Behind the scenes: Climate Helpdesk
Are biodegradable coffee pods really better for the environment? Is an electric motorbike more environmentally friendly than a petrol-powered motorbike? We all have a climate question from time to time. It’s not easy, however, to find reliable information these days. To address this, the Climate Helpdesk was set up two years ago: the go-to place for anyone looking for a science-based answer to climate questions.
Joseline Houwman, one of the founders of the Climate Helpdesk, explains how it works: “It’s really simple, in fact. Anyone can submit a question through our website. The editors-in-chief check if the question has been asked before, as well as suggesting ways to make it more effective. Once we have a good question that hasn’t been answered yet, we search our database of 250 experts from different fields for the best-placed person to answer it. Their answer is checked by a reviewer, a sort of peer review as we know it from science. This results in an insightful, readable answer.” Two years on, the Climate Helpdesk website is a treasure trove of reliable and accessible information.
Readable, but science-based
“It’s great fun being an expert at the Climate Helpdesk”, says Karlijn van den Broek. “As a researcher, you really need to zoom out to get the questioner’s helicopter view. It’s a fun challenge, making you realise how your research fits into the picture. You want the answer to hug the science, you want it to be readable and refined at once. The challenge is to strike the right balance, and fortunately I have the Climate Helpdesk editors to help me.”
Questioner Riny Blokhuis, a group leader at the Salvation Army, shares his reason for turning to the Climate Helpdesk: “The climate is changing so fast that it’s a popular conversation topic around the water cooler. Talks with friends and acquaintances often leave you with more questions than answers. I went looking for answers myself, and found the Climate Helpdesk. I submitted my question to them and received a wonderful answer. It came with detailed arguments; you could tell they’d taken the time for it!
Van den Broek: “It takes me about three full working days to formulate an answer. I feel responsible to share the right information with people who are less close to the science than I am.That's why I often leave my answer for a day or so to reconsider. And I often check my answer with friends who are teachers, for instance. They help me formulate a message that resonates.”
When I received my answer I could see it had involved many people, and it was clear as well: how is it possible?! It really exceeded my expectations
Thijs Kurstjens, adviser sustainable real estate, posed a question to the Climate Helpdesk and is very positive about the initiative: “We live in a time where finding reliable knowledge is often a challenge, so it's great there is this accessible and reliable information available. When I received my answer I could see it had involved many people, and it was clear as well: how is it possible?! It really exceeded my expectations.” The appreciation doesn't just come from the people asking questions and the researchers. In national newspaper Trouw, the Climate Helpdesk was mentioned in the Sustainable 100 List of 2021, and als in 2021, the Climate Helpdesk won the Pathways to Sustainability Award. Joseline is proud: “You start with an idea, but you don't know where it will take you. We are so happy our efforts are being seen and appreciated.”
Joseline emphases the team effort needed for these results: “Our 30 volunteers do most of the work. They assess the questions coming in, reformulate them, and look for experts and reviewers. This is a group of very motivated students and PhD-students who are concerned about climate change. For them, this is a way to contribute to sharing the right information about climate matters, without being activist. At the moment, we cannot recompense them, unfortunately. But we're working on that. For instance by offering workshops by journalists, or study credit points. We would really like to give them something back.”
Climate Helpdesk live
You can watch Climate Helpdesk live. “In cooperation with TivoliVredenburg, we have organised a live event a few times. Each event has its own theme, for instance sea level rise, or sustainable food. The questions come from the audience, and the experts on stage answer the questions live," says Joseline. But the ambitions don't stop there: “Next year, we want to focus on developing educational material for high schools. Climate change is only mentioned at Geography. But the questions we receive are so wide-ranging it should be part of other subjects as well.” The ultimate aim is clear for Joseline: “If everyone knows where they can ask their climate questions, we have reached our goal. And it is my dream to set up a network of helpdesks. Naturalis is setting up a biodiversity helpdesk, UMC Utrecht just launched a helpdesk on regenerative medicine. And I know Radboud University is working on a brain helpdesk. My goal is for everyone to know where you can find accessible and reliable information on any subject.”
Tekst: Sigrid Dekker
Live Q & A
The Climate Helpdesk has gone live several times in TivoliVredenburg, each time with a different theme, for instance sea level rise or sustainable food. The questions come from the audience, the experts answer them on stage.