Professor Dr. Holm Tiessen is director of the Inter-American Institute for Global Change Research in São Paulo, Brazil. The Canadian agronomist was awarded the Humboldt Research Award in 1998.
Interview with Holm Tiessen
There is now a general consensus on what has long been a matter of hot debate: global climate change is a reality. Humboldt Research Award Winner Holm Tiessen is director of a research institute in Brazil that deals with the international repercussions of rising temperatures. In this interview, he talks about the quest for alternative fuels, Europe's obligation to Brazil, and why it took the world so long to realise that it really is getting warmer.
Kosmos: Latin American countries are making a grand entrance as producers of climate-friendly biofuels. You do research on this topic in Brazil and warn about negative consequences. What are they?
Tiessen: Brazil is considered a pioneer of green energy, having gained expertise in ethanol production since the 1970s. It has become a model for Europe and North America, despite the fact that the Brazilian ethanol programme started out as a complete disaster. Rivers and even the coastal waters had a stench of fermented sugar cane. In the São Paulo area, one of the main sugar cane producing regions, you could not get within a hundred metres of the rivers because of the stink. Fish and other life had long disappeared. It took several years to come to grips with these environmental effects, for example by sprinkling the wastewater on farmland instead of dumping it into rivers. Growing worldwide demand for ethanol is now tempting countries like Brazil to produce more than the environment can cope with.
Kosmos: What about creating a sort of OPEC of biofuel-producing countries, keeping production at an ecologically compatible level while controlling prices to ensure that reticence is still worthwhile?
Tiessen: Tropical countries are climatically predestined for the production of biofuels. Their political systems, however, cannot guarantee environmentally sound control of the market. These states will give in to the temptation of making trillions of dollars with green energy.
Kosmos: In other words, the responsibility rests with the countries that buy this energy. What can they do?
Tiessen: We need a certification system to label green energy that was produced in an environmentally friendly way, like the systems that are already in place for tropical woods or Fair Trade. Detailed EU guidelines on the quality of food imports can trace checks and verifications all the way back to the individual farmer. Nobody can tell me that this could not work for biofuels. Above all, one of the main reasons for calling for green fuels is the moral argument of preserving a liveable environment for future generations. This moral argument should apply to future generations around the globe, and that includes countries like Brazil.
Kosmos: Global climate change has come a long way, from scientific hypothesis to politically accepted reality. What persuaded the sceptics?
Tiessen: Well, in the first place, the physical principles speak for themselves. If you pump carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and let the sun shine on it, temperatures rise. Add some methane to the equation, and it gets even warmer. More and more evidence has confirmed these basic principles: hot summers in Europe, ever more frequent and forceful hurricanes in different locations, rising temperature levels in the oceans.
Kosmos: Until recently, people still kept questioning this evidence, though. While Europe was groaning about the hottest summers and worst floods of the century, climate experts claimed this was statistically irrelevant. Why is climate change now considered to be a fact?
Tiessen: It was simply difficult to derive global climate change reliably from the myriad of local data. A NASA study published at the end of 2006, which convinced even the US government of the existence of climate change, is based on a detailed analysis of satellite data. It took a long time to compile it, for sheer technical reasons. The data came from different generations of satellites and had to be matched. Now the data are ready, have been evaluated, and confirm a significant change in temperature.
Kosmos: In many countries, scientists and the general public have been concerned for quite some time. Why were the politicians so hesitant?
Tiessen: That's correct, governments have been spurred on by public debate. It is wrong to assume, however, that they are only just now beginning to tackle the issue. In intergovernmental bodies like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), for example, dialogue between science and governments has been conducted for about fifteen years but some governments, like that of the United States, just did not take it all seriously. This defensive attitude is understandable: If we were to radically curb our carbon dioxide emissions, it would challenge our lifestyles, economy, mobility, and personal convenience.
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