Research & Studies

The Rainforests are on Fire – Academic Workshop at iASK

Academic Workshop organised by Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg and University of Pannonia

Causes and Consequences, Explanations, Solutions, Question & Answers, Roundtable Discussion

Date: 22th October 2019 at 10.00 a.m.

Venue: Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg, Zwinger Oldtower, Kőszeg H-9730 Chernel st. 16.


The Rainforests are on Fire. How Close Are They?

Thoughts on an iASK Workshop

How far (close) are we to the Amazon rainforest? Or the birch trees burning in Siberia? The ambers glowing where jungle used to be in Indonesia?

In essence, this was the question – and some of its elemental consequences – at “The Rainforests are Burning” roundtable at  the Institute of Advanced Studies Kőszeg on October 22. Co-organized by the Veszprém University of Pannonia, climate researchers, economists, historians, geneticists, sociologists and other experts met for a day of discussion, each contributing their special expertise on the subject.

The answer is not nearly as simple as it would seem  at first glance. No matter how distant from us in geographic terms, these fires all have an impact on our lives, and even more on the future of the Earth: they contribute to the 21st century’s greatest global challenge, climate change.

But not exactly in the way we would think. We were taught in school that rainforests in South America absorb a significant portion of the carbon dioxide in the air and in turn produce much of the Earth’s oxygen. If the rainforest is burned, the amount of oxygen in the air will be diminished and our lives may be in peril. But is that really the case?

Not quite: vegetation (and not just the jungle) really does produce oxygen – but only while it is in growth. When fully developed, its own metabolism uses up most of the oxygen it produces, and when it dies (burns or decomposes) it releases into the atmosphere the carbon-dioxide it had absorbed during its lifetime. As András Gelencsér, atmospheric researcher and rector of the University of Pannonia pointed out, burning the rain forest or any other human activity does not appreciably effect the quantity of atmospheric oxygen. It does, however, have a major effect on the amount of carbon dioxide in the air.

The preservation of the rainforests in their present state is therefore clearly in our interest. Putting the torch to them, after all, increases the carbon content of the air, which strengthens the greenhouse effect, and that in turn brings us closer to a climate catastrophe. The obvious solution is to put out the fires.

But the issue is much more complex: in South America, the rainforest is largely cleared to provide habitable space for the rapidly growing population or pasture for grazing herds of cattle to be sold on the world market.  Oil palm in Asia is also planted to meet existing demand. The countries concerned often exploit their existing land resources brutally and violently. But do others (us) have the right to demand that they do not? Is the world ready to remunerate the forest-burning countries to balance out the difference between  their short-term revenue and profit and the irreversible damage to humanity? Hardly …

And then there is the damage caused by the extinction of species due to our  ever growing need for larger areas of land. Who is to say what the long-term consequences of the extinction of thousands of animal or plant species are? In fact, why don’t we recognize the multitude of  interconnecting dangers that lead to climate change?

To summarize the all-day workshop in this space in detail is impossible. Two lessons, however, were evident from the first moment to the last. Firstly, climate change is not only a matter for the natural sciences.  Finding the answers to its many issues would also demand the continuous communication of expert opinion by the social and human science community. Why, for example, are people likely to believe in ‘fake news’ or classify truths to be false? Why is it easier to ignore reality?

Humanity has no experience in understanding and even less in managing global and systemic challenges. One way or another, we belittle the issue, go into denial, and try to pass responsibility on. We would probably only understand the real significance of the flaming rainforests if we would smell the smoke. As much as we understand that much of Bangladesh and the city of Venice may soon be flooded by the rising sea we, in safety at the landlocked center of our continent, cannot appreciate the dangers. We are incapable of seeing with our minds’ eye that Hungary will be largely steppe in 50 to 60 years, and the beech, hornbeam, and pine forests will disappear from today’s expanding forests.

The second lesson we come to again and again is that the joint efforts and cooperation of the various disciplines of sciences is both a solemn duty and a dire necessity. The true nature, context and impact of climate challenge (of which the burning rainforests are but a small real and symbolic part) can only be understood through the cooperation of the natural and human  sciences. Society needs to be sensitized (sustainability should already be a separate subject in schools!), politics and politicians need to deal with the long-term issues and recognize their task of finding mutually beneficial win-win solutions for all stakeholders.

Ferenc Miszlivetz, Director of iASK, in his introduction to the workshop stated: “We can only create new, relevant and useful knowledge and insight in a spirit of consensus and collaboration. Only the long-term thinking and cooperation of a society based on wisdom and insight can lead mankind out of the trap we find ourselves in.”


80-90% of audience at ‘The Rainforests are Burning’ roundtable were high school and college students who followed the discussion with interest, and when the opportunity arose bombarded the speakers with their questions and opinions. If anyone, they fully understand: science may be facing the challenges, but at the end of the day their life is at stake.


Program and Video-lectures

Soil, Forest and Fauna. Facts and Analysis

The Forest Economy and Biodiversity: Csaba Mátyás, Member of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, University of Sopron

The Biosphere and Biodiversity: Péter Poczai, University of Helsinki

Atmospheric Impacts: András Gelencsér, Rector, University of Pannonia


Social and Economic Aspects

Economic Causes and Consequences: Sándor Kerekes, Professor, Corvinus University

Civilizational Impacts: James M. Skelly, Senior Researcher, iASK

The Social Psychological Impact of Dealing with Environmental Problems: György Csepeli, Professor Emeritus, ELTE

The Role of the Media and Social Media: László Z. Karvalics, Researcher, iASK; Associate Professor, SZTE

Moderator: András Gelencsérand Ferenc Miszlivetz

Lecturers’ Abstracts:

András Gelencsér – Beliefs and misbeliefs about the Amazon rainforest and the atmosphere

The Amazon rainforest, which was once held to be intact and is also attributed a vital function in public opinion, is an iconic element of living Earth. Thus, due to the increasing destruction of “the lungs of the world,” many people envision, somewhat mistakenly, that we would run out of atmospheric oxygen, or humankind may face its apocalyptic end. Contrary to popular belief, fortunately, human activities, either deforestation or any other activity, cannot exert a remarkable impact on the quantity of atmospheric oxygen. In fact, tropical rainforests do not have a significant role in absorbing excess carbon dioxide emissions from global human activities either. However, all of these facts do not imply that current instances of forest burning would not have an enormous significance for the atmosphere. Besides air pollution of a continental scale, forest burning is a considerable source of excess carbon dioxide, while the shrinking rainforest is essentially a ticking carbon bomb, which might become a huge source of CO2 emissions if the ecosystem collapsed.


Sándor Kerekes – The economics of burning forests: Is land clearing really a developmental deficiency?

It is one of the important questions of climate economics whether the problem of greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions can be tackled through the theory of negative externalities. Most economists argue that it can be, although the more experienced are well aware that marginal analysis has its limits. We should be able to define the marginal costs of a unit increment in emission, which is not easy for a pollutant whose slight concentration increase may cause a disaster as well. It also poses a problem that the effect is of a longer duration, spanning a time interval of 30-50 years, at best. All of it shows that we can hardly cope with the economic theory of climate change related externalities, not to mention the problem of free-riding. Some stakeholders have been significant emitters since the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and have the highest per capita emission levels even today (e.g. the United States, Canada and the European Union). Other countries (China and India) had no remarkable “historical” emissions, but their present levels have already exceeded those of the nations mentioned above. Moreover, most of China’s emissions derive from exported products which still serve to satisfy the needs of the developed world. International trade generates significant “exports” of carbon dioxide.

This lengthy introduction aimed to point out that there are historical antecedents of burning the Amazon rainforest. Large-scale deforestation for building ships or making charcoal also took place in the Old Continent. The existence or non-existence of forests is an externality, but here it is a positive one. The Amazon rainforest has a fundamental role, for the whole of humankind, in conserving biodiversity, stabilizing climate and, broadly, in the survival of ecosystem services. On what grounds could we impose a ban, for Brazilians or any other people, on using their natural resources for their own benefit? We have not accumulated sufficient moral capital to do so.

Economics theory could provide a solution. According to Ronald Coase’s theorem, we can calculate, for a local community, the benefits of burning down rainforests to create farmland. We can also assess its adverse effects for the entire humankind. Damage caused for humanity is obviously much bigger than the benefits the local community can “enjoy” as a result of turning the rainforest into arable land. “Humankind as a whole” could easily “compensate” local communities for unrealized gains. Rainforests could be saved if we really wanted to save them. Unfortunately, we can cynically conclude that, as a sufficient obstacle, “governments do not know the best way” to preserve ecosystem services.


György Csepeli – Belief in fake scientific information

Fake information never brings about any good, especially in science. Scientists are frustrated to find that fake information which is far from or contradicts the truth spreads and takes root in public opinion. However, deliberate misinformation (fake news) could not be so efficient if people living their everyday life did not tend, due to their existential position, to ignore truth and trust fake or false news instead. Factors of heuristic and affective dynamics that have a key role in everyday cognition also play an important part in the emergence and diffusion of belief in fake scientific information. In this talk the factors of repetition, access, anxiety, self-righteousness, group loyalty and compulsive self-confidence will be discussed. Finally, I shall look into the chances of cognitive immune responses to fake information, education for critical thinking and fostering the culture of doubt.


László Z. Karvalics: To the epistemology of climate change: Considerations from knowledge theory and information history

About 500 years ago, information behaviour emerged in nature as an evolutionary technique that is more efficient than regeneration. Through this ability, which developed to reflect reality in advance, action became controllable in order to avoid or mitigate environmental threats. In this light, it is especially intriguing to witness that collective action apparently fails or falters to fend off threats to civilization induced by the global climate crisis.

But do we really understand the information mechanisms underlying the efforts to trivialize, relativize or “discount” this danger? Which phase of the information cycle can be blamed for the delay in much needed interventions? Should we speak about the deficit of perception, processing or decision-making? Where should we intervene in information processes in order to trigger the hoped-for change in behaviour?

When seeking answers to these questions, historical lessons can be very helpful. Most handbooks attribute raising awareness, on a massive scale, of the dangers of anthropogenic environmental changes to Rachel Carson’s 1962 book, Silent Spring, which is also held to inspire environmental movements and to lead to the establishment of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency in 1970. However, American congressman George Perkins Marsh (1801–1882) had already pointed out that deforestation, soil erosion, desertification, floods and declining biodiversity usher in adverse systemic changes – even if their cumulative result does not manifest spectacularly. Why is it that this warning has not given rise to threat awareness, inducing action? What is missing to date from this formula? Nevertheless, we should not believe that denial is a “social psychological constant”: if a committee to examine the adverse effects of burning coal was set up in England in 1285 (!) already, maybe there is still some hope that we can influence key decisions today.