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"Politicians don't do enough with insights from climate science"

27 November 2023
Scientists have often sounded the alarm about climate change. Some are also now taking action for better climate policy through the Scientist Rebellion collective, including development economist Wendy Janssens and econometrician Julia Schaumburg of VU Amsterdam. What motivates the scientists to take part, and how can science and activism be combined?

Interview by Yrla van de Ven for Vuurwerk magazine.

The interview took place in September 2023.

As a development economist, Professor Wendy Janssens spends a great deal of time in the global south. The consequences of climate change are already much more visible there than in the Netherlands. "During our research in Kenyan hospitals, we suddenly saw a big spike in the number of cases of malnutrition among children. Due to exceptional drought, many harvests had failed. Around the same time, in Pakistan, where I was working with another research team, many villages had become inaccessible or even swept away by massive flooding", Janssens explains.

During her work abroad, she speaks to many people who are experiencing the consequences of climate change, and that leaves a deep impression. Janssens: "In the Netherlands, the urgency of the climate problem is not yet dawning on everyone, while the consequences in the global south are already very serious. Especially problematic is that low and middle income countries are the most vulnerable to climate change but have the fewest resources to bear the consequences." This was the motivation for her to join Scientist Rebellion, a sister association of Extinction Rebellion especially for scientists. She also went to an Extinction Rebellion demonstration for the first time in June.

Julia Schaumburg, Professor of Econometrics, also joined Scientist Rebellion. For her, the government's lack of urgency was the deciding factor. "By chance I came into contact with people from Scientist Rebellion, and only then did I realise how completely inadequate the government measures have been so far. For a long time, I trusted that the government would do what was necessary, but it is far too slow," Schaumburg said.

Not rushing into things

Both scientists thought long and hard before they decided to go to a Scientist Rebellion action. "As an econometrician, I don't study the physical causes and effects of climate change, which I saw as the biggest obstacle," Schaumburg says. "But as a scientist, I do know how remarkable the consensus is that is apparent in the international IPCC reports on climate. The April 2022 report (WG III: Mitigation of Climate Change, ed.) was co-authored by 278 authors, who analysed more than 18,000 scientific studies. Their conclusion is unequivocal: climate change is caused by humans and the consequences are catastrophic. As a scientist, I feel obliged to share this clear message from my fellow scientists with the wider public."

"Of course, it is important to guard your credibility as a scientist," Janssens adds. "Colleagues who speak out publicly and activistly about climate policy regularly receive negative reactions, in which their scientific integrity is also attacked. At the same time, we can play a crucial role by giving scientific legitimacy to a well-founded message from climate activists. This is also an important responsibility for us. I have many conversations with colleagues about that tension."

In September, protests and actions again took place that Janssens and Schaumburg joined, for example the A12 blockades by Extinction Rebellion and the climate strike jointly organised by Extinction Rebellion Education, Fridays For Future, Teachers for Climate, and Scientist Rebellion.

Climate in education

Twenty-five years ago, Janssens, who was still a student at the time, also demonstrated to support the climate. "At that time, we occupied the Weesperstraat in Amsterdam against pollution, and we organised actions to convince the Minister of Education that climate should be incorporated into all university programmes. Unfortunately, that has still not been achieved."

Now that they are professors, both are sitting down with the dean to advocate for the inclusion of mandatory knowledge about climate in all programmes at the School of Business and Economics. "It is important that all students learn about the climate and climate economics, because they will all have to deal with it in the future," says Janssens. Schaumburg adds: "We are training the policymakers and managers of the future, who must be able to make the best choices based on all available information." The good news is that the Faculty Board has recently committed to taking this matter seriously.

Schaumburg also campaigned for the severing of ties between universities and the fossil fuel industry. In April, the Executive Board of the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam announced that it will no longer enter into research collaborations with fossil fuel companies, unless they are demonstrably committed to the energy transition.

Subsidies for the fossil fuel industry

The Dutch government's subsidies on the use of fossil fuels are a thorn in the side of both researchers. At the end of 2022, Janssens and Schaumburg, together with more than 380 other economists, signed an opinion piece in Het Financieele Dagblad and ESB calling for an immediate end to fossil fuel subsidies. "Economists agree that subsidies actually encourage behaviour, so if you subsidise fossil fuels, you actively block change," Janssens explains.

Yet, according to Schaumburg, too little has changed in The Hague since the opinion piece. "Politicians are not taking enough action in response to all the scientific insights on climate change and climate policy. That's why I'm speaking out." Earlier this month, Janssens and 19 colleagues published another urgent letter in Het Financieele Dagblad and ESB. "Time is running out, and as long as the government does not take adequate measures, action remains urgently needed."

Check out the anniversary edition of Vuurwerk magazine, the alumnimagazine of our school.