Hidden behind the Andes in a quiet corner of South America, a formidable generation of former student leaders are putting together one of the world’s most exciting progressive movements.
On 11 March Gabriel Boric, 35, a tattooed leftist with a steely resolve to reform Chile from the bottom up, will become the country’s youngest ever president – and his green agenda is echoing across the world as time ticks away on an impending climate catastrophe.
“It is so exciting to see what these young people have done,” says Maisa Rojas, 49, a renowned Chilean climate scientist who has been named environment minister in a cabinet including several of Boric’s student protest generation.
“These people were university leaders just 10 years ago, but they’ve brought a completely fresh perspective to the challenges of the 21st century, including climate change.”
On 24 January, Boric named a female-majority cabinet for the first time in Chile’s history. Rojas, one of 14 women among the 24 ministers, is a prominent academic at the University of Chile, where she first studied physics in the 1990s, and the director of the country’s interdisciplinary Centre for Climate and Resilience Research.
She holds a PhD in atmospheric physics from Lincoln College, Oxford, and was one of the authors of August 2021’s ominous Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which warned that big climate changes, caused by human activity, were now inevitable and irreversible.
But now, after a distinguished career in academia, Rojas will lead the way on Boric’s ambitious promise to construct a green, sustainable and resilient future for Chile.
“I think there’s a lot of space for Chile to become a leader in the fight against climate change,” she says, “I would love to be able convince other countries that ambitiously tackling climate change is in their best interests.”
While international leadership would be vitally important in a region noted for its climate pariahs, led by the notorious Brazilian president, Jaír Bolsonaro, Chile’s extraordinary variety of landscapes and climates also make the country uniquely vulnerable to climate change at home, with prolonged droughts increasingly common.
From the world’s driest desert, Atacama, in the north of the country, down through the arid valleys of central Chile to Patagonia’s dramatic fjords and glaciers, mining, forestry, agriculture and fisheries dominate a raw material-led economy that is among South America’s strongest.
Rojas is calm and methodical in her discussion about the climate crisis. She is also clear in linking the health condition of the planet with the development models that brought it to the brink.
“Global warming is a symptom of the way that our civilization has developed over the 200 years since the Industrial Revolution,” she says. “That has had two consequences: one is obviously the degradation of our physical environment, but the other is structural inequality which, in the case of Chile, is the basis of the social unrest that started in 2019 – and led to the writing of the new constitution.”
In October 2019, vast, era-defining anti-inequality protests exploded in Chile, leading party leaders to sign an accord to work towards replacing the current constitution, which was drafted under General Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship (1973-1990).
The resolution passed by the assembly convened to create the new constitution was adopted by the assembly. It states that the process is occurring in the context of a climate crisis.
Chile has also committed to net zero emissions by 2050 in line with its ambitious climate goals. A bill that would ban the construction of new coal-fired power stations between 2040 and 2025 was approved by the lower house of Congress last June due to the abundance of solar and wind energy.
Rojas states that the law is an absolute priority and the senate has yet to rule. “When we address climate change, it’s not just an environmental issue,” she says. “We need to look at structural elements of our society, which also means changing our development pathway.”
“The narrative of economic growTh in opposition to environmental protection is a false dichotomy that belongs in the 20th century – I’m not saying that we will transform Chile into one big national park without any industries, but we certainly have to do things differently.”
Rojas is measured and thoughtful as she speaks, and she freely admits that she isn’t a natural politician. “It feels strange to be a climate scientist in the world of politics, I definitely feel a bit out of place,” she says.
“But we definitely need both politicians and experts to be involved in this process. Just because I am an expert, it does not mean that I will make a better minister than someone who is a politician.”
Rojas was reluctantly pushed to politics at first. After the first round of Chile’s presidential election in November, a very different future seemed to lie in wait when José Antonio Kast, a conservative who made a point of rejecting and minimising the climate crisis, beat Boric by two percentage points.
“I was heartbroken and left in total shock,” she remembers, “I said at the time, I cannot just stay in my comfort zone in academia now – I have to get involved.”
Alongside a number of concerned scientists, Rojas wrote a letter to the British scientific journal Nature to express concern over a climate change denier winning Chile’s election.
Soon afterwards, she was inducted into Boric’s campaign team as environmental spokesperson, before the he stormed to victory in December’s runoff, winning more votes in the process than any presidential candidate in Chile’s history.
Although this is Rojas’s first political position, she has led international climate efforts in the past and was appointed coordinator of the Cop25 summit’s scientific advisory committee when Chile was due to host the conference in 2019.
Although it was eventually moved to Madrid as unrest exploded in Chile, Rojas says the role was a wake-up call that helped her understand the dynamics of top-table politics, as well as the private sector – where she had no experience – and the various branches of government.
She also stated that it was a turning point in the story surrounding the climate crisis. “Climate change really became front page news in 2019 with the Cop25,” she says. “It stopped being something that would occur at the end of the century and might harm polar bears in the Arctic.”
Rojas felt something strange last November at Cop26, Glasgow, when she was working on the annual climate crisis report. “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 is still trying to work out how she will manage expectations and adhere to the promises made during the campaign, saying that a “ratchet” mechanism, in which goals are set and made more ambitious periodically, could be preferable.
“The expectations are so high,” she says of the incoming Boric government, which is still riding a wave of optimism ahead of its inauguration. “We all know that politics is the art of the possible, but I am confident we can deliver.”