Why are we blocking a highway as scientists? It is a justified response to the violence of climate change

How can scientists help engender societal change, and when is it effective to take the road of activism? This question has become increasingly relevant in the face of the urgent need to  address the implications of climate change. In this blog (that first appeared on 1 June 2023 as an op-ed in the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant), Professors Thea Hilhorst and Klaas Landsman – both recipients of the Spinoza Prize, the highest scientific award in the Netherlands in 2022 – gave a speech during the occupation of the A12 by Extinction Rebellion. Why did they choose to participate in this action as scientists?

On 27 May, an estimated 8,500 activists blocked the A12 highway in The Hague. There was no misunderstanding about the illegal nature of the action. Right from the start, the police shouted through megaphones to demonstrators that there was no legal permission for this demonstration and that those who stayed ran the risk of being arrested. Water cannons were already spraying large quantities of water over the crowd from four military vehicles placed at the head and the rear of the mass of people. Indeed, the demonstration took place without a permit, and blocking a highway is against the law. Nevertheless, we then considered and still consider the action to be legitimate.

The effects of climate change are already being felt all over the world. Rich countries emit most of the greenhouse gases inducing climate change. Poor countries, and in turn the poorest and most vulnerable people in these countries, bear most of the consequences – those people who can hardly afford to eat meat or to buy new clothes at every turn of fashion, who don’t own a car, let alone ever take a plane. They pay the highest price for climate change. They pay with their health, their residence, their livelihoods, their safety, and increasingly with their lives.

Heat waves make places in India reach temperatures above 45 degrees Celsius. People with fragile health in an urban poor area living under a corrugated iron roof may not survive. The shepherd in Kenya who loses his goats due to drought has lost everything; he has no savings to buy new goats. Last summer, large parts of Pakistan flooded, destroying 8,000 kilometers of roads and 105 bridges. Even before these can be repaired, there is likely to be another flood. Increasingly, people lose their land to the river, the sea, or excessive drought. We – residents of rich countries- owe a debt of honor to these vulnerable people in poor countries.

A basic principle of civilization is to take responsibility for harm inflicted on one another. The polluter pays. Rich countries must compensate poor countries. But that is not happening. There are no concrete agreements on compensation yet. The USD 100 billion per year that rich countries have pledged for climate adaptation has not been fully delivered. What is paid partly flows back as profit to Western companies that offer technologies for climate adaptation to poor countries.

Even the most immediate humanitarian aid to mitigate the worst consequences of climate change falls short. On 24 May, a UN summit on the drought in the Sahel failed. Rich countries pledged only USD 2,4 billion of the USD 7 billion needed to address starvation. That is a stark contrast to the estimated USD 30 billion with which Netherlands subsidizes the fossil industry annually, mainly through tax benefits.

UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres equates climate change to ecocide. This is his statement on Twitter of 5 April 2022: “Climate activists are sometimes depicted as dangerous radicals. But the truly dangerous radicals are the countries that are increasing the production of fossil fuels. Investing in new fossil fuels infrastructure is moral and economic madness.” The occupation of the A12 was aimed at protesting fossil fuel subsidies.

Extinction Rebellion stands for nonviolent civil disobedience in the tradition of Mahatma Gandhi, Martin Luther King and Bertrand Russell. A non-violent blockade of a highway, with a demand consistent with UN appeals, represents in our eyes a legitimate response to the violence of climate change exerted on defenseless people, animals, and ecosystems. Politicians linger, listen to the lobbying of the fossil industry, and hope for innovation to solve all our problems. But there’s no time to waste anymore.

Listen to science. Listen to the IPCC, the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change . More and more scientists are joining Scientist Rebellion – a group of academics linked to Extinction Rebellion. We, too, will join again next time.

Opinions expressed in Bliss posts reflect solely the views of the author of the post in question.

About the authors:

Dorothea Hilhorst is professor of Humanitarian Studies at the International Institute of Social Studies of Erasmus University.




Klaas Landsman is the Chair of Mathematical Physics, Institute for Mathematics, Astrophysics, and Particle Physics at Radboud University Nijmegen.

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1 Comment
  • Edith de Jong
    June 9, 2023

    Go On!