Climatologist Rimkus: Climate Change Is Becoming More of a Socio-Economic Problem than a Natural Problem

Climatologist Rimkus: Climate Change Is Becoming More of a Socio-Economic Problem than a Natural Problem

Sukurta: 16 June 2022

Stunning beach on peninsula Hel, Baltic Sea in Poland, Europe"What is the best thing that Lithuanians can expect from the environment surrounding us in 30 years? The aspiration of the future is the harmonious relationship of the city with nature, which will ensure the long-term attractiveness of Lithuania for local residents, re-migrants, and external talents, as well as for sustainable knowledge economy corporations. After 28 years, Lithuania will have adapted to climate change and will even be able to benefit from it. This is an ideal option, but the current situation is a bit different,” says Egidijus Rimkus, Professor at the Faculty of Chemistry and Geosciences of Vilnius University (VU) in an expert discussion on climate change and our relationship with nature and the environment in the future organized by VU and the Government’s Strategic Analysis Centre.

Democracy in the world is shrinking

“We all live in multi-layered bubbles which are created by ourselves or others. First of all, it is the worldview formed by the family, the school, and the immediate environment. In my social environment (Facebook) bubble, it seems that the whole world is talking about climate change and only cares about the environment. In the national bubble, Vilnius residents imagine the world and its future a little differently than most of their fellow citizens. Finally, there is also the bubble of the European Union, upon the bursting of which bursts, one can realize that this continent has been gradually becoming a province of the world for at least a couple of decades,” says the scientist.

According to him, in order to predict the future, those bubbles need to be ruptured. Upon taking a look inside the global bubble, it is clear that democracy has been shrinking for more than a decade

"Recent democracy indices show that, although so far more than 40% of the population of the planet formally belongs to the states of a larger or smaller democracy, a significant part of them is considered to be such only because of a technicality that more than one surname is provided in the election ballot,” says Prof. Rimkus.

Current events raise many questions: is democracy capable of defending itself and those that wish to be a part of it? Will the democratic world help protect the environment around us from ourselves? In what democratic way will it be able to do so? If it fails, is democracy really the greatest virtue of humankind worth pursuing?

War is also exacerbating environmental problems

Russia's aggression against Ukraine is fundamentally changing the situation, not only in the context of declining democracy but also in the pursuit of environmental solutions, both regionally and globally. At present, we have many global environmental problems that directly or indirectly affect Lithuania. The first of them is climate change.

According to the climatologist, climate change is becoming less and less of an environmental problem, with only some of the most popular indicators being related to nature, however, its causes and major consequences are becoming increasingly socio-economic. Nature is becoming only a background and an indicator for them.

Among the global environmental problems that have a direct impact on us, the professor attributes the depletion of stratospheric ozone, ocean pollution, and acidification, as well as the destruction and spontaneous extinction of ocean ecosystems. However, many of the global problems caused by humans affect us indirectly: through rising prices, increased migration, and wars, all of which lead to soil degradation, desertification, scarcity of fresh water in densely populated areas, ecosystem destruction and spontaneous degradation, air, and water pollution, increasing levels of waste.
The need for rapidly depleting minerals, the rare elements necessary for sustainable energy and economy, is also growing.

"Creating renewable energy requires a huge amount of non-renewable resources, which means a global race to ensure a stable supply. Although the quantities of minerals required for this are quite abundant, many countries either do not have the technology to process them or cannot extract them profitably due to strict domestic environmental policy regulations, putting European countries at risk of losing their competitive advantage and market share. Countries that can supply clean energy or renewable technologies gain an advantage” emphasizes the VU researcher.

China, for example, has invested heavily in the extraction of important renewable energy sources worldwide and has created the largest industry. It now has a huge advantage in this area.

War is deteriorating the condition of the Baltic Sea ecosystems

The second part of the problem is the environmental challenges at the regional level, which can only be addressed through regional cooperation. "For example, perhaps the only way to tackle the ecological problems of major rivers is through river basin management based on various agreements, with all river basin states being involved in the process of decision-making. This is especially true for countries downstream of large rivers. It is difficult for me to imagine how Lithuania will be able to ensure the water quality of the Nemunas and the Neris, which flow through Belarus and Russia. We will have to rely on the goodwill of our neighbors. We have long had nothing to ask from them in regards to what kind of slurry flows there and how long this will continue. And what if something happens to Astravyets?” says the climatologist.

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According to him, the aggression of Russia will undoubtedly increase the militarization of the Baltic Sea, which is becoming a sea of enormous military tensions. In the near future, in one of the most polluted seas, the number of point sources of pollution associated with the transport and storage of fossil fuels will increase further due to understandable changes in energy policy. This, of course, only worsens the state of the Baltic Sea's ecosystems.

Protected areas are like savings kept under a pillow

According to the professor, the third part of the problem is the locally generated environmental problems that depend on us, which we can and must solve. "This involves the air and water pollution we generate ourselves. Physical and chemical depletion of soil, growing waste heaps, and destruction and fragmentation of forest and grassland ecosystems are ongoing issues. We may enjoy the growing areas of protected areas in Lithuania, but this might be more reminiscent of the enclosure of nature to reserves, often leaving an environmental vacuum among them. After the destruction of the natural framework, the protected areas become similar to savings under a pillow, which is slowly but surely eroded by inflation,” says the researcher.

And in order to achieve the goals of ecological literacy and sustainability, a breakthrough in national education is needed first and foremost. The professor is surprised and delighted by the ecological awareness of the younger generation, although it is difficult to understand where it comes from, as our education system pays very little attention to the formation of sustainable behavior and climate change.

Does that, of course, also depend on the goals of education? Do we expect children to just learn to read, write, and count well at school? Or do we expect to raise a free person who is ready to love and protect his or her homeland and defend it, if necessary? Both priorities are most likely good. The only issue is that their implementation is not very successful.

"In order to educate a young, environmentally friendly person, we, first of all, need young, enthusiastic, environmentally friendly teachers who would encourage their students by their own example and knowledge. However, so far the demographic problems of the country and the resulting decrease in the number of schools and students mask the catastrophic shortage of young teachers in schools,” the professor is convinced.

Communities in education are of the utmost importance

Prof. Rimkus considers that maybe in 30 years the education system will become as globalized as the economy or culture. The best subject teachers from abroad will be able to teach our children remotely, and Lithuanian children will be able to learn from anywhere in the world: Palanga, Tenerife, or Miami. However, the researcher is wondering if such a school, where students learn virtually from virtual books and virtual teachers, can really be called a school? Knowledge can probably be provided in a variety of ways, but the professor believes schools and universities are primarily communities because they are essential to shaping identity, patriotism, and attachment to the country.

“Will a Lithuanian-speaking student living in Miami be ready to sacrifice himself or herself for the preservation of Lithuania's natural environment? What about an Italian temporarily living and working in Lithuania? There is more and more of the world with fewer and fewer Lithuanians. Maybe emigrants will help solve demographic problems, but will they be ready to protect and defend this place?” the climatologist asks rhetorically.

The thematic discussions of the State Progress Strategy Lithuania 2050, which develops possible scenarios for Lithuania's future through specific themes relevant to the country's development, continue. These scenarios were outlined by experts from various fields, as well as representatives of science, business, culture, and society, at a workshop on future scenarios organized by the VU and the Government Strategic Analysis Centre (STRATA) in March.

Each of these scenarios also reflects six thematic dimensions that are important for the future development of the country over the next few decades, which experts in the particular area further analyze.

The State Progress Strategy Lithuania 2050 is being prepared using an innovative Foresight method. The planned duration for the implementation of the strategy is more than twenty years (from 2024 until 2050). The legal draft is to be submitted to the Seimas by 10 March 2023. The Lithuania 2050 Strategy is being developed by the Office of the Government in collaboration with the Seimas’ Committee for the Future, Government Strategic Analysis Center,  and Vilnius University.