‘We need politicians and experts’: How Chile is prioritizing the climate crisis | Chile

Hidden behind the Andes in a quiet corner of South America, a formidable generation of former student leaders is building one of the most exciting progressive movements in the world.

On March 11, Gabriel Boric, 35, a tattooed leftist determined to reform Chile from top to bottom, will become the country’s youngest president. .

“It’s so exciting to see what these young people have done,” said Maisa Rojas, 49, a renowned Chilean climatologist who was named environment minister in a cabinet that included several members of Boric’s student protest generation.

“These people were academic leaders just 10 years ago, but they brought a whole new perspective to the challenges of the 21st century, including climate change.

Gabriel Boric in Santiago, Chile, in January. Photography: Alberto Valdés/EPA

On January 24, Boric appointed a majority female cabinet for the first time in Chile’s history. Rojas, one of 14 women among the 24 ministers, is a distinguished scholar at the University of Chile, where she first studied physics in the 1990s, and the director of the Interdisciplinary Center for Climate Research and the resilience of the country.

She has a PhD in atmospheric physics from Lincoln College, Oxford and was one of the authors of the disturbing Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change August 2021 report, which warned that large climate change, caused by human activity, was now inevitable and irreversible.

But now, after a distinguished career in academia, Rojas will lead the way on Boric’s ambitious promise to build a green, sustainable and resilient future for Chile.

“I think there is a lot of space for Chile to become a leader in the fight against climate change”, she says, “I would like to be able to convince other countries that an ambitious fight against climate change climate change is in their best interest”.

While international leadership would be vitally important in a region renowned for its climatic pariahs, led by famed Brazilian President Jaír Bolsonaro, Chile’s extraordinary variety of landscapes and climates also make the country particularly vulnerable to climate change. at home, with prolonged droughts becoming more common. .

From the world’s driest desert, Atacama, in the north of the country, through the arid valleys of central Chile to the spectacular fjords and glaciers of Patagonia, mining, forestry, agriculture and fisheries dominate a commodity-based economy that is among the strongest in South America. .

And just as Rojas speaks calmly and methodically about the climate crisis, she clearly links the health of the planet to the patterns of development that have brought it to the brink.

Endangered flowers in the Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world.
Endangered flowers in Chile’s Atacama Desert, the driest desert in the world. Photography: Jose Caviedes/EPA

“Global warming is a symptom of how our civilization has developed in the 200 years since the industrial revolution,” she says. “This had two consequences: one is obviously the degradation of our physical environment, but the other is the structural inequality which, in the case of Chile, is at the root of the social unrest that began in 2019 – and led to the drafting of the new constitution.

In October 2019, large, then-defining anti-inequality protests exploded in Chile, leading party leaders to sign an agreement to work to replace the current constitution, which was drafted under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet ( 1973-1990).

The assembly that was convened to draft the new constitution has since passed a resolution declaring that the process is taking place against the backdrop of a climate emergency.

Elsewhere, Chile has committed to net zero emissions by 2050 as part of ambitious climate goals. In June last year, the abundance of solar and wind potential led the lower house of Congress to approve a bill that would ban the installation of new coal-fired power plants from 2040 to 2025.

The senate has yet to rule on the law, which Rojas says is a top priority. “When we tackle climate change, it’s not just an environmental issue,” she says. “We have to look at the structural elements of our society, which also means changing our path of development.”

The Santa Ines Glacier in the Seno Ballena Fjord in Punta Arenas, southern Chile.
The receding Santa Ines Glacier in the Seno Ballena Fjord in Punta Arenas, southern Chile. Photography: Martin Bernetti/AFP/Getty

“The narrative of economic growth versus environmental protection is a false dichotomy that belongs to the 20and century – I’m not saying that we will turn Chile into a big national park without any industry, but we certainly have to do things differently.

Rojas is measured and thoughtful when she speaks, and she freely admits that she is not a natural politician. “It’s strange to be a climatologist in the world of politics, I really feel a little out of place,” she says.

“But we definitely need politicians and experts to be involved in this process. It is not because I am an expert that I will make a better minister than a politician.

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Rojas was initially pushed into politics reluctantly. After the first round of the Chilean presidential election in November, a very different future seemed to lie ahead when José Antonio Kast, a conservative who was keen to dismiss and downplay the climate crisis, beat Boric by two percentage points.

“I was heartbroken and left in shock,” she recalls, “I said back then, I can’t just stay in my comfort zone in academia now — I have to get involved.”

Along with a number of concerned scientists, Rojas wrote a letter to the British science journal Nature expressing concern over a climate change denier who won Chile’s election.

Shortly after, she was inducted into Boric’s campaign team as environment spokesperson, before he claimed victory in the December run-off, winning more votes than n any presidential candidate in the history of Chile.

Although this is Rojas’ first political position, she has led international climate efforts in the past and was appointed coordinator of the scientific advisory committee for the Cop25 summit when Chile was to host the conference in 2019.

Although he was eventually transferred to Madrid when unrest exploded in Chile, Rojas says the role was a wake-up call that helped her understand the dynamics of high-level politics, as well as the private sector – where she had no experience – and the various branches of government.

Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric (centre in blue shirt) presents his first cabinet in Santiago, Chile.
Chilean President-elect Gabriel Boric (center in blue shirt) presents his first cabinet in Santiago, Chile, in January. Photograph: Reuters

She also says it marked a turning point for the narrative surrounding the climate crisis. “Climate change really hit the headlines in 2019 with COP25,” she says. “It stopped being something that would happen at the end of the century and could harm polar bears in the Arctic.”

But at Cop26 in Glasgow last November, while working with the team on the annual climate crisis report, Rojas felt an unfamiliar feeling. “For the first time in my life, I felt something like ‘eco-anxiety’ – I was really worried about what was going on,” she says.

Rojas says she’s still trying to figure out how she’ll manage expectations and deliver on promises made during the campaign, saying a “ratchet” mechanism, in which goals are set and made more ambitious periodically, might be preferable.

“Expectations are so high,” she says of the new Boric government, which is still riding a wave of optimism ahead of its inauguration. “We all know politics is the art of the possible, but I’m confident we can achieve it.”

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