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Can a scientist be a climate activist? “Whoever exposes a problem becomes the problem”

Sija van den Beukel,
20 april 2023 - 17:28

Do scientists lose credibility when they speak out about the climate crisis? Five scientists debated this Tuesday night at debate center Spui25. The discussion quickly turned to Shell. “Climate activism at the university is obsessed with companies like Shell.”

American climate scientists Peter Kalmus, James Hansen, and Rose Abramoth became climate activists out of frustration from publishing alarming facts year after year without anyone taking action. This is not without risks. For example, Abramoth lost her job because of her activism. And aren’t scientists actually supposed to be neutral?


That’s what five scientists discussed Tuesday night in the debate center Spui25, together with about 40 spectators. After the introductory round, it quickly became clear that three of the five academics are in favor of activism.


Activism is the only alternative

“As a scientist, I don’t feel heard by decision-makers,” says VU climate scientist Marthe Wens. “If we don’t speak out as scientists in a crisis like this and remain neutral, then we legitimize the status quo.” Wens joined Scientist Rebellion.


The climate crisis legitimizes activism, Wens said. “It is a global problem that can only be solved globally. And the time we have is limited.” What makes climate change unique is that the science is very clear that the climate is changing, says Harriët Bergman, a doctoral student at the University of Antwerp. “You can also turn the question around: if as a scientist or human being, you see avoidable damage, then it is your job to do something about it.”


“Incidentally, research results from collaborating with others are also influenced in favor of Shell, notes VU researcher Wens. “And besides, it's not just leftists who worry about the rising sea level,” Bergman says. “Not every academic and activist is against capitalism. That aspect is important.”

“Academics are not special people; the only difference is that they are leftist and anti-capitalist”

According to the UvA PhD student Anne Kervers, citizens and scientists need to sound the alarm when the government ignores the signals of climate change. She has been participating in civil disobedience actions of Extinction Rebellion since 2019. “If corporations employ scientists, then activist scientists should also be able to exist. Activism is not perfect, but it is the only alternative.”


Academics are anti-capitalist

Counterarguments come from Leiden philosopher Thomas Wells. He says that activist scientists worry him. He defines an activist scientist as one who uses his academic position to achieve a political outcome. He argues that this is bad for democracy.


Says Wells: “Academics are not special people. They are not smarter or more special; they just have a very focused area of expertise. What makes academics different from the normal population is that they are leftist and anti-capitalist. Academics are obsessed with a small company like Shell, which is dwarfed by the oil giants worldwide.”

Foto: From left to right: Moderator Gerrit Schaafsma, Marthe Wens, Harriët Bergman, Anne Kervers en Thomas Wells

In addition, activism threatens science, is philosopher Wells’ second point. “When a scientist wants to achieve a particular political outcome, how good are you at independent research? When we start seeing scientists as people with a political agenda, people will take science less seriously.”


Obsessed with Shell

There is tension on stage and in the audience, particularly between Wells and the academics. “I still want to return to the comment that academics are supposedly obsessed with Shell,” says a woman in the front row. “The actions against Shell don’t come out of the blue. Companies like Shell have been denying climate change since the 1970s. Now it’s about delaying climate action. What is our responsibility in this as scientists?”


“That’s how democracy works. You don’t just get your way,” Wells responds. “The idea that democracy fails because it doesn’t work as quickly as you’d like is a fundamentally anti-democratic idea.”


“This is not about democracy, but about corporate capture,” Kervers breaks in. A few people applaud. Wells responds: “This supports my point that activism can be problematic for the role of academics. Anyone who disagrees with you is on the wrong side.”


And so it is dangerous, Wells says, when “loud activists” start determining who can or cannot attend career events or work with the university. It would give them too much power. “But how do you compare that to the power of the rich? The big corporations?” asks a UvA doctoral student.


“Power is important,” Bergman says. “If you expose a problem, you become the problem. It’s not pleasant to hear that the earth is warming. I can imagine, Thomas [Wells, ed.], that people like me who say Shell is a problem are very annoying. But Shell funding research at universities and thereby eroding our credibility is an even bigger problem. That is an uncomfortable truth.”