Wageningen expertise is to be harnessed to make sure the Netherlands contributes less to climate change and better prepared for its impact. Bram Bregman was appointed to bring climate research together and put it in the limelight. ‘I make sure that people in the ministry know about what goes on here.’
text Roelof Kleis photo Sven Menschel
‘WUR’s Climate figurehead?’ Bram Bregman laughs a little uneasily. ‘That’s not how I see myself. What I’m going to do with the ministry of Infrastructure and Water Management is to see how we can get larger strategic climate adaptation projects off the ground. I know a lot of people in the ministry so I have an easy entrance there. With my contacts here, and my experience and knowledge of the climate system, I can play a bridging role between science here and policy in The Hague. Figurehead? I’m more of a fixer, actually.’
What needs to change?
‘There is not much cohesion in research on climate mitigation – the reduction of emissions – and climate adaptation – adjusting to climate change. Everyone is working their socks off, that’s not the problem. But it’s mainly small projects for the short term. There used to be big programmes such as Knowledge for Climate, about adaptation to climate change, and Climate for Space, about changes in spatial planning. They were financed from the gas revenues in Groningen. But that funding source has dried up. We need a new knowledge programme for the long term.’
So do you have to arrange for the money to flow this way?
‘Yes, ultimately I do. But that is not what I’ll start with because if I do, the door will quickly shut in The Hague. I am not a consultant who comes to get money. The government is not an ATM. The trick is to get the trust of the policymakers that I am of help to them. I help to programme complex material well. I help by making sure the ministry knows about everything that goes on here, and that we can make use of it together. WUR is an outstandingly multidisciplinary and integral institution. Let’s make full use of that. If we can achieve that kind of programme in the coming two years, WUR can reap many benefits from it.’
How are you going to go about it?
‘The big problem with climate change is that it is a silent killer. It goes slowly, which takes away the sense of urgency about taking action. What is 1.5 degrees of warming? Let’s be honest, who is really bothered by that? It’s nice to be able to sit outside in October, isn’t it? OK, we miss the Elfstedentocht skating race, but we’ll get over that. It’s not worth spending billions on.’
‘So I’ll need to take a different approach. We are a vulnerable delta country. We earn a lot of our money below sea level. We have allocated 1 to 1.5 billion euros a year until 2035 to flood protection. That legislation was passed without any difficulty. Why? Because it is urgent. So rising sea levels are a significant threat. But so are salinization and soil subsidence. In Gouda you have to raise your garden every two years. We need more and more fresh water to push back the salt water from the sea and deal with the salinization. These are slow processes too but it helps if I use this kind of framing to create urgency.’
Don't the urgent effects of climate change mainly affect the big cities in the west of the country?
‘Not exclusively, but it all comes together there. Salinization, flooding, land subsidence. Sooner or later, it’s going to go wrong there, you don’t have to be a land use expert to see that. The big cities are feeling the pinch from all sides. And then there is the congestion. Days with 1000 kilometres of traffic jam have already become normal. And yet the cities are still expanding. That’s not going to work. Our town planning model is no longer sustainable. Something’s got to change. How? Wageningen can contribute a lot here. Create a couple of future scenarios, working together with other research institutes. Should we build more in the areas where the population is shrinking? What is needed in order to go in the right direction? You are talking about infrastructure, mobility, agriculture and land use planning. That knowledge is there. There are people here who know everything there is to know about land use planning, ecology, etcetera. We shouldn’t wait any longer with these kinds of big issues. That’s what I’m going to the ministry about: how are we going to do it?
But there's a national adaptation strategy, isn't there?
‘Yes there is, and knowledge development is part of it. But that knowledge development is fragmented. It lacks cohesion and there is no leadership. What is more, important topics are missing. One of them is the creation of alternative future scenarios for the Netherlands that make our country truly climate-proof. Up to now, we haven’t looked beyond 2050, but the threats force us to look further into the future and take a broader view than just at water safety and the fresh water supply.’’
Alumnus with a network in The Hague
Bram Bregman graduated in Environmental Studies in Wageningen at the end of the 1980s. He went straight on to PhD research in Utrecht on ozone formation and breakdown. Then he worked for the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research, the Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute, and Radboud University. At the Meteorological Institute the focus of his work shifted from research to policy and as well as coordinating climate policy, Bregman also became the focal point for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). ‘That means you organize the Dutch input for the main report. The trick in that policy world is to filter what is important. Eighty per cent of what you hear is jargon. What’s important is the other 20 per cent. That’s right up my street.’ This work left Bregman with a good network in The Hague. He has also always kept ‘one foot in science’. Since 2010 he has been part-time professor of Climate Change Science and Policy in Nijmegen. His appointment as climate ambassador at Wageningen Environmental Research is for two days a week to start with.