Fighting fossil subsidies: why professors are protesting in their gowns on the highway

The recent occupation of the A12 highway in The Hague to protest fossil subsidies has dominated news headlines as protestors blocked the highway en masse for several days in a row. ISS Professor of Pluralist Development Economics Irene van Staveren was one of several academic researchers who joined the protests. In this article, she explains why they decided to appear in academic gowns and refutes several counterarguments scientists, politicians, journalists, and others use to deny climate change or the need for climate action. Neutrality is no longer an option, also for scientists, she writes.

About a week and a half ago, I also stood on the A12 highway alongside Extinction Rebellion (XR) to protest against fossil subsidies. I wore my academic gown, along with about thirty other professors, to make it clear that we were there as scientists. Science has been demonstrating for decades that the Earth is warming, and we have increasingly more evidence that this is due to our economic behaviour.

However, there were some counterarguments. For example, an economist who has held numerous leadership positions in the public and private sectors wrote, to my astonishment, that “there is no way to deduce from climate science that ‘fossil subsidies’ should be abolished.” While economic science convincingly demonstrates that price incentives lead to behavioural change. Economists who specifically focus on climate (climate scientists, in other words) emphasize that a price tag on CO2 emissions helps to reduce them.

The new leader of the political party CDA (Christian Democratic Appeal) also reacted sceptically to our resistance, suggesting that companies would relocate abroad, and emissions would continue while we would have fewer jobs. As if job retention in polluting sectors should be a priority in these times of labour market tightness. We actually need a lot of hands for the production and installation of solar panels, heat pumps, and insulation. In line with this short-sighted point, there is also the well-known comment at social gatherings, “what about China?” If you genuinely believe that, you should stop buying goods that are produced cheaply there. China is not idle; it’s the country that installs the most solar panels.

Let me now address those subsidies. There was some sour commentary from an investigative journalist claiming that the term is incorrect and that the calculation is based on assumptions. The term does not refer to government expenditures but rather to tax breaks for large companies in the oil, gas, and coal industries. But by now, doesn’t everyone who follows the news know this? They are disguised subsidies. And yes, when you calculate a cost advantage, you cannot avoid making assumptions. The research that XR is based on is transparent about this and calculates the tax benefits compared to the fossil taxes that households pay. Meanwhile, the government has just admitted that the amount is even higher: at least 40 billion euros.

Finally, some university boards had reservations about us being there in our academic gowns. Fortunately, my dean and board supported us wholeheartedly. And rightly so. The academic gown does not belong to the university but symbolizes science. When politics claims to want to achieve the goals of Paris but simultaneously ignores scientifically substantiated arguments that this means we must significantly reduce fossil energy much faster, then we have a responsibility to reinforce these arguments.

Because, as the writer Elie Wiesel said, “Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim.” If our country does not stop fossil subsidies very quickly, we are contributing to millions of climate victims. Especially in the Global South, more and more people are already facing shortages of drinking water and food, as University of Amsterdam colleague Joyeeta Gupta, the recently awarded Spinoza Prize recipient, mentioned in her speech at the A12.

This blog article is based on a column first published in Dutch in the newspaper Trouw on 19 September 2023.

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About the author:


Irene van Staveren is professor of pluralist development economics at the Institute of Social Studies (ISS) of Erasmus University Rotterdam. Professor van Staveren’s theoretical interest is in feminist economics, social economics, institutional economics and post-Keynesian economics. Her key research interest is at the meso level of the economy with topics such as social cohesion, social exclusion, inequality and discrimination, as well as ethics and values in the economy and in economics.

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