Research & Studies

James M. Skelly (senior researcher of iASK): Civilizational Impacts

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?

10.00-12.30 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

14.00-16.00 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
Moderated by András Gelencsér and Ferenc Miszlivetz

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 the 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 the 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.


Video-lectures are available on the Hungarian page HERE!