Interview with Professor Janusz Olejnik, Head of the Meteorology Department of Poznań University of Life Sciences
When did it first occur to you that human actions affect and change our climate?
It was in 1987. I was on a scholarship in Vienna and for the first time I had access to a multiprocessor computer. We used it together with my colleagues from the USA to simulate changes in rainfall in Europe in coming decades. One of the parameters that our climate model took into account was the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We used forecast CO2 emissions in our calculations. Their results were quite alarming.
What did they say?
That within the next 25 years Central Europe will witness the biggest rainfall in its history.
It seems they were right – we did have huge floods in Poland in the 1990s.
That’s right. There were floods in Poland, Germany, the Czech Republic. That computer had foreseen them much earlier. But when I presented those simulation results on a conference in Poland back in the 1980s, one of the top experts in hydrology at that time said to me: “Why don’t you concentrate on something serious”. He didn’t believe me.
I’m sure he believed when he saw them.
I’m sure he did but this is exactly the most difficult part of combating climate changes: at some point most people realise that we can reverse those changes but usually it’s already too late. If we had taken relevant steps decades ago, we would now be in a different situation. It’s a little bit like with diabetes: once it’s there, it’s incurable and all you can do is alleviate its symptoms.
So in fact we’re fighting against climate change not even for us but for our children and grandchildren?
Exactly. At the same time this is the biggest problem here because politicians, who theoretically could help most, never think so long term. Their perspective ends with the nearest elections, i.e. 4-5 years. And with climate you need to think about the coming decades, not years.
Well, true statesmen are scarce nowadays.
Yes, and it’s a global problem, not only in Poland.
Nevertheless politicians seem to change their opinion about the global warming. If we look at the Americans: Obama’s administration seems to be aware of the problem as opposed to when George W. Bush was in power.
Yes but again this is not the result of reflection over the future of our planet nor strategical thinking – just tactical moves. Drought in California and decreasing water level in the Colorado River are both difficult experiences for the Americans, real threats to the country’s agriculture. It’s a real economic problem and that’s the true reason behind the USA’s change of attitude towards the climate problem. Today politicians perceive everything through the prism of business and they have to look at politics with economy in mind in order to win the elections. Yet this is a problem with most people – they don’t believe something is wrong with the environment unless they see or feel it themselves. People in Poland maybe notice that there is less snow in the mountains so it might get harder to go on a proper skiing holiday. Higher temperatures and lower heating bills in winter probably even make them happy. But climate changes are not only global warming. They also cause more and more violent weather phenomena – and I think these will make people change their attitude. If a thick branch falls on somebody’s car twice in a row because of a storm, this person will probably notice that something wrong is going on. Or if in spring their basement is flooded and a few months later summer drought turns their fields into a desert they will start wondering if everything is really OK.
There are people, however, aware of the impact that human actions have on our climate. What can an individual do to help the situation? Can they do anything at all?
A single human being has an almost zero impact on climate but they still can initiate the snowball effect: they begin doing something, others start to follow and finally the whole society will change its habits into something that will visibly and positively slow down climate changes.
What habits do you have in mind? What should we start changing?
It may sound strange but our diet matters a lot – we should eat less meat. Half of the world’s grain production, for which nitrogen fertilisation is used, is fed to livestock. When we talk about greenhouse gases we usually think about carbon dioxide or methane. Not many people know that nitrous oxide, N2O, is much stronger. We could say it’s the greenhouse gas “of the future”, which will take its toll on us. The second thing is saving energy – we should use LED bulbs because fluorescent lamps may be energy-saving but they’re not ecological. LEDs are much better. I know they’re expensive and it takes time to get used to their light but these bulbs are both environment- and climate-friendly. Generally speaking, we should count each joule of energy we use. The third thing is of course transport – if we have such a possibility, we should use public transport or, ideally, bikes. We also have to fiercely defend green areas, each piece of them and fight with any attempts to reduce forest areas.
Last but not least, we shouldn’t vote for ignorant politicians. I can still remember one speech made by a Polish EMP in the European Parliament. In my opinion he presented the biggest possible ignorance when – lacking any arguments and talking nonsense – he was trying to deny climate changes and warned about imprisoning all politicians and scientists supporting the idea of humans’ impact on climate. I was abroad at that time and when I was having dinner with my friends I had to listen to a lot of jokes and ironic comments such as „What’s wrong with you in Poland that you choose such ignorant showmen to the European Parliament?”. That is why each one of use should think twice before casting their vote in the elections and make a wise choice – this seems to me the most effective way of combating climate changes.
How about more effective education concerning climate issues – would that not be a good idea?
Of course it would be. In the 1990s, when I worked and lived in Munich and my children went to German school and kindergarten, it was natural that school trips were organised also to places such as a local landfill site. The aim was for the kids to see with their own eyes how much waste a single person produces or what happens when we don’t throw batteries into a special container. Relevant education is absolutely essential.
Can we stop global warming if we start to follow the rules you have mentioned?
It would be good if we obeyed them and sooner or later we will – because we have no other option. But to be honest I don’t believe that people will start to follow them before they realise how bad and serious the situation is.
So things can get worse?
What we are witnessing now is just the beginning. Thanks to computer simulations we can predict what will happen in the future. In a few decades, for example, the permafrost may thaw and release gigantic amount of methane into the atmosphere – and this will be the beginning of a real disaster. In such circumstances it’s difficult to remain optimistic.
Interview Łukasz Kaniewski
Publishing date: 15th February 2016
Professor Janusz Olejnik, Ph.D. – Head of the Meteorology Department of Poznań University of Life Sciences. For many years he has researched climate change focusing on the exchange of mass and energy between different ecosystems and the atmosphere, and on advanced methods of measuring greenhouse gases’ streams. A scholar of the International Institute for Applied Systems Analysis (in Laxenburg, Austria), the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (in Munich and Berlin) and Dekaban Foundation (UBC in Vancouver, Canada). Coordinated many EU scientific projects cooperating with climate change experts from universities in Europe, USA and Canada. Lecturer at international science conferences and many universities in Poland and abroad, and Poland’s representative in five COST Actions. Currently Janusz Olejnik is the president of the ICOS-PL consortium (Integrated Carbon Observation System – Poland).