Climate action group Extinction Rebellion and partner group Scientist Rebellion are calling a halt to their protests for the time being. Every day since 9 September, activists had been blocking traffic on the motorway through The Hague to push for political action. Their main demand: an end to government fossil fuel subsidies amounting to 46.4 billion euros. The activists are now waiting to see what action the politicians intend to take.

The House of Representatives wants the government to outline scenarios for phasing out tax breaks on fossil fuel products, as stated in a motion put forward by PvdD, GroenLinks and D66. The motion was passed with a broad majority. SGP, JA21, Group Van Haga, the PVV, FVD and BBB voted against.

“This is a victory”, says Niels Debonne, Scientist Rebellion campaigner and lecturer in environmental geography at VU Amsterdam. “Just months ago, it was considered taboo to talk about this issue as a scientist. We have campaigned long and hard. It’s good to see this matter now being taken up by the politicians.”

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Yet at the same time, Debonne is on his guard. “This has to be more than a simple delaying tactic. If it turns out to be a manoeuvre to postpone action indefinitely, we will be back on the A12 after Christmas.”

Activist and VU econometrician Julia Schaumburg is also relieved at the decision, but eager for the politicians to follow through. “From an economic perspective, subsidies like these make absolutely no sense. The government provides tax benefits that encourage pollution and then offsets them with half-hearted climate policies which also have to be funded by the taxpayer.”

The motion calls on the government to formulate a series of scenarios for phasing out the various fossil fuel subsidies within 2, 5 or 7 years. The aim is for these options to be on the table before Christmas.

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Broad debate

There has been much debate in recent weeks about the role of scientists in climate action.

Should they be allowed to block the A12 wearing their academic robes? Is that part of their role? No is the answer given by agricultural scientist and NRC columnist Louise Fresco. “Anyone who makes a point of attending demonstrations in their scientific capacity when those demonstrations claim that there will be no earth left for future generations is ignoring centuries of scientific progress. Apocalyptic thinking flies in the face of [such progress].”

Tilburg-based climate economist Reyer Gerlagh rejected her argument. “Unlike Fresco, who studied agriculture, I am acting well within my scientific role when I join my fellow scientists in saying we should stop tax breaks for major polluters as soon as possible.”

Last Sunday, education minister and physicist Robbert Dijkgraaf expressed understanding for Gerlagh’s position. “His knowledge compels him to demonstrate”, he said in a TV interview on current affairs programme Buitenhof. He referred to a scientist’s decision on whether to demonstrate as a personal matter. “As a string theorist, I think I have little to contribute. But I could imagine taking part as a citizen.”

He underlined that in the past climate change science “may have erred on the side of caution”, adding that “as a scientist, you also have a vital task to look ahead and alert politicians to the risks that are coming”.

It’s a responsibility that scientists should definitely take to heart, Niels Debonne of Scientist Rebellion believes. “Political scientists, climate scientists, economists… we need them all to get involved in a broad public debate on the climate, because this is an issue that affects us all, in every area.”