Helga Kromp-Kolb: When Science Goes Public

bridges vol. 11, September 2006 / People in the Spotlight
by Christian Hederer

 



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A common feeling about university professors is that they are a somewhat remote, weird folk relegated to ivory towers of abstract, largely irrelevant reasoning, shielding themselves from the trivialities of public discourse by erecting communicative and social walls of incomprehensible, self-reflective language. Few people among the Austrian academic elite could serve as a better counter-example than Helga Kromp-Kolb, professor of meteorology at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in Vienna. One of Kromp-Kolb's main research interests is climate change, a topic that has been increasingly present in politics, the media, and the public under the label "greenhouse effect" and "global warming."

 

And whereas many scientists tend to react with a mixture of slight contempt and disbelief when questions they investigate are discussed by laypersons, Kromp-Kolb has actively fostered and participated in many policy debates that probe the core of her research interests. Her readiness to communicate with the wider public was the main reason why, in 2005, she was awarded the title, "scientist of the year," by the Austrian association of journalists in education and science.

portraitkrompkolb_captionBecoming Austrian scientist of the year is only one recent milestone in a successful and straightforward scientific career that has brought Kromp-Kolb public and professional attention and, among many other responsibilities, her position as director of the university senate. The daughter of two diplomats, she attended high school in Austria and India before embarking on her studies of meteorology at the University of Vienna. This field provided her with an ideal way to combine her predilections for natural phenomena and mathematical rigor. She obtained her Ph.D. in 1971, then embarked on research on air pollutants and air quality. These fields were a lucky choice, for in the course of the next two decades, they would move from the brink of established disciplines into a broad new mainstream of environmental research, allowing Kromp-Kolb to develop and gradually extend her interests in an expanding academic environment. She concluded her Habilitation in 1982 and accepted a full professorship at the University of Natural Resources and Applied Life Sciences in 1995, where she has remained ever since. Kromp-Kolb has an enormous range of scientific affiliations, among them, the Austrian Academy of Sciences. An important part of her scientific activity is absorbed by government counseling; she has been a member of several advisory councils at different Austrian ministries, covering climate change, waste, atomic energy, and environmental protection in the context of defense.

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Given the current situation in climate change, it is not surprising that the demand for Kromp-Kolb's advisory activity is unlikely to decrease anytime soon. Whereas the debate on the verity of global warming exhibited a somewhat mixed character for a considerable amount of time, with the skeptics always commanding a certain, if locally differentiated, following, the scientific evidence that global warming is a reality - indeed, already happening - is by now overwhelming. As Kromp-Kolb stresses, the question by now is not the "if" but the "how" of global warming, while wide-ranging estimates remain as to the local effects, variance, and speed of change. These grey zones are a necessary consequence of the overwhelming complexity of meteorological processes, in which long-run and short-run, regional and global factors constantly interact. Any meteorological model, therefore, has to concentrate on a certain spatial and temporal perspective. For example, medium-run models do not take into account the effect of ice-age cycles (a point that is sometimes presented as a counter-scenario to global warming) because their effect is negligible in any period shorter than 100 years. More importantly, it is still notoriously hard for climatologists to operationalize their medium-run global predictions (which, as Kromp-Kolb stresses, have remained remarkably resilient since the mid-1980s) to the short-run and regional level. The problem is, this is the perspective most interesting for politicians and economists: A global temperature rise of 2o or 3° Celsius remains quite abstract as long as concrete consequences for, say, the frequency of hailstorms in a certain region cannot be derived from the same underlying model.

 

Regardless of those grey zones, it now appears clear that climate change will have a far-ranging and deep influence on ecological and social systems. Kromp-Kolb has no lack of examples at this point: the possible displacement of people living in flat coastal areas, such as Bangladesh; the change of travel patterns in tourism, such as in Austria (periods with snow cover will definitely be shorter in winter but summer tourism might benefit); medical and epidemiological consequences, such as the observable increase in the incidence of tick-borne meningitis; changes in transport chains for food due to cooling problems; possibly adverse consequences on the ozone layer effected by a cooling of the stratosphere; etc. etc. Asked whether global warming is necessarily a bad thing for everyone, her answer is cautious: "Of course, certain economic sectors might gain. But looking at how substantial global interdependencies have become on a social as well as ecological level, it is unlikely that a total insulation from negative effects will be possible on any larger scale" - be it new streams of refugees, or the global dynamics of emissions, whose significance was recently substantiated by research finding traces of ozone originating from the US in a place as distant as Southern Bavaria.

Thus, there are more than enough points to make Kromp-Kolb's research highly interesting to the general public. How, then, does she communicate her work to a wider audience, and to politicians? And, given that the ivory tower image of the science community is not entirely unfounded, doesn't her public role create a certain ambiguity with her academic colleagues? "Of course it is very important to formulate comprehensibly," she says. "To make a difference, you have to have a message - andproductivity_ausschnitt_sma you have to accept the risk that comes from forgoing the qualification of this message with dozens of caveats. Many meteorologists are surprised that their topics don't generate more interest but it's no wonder, given how they're communicated. In a small country like Austria, a separation between "pure science" and the communication element is simply not feasible. . . . As for myself, I do feel an obligation to point out key developments to the public." Despite this dedication, Kromp-Kolb maintains a skeptical distance from the workings of the media as well as the channels of policy advice in Austria. She cites a study on "fashion cycles" in environmental topics: "First, the scientific community gets excited about a certain problem. Eventually, the media take up the issue, making it interesting to politicians in turn, who then tend to spawn research funding. But when, as a consequence of this, substantial results are in place, nobody is interested any longer." Also, she criticizes the fact that, quite contrary to patterns in Germany or the Scandinavian countries, policy advice in Austria tends to have what she calls a "privy council" character, essentially excluding the public from the political decision-making process.

Looking at the academic side, Kromp-Kolb has deep insight into the workings of the Austrian science and education system since she has spent her career almost entirely in Vienna. Her outlook is mixed: "There is no doubt that the Austrian community in my field is very dedicated and idealistic - but it is mainly the self-motivation of those people that makes the system work, not incentives coming from the research environment." She criticizes the inadequate funding of environmental research in Austria, reflecting its lack of commercial perspective. In addition, the fact that Austria, unlike many other European countries, does not run a full-fledged climate research program is all the more deplorable in her view since the challenges the country faces are quite peculiar to its special topography, and therefore urgently require deeper inquiry. On the positive side, she stresses that her academic positions have always allowed her considerable freedom in pursuing her research. More recently, however, due to the growing size of her team, the administrative burden of her multiple involvements, and the constant pressure to obtain sufficient research funding, she feels that her job has gradually been transformed into a management position - not exactly the job description that she aspired to as an academic.

There might be an advantage to having a managerial outlook, though: the familiarity with facing the consequences of a certain analysis and talking about concrete measures. So, what is to be done about climate change? Is there anything to be done, given that the process is already in full course? Kromp-Kolb's answer is an emphatic "Yes": "Although it often seems illogical to the public and to politicians, an effective strategy cannot but be two-pronged: it has to focus on adaptation as well as mitigation. Climate change essentially behaves like a flywheel - it has irreversibly been set into motion, but the speed of this motion still crucially depends on our action." Given that, she is often amazed about some decision makers' resistance to facing the significance of the problem. She recounts talking to a German mayor who was planning a major investment in a skiing region at medium altitude; asked whether the cost-benefit analysis for the project had taken into account the effects of global warming and the development of energy prices, he answered in the negative, simply deeming those factors "too uncertain."

Going into concrete proposals, Kromp-Kolb's approach is remarkably pragmatic and rests on sound economic reasoning - not necessarily the approach you would expect from a declared environmentalist. First of all, she stresses that the necessary behavioral changes - both in adaptation and mitigation - concern everyone, so the problem will not go away by just putting pressure on big business. Decisions in the business sector, of course, do play a significant role, but Kromp-Kolb denies that there is always an implied trade-off between maximizing economic return and acting in an environmentally responsible way. As a straightforward calculation, a substantial part of mitigation is the reduction of emissions, and therefore saving energy. Given that energy prices will continue their upward tendency for the foreseeable future, energy-saving measures do have the potential to pay off. On a more sophisticated level, investing in environmental technologies implies building up comparative advantages against other firms (or nations). This, again, is very likely to pay off given that countries that tend to lag behind (such as the US, but also China and India) will sooner or later get around to instigating similar measures. As Kromp-Kolb asserts, for example, the comparatively strict standards on air pollutants introduced by Austria in the 1980s, while not exactly met with enthusiasm by Austrian business, secured a long-term competitive edge in preventative technologies.

Would this incentive argument also apply to the development of nuclear power technology, which has time and again been suggested as a solution? Having conducted numerous studies on this issue, and frequently discussing it with her husband Wolfgang Kromp, with whom she co-founded the institute of risk research at the University of Vienna, Kromp-Kolb is an alleged expert on this question - and her answer is a resounding "No." Again, her arguments make good economic sense: For example, the availability of the earth's uranium is limited, making the technology unsustainable in the long run; and it is not clear how to economically evaluate the risk of accidents and the long-run impact of nuclear waste. Even if all cost-benefit considerations are disregarded, it is highly questionable whether nuclear energy output can be raised in the near future given that many current power plants are reaching termination and the time lag between starting to build a new plant and having it produce energy is approximately eight years.

How, then, to get the "ordinary citizen" to change his or her behavior? Kromp-Kolb stresses that the question is not about returning to the inconveniences of earlier times; horror scenarios such as the abolishment of cars and the hand washing of laundry need not be evoked. Instead, she argues, saving energy and reducing emissions is possible on a considerable scale without substantially changing lifestyles. The standard example is the standby function in television sets and computers: Running these devices on a permanent basis instead of turning them off is estimated to absorb the entire energy production of an atomic power plant in Germany each year. While Kromp-Kolb generally does not believe that technological breakthroughs will render the energy consumption problem irrelevant in the foreseeable future, she does point out the potential of new technologies if used on a broad scale: One example is the construction of ultralow energy buildings (the translation of its German origin is "passive houses") with their alleged ability to substantially reduce energy consumption. "It is not really understandable that building regulations still have not taken this possibility into account."

When it comes to defending a lifestyle based on unprecedented comfort and technical sophistication, however, human creativity seems almost boundless. Enter the realm of "geo-engineering," an approach that considers options to directly influence climate change by human devices. Not surprisingly, some of the proposals appear to have a gargantuan, slightly surreal touch: building mirrors in space to control the earth's exposure to sunlight; emitting particles into the upper atmosphere to mimic the cooling effect of large volcanic eruptions; or feeding sea plankton on a grand scale to increase its absorption of CO2. Asked about her opinion of those ideas, Kromp-Kolb takes a very skeptical stance: "I just do not believe that we have understood the global climate system well enough to know about all possible side effects of those actions," she maintains. Despite her status as a public person with an influential voice, Kromp-Kolb has retained an essential feature of every good scientist: modesty, and a fundamental awareness of the incompleteness of our knowledge.

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The author, Christian Hederer, has been an economist at the Austrian Federal Ministry of Economics and Labor since 2004, spending July-September 2006 at the OST as a visiting expert. His main field is European economic policy, with an emphasis on the Lisbon Strategy for Growth and Development, research and innovation policy, and labor market policy.

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