At the start of the New Year there was no getting away from it: the projections that we are in for a contemporary version of the Roaring Twenties as soon as we have all been vaccinated. Such projections ought to inspire hope, but in me they tend to induce a feeling of fatalism. Because even though climate change is a frequent topic of discussion, none of the projections actually bring to the fore how urgently the pressing existential threats need to be addressed - even though climate change and the loss of biodiversity have a much greater impact than the current pandemic. In 2021, we therefore need activist scientists who can make us see that we cannot spend this decade partying but must remain in crisis mode.

Less visible threats are structurally underestimated

The past year has shown us how much policymakers as well as the public are capable when faced with a visible threat. Shocking images of dead bodies in the streets in Italy and overflowing Dutch hospitals triggered drastic lockdown measures and a feeling of unity among the Dutch population. In no time at all, international cooperation resulted in several viable vaccines. And we just put up with the unprecedented economic crisis, as well as the rapid increase in government debt. Because, as we were told by every news story, the huge government support packages for households and businesses were essential.

“In 2021, we need activist scientists who can make us see that we cannot spend this decade partying, but must remain in crisis mode.”

But when it comes to less visible and harder to understand threats, we are much less eager to make sacrifices. That is when the so-called optimism bias comes into play: the human tendency to underestimate the seriousness of a situation. Especially when the consequences are not very tangible and do not affect us directly. Generally, this bias is very useful, because otherwise we would worry about all sorts of issues that we have no control over. But for existential threats that can only be prevented through immediate and far-reaching human intervention, this natural defence mechanism poses a big problem.

Last week, 17 prominent scientists published an eye-opening research report. This report tells us that the impact of climate change and loss of diversity is even more dangerous than is currently assumed. The consequences are in effect so huge that even experts find it difficult to get their heads around the full scale of it. This makes you think: if even experts find it hard to take in, how can policymakers and the public be expected to grasp this? It concerns the message that scientists give us: as long as we cannot take in the scale of the threat, the measures that we take will never be enough. The first thing that needs to happen, is that more insight needs to be created, which should then result in a sense of urgency.

Activist scientists crucial for creating awareness

Who is to promote this awareness and the related feeling of urgency? The 17 scientists argue that science must become much more vocal. I totally agree. Scientists should bridge the gap between policy makers and civil action groups. Because research shows that activist movements, such as Extinction Rebellion, are very effective at bringing about political change with relatively few people. However, quite often these types of movements are not taken seriously, partly because of a lack of knowledge among its members. This is where scientists could come in: their presence alone would enhance a movement's legitimacy in the eyes of the public and with their knowledge and skills scientists could also leave their mark on the movement's content and organisation and act as media spokespersons.

In a more general sense, all experts with a platform should make themselves heard more, in order to create a sense of urgency. This is the only way in which proportional action can be made to happen. So this is my good intention for 2021: to create more awareness of the scale of the impact of the climate and biodiversity crisis, starting with myself. I’ll keep you posted on how things are progressing with my sense of urgency.