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Thomas Van der Steen: We should accept we can’t keep nature contained, to live by its rules [Climate Generation-34]

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This week, the guest of the 34th Climate Generation series is climate activist Thomas Van der Steen from the Netherlands. Thomas lives in ‘s-Hertogenbosch. He graduated from high school last year and is currently taking a gap year. He believes civil disobedience is a more appropriate way of action to combat climate crisis.

Atlas Sarrafoğlu: How did you start activism and how do you organize your protests in the Netherlands? 

I started with activism and organizing in January 2021 with Extinction Rebellion (XR), after that I started a local Fridays for Future (FFF) group with someone from my school and from that on, we grew.

Currently I am in a gap year and I moved to a bigger city, which is why I now focus more on organizing with Extinction Rebellion. Now I not only participate in civil disobedience actions but I also organize them.

There is not just one way I organize protests. It depends on what the protest is about. When I organize a legal march it is different from when I organize an action of civil disobedience.

I don’t necessarily focus on a specific topic but I do have a big interest in defending nature.

What are the direct effects of climate change in the Netherlands?

Compared to nations in the Global South the impact of climate change in the Netherlands is small but it is still noticeable. Two years ago we had a big flood in the southern part of our country due to extreme rainfall, it caused a lot of damage and in neighboring countries several people died. It has been proven that floods like these are already more likely due to climate change.

Also the weather is getting hotter and hotter just like most places in the world. We are seeing more extreme droughts and we rarely see snow in winters. It is clear that things are changing and have already changed.

‘Govts prefer concentrating on interests of multinational companies’

What do you think is the solution to protect your country from the impacts of climate change?

Of course the first step has to be to cutting down on our carbon emissions. Not only endemic ones but also our impact elsewhere, for example we are one of the biggest drivers of deforestation in the Amazon rainforest since we need soy for our livestock (also half of the land of our country is used for growing food for livestock).

But secondly as everyone knows that historically the worst enemy of the Netherlands is the sea. And with rising sea levels that won’t get better. Our water defenses are only built to handle a couple of centimeters of sea level rise. We will, however, surely exceed these margins. So we will have to invest ridiculous amounts of money into these defenses if we want to keep things as they are. We have to rethink how we live with the rules of nature, and maybe accept that we can’t defeat the sea. It’s also ridiculously stupid that all of our most important cities will probably be under the sea when it rises. In order to deal with the impact of climate change, we need to accept that we cannot keep nature contained and need to accept living by its rules.

What is the perception of your government regarding tackling the climate crisis? What kind of initial steps need to be taken to keep the limit under 1,5°C by your government?

The majority of our government does acknowledge that climate change is real and states that it is important to solve, but it seems that they prefer to concentrate on the interests of multinational companies and the rich more important since they constantly miss climate targets.

It is clear that the biggest factor in causing climate change are fossil fuels. So we should do everything to cut those as fast as we can. With Extinction Rebellion in the Netherlands we campaign to put a halt on the 46.5 billion euros that our government subsidizes the fossil fuel industry. Our government also promised to stop these subsidies 15 years ago but they still haven’t done that and they now claim that it is too complicated. They still say they want to stop them but they are doing nothing to make that happen.

Tell us about what makes you feel hopeful about the future, against all odds?

I need to say that at the moment I don’t have much hope about certain things. The thing that keeps me going is the fact that the situation will only get worse the less we do. So I want to do everything I can to control the damage as much as possible, to restore nature, and make sure MAPA [Most Affected People and Areas] countries get reparations. Climate disasters are unstoppable but their impact depends on what we do in the next few years. We need to stay under 1.5 degrees!

Something that keeps me positive about the situation is mostly all the amazing people I meet while doing activism.

‘I don’t have any words for world leaders’

What do you think is the difference between FFF and XR in terms of protests and demands? 

In the Netherlands it is hard to even speak about FFF NL since we barely exist anymore. We are talking about how to continue but we haven’t decided yet. One thing is clear: The age of school strikes is over and we need to adapt. Also FFF NL does not have any specific demands other than “climate justice” which is very vague.

Extinction Rebellion, on the other hand, is very much alive and growing very rapidly. We have successfully made the whole country aware of the fossil fuel industry and their subsidies by the government, and now 70 per cent of our population demand these be stopped. Also XR does have demands: Tell the truth about climate change. Act now and do what is needed, let the people decide and in the Netherlands we have an extra demand and that one is about climate justice. 

The goals of XR and FFF are the same. But XR is more streamlined and more professional. Also of course XR uses civil disobedience and FFF does not.

If you could address the world leaders, what would you say to them about the climate crisis and their “business as usual”? 

I find this a difficult question. I don’t feel like anything that I could say would make an impact. It is not that world leaders don’t understand what is going on; they know it very well. They choose not to act to fulfill the demands of multinationals and get themselves re-elected.

I don’t have any words for them. I am fighting to grow the movement so that the leaders will not have a choice. Like we are doing with XR in The Netherlands. More and more people will join us because more and more people will understand that we need to act now, and the government won’t act. So we need to force them in a non-violent way.

What is your perception of the future in regards to the climate crisis? How do you envision yourself in 2030? 

I don’t want to be an activist by 2030. It is not a hobby. But I will do this for as long as I need to. I envision myself being done with studying by 2030 and the world having reached carbon neutrality. I envision myself working on restoring the nature and educating others about this.

I don’t know if we make this a reality but all I can do is to fight to make this happen. I don’t have any other options.

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