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Inaugural lecture Gerard van der Steenhoven Climate change: where science meets society

A combination of political measures, scientific research and societal changes is required to keep potential risks from climate change to a minimum.

This is the message that will be conveyed on 13 October 2016 by Gerard van der Steenhoven, Director General of the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI), during his inaugural lecture as part-time professor of Meteorological and Climatological Disaster Risk Reduction at the faculty ITC at the University of Twente.

Van der Steenhoven believes that the next government needs to take far-reaching measures in order to prevent the global temperature from increasing by a more than 2°C. This means reducing greenhouse gas emissions dramatically until 2050. “The 2013 Energy Agreement formed a good starting point, but we are going to have to double our targets if we want to be carbon neutral by 2050.”

It is also important that the next government removes the barriers that exist between government institutions and universities and scientific research institutes in the Netherlands, as complex societal problems such as climate change call for collaboration from a range of disciplines, from fundamental physics (cloud formation expertise) to policy-relevant research (insights on climate scenarios).
“Climate change is a complex issue that affects numerous aspects of society, so it is essential that fundamental research and policy-relevant research are well-connected. Rules and regulations currently impede the financing of collaboration between these disciplines.

Improving the chain of knowledge

Gerard van der Steenhoven aims to use his chair at the University of Twente’s Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) to establish links between the research carried out by KNMI and that carried out by the university. This will improve both domestic and international collaboration in the chain of knowledge.
The Faculty of Geo-Information Science and Earth Observation (ITC) also carries out a lot of research outside Europe, mainly in developing countries. These countries suffer the impacts of climate change the most, yet they have the least amount of knowledge and expertise to minimize the risks. This is where the KNMI and the University of Twente can complement each other. One of the most pressing research topics is the impact of extreme weather in rapidly changing environments. 

Minimizing risks

According to Gerard van der Steenhoven, research into climate change and its impacts is essential. Extreme weather events occur more frequently in warmer climates, and research could enable us to warn communities on time when severe weather is expected.
Weather forecasts need to be made more accurate so that communities have more time to prepare for extreme weather events. This will minimize the risks extreme weather poses to society.

Societal change

In addition to political measures and scientific research, far-reaching societal change is also required to prevent further global warming, Van der Steenhoven concludes.
“Climate education is of great importance. Just like children are taught to tidy their rooms and not to litter, they should be taught that it is wrong to pollute the air with greenhouse gases. This cultural change could take many years, but it is essential, as everyone should play a part in curbing climate change, both old and young. We can’t just look to the government for answers. We need to make society more aware of the vulnerability of the atmosphere and the risks posed by climate change.

Global action

Van der Steenhoven considers the Paris Agreement on climate change, drawn up in December 2015, and the Sendai Framework for Disaster Risk Reduction, drawn up in March 2015, to be encouraging developments. Time is pressing and it is essential that international agreements on climate change are established.
“The 1987 Montreal Protocol is proof that international agreements can be successful. Since the protocol was established, 197 countries have agreed to ban CFCs from products, and as a result, the depletion of the Earth’s ozone layer has slowly started to decrease. The ozone layer is showing the first signs of recovery. This proves that global action can be effective.”

Climate warnings

In order to achieve the ambitious goals set in the Paris Agreement, our economy needs to become carbon neutral within thirty years. We need to act now, states Van der Steenhoven. There is a reason why KNMI issued a symbolic ‘code orange’ for the climate just before the summit in Paris at the end of 2015 - to emphasize the urgency of climate issues.
“Our knowledge of changes to our climate forced us to issue this warning. We see evidence of climate change in our readings and analyses, and it is our responsibility, as a centre of expertise, to warn people of this, in the same way that we warn them when severe weather is expected. So that people have enough time to take the necessary measures to minimize potential risks.”

Inaugural lecture

Gerard van der Steenhoven will deliver his inaugural lecture at 13 October at the University of Twente. The meeting starts at 16.00 in the Prof.ir. M.P. Breedveld-zaal of Building the Waaier at the campus of the University of Twente.