Researching for the future
Magdalena Mittermeier, climate activist and researcher
Magdalena Mittermeier campaigns for better climate protection. We don’t have much time left to stop the global temperature rising, says the 26-year-old. Mittermeier is currently completing her geography doctorate at LMU. Her thesis focuses on climate impact research—which has made her very aware of the possible consequences of failing to achieve international climate protection targets. So the dedication and commitment she displays at lectures, associations, and conferences such as the UN Climate Change Conference should give us pause.
Every Friday, thousands of students demonstrate for climate protection; their slogan is “Fridays for Future”. They are sick and tired of politicians failing to make the decisions necessary for combating global warming. Not all politicians are amused. Climate policy should be left to the experts, some of them claim. Magdalena Mittermeier is both: a committed environmentalist, and an expert in the field of climate impact research.
“Our children will feel the effects”
For her doctorate in the Geography Department at LMU, she uses artificial neuronal networks in supercomputers to investigate the impact of global warming—particularly with relation to floods and droughts. When she talks about the results for the year 2100, it still seems very far away. “But our children will feel the effects,” she emphasizes. So it’s vital to take action now. Mittermeier can understand that children and teenagers don’t want to wait any longer and are increasingly demanding to be heard. And she supports them.
Mittermeier has been interested in environmental issues ever since she was a child. As a teenager, she was “fascinated” by climate change. After completing her Abitur, the German higher education entrance qualification, she therefore decided to study geography at LMU. When she was just 19 years old, she also began working concurrently in the geography department. Knowing she wanted to work in the field of climate impact research, she shifted to physical geography after completing her bachelor’s degree. Not many women currently work in this field. “But the number is growing,” Mittermeier laughs.
Meeting with Greta Thunberg
Next she completed a research internship at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. In 2015 she then signed up for the Environmental Studies Certificate Program, an interdisciplinary postgraduate course at the Rachel Carson Center, where she embarked on a master’s degree in “Environment Systems and Sustainability”. Aged 24, she traveled to Montréal in Canada to join the research team on the “ClimEx” project, investigating the impact of climate change on extreme meteorological and hydrological events in Bavaria and Québec. She used this research for her master’s dissertation.
Mittermeier was not content to simply research; she also wanted to be proactive. So she began traveling through Bavaria giving lectures and talks. She also volunteers in the “Climate Delegation”, a politically independent group of young people from across Germany who are committed to protecting the climate and the environment. The aim: to secure a hearing for young people on climate and environmental questions. Last year, the Climate Delegation traveled to the United Nations Climate Change Conference in Katowice, Poland, for this very purpose. “We wrote short speeches, for example, which were then processed by international groups,” Mittermeier reports. The Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg was present at one meeting, and Svenja Schulze (Germany’s Minister of the Environment) attended another. At the end of the summit, Mittermeier was able to join with other young people from around the globe for an hour-long Q&A session with the chief European negotiators. Mittermeier was moderately satisfied with the result; the participants at least succeeded in increasing transparency regarding carbon emissions.
Will we be able to halt global warming?
Deploying machine learning techniques to evaluate climate data, Mittermeier has shown that Bavaria will face grave consequences unless decisive action is taken. Last year’s heat wave, for example, could become the status quo within a matter of decades—and new extremes will cause even further reaching damage. The IPCC special report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5 °C shows clearly that climate change can only be contained if we succeed in reducing global emissions by 45% before 2030. “That’s only eleven more years,” she emphasizes. Will we be able to halt global warming? Mittermeier is unsure. “The people who are currently making the final decisions are people who grew up in a world fueled by fossil energy. Unlike the younger generation, they can’t imagine it being any different,” she explains.
And when people deny climate change, she’s speechless. “A man recently told me he just didn’t believe it.” As a scientist, this hit her hard. A rise of just one degree is sufficient to feel the negative effects. “And there’s plenty of scientific evidence,” she says, with the conviction of an expert. She regularly campaigns on social media against environmental “fake news”.
Taking young people’s concerns seriously
Mittermeier is delighted that climate protection has been given a second wind by the Fridays for Future movement. “We’ve got to make the most of this window of opportunity,” she urges. The 26-year-old calls on politicians to involve young people in all future talks on the climate. Young people’s concerns about the impact of climate change need to be taken just as seriously as older people’s concerns about CO2 taxes causing higher petrol prices.
But people can also make a difference on an individual level. Whether it’s being more mindful about what you eat, flying less frequently, or insulating your home more efficiently. “And it would be great if more people joined environmental organizations—regardless of whether they’re active or passive members,” she says. Climate protection should also be taught in all schools to target a wide cross-section of the general population. Raising awareness amongst adults is also crucial. “Most young people are relatively well informed,” Mittermeier explains. But the same cannot be said about adults.