Diána Ürge-Vorsatz: We mismanaged the pandemic and cannot afford to do so with the climate emergency
„We would like fewer heatwaves, more bearable summers, cheap flights and endless consumption and comfort – all at the same time. The bad news is that this will not work. It is either-or.” – warns Diána Ürge-Vorsatz. The physicist, climate researcher and professor of the Central European University says we really made a mess of the management of the epidemic, sacrificed human lives for the economy and thinks that scientists are also responsible for this, not just decision makers. Why is a weedy garden the future? What should have been done to airline companies during the pandemic? (This interview was originally published in Hungarian.)
– Are you a bridge builder?
– It depends. Who is a bridge builder?
– Professor at the Central European University (CEU), working together to organise the Hungarian Scientific Panel on Climate Change (HuPCC) with the Ministry for Innovation and Technology. Active in János Áder’s – the president’s – money-raising foundation to support coronavirus orphans. Besides all this, messenger for this year’s International Eucharistic Congress (IEC2021), but gives a biographical interview to Tilos – Forbidden – Radio. These are things that bridge many diverse camps.
– I don’t deal with politics, I’m not interested. I don’t pay attention to who is in what camp. My commitment to the IEC2021 most definitely has nothing to do with politics; I converted as a teenager and I try to raise my 7 children in the Christian faith, too. The IEC brings different camps together.
– Nevertheless it was politics that made an enemy of your workplace, the CEU. You also raised your voice on numerous occasions against this. Did Palkovics or Áder lay down any conditions concerning your cooperation due to this?
– My struggle concerns climate change and the environment, I don’t fight other battles. This goes for interviews too, I don’t like to get into politics.
– Is that possible in 2021?
– You just asked me if I am a bridge-builder. Perhaps yes, but it’s not intentional, at the most instinctive. I have been an integrator all my life, I never looked for arguments or differences, I looked for consensus. That’s what I am tasked with in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the IPCC, too. I feel I have the ability to effectively find common ground or solutions with decision-makers, state or business leaders. It doesn’t matter who is in power in the government, municipality or in another country, I have to find a way to talk with him or her. It’s a difficult but noble task.
– OK, you don’t deal with politics, but you felt the CEU conflict on your own skin, didn’t you? Did you get moved to Vienna too?
– The CEU was really good to me as while I am on maternity leave I don’t need to go back, I can stay home. This will last for another year. And yes, after that I continue in VIenna. It will be difficult, even if I once lived in Austria and two of my children were born abroad. Living there for a short while is obviously not a problem, but in the long run I don’t want to move abroad. There is no roadmap yet as to how this will work out. Needless to say, I am not the only teacher at CEU in this difficult situation.
– You said earlier that you experienced the whole pandemic as a tragedy and found it difficult to take how many victims it had in Hungary. Is this why you accepted a role as a curator in the Áder-foundation?
– Yes. I do a lot of voluntary work, it is difficult to fit in another larger task, but I keep doing it as long as I feel that I am useful, as long as I can play a positive role in this important issue. I experienced it not only as a tragedy but as a personal failure that we messed up the pandemic management so much. Hungary mismanaged it as did most of the western world.
– “Personal failure”?
– Because science was unable to get its messages through to decision makers, like the very simple warning that if they do not act quickly and effectively, a horrible number of people will die.
– But science did say this, and more than once. In the first wave we saw that the penny dropped for “people” earlier than for politicians, preventive measures were working, there were hardly any deaths. In the second and especially the third wave everything went wrong. You cannot argue that scientist did not warn us.
– The problem is that a bad dilemma ran through the whole management of the pandemic: shall we save people or the economy? Seriously: is this actually a question? A real community, a real society values human life above everything else, even if the lockdown puts someone out of business. Why? Closed down businesses can be reopened, bankrupt entrepreneurs can be compensated but lost lives cannot be brought back. In the western world, including the horribly mismanaging United States, most governments were afraid that they will lose power if they chose lives over the economy.
– Economy also means human lives.
– Do you know how many more measures, extra “nuisances” we are talking about? Lockdowns starting two or three weeks earlier or ending later, at most, more rigorous contact tracing and quarantines. That is about how much was missing. It is enough to look at the successful Asian examples. Our great freedom and democracy failed the test. Speaking of the economy – who needs an economy continuously battered by newer and newer waves of the pandemic? Wouldn’t we be further ahead if we’d listened to science and avoided the third wave?
– So you did ring the alarm bells.
– You are right, we did give signals. I still say that science has a responsibility because it cannot communicate properly. Scientists tinker with models, immersed in their own little world, in publications written in jargon. Climate change has the same problem: the UN reports on climate change are still unintelligible, over-complicated, full of sentences implying uncertainty, ‘it is all connected’ and ‘on the one hand and on the other’ type of arguments. No wonder decision makers cannot make use of them. The scientific communication on the pandemic gave me the same impression. I was dismissed right away: „well-well, everybody’s a virus researcher in Hungary now”, because I am a physicist…
– Did you get remarks?
– Yes, and it wasn’t nice. I really did read up on the topic, and I am certain that I got an understanding of what was happening and in retrospect I can say that unfortunately I was right. That is not much help today.
– What were you right about?
– That prevention is the key. It would have been worth all the sacrifices and costs to keep the numbers really low so that the situation would be manageable with contact tracing and quarantines. I think that a part of the huge number of European and North American casualties would have been avoidable.
– You speak with a lot of emotion. Are you personally affected? Did you lose someone?
– The husband of my best childhood friend, who we raised our children together with, did not survive the illness. A schoolmate, who was totally healthy, also died. Three children in both families… I could not really believe it for a long time because we had not lost anyone from our school year up until then. There was a young mother with many children who I cried a lot for. Pregnant women who were on respirators. Some had the babies taken out to at least save one of them.
– Not the “old, terminally ill” people.
– Absolutely not. Life is just life for me, no matter whether you are old, chronic, young or healthy. Besides, everybody is chronic over forty if you look closely enough.
– Did we learn anything from the pandemic?
– This is my other grievance. Apart from the many tragedies the pandemic was also an opportunity, because we were handed fantastic opportunities which could have accelerated the fight against climate change. We let go of nearly all of them.
– Give us an example!
– We are helping the survival and the business-as-usual behaviour of big, polluting industries. At the lowest point of the corona crisis there was an opportunity to nationalise at least a few of the oil companies or air and water freight companies, and it would have been easier to carry out the painful but inevitable reforms on them. As the mass flights and luxury cruises with an enormous environmental cost stopped – and I do not mean sailing yachts but the multi-storey monsters –, their whole operation should have been re-thought. One of the biggest problems with flights is the price, which does not include a fuel tax such as that included in land transit. Everybody knows that most of what you pay at the petrol station is tax. We do not pay the same with flights. That is why it is much cheaper to fly to Brussels than to take a train there. But to be fair, I will bring a good example as well, again from transport: cycling’s great leap forward. The shortage of bicycles is still in the news, not just here but everywhere in the western world. That is how many people switched to cycling during the pandemic. Bicycles are the new toilet paper – that is how they put it in the British press, seeing the shopping frenzy. And it is a fact: urban cycling breaks records over and over again, even in Budapest. Another development that I welcome is the rationalisation of the office industry. It turns out we do not need so many glass towers, a lot of tasks can be done more productively from home.
– Do you really think it would have been realistic to nationalise airlines and then raise the cost of flying? Would you take away the right to cheap flights from humanity?
– This is schizophrenic. We want emission reduction, a more livable environment, fewer heat-waves, more bearable summers and cheap flights, endless consumption and comfort. The bad news is that the two will not work at the same time. Either-or. We will not be able to save the ecosystem of the planet by not giving up anything. We have to be able to explain to people that welfare is not the same as 10 Euro flight tickets.
–The EU and the UN could start by showing an example: daily commutes between countries, flying to conferences…
– I absolutely agree with the criticism. The IPCC gets a lot of criticism for the amount of travel. Rightly so. We now tried out how keeping contact and working online performs. I have not left the country for 15 months and it makes me really happy. Changes have to be reasonable though, because part of the intellectual cooperation does not happen in the physical or virtual meeting rooms, but after that at the dinner or coffee table. That is the way it is. One thing is for sure: we have to find a new and better balance in this sphere too after the pandemic, and then we will be more able to revolt against wasteful systems.
– Something else to revolt against: the economic growth period, undoubtedly impressive, starting in 2013 had an enormous environmental cost. We hold first place in the growth of artificial land cover and material use in the EU. We have not put down as much concrete in this country for as long as snyone can remember.
– This is sad but true, but at the same time there was a serious paradigm shift as well in Hungary.
– What paradigm shift?
– A few years ago the communication was about climate hysteria. This is over now, the talk is about achieving climate goals.
– Is it a real achievement that the government dropped ‘climate hysteria’ and uses green communication panels now?
– You can dismiss it as lip service. But words always have to lead to action. Hungary was among the first countries in the EU to pass a climate law, the Hungarian National Bank was among the first national banks to adopt green goals. Important environmental commitments were made in the private sector, in the corporate world as well. A lot of that is greenwashing though.
– If someone is really a dirty polluter but overstates some quite insignificant green activity to make it look as though they are really environmentally sound. That is greenwashing.
– Can we say that it is greenwashing the way green rhetoric is used in Hungary but at the same time they continue to tie economic growth to the car industry, the world’s most polluting industry? And of course where we can, we lay concrete and paving?
– The pressure of economic growth and meeting climate goals is another schizophrenic situation, one not only we struggle with, but the world’s other ‘progressive’ countries too, such as the owners of the Hungarian car industry, the Germans. The goal is to turn important economic players in a greener direction; digitalisation, services, local tourism.
– The Hungarian Scientific Panel on Climate Change launched in February and the website’s “report” link is presently empty. When will they be publishing the first one of these?
– This is expected in 2023.
– You mean in 2 years time? Isn’t it more urgent than that?
– You are right, and the government is also requesting an earlier date, but this is thorough work involving a great deal of scientists, it can’t be hurried. The model has been copied from the United Nations climate change body, the IPCC, which I think is brilliant as it is able to create complete scientific consensus, co-creates with decision-makers, and at the same time utilises a very strict system of professional scrutiny.
– What will the Hungarian government’s role be in this?
– They are left out of the actual work, but the questions are formed with them and the municipalities at the outset so that they find the answers relevant. At the end the decision-makers summary is accepted together. Let me repeat that; not the actual scientific part, but a particular summary.
– Aren’t you afraid that they use this climate report and the whole climate panel as a kind of cosmetic measure, and at the same time things just roll on as usual? They wave the reports in the air and at the same time continue excessive construction, car-industry development, destroying valued Natura 2000 areas and introducing alien species just to please the hunting lobby?
– First of all let’s make clear that this panel won’t solve everything, it won’t even make current policy statements. It will summarise Hungarian scientists’ position on the effect of climate change on Hungary and the steps needed to combat this. What’s more, it will create consensus on this. The panel wasn’t formed by the government, it’s not at all sure that anyone in the government is going to want to show off our reports. Rather it will be useful in that it will no longer be necessary to provide a whole scientific background to a national climate protection strategy, municipalities won’t need to put together a scientific rationál individually while making decisions. Instead of this a strong, complex material will be available, which like the IPCC reports shows how to achieve carbon neutrality.
– You frequently mention the IPCC, the climate panel set up by the UN. Doubters refer to them as a bunch of paper-pushers.
– Have you heard about the Paris Agreement’s fixed goal of keeping global warming at an average of 1.5 degrees Celsius?
– This is the intellectual product of the IPCC. But I could mention the concept of climate neutrality, which was also coined by this body. Or the goal of individual states reducing their emissions to 50% by 2030. Of course, these goals were shredded to pieces by politics, but at the same time 73% of global emissions are now coming from countries which committed themselves to carbon neutrality. So we did manage to have an effect on policies. At the same time, the IPCC does not criticise – or praise – governments. It does not attack or behave like a troll.
– So are you frustrated by the offensive activists who never stop ringing the alarm bells, like Greta Thunberg?
– Not at all! Greta’s most important message is that people should listen to science. Like the IPCC, for example.
– And „I want you panic”!
– She is totally right. Unfortunately, there is a panic situation.
– In a panic people rush without thinking. It does not look like a successful problem solving strategy.
– Her core message is still that we should not wait for her or other activists to tell us what to do, but look to science for answers. I am really grateful for young voices because they amplify what we are saying. And if anybody is right to step up in such a way it is them. We have intergenerational injustice is on an incredible scale. What are climate neutrality commitments largely about? We live our lives like there is nothing wrong, keep burning fossil fuels, and young people will pay the price. We should not kid ourselves: if we go business as usual, if we do not act, the price will be enormous.
– “Leaving the grassy-weedy areas to grow by the side of roads instead of cutting them to the minimum” is action then?
– Yes, a small step concerning climate change but an important one for saving the insect world.
– The quote was from you: a month ago you published an article on Portfolio entitled “Corona crisis: the last alarm bell”, that is where it is from. Were the bee pastures your idea?
– No, but I would be proud if they were.
– Gergely Karácsony’s bee pastures came under political attack right from the start, saying it is a disgrace and they should mow them at once.
– It really is a problem that culturally we have been raised to think that a proper garden or green area is where everything is manicured to perfection and there is a maximum of two species side by side. Have a look around my garden: most might think that this is chaos itself. But it is nothing other than biodiversity. A lot of different trees and shrubs side by side, in balance, giving home to more insects and birds. Unfortunately, every newcomer to this area starts by felling the ancient oaks, spraying everything with herbicides and then installs uniform shrubs with a golf course lawn. Is that why they come to the suburbs? I’ll tell you the result: my garden, which is a little weedy but has ancient trees, is a good few degrees cooler than the neighbours that have uniform perfect lawn gardens. We need a cultural shift from the norms of “tidy courtyard, tidy house” – flawless lawn and a monocultural hedge – developed over the last century to one that preserves the characteristics and the diversity of nature. This is really difficult to take on. It may be the end of a politician to promote more cycling and less lawn mowing.
– Are these hens pecking at our feet also part of the domestic biodiversity?
– Yes, and kids really love them. I would like a cockerel as well but the suburban environment does not take crowing at five in the morning very well.
Translation: Expats in Hungary
Cover picture: Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban leaves a round table meeting during an EU summit at the European Council building in Brussels, on December 11, 2020. (Photo by AFP/POOL/Francisco Seco)