Saying nothing is also saying something

On February 7, University Rebellion Utrecht held a “die-in” to ask Utrecht University to publicly declare a climate emergency, sending a clear message to the university staff and students that combatting the ecological and climate crisis is paramount. Anton Pijpers, President of UU's Executive Board, received from us a petition with more than 450 signatures and an open letter calling for UU to declare a climate emergency. 

We set off the siren of emergency and our university responded with deaf ears. 

The university said that it does not envision declaring a state of emergency. “The climate crisis is definitely a huge and urgent problem; we recognize that like no other. But we prefer to contribute to the solution by continuing to refer to facts, rather than attributing a particular term to the situations”, Anton Pijpers is reported as saying by Trajectum.

On behalf of the university, Pijpers states that the climate crisis is a huge and urgent problem. Putting this in simple terms would showcase to the outside world that UU does fully recognise the severity and the urgency of the climate and ecological crisis. Though Pijpers says he “recognises this like no other”, there are networks representing more than 7,000 higher education institutions from six continents that have declared a ‘climate emergency’. Additionally, they have agreed to undertake a three-point action plan to address the crisis through their work with students (O’Malley, 2019). This reveals that Utrecht University is falling behind. Although UU likes to consider itself a front-runner in sustainability, it is failing in its leadership by not owing up to its responsibilities. 
Pijpers said that the university is there to bring out the urgency of the situation as much as possible through research. He added that “if we were to also get involved in the more social and political side of it, there is a chance that our facts would no longer be taken seriously”.

To this we say that science is never neutral, it is always political. UU’s idea of scientific objectivity, neutrality and indifference, which would prevent them from declaring a climate emergency, stems from a time in which scientific facts did not concern our own wellbeing. However, we do no longer possess the privilege of pretending that we are not affected by the results of the research that we perform in this university.

Philosophers like Bruno Latour endorse this view and urge scientific institutions to become transparent about the entanglement of science with politics because it is not unscientific to conclude that our scientific predictions affect us and that they elicit action. Rather, scientific institutions will lose credibility if their research keeps hinting towards system collapse, but fail to take their own utterances serious enough to qualify as sufficient reason for action. If the Executive Board won't even dare to draw these conclusions, then who will? They say that taking sides would compromise the scientific method of the university’s research, yet board members are deaf to the very science they claim to defend. The facts are clear: we should act now! 

Only climate sceptics are still trying to make us believe that objectivity must not lead to any form of action because, in order to sound scientific, one must remain disinterested with respect to what they are saying. But, in seeking to separate science from their interests, the sceptics are actually insisting on sheltering their interests from any objection (Latour, B., & Porter, C. 2017. Facing Gaia: Eight lectures on the new climatic regime, p. 46 – 49). 

In other words, clinging to this conception of science is serving neither scientific credibility nor humanity; it serves merely those groups that profit from delaying the necessary sustainable progress. 

The role of a scientist also includes informing policy in a transparent and honest way. We wonder whether the reasons might be that the university's financings are still not transparently and openly accessible. In addition, we question if UU really brings about the acknowledgement that the climate crisis is a 'huge and urgent' problem in the way it advises. We demand Utrecht University to demonstrate that the institution has made a commitment to sustainability not only through words but through substantial action and tangible change as well. 

The university says it is doing its best to contribute to the solution in a practical sense, but these contributions are not enough. In the face of complex, global injustices, moral responsibility tracks down not to those who have done harm, but to those who are able to take part in resolving them. The university has an immense power to contribute to progress in our society: as their former slogan says, “bright minds, better future”. Not only is UU well able to take an active part in sustainable systemic change, but its central place in society and its close connections to other institutions and future generations allow it to take initiative and set an example for others on how we are to evolve as a society. But this requires the university to actively take the lead in combatting the issues that our society is facing. If you have the power to create sustainable change, then you múst take the responsibility to do so.  

Climate breakdown is not a future problem. It is currently threatening the lives of an ever-increasing number of people. Climate breakdown is especially harmful to the people who have contributed the least to it. It is testimony to our material comfort that we get to choose if we wish to act, while people living in the colonised countries that we exploit suffer the consequences of our inaction. Universities must take on the responsibility to equip their students for an uncertain future. By not declaring a climate emergency and presenting tangible steps to combat it, UU is showing that it does not consider the climate emergency an important issue. Saying nothing is also saying something. 

Authors: Luca Bartringer, Sandrine Birkeland, Cléo Dorel-Watson, Camille Velten, Atys Holmes-Michel, Lis Reichelt, and Willemijn Debets