Eduardo CesarCarlos Nobre, aged 58, is one of the most respected and renowned Brazilian experts on the climate and on global climate change. On December 19, a Sunday morning, he had just arrived from a six-day trip to Copenhagen, Denmark, having witnessing the shattering of any hope that a consistent international treaty would be signed for avoiding and fighting the effects of global warming. During the afternoon, at his pleasant home in a gated community in the city of São José dos Campos, 97 kilometers away from São Paulo City, he granted this interview, in the company of his charming and attentive wife, Ana Amelia Costa, with whom he will celebrate his silver wedding anniversary in July. Keeping his eight dogs and nine cats at bay, he was certainly tired after his transatlantic trip. However, it was in this agreeable environment that he expressed himself calmly and clearly, with that argument-based approach that is so typical of him, talking to the Pesquisa Fapesp staff for almost two hours.
Evidently, the outcome of COP-15 was the subject of his comments, but the conversation extended beyond this. He outlined, as a kind of preview, the major environmental experiments in the laboratory that he hopes will be established in the State of São Paulo. He explained why the FAPESP Global Climate Change Program has a huge potential to significantly expand Brazil’s current influence on scientific debate and on political decisions on a global scale, where climate changes are concerned. He mentioned his experience as a researcher and his two new scientific papers on this matter – both of which are yet to be published. One describes new elements the provide further support for his theory about the potential “savannization” of the Amazon Rainforest, whereas the other focuses on understanding the large transition zone between the forest and the Cerrado (savanna). The scientific articles on these two issues are currently being analyzed for publication in international journals. It is common knowledge that Nobre’s scientific work is fundamental for a better understanding of the relation between the climate, the tropical rainforests, and the effects of deforestation and global warming on the Amazon Region.
Nobre is an electronic engineering graduate of ITA, the Aeronautics Technical Institute, and has a doctorate in meteorology from MIT, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. More specifically, he is an expert in the mathematical modeling of climate-related scenarios. He also holds a post-doctoral degree in this field from the University of Maryland. Nobre has won many awards for his scientific work, amongst which one can include the 2008 Nobel Peace Prize granted to IPCC, of which he is a member. The prizes most recently bestowed upon him include the WWF-Brazil Environmental Achievement Award and the Von Humboldt Medal, from the European Geophysical Union. These are well deserved, as Nobre has always been determined to follow the most challenging paths to which life led him. And they are undoubtedly extraordinarily gratifying for this descendant, on his mother’s side, of Italian immigrants that first established themselves in the town of Salto, São Paulo State, and of migrants from the State of Bahia, who settled in the town of Conquista, in the Triângulo Mineiro region. Nobre is the eldest son of Wilson Nobre, a professional soccer player and former factory worker in São Paulo. Nobre’s father died at an early age, and the then young electronic engineering student, a former public school student from the outskirts of São Paulo, undertook to support his family and educate his siblings.
In the eyes of a scientist, was the Copenhagen conference really a total failure?
In the eyes of a scientist, the conference was obviously unsuccessful. However, I wouldn’t say it was a “total failure”, because everybody who attended it acknowledged the role of science. The speeches, the texts – all of them referred to the role of science, emphasized the role of the IPCC (the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) and highlighted that the figures and goals of any agreement must be reviewed from time to time, in the light of whatever science indicates. So this is a point for science, in the sense that nowadays science is included within the framework of these negotiations and has the final word on what needs to be done regarding goals and the risks of higher temperatures. However, from the scientific standpoint, this was the only thing that was salvaged. The urgency that science ascribes to this issue wasn’t really taken into account. Had it been so, then all these years of negotiations would already have led to much broader decisions.
But was there any room for actual scientific debate in the midst of the conference?
No, the COPs are not the venue for discussing science, and any topic that encompasses many scientific doubts is disregarded. For example, the implementation – or not – of mitigating measures, such as the capture and geological storage of carbon. As there is still much scientific uncertainty surrounding this issue – even though the technique is being extensively studied and has some potential – the issue is often suggested for inclusion, but is not accepted. Symbolically speaking, however, the fact that all the participating countries agreed that efforts must be made to keep the temperature from going up more than two degrees Celsius is a feat that is the merit of science, as is the fact that people are realistically beginning to think and be concerned about how quickly sea levels are rising, about the forecast that the sea level is expected to rise in this century and the next, and about two degrees being a lot. It might be difficult for the temperature to go up only 1.5 degrees, but perhaps all the efforts will really have to center on not allowing the composition of the atmosphere to change too much as compared to the present.
Still, despite all the support provided by scientific data, science seems to have a limited influence on diplomatic decisions, on political decisions, on overcoming of stalemates caused by diverging economic interests.
Science itself has limitations. Science is and always shall be limited, but it moves forward and has moved forward very quickly in the last few years. Scientists are concerned that, if we wait too long, until science is absolutely certain or, in other words, if people only believe in what they see and not in what science predicts for the future (we are witnessing the disappearance of the ice floating over the Arctic), if we wait for science to make a diagnosis instead of a prognosis of the climate system, then it might be too late. Science will always be intrinsically limited when it comes to predicting the future. The climate system and the terrestrial system are very complex; it stands to reason that it is impossible to predict everything that might happen because there are so many paths, there are infinite possibilities. Science knows what is happening and this is something it does well, with much less uncertainty. This is why the IPCC stated in 2007 that global warming is real. Nowadays it has become even more real. The action-taking intent, the idea of acting even though a scenario is not 100% certain, has to be a political, economic, and diplomatic decision. The examples that we have seen, including the Arctic Ocean’s ice, show that uncertainty goes in two directions: a very short time ago, it was predicted that the Arctic’s ice would disappear in the Northern Hemisphere’s summer at around the end of the century; it was also predicted that for this to happen, the temperature would have to go up significantly – 3 or 4 degrees. Nowadays, all the glaciological projections indicate that nothing will keep that ice from disappearing if the temperature rises by just 2 degrees. Reality has proven to be much quicker than what was predicted ten years ago. So diplomacy, politics and the economy have to be on the safe side and not simply imagine that uncertainty will always tend to be less problematic.
Eduardo CesarFrom a distance, we had the impression that the discussion of the uncertainties of the IPCC estimates took up unexpected space in Copenhagen. Perhaps this occurred because of the hackers’ invasion of the scientific center in East Anglia and the ensuing leak of Phil Jones’ e-mails in November (see page 31) and, afterwards, because of the position of scientists such as Joanne Simpson, Norwegian physicist Ivar Giaever (a 1973 Nobel Prize laureate) and Japan’s Kiminori Itoh – in short, serious people from scientific fields who apparently provided support for the skeptical activists.
None of these people are true skeptics in the sense of denying the issue. In fact, in my opinion, Professor Richard Lindzen, from MIT, is the only skeptic in the world who is scientifically respected as a scientific expert on climate. The others – and I am personally acquainted with professor Joanne Simpson – are people who address issues related to uncertainty, who are aware of the difficulty of predicting how meteorological extremes (such as storms, hurricanes, etc.) will behave in the future.
But don’t these scientists say that the planet is not getting warmer?
No, Joanne Simpson and the others feel that science must still mature significantly to allow us to predict what global warming will do, for example, in relation to extreme meteorological conditions. The people who were in Copenhagen realized, in the first few days of the conference, that there was still some impact from the discussion about the hackers and the pirated e-mails; but this impact diminished toward the end. Of course, those who deny the existence of global warming are probably celebrating, because the longer it takes for actions to be implemented, the stronger will become their camp, which favors doing nothing. However, it is interesting to see how some skeptics have a different view, for instance, Lindzen, who is such a good physicist – he knows that the planet is getting warmer and that injecting gases will make it even warmer. However, Lindzen believes that this warming is insignificant and that even if the amount of gas in the atmosphere doubles, the warming will still be insignificant, and lower than the average predicted by IPCC. Furthermore, he has a philosophical viewpoint that this is’t necessarily bad, namely, that it’s better to have a warmer planet. But this equals ignoring the huge impact that climate changes may have. As for Phil Jones’ pirated e-mails, this is something that has to be properly clarified. I’ve been personally acquainted with Phil for more than 15 years and I’m sure that he used the English word trick -which can be translated into Portuguese as jeitinho (finding a way of doing things) – informally, in connection with what he had done to specific numbers. Informality is common when people exchange e-mails as an e-mail is not a formal document worded in proper language; it is similar to chatting. It could have been a mistake, but saying “I’m going to find a way around” could be a way of saying, in Portuguese, that a problem had been solved by means of data analysis; therefore this cannot be viewed as some kind of fraud. Anyway, there are thousands of published scientific articles analyzing historical series of climate data, so it’s impossible to doubt that the planet is getting warmer. I think this matter has lost some of its prominence, but a number of measures have been taken; several academies of science are conducting independent investigations of the e-mails, as are the IPCC and the University of East Anglia. The institutions in England take highly laudable measures to immediately remove any faculty member from his or her position in the event of any suspicion. Phil Jones has temporarily stepped down from his post as director of the said university’s Climate Research Unit until the related investigation is concluded. In short, I think that scientists such as Joanne Simpson, who question some of the aspects in which science must advance, are important, precisely to encourage science to advance. As far as I know, none of the names you mentioned are tied to the oil and coal lobbies.
The issue is whether these people’s views didn’t end up fuelling these lobbies.
I don’t think so. Which country is most interested in raising all kinds of doubts about this issue? China. However, in China, for quite a number of years, global warming has been viewed as causing huge difficulties for development. Studies conducted by Chinese scientists have shown that the effects of global warming have already had an impact: heat waves, droughts, floods; and they have affected farming… Furthermore, this issue no longer applies to countries that account for a major percentage of the population, such as China, India, other emerging nations, developed countries. And this is why the only statement left over from Copenhagen is that the temperature cannot rise by more than 2 degrees; the African countries and the small islands together want no more than 1.5 degrees, which in some semi-arid regions means 2.5 degrees, 3 degrees, 4 degrees. This is a very great disturbance, because it modifies water resources, making water scarce, causes stronger droughts, etc.
Hugh Lacey, a philosopher of science, wrote an article on climate change research, published in today’s Folha de S. Paulo newspaper. He states that only science can mitigate this field’s uncertainties. Are the research lines found in Brazil, as part of the climate program organized by FAPESP and Rede CLIMA, or as part of other programs, aiming to reduce such uncertainties?
This is one of the main issues regarding these lines of research. These studies are based on three pillars: the first is the study of climate change and its impact on all the systems. The second is the technological focus: what does Brazil have to do to reduce emissions? No less important, the third concerns reducing the uncertainties of the projections: these are the models of a global climate system. FAPESP’s program has strong funding for developing, for the first time ever, a truly Brazilian model of the global climate system. This system, based on existing experiences from all over the world (no need to reinvent the wheel) are to include the very best of our knowledge; all the components, all the elements of a climate system (the ocean, the atmosphere, the vegetation, the carbon cycle, the slashing and burning, the most typical disturbances of the Brazilian environment with which we are familiar) will be brought together to create our own model. We are in the process of getting the necessary tools: super computers to design scenarios for decades and centuries (the bidding process for these is already under way) based on our current knowledge. This will provide a contribution to global science. We plan to include elements that are typical of South America, as well as the climate variations that we are familiar with; we will avail ourselves of a tool that will provide us with plenty of autonomy to prepare as many scenarios as we feel are important – repeating, changing some things and constantly learning more and more. This tool is a leveling element, which will – in the course of three or four years – put us on par with developed countries. The effort to reduce uncertainties is a global effort. We have already expanded the Brazilian effort so that it has become the modeling effort of three countries – Brazil, South Africa and India, and perhaps Argentina and Chile as well. I can say that this could be viewed as a model “of the South” (China is too big and is working on its own model of this kind). And it would be good if this were a joint effort, because we’ll only come close to the minimum figures required for this kind of venture if we include the work being done by the scientific community involved in modeling in those countries. Any center in the USA, Europe or Japan has at least 100 or120 PhDs working on this modeling activity whereas all of us, together, have fewer than 150.
FAPESP’s climate program was launched in 2008 and there are 10 projects under way in it. Is this a suitable number?
The program was launched in August 2008. Ten proposals currently under way were selected at the first call. The second part of this first summons focused on a consortium to develop a Brazilian mathematical model for the global climate system. This proposal is in the final stages of analysis and should be included as the 11th proposal. As the first summons attracted a significant number of excellent proposals, FAPESP made the decision – correctly so, in my opinion – to review the projects that had been very well evaluated but that had not passed the first phase, instead of organizing a new summons in 2009. I believe that this will result in another 4, 5, or 6 approved proposals; in 2010, we will may have our first package, structured around some 15 to 17 proposals.
Eduardo CesarThe initial estimate was to invest R$100 million in the program. Half of this funding was to be provided by FAPESP and the other half by the Ministry of Science and Technology. Is this correct?
Actually, it was a bit more. FAPESP undertook to provide an average of R$12 million a year for 10 years and it managed to set up a partnering arrangement with the federal government – not exactly fifty-fifty, but an excellent deal nonetheless – because the federal funds are allocated to a very important component of the program: grants for master’s degrees, doctorates, and postdocs, which will educate a new generation of researchers. In other words, in five or six years, these initial projects will involve about 50 new researchers with PhDs. At present, there are only 40 to 50 PhDs in Brazil specialized in or working on climate systems modeling; most of them are in the State of São Paulo. If Brazil wants to be fully autonomous in this respect, then it will have to educate another 100 PhDs in this field within 10 years and provide jobs for all of them. In general terms, the figures are as follows: if in 10 years’ time FAPESP has a 20-project portfolio, having managed to keep 15 projects under on any given year, then we will have educated roughly 200 PhDs. The FAPESP program alone will have multiplied the number of existing researchers fourfold all the sub-fields linked to climate changes. Since the federal government, the Rede Clima climate network and INCT run similar programs, in 10 years Brazil will have hundreds of PhDs – and I hope that the institutions, as well as the private sector, will provide jobs for them.
So if the networking with India, South Africa and some South American countries actually materializes, the Southern Hemisphere’s contribution may be quite significant.
Undoubtedly. We’ll be able to improve our ability to study which climate change effects are expected in agriculture, in the coastal zones, in biodiversity, in energy, in water resources, in cities… The focus is to develop models and apply them. The idea is to apply the projections from all kinds of studies and perhaps (who knows, I’m being optimistic here) we might even be able to share technological development. The problem of this entire issue as regards agreements on climate changes is the mitigation-related technological question. The major issue that is not being addressed and that was not addressed in Copenhagen is that countries have an overly nationalistic view of technology. In other words, nobody shares technological developments – everyone wants to sell them, assuming that countries with the ability to innovate technology are developed countries and that this is the driver of economic development. So, who knows? Perhaps in our countries, which have similar histories, we’ll manage to break down some paradigms and start developing joint technological projects for emissions reduction. The people who were in Copenhagen realized very clearly that unless the USA and China reach a consensus on technology-related issues, it would be difficult to envision a broad agreement.
Is it a false impression or have research groups from other countries, especially from the United States, accrued much more knowledge on the Amazon Region and climate changes than the Brazilian groups?
The basis of the research work has actually always come from Brazilian institutions and partnering arrangements with researchers from other countries, especially the United States. This has enabled joint projects to materialize, the biggest of which is the LBA (Large Scale Biosphere-Atmosphere) Experiment in the Amazon Region. However, if we consider the last 20 to 30 years, we will notice a predominance of scientific articles whose leading author is not Brazilian. This reflects the fact that many developed countries that invest heavily in scientific research have a global view of science and study scientific endeavors from all over the world. Over the last 10 years, however, we have established a number of scientific collaborations and, as a result, we have been able to significantly expand the development of a community here in Brazil that conducts international-level research on the Amazon Region. Most of this community’s members are in Brazil’s southeast region. How can we change this? By strengthening the scientific institutions of the Amazon Region, a process that has been under way for the last 10 years and that is now beginning to yield significant results. There is a limitation to overcome, which is the sequential model of scientific and technological development. This model allocates funds for scientific research only after a major economic development boom occurs. FAPESP is a typical example: its funds come from a percentage of the ICMS state tax levied on goods and services. If the state is doing well in economic terms, research funds swell up and this feeds the economic process through innovation, training, and the strengthening of universities… This was the model used in most of the world’s development. However, the Amazon Region and the poor regions of Africa and South America actually need another model, because the speed of transformations is so great that one must come up with an “Antarctic model” for scientific development. There is no economic exploitation in Antarctica, but the world spends more money on research on Antarctica, where investments for economic purposes are banned by international law, than Brazil does on science and technology. We have to do something similar for the Amazon Region, without the restrictions on investments for economic purposes. Of the US$166 billion to be invested in the field of climate change in the next 10 years, as announced by president Lula in Copenhagen, a significant portion is to be allocated to reducing deforestation in the Amazon Region and to opening new institutions and new universities… I think we’re on the right track. We worked on the calculations at the Brazilian Academy of Sciences and concluded that, in 10 years, we need to have at least 2 thousand researchers in the Amazon Region; the ideal figure would be 4 thousand new researchers and engineers. I always point out the following: all the Amazon region universities and research institutes together get less than 50% of the University of São Paulo/USP budget. We’re talking about 4 million square kilometers, 25 million inhabitants, huge potential – doesn’t all of this deserve a budget similar to that of USP?
What sparked your interest in meteorology, and your move to research work on the climate, the terrestrial system, etc? Didn’t you graduate in electronic engineering from ITA?
If I were a 17-year old adolescent today, deciding where to go to college, I wouldn’t choose ITA. However, I was an adolescent in the late 1960’s, from a family of Italian immigrants on my mother’s side. My father was a native of Conquista, a tiny town in the State of Minas Gerais, some 30 kilometers away from the city of Uberaba. My father migrated to São Paulo to look for a job. Back then, any student who lacked a family framework regarding education had one of three choices: if he liked plants and animals and didn’t mind blood, he was steered to medical school; if he was very good at math, he would study engineering; and if he wanted to get rich, he would go to law school. As I had always been good at math, I took the college entrance exam for engineering, and my choices were USP’s Polytechnic School and ITA. I passed both exams and started at the Polytechnic. But I didn’t like the freshman hazing and my father suggested that I try ITA for one week. I loved it and decided to stay on. As I have always enjoyed challenges, I decided to take the most difficult course – at that time, electronic engineering. My father passed away when I was halfway through college and my family found itself in difficult financial circumstances. As I was the eldest son, I took on the responsibility of supporting my family. However, I have been interested in environmental issues ever since my teenage years on the outskirts of São Paulo. I met Paulo Nogueira Neto before he had organized Sema, the federal government’s environmental protection agency. I attended many lectures and events that he organized. My interest in meteorology was triggered by coincidence: I had developed a mathematical model at Inpe, the National Institute of Space Research, to calculate the pollution that the Petrobras oil refinery that was being built would cast upon the city of São José dos Campos, as part of my college graduation monograph. I had done some research on this, which was rather risky, given the military regime that ruled the country at that time. But I had to know where the refinery’s smokestack would be built, how tall it was going to be, etc. I flew with Oswaldo Saback, a classmate from ITA (now deceased) and a pilot from the local aircraft club. I photographed the site with infrared film and my Nikon F2 camera. However, at Inpe, ITA students had a classroom that was close to the recently established meteorological department, where I met several people. One of them, Professor Luís Carlos Molion, who lives in the State of Alagoas and is known as the Brazilian skeptic, encouraged me to study meteorology. After graduating at the end of 1974, I spent a few months in São José and then I went to Manaus, to work at Inpa, the National Research Institute of the Amazon Region. I got this job thanks to a friend from Inpe, Mostafa Nosseir, who knew the person who was then chairman of the Brazilian Academy of Sciences, Pacheco Leão. He was aware of my interest in the Amazon Region and sent me to talk to the then chairman of the CNPq funding agency, José Dion de Mello Telles. He, in turn, called Warwick Kerr from his office in Rio de Janeiro. Kerr was one of FAPESP’s founders and the director of Inpa at that time. He told me to go to Manaus. Dion provided me with an air ticket and I didn’t even return to São Paulo: I went straight to Galeão Airport from CNPq’s office. I began working as an equipment maintenance engineer at Inpa and soon thereafter Kerr put me to work on other projects. At one point, a scientific committee from MIT came to visit Inpa and Doctor Kerr asked me to assist the group from MIT, simply because I spoke reasonable English. The head of the MIT group, Professor John Edmonds, a geochemist, heard that I was an electronic engineer and invited me to visit MIT to learn how to operate some equipment at his MIT lab. The MIT equipment was identical to the equipment that the Japanese government had donated to Inpa. The Japanese equipment had been left in storage because no engineer at Inpa knew how to assemble it. I went to MIT, spent three months there, learned everything about the equipment – how to operate, assemble, test and calibrate it. During my stay at MIT, the head of the meteorology department, Professor Jule Charney, encouraged me to apply for a doctorate. So applied to doctoral programs at the meteorology department of the University of Wisconsin, at the environmental sciences department of the University of California at Berkeley, and at MIT. As I had graduated from ITA, I thought I was brilliant – every ITA graduate thinks so. I was accepted at the three institutions and chose MIT, with Charney as my advisor. During my doctorate, I worked on very heavily theoretical aspects of meteorology; I wrote a theoretical thesis on modeling and got a very good education.
Eduardo CesarDid you join Inpa again after you returned?
I thought that I was going to go back to Inpa. However, during a conversation with Enéas Salati in 1979, who was then the director of the institute, he realized that I had become too theoretical and as such, he felt I wouldn’t have very much to do at Inpa. So he recommended that I go to Inpe when I came back to Brazil. In 1981, Salati himself talked about me to Nélson de Jesus Parada, who was the director of Inpe at that time.
Where did your grant in the USA come from?
I got the grant in the USA itself. Kerr got me a one-year grant from the Organization of American States. Then I got a four and a half-year grant from MIT. That’s why I had no obligation whatsoever to come back. I had also been invited to join a post-doctoral program and I had the possibility of getting a job – but I didn’t think about any of this for even one minute: I wanted to return to Brazil. My mother was very ill, Manaus was very far, and living in São José would allow me to be fairly close to her, as she lived near São Paulo. At that time, being hired by Inpe was very simple: Inpe employees were hired under Brazilian Labor Laws and I was hired in early 1983. However, I was still interested in the Amazon Region; my modeling thesis had been based on tropical circulations. The thesis was theoretical, but it was also tropical and as such could be applied to any tropical region. In 1983, Molion invited me to take part in an experiment in the Amazon Region, together with a group from England. I went in August and stayed for two months working on this experiment, which was conducted northeast of Manaus. So once again, I became interested in the environment and in the rain forest, and things happened in a sequence: in 1985 and 1987, we conducted an experiment together with Nasa. In 1987, I took on the responsibility of coordinating the meteorological part of the experiment with Nasa and started getting involved with management matters. In 1990, a group from England came here to conduct a major experiment together with Brazilian researchers. This involved three sites in the Amazon Region, and I was the coordinator of the Brazilian part. The experiment focused on understanding the Amazon Region’s flows – of heat, of steam, and of carbon; carbon was already becoming a focus of study. This was not my field of expertise, but I was the coordinator of the experiment as a whole. We did this in Marabá, in Rondônia – Ji-Paraná – and in Manaus. In 1993, we began to outline the LBA experiment.
At that point, Rio-92 had already taken place and environmental issues had become a hot topic in Brazil…
In a sense, one can say that the LBA is a product of Rio-92. Actually, the LBA preliminary proposal came up in late 1992 in the USA. I went there and started to organize it along with Nasa and the Europeans in 1993. Little by little, because this is a slow process, I started broadening my line of research beyond atmospheric modeling, the more traditional line of meteorological research, as I began to focus on vegetation-related issues. I must tell you that I spent one year in the USA in 1988 – I went to Maryland, to do my postdoc. This helped me a lot because while I was there I conducted one of my first studies about the impact of deforestation in the Amazon Region on the climate. This study became very important. To give you an idea, we published two papers: one in Science in 1990 and another one in Journal of Climate, in 1991. The latter, even though it was not published in Science or Nature, has already been quoted more than 300 times. It was in the 1991 paper that we presented the theoretical proposal, the hypothesis of the “savannization” of the Amazon region.
This is considered your main scientific contribution to the debate on climate change, right?
Yes, and I am still pursuing this line of thinking. We submitted a paper recently that reaffirms this hypothesis. Of course, I have advised many students in many fields, including classical meteorology and weather forecasting, but this paper – which got less attention – was produced together with my students. The better-known production on an international level is closely related to the Amazon Region, because this region attracts global interest.
Yes – by proposing the “savannization” hypothesis, you were launching something very provocative.
Yes, and today, almost 20 years after the publication of the first paper, this idea has been globally embraced. Nowadays, I could count another 100 papers from all over the world on this issue. I have maintained my interest in the matter, even though I spent many years involved with the creation of CPTEC, Inpe’s weather forecast and climate studies center which I headed for 12 years. I didn’t move away from science, but I diminished my intellectual production during that time. In 2003, Marcos Oyama – one of my students – and I published a paper describing how the Amazon Region could turn into a savanna; the week before last, we saw that it had been quoted 59 times. My students and I also published two important papers in 2007. One, written with Luiz Salazar, shows how “savannization” could be caused by global warming and the other, written with Gilvan Sampaio, determined the deforestation limit that can cause this. So this field of science has been getting a lot of exposure. Marina Hirota Magalhães (one of my doctoral students), Marcos Oyama, and I have just submitted a new paper – which I hope will be accepted – in which for the first time we managed to explain the importance of electrical discharges, the vegetation fires caused by electrical discharges, by lightning, by thunderbolts, to determine where the Amazon Rainforest begins and where the Cerrado savanna ends – this is an issue that has always been in the back of my mind. We explained that were it not for lightning and thunderbolts, the Amazon Rainforest would extend 300 to 400 kilometers into what is now the Cerrado savanna. It’s the fire that drives the forest some 400 kilometers back.
Did the people who study thunderbolts at Inpe take part in developing this paper?
My colleague Osmar Pinto has always led the studies on lightning and thunderbolts. We brought in people from this field to the new center we opened at Inpe and which I head: the Terrestrial System Sciences Center. Osmar is with us and what happens when you bring together people with different academic backgrounds is very interesting. This paper materialized because I had proposed to the said doctoral student that she focus on the following issue: this is a place where a lot of lightning strikes; if there were no lightning, there would be fewer fires; and with no fires, the forest would invade the Cerrado savanna. I want to find out whether this is true. Of course, everything I do within my line of mathematical modeling is quantitative. In terms of a qualitative approach, the environmentalists who specialize on the Cerrado savanna have already known for 50 years that fire is important – but I wanted to quantify all of this. We designed a study, the most difficult part of which was how to specify the fires caused by lightening. This is where Osmar Pinto helped us a lot. Marina is a mathematician from Unicamp; she is very mathematically talented and so we were able to build a mathematical model, the merit of which is mostly hers. I am also concluding the revision of another paper that we will submit shortly and in which we bring together, synergistically, all the effects, namely, global warming, deforestation, and forest fires, and analyze what is happening to the Amazon Region.
Are there any changes on the horizon concerning the “savannization” of the Amazon Region?
I am about to propose a long-term experiment, consisting of a system of observations focused on the south-southeast of the Amazon Region. I want us to have, here in Brazil, the ability to detect the signs of impending “savannization”. According to our calculations, if the temperature in the region rises by more than 3.5 degrees – we are far from this, only 1 degree so far – or if deforestation becomes too extensive, then we will begin to see the signs of “savannization”.
Do you see any parallel between the development of your scientific career and the development of the field of environmental sciences and Earth sciences here in Brazil?
This is going to seem kind of… However, yes, I think so. If you made a list of 10 people who have dedicated most of their professional careers to these fields since the 1980s, then yes, I would be on this list. Given that I have coordinated many of these scientific experiments, I think that I really have furthered the development of these fields in Brazil. And these fields enjoy a lot of international visibility.
To what extent does the climate program, under your coordination, network with the Bioen and Biota-FAPESP programs?
A major opportunity is arising for Brazil to rationally exploit its renewable natural resources, all its major biomes, and to become a tropical environmental power, at the forefront of the production of clean biofuels for the world, respecting environmental quality and ecosystems, provided that all of this is firmly based on advanced science and technology. Those three programs are linked, in this sense. Bioen is a truly impressive program; it centers on expanding the use and possibilities of biofuel and it is a pillar of future ethanol chemistry. I view the three programs, along with the research conducted by Rede CLIMA/MCT (the Brazilian Network of Research on Global Environmental Changes of the Ministry of Science and Technology) and by INCT for Climate Changes as examples for Brazil and as the first three pillars of knowledge that are to form the basis of a new and real development of our country.