February 22, 2023
Climate change needs a systemic approach because it has multiple impacts on human life
The voice of Marcello Petitta, interviewed by Sara Manisera, FADA Collective
Interview with Marcello Petitta, atmospheric physicist, climatologist, researcher at the University of Tor Vergata.
Q: Can you introduce yourself? Who are you, what do you do and what was your academic background?
A: I am Marcello Petitta, I am an atmospheric physicist and a climatologist, I have a PhD in Aerospace Engineering and I have been working in climate since 1999. I deal with climate, not meteorology. Until 2008, I worked in the academy, then I went to Eurac, a research centre in South Tyrol, where I coordinated a group for atmospheric sensing. In 2012 I returned to Rome to work at Enea and, since February 2022, I have been at the University of Tor Vergata as a researcher. In all these years, I have also started private activities that have dealt with climate, technology and satellites. So I have tried to speak to the two worlds, that of research and that of business, which obviously have different goals. The other aspect that I have been working on over the years is the popularisation of science, that is, learning how to talk to different people who do not know physics and do not work in academia.
Q: Why did you want to keep research and economics together, let's say the more entrepreneurial world?
A: What happens in our society is that very often you only become good and overspecialised in one thing. Over the years, I realised that it was important to go and understand how certain topics were also dealt with in other disciplines. That is why those who deal with these things should have a background in multiple topics. What I have done over the years is to work together with sociologists, psychologists and economists to discuss multiple issues.
Q: What does it mean to address the climate crisis and the water crisis through climate services?
A: As we have said, climate change involves the inclusion of other disciplines because climate affects our lives from different perspectives. For example, if I am a farmer and I can no longer produce food this has impacts on both the food I can no longer sell and the food I can no longer eat. The question we have asked ourselves is how to transform climate information into information that can be used by what we call the end user, i.e. the person who does their job e.g. the farmer, who runs a power station or a large-scale transport company, or who has a small house in the country and has to cope with changes. The transformation from scientific information to data that can be used by the end user is called climate service.
Q: Is there a risk that this data will be in the hands of a few private companies?
A: There is a risk, and as in everything you have to know how to set rules. The European Commission has done a huge job because it has made all climate and satellite data free. Anyone can access them and anyone can use them for any purpose, including commercial purposes. For small and medium-sized companies, this is a huge advantage because previously the data cost a lot of money. The role of the scientist is to broaden the audience of these users. Now we work on seasonal forecasts, i.e. trends in the coming months, for example whether next February will be warmer or colder. This information can be used by the multinationals, but because it is public, even the same farmer who sells wheat to a multinational will be able to make decisions, e.g. increase the price. We are witnessing a form of democratisation of climate data and information. The role of the climate service provider is to tell the small farmer, the medium-sized enterprise or the large multinational company what data can be used to improve its well-being.
Q: Can you give us an example?
A: In South Tyrol, many wine producers bought land above 700 metres. This is land that did not produce wine, given the altitude. With climate warming, that land will become good for wine production. Thanks to the climate service, these entrepreneurs will find themselves in seven to ten years with new vine plantings, a plant that takes time to produce. Another opposite example is Malawi, one of the five poorest countries in the world, where society is matriarchal. I was there in October and we spoke to about 60 farmers, all of whom were fully aware of the climate crisis. They asked us very specific information about the rainy season because they had observed a delay from October to December and this had repercussions on the ripening of the wheat they were sowing. They asked us for forecasts on the beginning and end of the rains because that way they could adapt, moving the sowing or buying another type of seed that ripens faster. They knew what they needed and we provided them with this information. It is important, however, to know how to provide this information. For example, in a project in Ethiopia with the World Food Programme (WFP) on rainfall warnings, we realised, together with sociologists and psychologists, that our text message service was not being received because final users could not read so we started sending voice messages. That is why climate is a discipline that encompasses so many areas. In addition, there is another element to consider, which is the perception of risk that changes in countries in the global south or north.
Q: So climate data could also help you make choices in the political sphere?
A: In physics, we talk about time scales. If it rains a lot for three hours, it clogs up the city. If there is a prolonged drought, fruit and vegetable prices will be very high for the next two years. The problem is the time scale of the political world because it is very slow, in Italy we are talking about decades. The political choice is more interested in giving amnesties or bonuses instead of making investments of 10-15 years, the effects of which will be seen by the next generations and not by today's pensioners, so there is no advantage for politics. This is a huge problem. In Germany and France the situation is different because medium- to long-term choices are shared by different political camps. So, in theory, these data could be used but politics in Italy is not made for this type of choice.
Q: How, though, do individual citizens change without a legal framework? Don't you think it is unfair to make only the individual responsible?
A: These are personal thoughts, but I think it is important to put energy at the centre to answer this question. Our society is based on cheap fossil fuels. We use a lot of energy to do our daily actions. Right now we are using the batteries of our mobile phones, antennas and so on... in short we are burning fossil fuels. This has caused an increase in carbon dioxide and global warming. A central role, therefore, is played by energy. Today we are faced with centralised energy management but we would need more decentralised management where everyone starts producing their own energy to be less dependent on centralised energy. We would need a bottom-up movement, because many individuals, put together, can play an important part of change. The role of energy in the climate discourse is fundamental because our well-being depends on energy, so we need to start thinking about how it is distributed, what kind of access to energy we will have, and what the role of big companies will be. If we produce our own energy, these companies will have different roles.
Q: What are your future plans?
A: Working in a transversal way, I would like to continue doing this by also embracing the political side. There is another aspect I would like to work on and that is artificial intelligence. I am interested in the ethical fallout and implications, its future uses and how society and work will change thanks to artificial intelligence. Work, perhaps, will no longer be central. How will humanity change without work?