The Committee on Teaching About the United Nations CTAUN) has been described as the United Nations (UN) committee for taking action. This was never more apparent than during this year’s conference: Our Planet — Our Crisis — What’s Next?
At the 20th annual day-long CTAUN conference held April 5, 2019, at UN headquarters in New York, WNBA-New York City members Jill Tardiff, Jane Kinney Denning, and I, Marilyn Berkman, were stirred by key leaders calling for action and inspired by those already acting in projects involving women and youth worldwide.
“The eye-opener,” explained CTAUN Chair Anne-Marie Carlson, “is that these are not completely new issues.” A 1980 video showed Walter Cronkite warning about the greenhouse effects of burning coal, including rising seas. There will be a summit on climate change at the UN in September, but the need is for “everyone to call for countries . . . to implement policies. Passion must overrule apathy. . . .” In this, “students and teachers are our strongest allies.”
Our Planet is in Crisis
Jamil Ahmad, Director of the NY Office of the UN Environmental Programme, delivered dire news. Ahmad said, “Our planet is in crisis, especially poorer populations. We will soon need another planet. Small islands in the Pacific are submerging as new islands are emerging in the Arctic as ice melts. Many do not have access to clean water. More than 30 million tons of plastic waste are dumped every year; 60 percent of ecosystems are degraded; more than 730 million people live in severe poverty while 8 billionaires own most of the world’s wealth.”
International partnership is vital, but it will be on national levels that the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) can make the biggest impact. Besides changing polices at home, wealthier countries must make green investments in developing countries to create circle economies that optimize resources. Green economies are inclusive, including in their educational facilities. There are now 1.8 billion people between the ages of 1 and 24.
Fabien Cousteau — ocean explorer like his grandfather Jacques, filmmaker, and “ocean witness” — said water is “why we exist.” The ocean covers three-fourths of our planet “but really represents over 90 percent of [the] world’s living space” and “we have explored less than five percent of it.” At “inner space stations underwater . . . we can see what’s ailing us.” Earth is “facing the sixth extinction and for the first time due to one species.”
Because of warming, over 500 coral reefs are bleached, a loss of habitat for numerous species and of possible cures for diseases. Worse is pollution by single-use plastic. According to Cousteau, “We use the ocean as a garbage pail.”
The average American uses eight items (such as plastic bags and take-out containers) — item that were built to last 500 years — for only 30 minutes or less a day. Plastic waste can now be found in the deepest parts of the ocean, disrupting endocrines in wildlife and humans, causing learning problems in children and increased rates of cancer. Nearly 50 percent of fish consumed have signs of microplastic in them. “You don’t even know that you are eating your garbage,” said Cousteau.
Education and the Need to Take Action
Cousteau’s Ocean Learning Center can be visited by teachers and students. Educators can take students to communities at risk to see the problems and to help clean up beaches and plant mangroves. Ocean thermal energy plants or underwater cities are among things we can do. Innovations and solutions should be shared open-source, such as the use of 3D printing to replicate and induce reproduction of coral.
Eva Gartner, attorney for Earth Justice said, “The world needs a good lawyer.” The fossil fuel industry “puts its profits above the welfare” of people.
We need protection from chemicals causing gene mutations and interfering with hormones that control bodily functions, especially during pregnancy and childhood. Those in poorer countries are the most exposed, but we all are, even where some substances have been banned. For example, BPA is now banned but BPS probably has similar effects, such as causing ADD. Childhood cancer rates are rising. One cancer study found most babies are “born pre-polluted.” Many toxic chemicals are petrochemicals.
The fossil fuel industry is poised for explosive growth, with more than 300 new plants in the US alone, many in Appalachia where coal mining is being replaced by gas fracking. Supply of oil and gas for fuel now exceeds demand. There is more profit in plastics and chemicals than in energy. The climate impact of this is greater than from coal. Texas and Louisiana form the largest petrochemical area in the Western Hemisphere, an area becoming known as Cancer Alley.
Karenna Gore, founding director of the Center for Earth Ethics at Union Theological and author of Lighting the Way: Nine Women Who Changed Modern America, worries that American leadership is being forgotten. We live in a time of consequences. Every day 110,000 tons of pollutants from gas, oil, and coal go into the atmosphere even though the widespread scientific consensus is that this is harmful.
Religions need to see climate change as a moral challenge and climate activism as faith based. How do we measure poverty and wealth and what is a good society? A book that combines the scientific with a sense of biblical disaster is The Uninhabitable Earth by David Wallace-Wells.
It was good to learn of Peace Boat, a Japan-based Non-Governmental Organization with cruises for dialoging about sustainability and learning about ecological situations in each port of call. Nobel Peace Laureates and nuclear radiation survivors are among on-board speakers. Peace Boat provides educational programs and Youth for SDGs Scholarships. Projects include: de-mining in Cambodia; agriculture in Tahiti; refugee camp in Jordan; women’s groups making fair-trade products. Perhaps the greatest impact was made by Peace Boat Ocean and Climate Ambassador Selina Neirok Leem when she described looking out her window at home in the Marshall Islands and seeing the ocean destroy her family’s graves. Her performance of her poem to her daughter brought applause. (View her 2014 UN speech and performance at Climate Summit.)
It was good to hear from local high school students who participated in an international climate rally, COP 24 Poland 2018. Around the world and in the US, youth, some in their early teens, are speaking up. It will be their world to inherit, devastated.
Nature Doesn’t Negotiate
Climate change is already a threat to global stability. Droughts have the greatest impact on smallholder farmers. Less productive land is cheaper and easily purchased by developers. Without farm work, men are forced to leave their families and go to the cities.
Susan Blaustein, founder of WomenStrong International, emphasized the importance in sub-Saharan Africa of empowering women and girls to build sustainable communities, and avoid selling their bodies for food or the promise of money for schooling.
Giovanna Kuele of Igarape, Brazil reported that in the Amazon women have been vital in re-establishing peace after deforestation led to economic insecurity and the rise of crime networks.
Franz Baumann, former UN Special Advisor on the Environment now at New York University, joined Kuele in urging attendees to do our part.
Our challenge is to keep modern technology but turn our backs on fossil fuels. The gap between those affected will widen not only between countries but within.
It is estimated that we have 10 years to fix things with nature, and “nature doesn’t negotiate.”
Final Thoughts about CTAUN 2019
Jane Kinney Denning, immediate past president of the WNBA, said:
Attending the 20th annual CTAUN conference, Our Planet — Our Crisis — What’s Next, this April was an eye-opening, life-changing call to action. I am excited to be serving as one of the WNBA’s representatives to the United Nations because of opportunities like this for us to interact on a world stage around issues affecting everyone on the planet. I was particularly inspired by the poem Selina Neirok Leem wrote for her daughter about climate change’s impact on her people’s lives. There is so much the WNBA can do, as a national organization and on the chapter level, to help promote the 17 Sustainable Development Goals outlined by the UN. Through our writing, programming, and activism we have the opportunity to help achieve a better and more sustainable future for all. The WNBA has been a NGO member of the UN since 1959 — one of the many reasons I am so proud of our organization and the remarkable work its members have been doing for over 100 years.
Photo Credits: Jane Kinney Denning
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