Why TU Delft strongly supports the climate position paper

TU Delft recently published a climate position paper. Why, asks Delta. Because researchers found it high time to take action against ‘nonsense’.

Climate change is real and is caused by man. TU Delft is putting its efforts into sustainable energy and climate adaptation in the face of a changing climate. These are the starting points of the information document that TU Delft and Climate Action recently published. So why this summary of climate related activities at TU Delft that are as diverse as remote sensing, energy technology and coastal defence? The texts come from about 30 TU Delft researchers from these subject areas and are compiled by Professors Herman Russchenberg (Civil Engineering and Geosciences), Paulien Herder (3mE) and Andy van den Dobbelsteen (Architecture and the Built Environment). One of the reasons they give is the climate manifesto that was mentioned last year in an article in the ‘Telegraaf’ newspaper.

TU Delft signatories 
The article by Marcel Vink entitled ‘Wetenschap in plaats van emotie’ (science instead of emotions) opens with a pretty emotional doom scenario. From one of the most affluent countries in the world to a country where poverty and cold are the hard reality. It is a scenario that nobody can imagine, but that is the real dark future of our country if the current climate plans are followed. The signatories of the piece ‘tegen de collectieve klimaatverdwazing’ (against the collective climate absurdity) are also three professors from TU Delft, Professors Guus Berkhout, Karel Wakker and Rob Kouffeld. The impression is given that TU Delft stands behind the climate sceptics. And that while the preparations for the 177th Dies, whose theme is Climate Action, are well underway.

Twitter storm
On New Year’s Eve 2018, Van den Dobbelsteen called the climate manifesto a ‘shocking manifesto against dealing with the climate issue’. He profiles himself as ‘a scientist who will no longer keep quiet about nonsense’. His email triggered a Twitter storm with 716,000 views and 26,000 responses. @dobbelska then added ‘It is therefore sad that old colleagues defile the name of their alma mater with unscientific claims that go against the work of the current generation of scientists’.

“The climate manifesto angered many TU Delft scientists,” said Van den Dobbelsteen later, “they felt ridiculed.” After the Christmas holidays, the climate debate was an important topic of debate on campus, says Herman Russchenberg, Director of the TU Delft Climate Institute. “The Twitter debate became very personal, while it is about a much bigger issue. A university stands for sharing knowledge and facts.” Russchenberg is mostly annoyed about allegations that scientists ‘only work for subsidies’. “That is not good for young scientists,” he says.

Putting their views on paper
It was time to put their views on paper. Van den Dobbelsteen, Paulien Herder (Chair of the Delft Energy Initiative) and Russchenberg got together and called all interested senior researchers that work on climate studies, sustainable energy or climate adaptation together. At the end of February, about 30 staff members came to the gathering. Their written contributions to the position paper were compiled by Russchenberg, Van den Dobbelsteen, Herder and the press spokesperson, Roy Meijer. The signature of Rector Tim van der Hagen on behalf of the Executive Board makes the paper the official ‘climate mission of TU Delft’. Herder emphasises that “It is not just what Herman, Andy and I think”.

‘TU Delft takes its social responsibility seriously’

Innovative capacities
The climate mission opens with ‘Human emissions are impacting the global climate, there is no doubt about that. TU Delft is putting all its innovative capacities into promoting the global transition to non-fossil fuel energy sources and climate adaptation to contend with the warming planet’. It is followed by a foreword, the status of climate science, limiting CO2 emissions through energy technology, reducing the demand for energy and CO2 capture and storage. It also names mobility, climate adaptation and slowing climate change. The last sentence says ‘TU Delft takes its social responsibility seriously’.

Political or not?
As far as the people involved know, this is the first time that a university takes a position on an issue, in this case climate policy, about which there is a polarising debate in society. Still, Herder does not see the piece as a political statement. “You can debate on a climate policy all you want, but not about the facts behind climate change and the role of humans in it. There is scientific consensus on that. That is what TU Delft is saying in this piece. Science is not an opinion. If people start denying the facts, you can’t just sit back and do nothing. A climate policy is about making choices and in politics, opinions may differ. TU Delft does not go into this in the piece. We do wide-ranging research into all sorts of solutions in the area of sun, wind and geothermal energy. We also look at nuclear energy and CO2 storage. Even climate adaptation and geoengineering are addressed.”

Emotions must give way to argumentation

Oil and gas 
What is not covered in the piece is geophysical research for oil and gas extraction. Is that not odd? The Dean of Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Prof. Jan Dirk Jansen responds by saying that “I believe that the piece does include the expertise of subject areas that work underground. The document names largescale underground storage of hydrogen for energy generation, the long-term storage of CO2 deep underground, the sub-surface as a source of energy for heat pumps, the deeper substrates for heat-cold storage and the deep substrates for geothermal energy to source heating networks. Our geologists, geophysicists, oil and gas engineers and other geotechnologists are highly capable of mapping the potential of using the substrate in new ways and developing innovative technologies for these sustainable ways of energy extraction. During the transition period, knowledge about fossil fuel extraction will still be needed as a large part of the world’s population is still dependent on it for their well-being. Experts in the area of these traditional methods as well as in new forms of geoenergy are desperately needed for the energy transition.”

So what now?
And now? The people involved in the TU Delft climate position paper want to make the debate on climate policy more constructive. It is too fragmented and space must be created for calm reflection. Emotions must give way to argumentation. Some climate sceptics should be invited to partake in a sort of written exchange with Herder, Van den Dobbelsteen and Russchenberg. The idea is that by instituting a one week thinking period, the initial emotions will give way to reflection.

That exchange of ideas will be done on the Climate Action mission website where there are already many publications and activities about energy and climate.

On campus, the Climate Action mission is taking shape by bringing together climate and energy researchers, including many doctoral candidates, under the umbrella of a Climate Action Programme, says Russchenberg.

This Climate Action mission may be unique in academic history, but the creators hope that TU Delft will not be the only one. Van den Dobbelsteen says that the Universities of Wageningen (WUR) and Eindhoven (TU/E) have let it be known that they want to issue something similar too.

Science editor Jos Wassink

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