On 13 January, the moment that Extinction Rebellion (XR) had spent so long pushing for finally arrived: a dialogue with a representative of WUR’s Executive Board.
In a packed Spot, students Malik Dasoo and Kamiel Verhelst (both XR) discussed WUR’s role in the climate crisis with rector magnificus Arthur Mol. The discussion was moderated by Simone Ritzer (Wageningen Dialogues). It centred on some propositions.
1. WUR must declare a climate emergency
Dasoo: ‘If you have a problem, the first step is acknowledging you have a problem. By declaring a climate emergency, WUR would be acknowledging the crisis situation we find ourselves in. And it would be a strong call for action.’
Mol:‘WUR is a research and education organization. Our legitimacy and authority come from the fact that we do research, find evidence and communicate that to the outside world. We do not take positions in debates, for that is not our role; we are not an action group like Extinction Rebellion.’
Dasoo: ‘WUR professors were involved in the last special IPCC report on climate change. These professors have publicly stated that we are in a climate emergency. If you stand behind the evidence that your professors published, why is it so controversial to make a statement about the climate emergency?’
Mol: ‘I know that some professors are in favour of declaring a climate emergency. I also know some professors are against it. There is space for both opinions. The Executive Board making a statement on behalf of the entire organization would be one step too far. It would damage our authority as an independent research institution. So individuals in our organization can do this, but as an institution, we can’t.’
Verhelst: ‘I think it is a bit naive to say that as WUR you can’t make statements. Hanging up a rainbow flag is also a statement.’
Mol: ‘We make our statements through the research we do and the education we give. We feed the debate with fact-based research. That is our role. Therefore I would never declare — as WUR — that we’re in a climate emergency. I am not against calling it an emergency, but it is not the role of this institution. Doing that would put us a difficult position as an evidence-based authority. We might lose our credibility and authority. It is important to consider that trade-off. Also, by using the word “emergency” you suggest that rules should be set aside to resolve it. What kind of trade-offs do we want to make? Do we want to give up democracy? Do we want to give up certain legitimacies that we’re very proud of? And are we able to maintain sufficient support if we did this?’
2. WUR should actively involve students and staff in shaping its climate policy (and other policies)
Verhelst: ‘The traditional approach to democracy is old-fashioned and not up to dealing with the climate crisis we’re in. That also goes up for this university. We think that WUR should make an effort to increase participation. Not just by having a Student Council that students can go to, but also by actively seeking out any opinions and issues that might be out there. By creating an atmosphere in which the people of the WUR community feel like they are making policy with the community, instead of just passing things decided at the higher levels.’
Dasoo: ‘Most students I’ve talked to have no clue what the Student Council does. The communication about it is so opaque. We just get an email that tells us to vote. We need active participation and a more democratic atmosphere. We want WUR to actually get the students involved.’
Mol: ‘I agree that it is very important to have wide participation and that there is room for improvement — there always is. If you can help us find new mechanisms to increase the participation, I would applaud that. So I’m willing to discuss that further. But I do think that our councils are very valuable. I certainly don’t want to get rid of them, even though it would make my job a lot easier.’
3. WUR should communicate better about the urgency, extent and severity of the climate crisis
Verhelst: ‘As a student, it does not feel like WUR is treating climate change as a priority issue. We looked at the last 100 events hosted by WUR. Only five of them had an explicit link with climate change.’
Ritzer: ‘Is that maybe also an invitation for the organizations, students, professors and employees in this room to do something about it?’
Dasoo: ‘Not really, because I don’t feel it’s fair to say WUR’s off the hook because XR, Studium Generale, Impulse, RUW and Otherwise are already organizing events about this topic.’
Ritzer: ‘Actually, these organizations are funded by the university because WUR thinks that these critical students should highlight things that we, as a university, are blind to.’
Dasoo: ‘It is good that WUR funds these organizations, but my question really is: what does WUR do at an executive level to make climate change communication a strategic priority? So not just externalize it by funding other organizations, but how does the university itself make it a priority?’
Mol: ‘I think that we are already doing a lot on climate change at an executive level. But the question whether we communicate enough about it is very interesting. Maybe we take it for granted that our community knows about the climate crisis. But are we communicating enough to the outside world? Who here knows that WUR has a wind farm, or that we are almost 100 per cent self-sufficient with renewable energy for electricity? I do think that we can communicate these things better.’
Verhelst: ‘We found a trend in WUR’s climate change communication: it portrays the climate crisis as something that can be fixed with technology. We strongly disagree with that. So it’s nice that you want to communicate about how many wind turbines you have. But what we really need WUR to do is to facilitate two-way communication: a dialogue. Discussions about going carbon neutral or stimulating a certain type of behaviour among staff and students.’
After the dialogue, students and staff continued the discussion. On Resource-online.nl we look back on this discussion with dialogue moderator Simone Ritzer and Kamiel Verhelst from Extinction Rebellion.