Antonio Camacho: «The main environmental challenge is education»

a_camacho_portadaPepa Granados

We could say Antonio Camacho is an adventurer; few people go to Antarctica to do research in extreme conditions like this professor from the University of Valencia has done. An expert in microbial and biogeochemical ecology in inland aquatic ecosystems, Camacho has intensified his research on issues related to climate change and biogeochemical processes in recent years. In addition, he combines being a researcher at the University of Valencia with his charge as president of the Iberian Association of Limnology, organisation that brings together the leading scholars of inland waters in Spain and Portugal. Currently, Professor Camacho is enlarging his adventure by studying Iberian wetlands in order to get to know their potential as carbon sinks with the aim of alleviating the effects of climate change.

What do we understand by climate change?
Climate change is the variation in climates that have occurred throughout history. But today the term is used to define the accelerated change that is happening in climate variations, whose rate change is unprecedented. It is actually something broader than this: it is a global change.

In fact, natural changes now occur within decades

Indeed. Climate has changed throughout Earth history on countless occasions but it was a gradual change. However, climates had never before changed at such a rapid pace. And if this is associated with man-made environmental changes, it becomes evident that their main characteristic is the increase of carbon levels in the atmosphere, since we are exhausting our fossil carbon stock, accumulated throughout history. This in turn causes an increase in greenhouse gases, mainly CO 2, which results in a rapid and unprecedented climate change.

But, is there anyone who is still questioning it?
Virtually no one in the scientific world is, although there are different approaches. However, evidence is overwhelming.

Is the present alarmism justified?

Of course it is justified! Some of the changes that are taking place as well as those being forecast have naturally occurred within thousands of years, such as sea level variations.

You carry out your research in Antarctica, but also in the Iberian Peninsula. Are there any similarities between the two regions regarding the impact of climate change?
Climate change has both direct and indirect consequences. Direct consequences are linked to the increase in temperatures, changes in rainfall patterns … Temperatures are increasing dramatically and in polar areas the increase is unprecedented. This explains the thawing of the Arctic ice cap: we will reach a situation in which there will be virtually no sea ice during the summer months. Regarding precipitation, changes may lean towards either increase or decrease in the Mediterranean, especially regarding the frequency of massive rainfall or drought. The IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) knows these changes all too well; there is scientific evidence and possible applications of models for all scenarios.

You study the interactions between aquatic organisms and their role in the carbon cycle, among other things. Why is this relevant?
Microorganisms play a key role in the carbon cycle. Autotrophic organisms catch inorganic carbon from the atmosphere. What matters is detecting where the carbon caught goes: if it is deposited in compartments whose carbon release is harder, for example in sediments, it would be a process that helps removing carbon from the atmosphere; if, on the contrary, microorganisms recycle organic matter –they can release CO2, methane or other compounds like nitrogen-oxide–, they contribute to the increase of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere. In the end, much of the regulation of biogeochemical cycles is carried out by microorganisms. That is why we say that their role is crucial in the global biogeochemical carbon cycle.

How does global warming affect aquatic organisms?
In many ways. Metabolic processes are activated by temperature. We have some organisms that catch carbon through photosynthesis, and others that release carbon through the respiration of that organic matter. Respiration, the process by which carbon is removed, is activated more rapidly by temperature than by photosynthesis. We have found that the increase in temperature creates an imbalance toward those processes that release carbon: more carbon is removed than caught. This is so if we consider only temperatures, but in nature there is not just one single factor, there are multiple factors that interact. So we also study parallel factors such as salinity, nutrients …

If these microorganisms are capable of catching carbon, what is the next step to alleviate climate change?
Any natural system needs a certain level of management, especially so in environments highly influenced by the presence of humans. In the Iberian Peninsula we are currently working on wetlands, but we are going to include agrosystems starting with those closest to the wetlands, such as paddy fields. There are many forms of management that can change the balance of carbon catch or release. We are going to analyse how the variation of certain factors affect carbon balances in those natural or agro systems. For example, there is a lake that should dry out over the summer but it does not because of irrigation excess … what happens in with the carbon balance then? As these issues have never been raised for the majority of ecological systems, we have a lack of knowledge and we cannot include this within management priorities. If we want to help these systems palliate climate change, surely there are ways that help more than others.

Predictions for Mediterranean models point to a decline in rainfall rates, and therefore water scarcity. Can we do something about this?
Being as efficient as possible. Just like any natural resource, water is limited. In human history we have always tended to use natural resources to the limit in order to progress as a society. However, it is increasingly evident that these rates of growth in the exploitation of resources are very dangerous. Even economists have shown that world economy would not be sustainable without the services of ecosystems, which are those that nature provides for us, for our welfare. If we destroy this natural capital, we will lose the ecosystem services that enable our progress as a society. Today, conservation policies of the EU are not based on naturalistic romantic ideals, they exist because we have no other choice.

Why aren’t governments making bigger efforts?
Because we are short-sighted. Not only governments; but the general public. We often opt for an immediate benefit even knowing that it will be a future loss. We are not fully aware of the fact that we probably cannot afford this loan we are taking. Studies by economists show that the value of the services offered by nature would be unaffordable if money was used because the global economy would not be able to endure it.

What about environmental policies?

When making decisions, politicians decide to do what makes the people happy in the short-term. Europe scolds them when they do not do the same thing. European environmental policies have many good things, but it often is insufficient and in many cases they do not reach where they should. And it’s not for lack of will; in the end it comes down to making decisions. And we find a clear example in what happened last March when the river Ebro overflowed.

What is your opinion regarding the debate that arose around that event?
The river overflows because we have interfered in its course. If it had long banks, it would have overflowed to those banks. Moreover, channelling directs energy downstream; in the end, that the river runs is a matter of energy. We all have studied potential and kinetic energy: the speed of the river is due to the jump in potential energy, that is, due to the elevation of the surface. If water builds up and expands slowly, what overflows upstream does not overflow downstream. It is a matter of logic that rivers must have their own space. The legacy of a river is an ecosystem, and if we begin to dredge the riverbed becomes a channel and it will no longer be a natural ecosystem and will become something else, which means that many of the services it provides are lost. But of course, we humans want to take the most fertile lands and we intend to manage them. The president of the Ebro Hydrographic Confederation has called for changes in the environmental legislation in order to allow dredging. Why is no one suggesting that what we need to do is expanding the flood zones? The president gave the two solutions: either giving the river its space or dredge it. If the solution is directing the flow of the river, the problem is transferred to the downstream, because energy does not dissipate. To prevent this from happening they decide to dredge the river, making it a channel and therefore the natural characteristics of the river disappear.

Therefore, what solution would you suggest?
Give nature and the river in this case their space. If they had left the river its space this rains would not have resulted in such floods. This is an example of how we work…

Is society aware of what we is at stake?
If we were to ask in the streets of Valencia about the Ebro case everyone would say: «So much water in the Ebro and we cannot bring it here!». People have this mindset and I think the romantic conservation of nature is something that is already gone and that never really worked. People do not choose to preserve nature in a romanticised way; they only choose it when they have no other choice. And now we are seeing that we have no choice, because everything that happens and everything that can happen in terms of environmental disasters is maximised unless we coexist with nature and choose to ally with it. And this is how we operate in Western societies since ancient Greece.

Is it necessary to provide society with more information?

I do not have much hope for generations like mine, because nobody is willing to do anything. My hope is in youth, and coexistence with nature must be taught both at home and at school. We will move forward as long as society’s awareness raises, otherwise, when we realise we will have destroyed most things that we need, and then it will be too late.

Therefore, what challenges lie ahead?

When we talk about challenges people always think about technologies, but our main challenge is education. We must realise that we cannot burn the boat we are in, because we will sink. We have to keep everything we need to make the planet a habitable and comfortable place for all the species that inhabit it. Technological development has to go hand in hand with social development, and as a species, it seems that the latter is much behind. It is therefore necessary to assume that preservation is not a fad or a hippie thing, but something crucial for future generations so that they can go on living with dignity on this planet.

Teresa Ciges. . Journalist and student of Master in History of Science and Science Communication. University of Valencia.
© Mètode 2015.


a_camacho2Pepa Granados

«Climate has changed throughout Earth history on countless occasions but it was a gradual change. However, climates had never before changed at such a rapid pace»

«It is increasingly evident that these rates of growth in the exploitation of resources are very dangerous»


a_camacho1Pepa Granados

«We often opt for an immediate benefit even knowing that it will be a future loss»

«People do not choose to preserve nature in a romanticised way; they only choose it when they have no other choice»








© Mètode 2015

Periodista i estudiant del Màster en Història de la Ciència i Comunicació Científica. Universitat de València.