Olga Margalef and Jordi Solé Ollé, the climate crisis beyond emissions

Olga Margalef and Jordi Solé Ollé, CREAF researchers and members of the Committee of Experts on Climate Change of the Parliament of Catalonia. Image: CREAF.
Olga Margalef and Jordi Solé Ollé, CREAF researchers and members of the Committee of Experts on Climate Change of the Parliament of Catalonia. Image: CREAF.

The urgency of a new socio-economic approach, the self-demand to study climate change, science as a public service and the commitment to propose alternatives are on the table around which researchers Olga Margalef and Jordi Solé Ollé talk. From their specialities in Geology and Physics respectively, they analyse, research and propose alternatives to the context of climate emergency we are experiencing. Both are linked to CREAF, are lecturers in the Faculty of Earth Sciences at the University of Barcelona and have recently joined the Committee of Experts on Climate Change of the Parliament of Catalonia.

Being a member of the Committee of Experts on Climate Change of the Parliament of Catalonia involves intervening in Catalonia's carbon budgets, with a view to achieving emissions neutrality by 2050.

The position entails being actively involved in proposing carbon budgets for Catalonia, with the goal of emission neutrality by 2050. “It involves deciding what percentage of emissions reduction each economic sector must commit to achieving,” explains Olga Margalef. It is therefore a matter of “putting together formulas so that Catalonia can achieve climate neutrality by 2050. Not to reach zero CO2 emissions, but to compensate them by taking into account the sinks (capacity to absorb more carbon dioxide than is released) of the forest mass, soils, sea surface, etc.”, she points out. For this reason, the Committee is also “a space where ideas and knowledge are shared”, adds Jordi Solé Ollé, who also reminds us that “to do so, knowledge applied to objective data and tools is necessary”. Both scientists agree that this working group proposes a path of transformation.

To grow or not

The contradiction has long since slipped through a slit in the conversation and is taking shape. The reduction of CO2 emissions is seen face to face with the negotiation of the budget approved by the Catalan Parliament, which one political party is making conditional on the expansion of El Prat airport, among other infrastructures. “It’s a flagrant contradiction…” admits Olga Margalef with her characteristic clarity, “there is a huge mismatch between the tasks assigned to us by the Parliament and the debate and the proposals of some political groups to approve the budgets”.

“There is a huge mismatch between the tasks assigned to us by the Parliament and the debate and the proposals of some political groups to approve the budgets”.

OLGA MARGALEF, CREAF researcher

The understanding and the confluence of approaches reveal a slight divergence. Margalef is quick to assert that emissions neutrality in Catalonia in 2050 could only be achieved with a profound social and economic transformation outside capitalism. But Solé Ollé refines the explanation and qualifies it: “I don’t entirely agree. We will reduce emissions a lot because we won’t have too much raw material to burn. We are currently experiencing the peak of oil as a fossil fuel, we will experience the peak of gas in this decade and that of coal will be between 2040 and 2045“.

As for how we will manage to reduce CO2 emissions, the agreement between the two voices is unanimous and is based on a decrease. According to Solé Ollé, the key is an orderly transformation… which, right off the bat and without too many filters, is an expression that sounds like an oxymoron… but it is not… “We have to leave behind an outdated model such as the growing neo-capitalist neo-liberal model. We have to leave behind an outdated model such as the increasingly neoliberal capitalist model, which has brought nothing good. Nothing at all. There are many scientific data that defend it. The progress that our misunderstood globalised society has experienced has not been brought about by the current socio-economic capitalist model, but rather in spite of these conditions”, he defends.

What is climatical, is political

Both are members of the Committee as specialists at the proposal of some parliamentary political groups. In addition to the commitment, responsibility, recognition and the enormous amount of work involved, they see the opportunity as a sounding board. “It is a challenge, an opportunity to make a political impact based on our background and knowledge,” says Margalef. She admits that in her immediate scientific environment, acting is part of their DNA: “beyond the article and the scientific question, we are eager to influence and transform, because we see the urgency of the challenge and the social commitment of climate change. The institutional and advocacy route is not the only one, but it is one more that should be explored along with awareness-raising, dissemination, activism…”.

An approach that coincides with that of Solé Ollé who, in turn, admits to being very self-demanding and aware of the expectations generated in other scientific colleagues. “It is a loudspeaker position to convey the need for change and not to wait any longer, because the things that should be done are not being done”. At this point, I ask him if we are talking about reducing CO2 emissions and his answer is frank, precise and conclusive: “No, I am referring to a change in the socio-economic structure. We are operating from an economic perspective, not a scientific one: emissions are only one indicator among many and if we take it as the only one, we are not going to get things right. The commitment is to reduce them, but many of us in science are very clear that emissions alone are not going to do anything

“We are operating from an economic perspective, not a scientific one: emissions are only one indicator among many and if we take it as the only one, we are not going to get things right. The commitment is to reduce them, but many of us in science are very clear that emissions alone are not going to do anything”

JORDI SOLÉ OLLÉ, CREAF researcher

And here is an enlightening simile of what it means to operate from an economic point of view, explained by the researcher: “if medicine were to weigh us from birth to diagnose a disease, we would be healthy as long as we gain weight. But there comes a time when if we continue to gain weight, we become bloated. So we’re doing that with climate change, and now we’re saying that instead of GDP we’ll measure CO2 emissions, and we’re asking the system to slim down”.

Denialism, under the letter D of the dictionary

"Denialists are people who are in denial, and in Physics a negative number is a negative number. Therefore, it is ignored. You should not argue with a denialist. A denialist is someone who has faith, science is not faith... therefore, nothing to say. Our job is to provide data and information", Jordi Solé Ollé.

Denialism appears unintentionally. Probably because it belongs to the catalogue of words of those who specialise in climate emergencies and must be taken into account. Jordi Solé Ollé dismisses it with hardly any effort, while hinting at a certain tone of weariness. “Denialists are people who are in denial, and in Physics a negative number is a negative number. Therefore, it is ignored. You should not argue with a denialist. A denialist is someone who has faith, science is not faith… therefore, nothing to say. Our job is to provide data and information”. What he does recognise is a genuine desire to raise awareness behind his scientific character, far removed from the confrontation imposed by denialism. “As scientists we work for society, we solve relevant problems and we must be able to communicate how we have arrived at solutions, what ideas we put forward and what strategies arise from our knowledge and our research,” concludes the researcher.

The debate on whether or not to respond to a person who maintains a denialist discourse is open. For Olga Margalef, the alarm is raised depending on the origin of the message: “I am concerned when it is the president of the Community of Madrid who denies climate change, because she has a very powerful loudspeaker and associates denialism with a specific ideology”.

The two researchers agree that the current climate emergency urgently calls for a path of transformation. Image: CREAF.

Gandhi, Thunberg, Meadows and Margulis

If referents can provide clues about people, here are the ones that move the two researchers. While Jordi Solé Ollé is clear about them and qualifies them as ethical or moral, Olga Margalef gives relative importance to role models. Solé Ollé takes his hat off to Gandhi and Greta Thunberg, for placing the well-being and future of others on the same level or beyond their own. And he stresses that Gandhi’s wife is just as, if not more, important. As for scientific works, on his night table was the report ‘Limits to growth’ published in 1972 by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, by Donella Meadows and Dennis Meadows.

"Lynn Margulis broke consensual paradigms to generate new ones, which is the way science advances. She has an admirable capacity for openness and freedom of mind", Olga Margalef.

Olga Margalef’s reflection echoes out loud: “I am inspired by relatively anonymous people, brave enough to generate a transformation for the benefit of a community, or who have made a situation of inequality or injustice visible”. And both agree on a scientific mainstay, Lynn Margulis, a leading scientist in biological evolution. “She broke consensual paradigms to generate new ones, which is the way science advances. She has an admirable capacity for openness and freedom of mind,” according to Olga Margalef.

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