In the second physical interview of Room for Discussion this year, the guest was Diederik Samsom. Samsom served as the leader of the Labour Party between 2012-2016. Since November 2019, Samsom has functioned as the head of the cabinet for First Vice-President of the European Commission, Frans Timmerman. Samsom also contributed to the Green New Deal by participating in the legislative process, the focal point of discussion in the one-hour debate. Coincidentally, COP 26 was taking place in Glasgow, which urged audience members, who are all concerned about their and their planet’s future, to engage heavily with the interview. Join us as we share the key insights of the debate in the following article.

The Room for Discussion hosts opened the session by thanking Mr Samsom for attending the interview while the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference was occurring. Samsom was first asked about The Green New Deal, what it stands for and entails. After a brief definition of the deal, Samsom finished his explanation with the saying of “Keeping 1.5 degrees alive”. Here, Samsom underlined the deal’s primary goal, which is to keep the global warmth level within the level of 1.5 degrees. He continued by expressing his disappointment in this goal’s failure. Nevertheless, he preserved his hope for next year’s  COP 27.  Samsom’s mix of disappointment in past affairs and hope towards the future would indicate the rest of the interview.

The questions shifted afterwards to the backstage of politics: the (non-)cooperation of states and businesses to reach a consensus on the pressing environmental issues followed by the necessary implementation of the decisions. Samsom provided the audience with several examples, such as the reluctance of the Dutch government to sign their end of the deal of the general agreement to end fossil fuel usage, or the tendency of politically unstable states, like Poland, Hungary, and Portugal, to create obstacles in the decision-making process. On the corporate side, Samsom replied humorously to a question about why Shell was not willing to cooperate with the Green New Deal measures at the beginning: “They did not pay attention to the laws”, underlining an agency conflict in financial terms (mismatch of interests of different stakeholders), in this case, societal and governmental interests contradict with corporate interests. Samsom also mentioned the difficulty of Shell to reduce the capital spent on their operations, which is the main reason for the conflict. On the international scale, India’s effort to reduce the national carbon footprint by applying the Gasoil plan could make a difference towards the process of global cooling by 2027, according to Samsom. Samsom also backed up his claim by data, pointing to the reduction of global temperature from 2.7 to 1.9 degrees, just 0.4 degrees, far from the deal’s goal. However, Samsom also stressed the role of power. India’s reluctance to cooperate with the EU due to its status as an “emerging superpower” hints at another significant issue in the decision making besides the conflict of interests.

The interview continued with a “This or That” question round prepared by the hosts, a pretty entertaining exercise. Samsom was asked to choose from one of two options: Mark Rutte or Ursula von der Leyen; being a cabinet chef of Frans Timmermans or the Labour party leader; green or red; solar or wind; Timmermans with or without a beard. Samsom replied as follows: Mark Rutte, a cabinet chef, green and Timmermans without the beard. This question round contributed further to the already positive and humorous tone of the conversation, increased audience engagement, which reflected later on based on the volume of questions asked by students. In addition, Samsom’s choices on the inquiries also gave a clear insight into his background. For example, before being sworn into the House of Representatives, Samsom was the CEO of a green energy company called Echte Energie [Real Energy]. Alongside two fellow PvdA parliamentarians, Staf Depla and Jeroen Dijsselbloem, Samsom travelled around the Netherlands campaigning, calling themselves “The Red Engineers”, which refers to both their party colour and scientific background (Samsom himself has a degree in physics). Samsom’s choice of green over red indicated his shift in priority for green politics over party politics. He added Brussels over Den Haag, claiming that the EU would be more effective than the Dutch government to solve the global environmental crisis. 

The discussion continued with questions regarding his projections and goals for the future. Samson and his cabinet have plans to put Europe and the world on a climate recovery trajectory. According to Samsom, stopping biodiversity loss is an even more pressing issue than addressing climate change. The two of the three breached planetary boundaries, which he mentioned the plan to achieve in 2030. In addition, Samsom also pointed out the necessity and goal to stop the air, soil, and water pollution altogether. Last but not least, he promised the target of ultimately shifting to zero-emission cars by 2035, 5 years later than they initially set out due to the ongoing high demand in the car market of Europe.

The interview concluded with questions from the audience. The first question was about Samsom’s opinion on the role of education in climate politics and how climate standards can be made and reached. Samsom disagreed here with the pessimistic view of the student, claiming that, with the help of China, the goal of 1.5 degrees could be achieved. However, like India, China has shown reluctance to cooperate with the EU, primarily due to the heavy dominance of the electronics sector in the Chinese economy, which contributed to the global carbon emission by 12 gigatons, more than the entirety of the EU. Samsom confessed his mistake to overlooking the potential role of education in policymaking by adding that the EU has no say on education, criticising the existing power structures. Samsom believed that education could contribute most to the fight against the global environmental crisis, admitting his fault in believing in more practical solutions, like building more windmills. Samsom mentioned that all generations are responsible for solving issues for the next, a clear demonstration of his altruism and long-term mindset regarding global issues. However, Samsom also mentioned the impossibility of coming up with solutions for all problems, suggesting that education and investment towards the future are the most crucial steps to reach practical solutions. 

The second audience question focused on the recent developments and plans to reach the goal of 1.5 degrees. Samsom mentioned the 14th of December as the end date for preparing legislative proposals and creating deals to achieve harmful emissions. Samsom listed some future goals, such as achieving carbon neutrality by 2050, planting more trees in heavily deforested areas among the restoration of biodiversity goals, and creating incentives for farms to pursue eco-friendly agricultural methods. The main challenge for these plans, according to Samsom, is figuring out how to transfer these policies to business models. Samsom carried on by emphasising that every energy resource has an impact on nature. Therefore, it is necessary to find the mix of energy resources that has the most negligible effect on the ecosystem, which includes a system in which trees and biodiversity grow, summarising that both innovation and nature conservation should go together. Moreover, Samsom alluded to influencing factors on the growth of specific energy industries. For example, within the EU, the solar energy industry grows fastest in the Netherlands due to its affordable price. By giving this example, Samsom underlined the importance of pricing and economic dynamics that affect the demand, hinting at the necessity for a systemic change. 

Next, Samsom was asked about his opinion on the realism of his goals. Samsom replied with the analogy of a mountain, saying that you have to climb the hill to reach the endpoint. Samsom responded that he already sees many opportunities ahead regarding his overall optimistic attitude, even when looking at each sitting in the audience. However, Samsom remained mindful of the people who were not listening to him at the moment, people who have far less access to opportunities, which he claimed to be the primary social goal to tackle next to environmental issues. “Predistribution”, creating equal opportunities for everyone, is a long-term goal. Stating the cluelessness of politicians on how to address this issue, Samsom implied that the core of the global environmental crisis is rooted in the history of politics and economics. 

The interview finished with Samsom’s final remarks on his optimism toward nuclear energy, claiming that potential safety problems could be eliminated under the proper infrastructure and more efficiency could be achieved in energy usage. Samsom concluded that a pessimistic outlook on the climate and our future is unnecessary: innovation, technology, and the new purpose-driven generation can lead us to a sustainable future.