Klimaatdemonstratie in Amsterdam. Foto: Gerard Agterberg

Climate Helpdesk gives direction in times of fake news and information overload

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What is the most sustainably produced type of cheese? Am I allowed to strike for the environment? How do we keep our spirits up with all this climate misery? These are the types of questions fielded by the scientists of the Climate Helpdesk, of whom several work at the UU.  As the questions are not always easy to answer, inquirers must be patient. However, the answers they receive are scientifically sound.

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Until November 12th, world leaders of more than a hundred countries are meeting at the COP26 climate conference in Glasgow to strike deals to reduce carbon emissions to zero by 2050. Everyone feels a sense of urgency, but the system is complex and there are no easy solutions. The ‘average’ citizen already notices the effects of climate change in their daily life. Glaciers are melting rapidly and Limburg was flooded earlier this year. Many of us want to contribute and do our part, but it is often difficult to find a response to questions like: what is the most sustainably produced type of cheese? On the quest for answers, one must be able to detect misinformation and conquer scientific jargon. 

Easily accessible science was one of the most important reasons for the establishment of the Climate Helpdesk. In 2019, Scientists for Future wrote an open letter to the international scientific community in which they called for, among other things, a more open and transparent attitude towards society. This idea was expanded upon and eventually lead to the official launch of the Climate Helpdesk on October 30th 2020. Now the Helpdesk is number 36 on the sustainable top 100 list published in newspaper Trouw. It also won Utrecht University’s Pathways to Sustainability Award 2021 on October 14th. 

The project was able to start after an initial investment by Utrecht Young Academy. Accordingly, most of its staff is linked to the UU, although the Young Academy operates independently within the university. Quickly, financial support from all kinds of Dutch universities and research institutes followed. Their network of experts expanded, not just with scientists of other universities, but also with industry professionals and people working at care facilities. At the moment, over forty volunteers and 250 experts are involved with the Helpdesk, of whom 41 work at the UU.  A few belong to foreign institutions. 

How do we keep our spirits up with all this climate misery?
Whenever the Helpdesk gets a new question, a volunteer analyses is and links it to the right expert. When they have been found, the expert formulates an answer and sends it to a second expert for peer review. Only then, after any necessary text adjustments have been made, it appears on the website. Such an extensive process has its disadvantages. An answer can take weeks, which may explain why the Helpdesk currently is more popular among people aged 40 and older as opposed to the young people the initiative was initially meant to target, says Joeri Reinders, a volunteer in the Climate Helpdesk’s communications team who performs research in the USA.

Despite its success, the Helpdesk mainly wants to attract young people. “Eventually, we want to create an easily accessible knowledge repository, without jargon or difficult scientific terms, where adolescents can find their answers immediately.” Young people, Reinders says, generally ask more practical questions than older people. Is a new electrical scooter more sustainable than a second-hand petrol-driven one? Am I allowed to strike for the environment? They also get a lot of psychological questions, such as how we keep our spirits up with all of this climate misery – which is why legal experts and psychologists are also part of the team. The climate, after all, touches every part of society, and young people will most often be confronted with it in their lifetime, Reinders says.

More young people questions wanted
This is why their questions are of great import to the Helpdesk, and a lot of work is being put into reaching their age demographic. The Climate Helpdesk is planning Instagram campaigns and animations to be posted on Youtube. They are also organizing evens in TivoliVredenburg, and leave their ‘Climate Helpdesk Letterbox’ at the secondary schools they come to for training days for geography teachers about climate education. They offer postcards for people to write questions to climate experts.

Peter Bijl, assistant professor at Utrecht University and involved with the Helpdesk, says that the letterbox has been placed at the Betweter Festival, at an event for the Climate Accord and at Climate Helpdesk live events. Eventually they hope it will allow people attending festivals, museums and conferences to ask their climate questions. Anyone interested in having a Climate Helpdesk Letterbox at their event is warmly invited to send an e-mail.

At the moment, the Helpdesk has answered 121 questions which can be found on the website. According to Myrthe Leijnse, UU Master’s student Earth Surface & Water and current editor-in-chief of the Helpdesk, questions can be unexpected, such as: ‘Which age group emits the most CO2?’. This question hasn’t been answered yet, Myrthe says, as questions like it require more research or an expert able to answer might take longer to find. “That’s a pity, because I think almost every question can be answered.” This type of question is now saved up for when an answer is discovered in the future. The inquirer is notified about this.

Some questions don’t have a unequivocal answer. Sanli Faez, co-founder of the Helpdesk and assistant-professor in Physics at the UU, gives an example: “‘Is it possible to maintain average economic growth while not surpassing 1.5 to 2.0 degrees of global warming?’” In that case, an extensive answer has been drawn up by three different experts, who all have a different view. Bart Verheggen from University College Amsterdam is involved with the Helpdesk as a climate expert, says that this mostly occurs with questions that have a societal angle. Verheggen is very enthusiastic about the initiative and says he always opens Climate Helpdesk e-mails first. He does hope the website’s search function can be improved; recently answered questions are currently displayed up top, causing a website visitor to have to scroll down a lot to find earlier answered questions. 


The Climate Helpdesk is looking for new volunteers for editorial, web-editing and communication purposes. Please be informed that the language spoken at the Helpdesk is Dutch. You can visit klimaathelpdesk.org/vacatures or send an em-ail to info@klimaathelpdesk.org for more information.

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