Museum of Tomorrow (Museu do Amanhã) in Rio de Janeiro. You can go there any time, there’ll be a 30-minute waiting line, and it’s been like that for the past two years. It’s a clear message. The population is extremely interested in science, and preservation of natural resources, but this doesn’t correspond to the support the government gives to museums, and not only science museums, but also cultural museums. Brazil hasn’t learned how to work on protecting its culture, like European countries do: they have this deeply rooted. We don’t have a medium-term or long-term cultural preservation policy, this must be a State policy, and not a government policy, it can’t be limited to only one museum. This is the only way we can avoid tragedies like the National Museum fire. And this is very bad because it prevents us from learning from history and causes severe damage to the country’s socio-economic development.