Single-use plastic products – things like water bottles, straws, polystyrene plates – have become a ubiquitous in our modern lives. Researchers estimate that 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, and about half of that is meant to be used only once.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. Just ask Rhea Singhal.
Delhi-based Singhal was just 27 years old when she made a detour in her career to join the fight to beat plastic pollution. Armed with a degree in pharmacology as well as her experience working in marketing for a major pharmaceutical company, Singhal launched her own business, Ecoware, in 2009.
The company produces plates, cups, bowls, trays, cutlery and other products – all of which are made from plant biomass, and all of which are 100 per cent biodegradable. Within a decade, Ecoware has grown to become India’s biggest supplier of compostable tableware.
Singhal’s goal, she says, is both to clean up the natural environment, and to protect human health.
“The health impacts of using non-biodegradable containers are well known,” she says. “If you put hot food in hot container, you will ingest toxins that will leach out into the food. We talk about healthy lifestyle, healthy eating but what about the container in which we are eating?”
“My mother got breast cancer twice,” she adds. “With my background in pharmacology, I am quite concerned with disease prevention and cancer is close to my heart. You cannot control genetic makeup but you can control risk factors.”
In the right conditions, Singhal’s tableware products – which are made of agricultural waste – convert into soil in just 90 days. But even if an Ecoware plate ends up in a landfill instead of a composting bin, it will still decompose, leaving no waste trail behind.
The products are also sturdy. They can sustain temperatures from minus 20 to 180 degrees, meaning that they’re good for freezing and safe in the microwave.
Ecoware is making a difference on a large scale. Today, Singhal’s clients include major restaurant chains and five-star hotels as well India’s national railway system. The prices of her products are just 15 per cent higher than their plastic counterparts.
“In our experience, we have seen people don’t mind paying a bit extra,” says Singhal. “It is not an issue anymore as they understand the health implications and there is a big demand for alternatives. However, the challenge is to generate awareness, to teach people what is good and bad for the environment and their health. But the shift is happening.”
Five ways media and journalists can support climate action while tackling misinformation
It’s a fact: media shapes the public discourse about climate change and how to respond to it. Even the UN’s own Intergovernmental Panel of Experts on Climate Change (IPCC) warned clearly of this for the first time in the latest of its landmark series of reports.According to the IPCC, this “shaping” power can usefully build public support to accelerate climate mitigation – the efforts to reduce or prevent the emission of the greenhouse gases that are heating our planet – but it can also be used to do exactly the opposite.
This places a huge responsibility on media companies and journalists.
The Panel also noted that global media coverage of climate-related stories, across a study of 59 countries, has been growing; from about 47,000 articles in 2016-17 to about 87,000 in 2020-21.
Generally, the media representation of climate science has increased and become more accurate over time, but “on occasion, the propagation of scientifically misleading information by organized counter-movements has fuelled polarization, with negative implications for climate policy”, IPCC experts explain.
Moreover, media professionals have at times drawn on the norm of representing “both sides of a controversy”, bearing the risk of a disproportionate representation of scepticism on the scientifically proven fact that humans contribute to climate change.
So how can journalists be a force for good amid these challenges and what UN Secretary-General António Guterres has deemed a ‘current climate emergency’?
UN News spoke with Andrew Revkin, one of the most honoured and experienced environmental journalists in the United States, and the founding director of the new Initiative on Communication and Sustainability at Columbia University’s Earth Institute.
Mr. Revkin has been writing about climate change for decades, even before the IPCC was created 30 years ago, for renowned media organizations such as The New York Times, National Geographic and Discover Magazine. He has also participated in events led by the UN Environmental Programme, the UN Office of Disaster Risk Reduction, UN-Habitat and other UN agencies.
Drawing on Mr. Revkin’s broad experience, and the expertise of UNESCO and the IPCC, here are five ways in which journalism can support climate action and fight misinformation.
1. Stop being so (overly) dramatic
As climate change takes hold, people are increasingly demanding information about what is happening, and also about what they and their governments can do about it.
According to UNESCO, three of the media’s traditional roles – informing audiences, acting as watchdogs, and campaigning on social issues – are especially relevant in the context of a changing climate.
Mr. Revkin explains that journalists are attracted to voices that are out in the landscape, and “subservient” to how the story is being framed, whether it is by the UN Secretary-General, or by activists blockading a street in London or New York.
“I’ve been on the Greenland ice sheet. I’ve written hundreds of stories about sea level. The range of sea level rise by 2100 is still kind of where it was when I wrote my first story [for Discovery Magazine] back in 1988. So, when you put all that together, we end up conveying unfortunately more of a problem story to the public”, he says.
The journalist adds that modern media also tries to get people’s attention amid a lot of competing priorities, and there is a “tendency” to latch onto the dramatic angle.
“I run a programme where I’m trying to, among other things, get people to stop and think about the words they use. When you use the word “collapse” to talk about a glacier, are you thinking in the many centuries timescale that the scientists are thinking, or are you thinking about collapse like when the World Trade Centre [towers] fell? It’s really important to be clearer when we choose words and how they might convey a false impression,” he underscores.
According to UNESCO, and studies carried out by the Thomson Reuters Institute, the “doom and gloom” narrative can also make some people simply “turn off” and lose interest.
“[The dramatic angle] will get you the clicks. But one thing I say a lot these days is if clicks are the metric of success in environmental journalism, then, we’re kind of doomed because what you really want is to build an engaged back and forth with readers and with experts so that you as a medium, or journalist of a media company, become a kind of trusted guide,” Mr. Revkin highlights.
2. A climate change story goes beyond (the) climate
Part of getting away from the doom and gloom and inspiring that engagement with readers and science experts is to realize that climate change is not just “a story”, but the context in which so many other stories will unfold.
“If you start your day thinking about questions like ‘how do I reduce climate and energy risk?’, ‘how do I define it and help communities grapple with that?’ then it really changes everything. Because I could keep writing stories warning how global warming is [progressing] or how this is going to be the 4th hottest year in history, and that is part of what journalism does, but it doesn’t move us anywhere towards risk reduction,” Mr. Revkin argues.
He says that taking a more contextual approach can also create space for stories that might go unreported otherwise.
“It’s about creating a pathway for impact. Sometimes the output won’t be a story, but it could be a tool. For example, a [savings] calculator.”
As an example, the journalist cites an online calculator created by an American NGO called Rewiring America. By inputting a few personal details, individuals can learn how much money they may be eligible for under the Inflation Reduction Act (a recent Congressional legislation that reportedly sets up the largest investment in combating climate change in US history) by switching to cleaner energy options.
“Do you know as a person in Ohio, what the benefits of this new climate legislation will be for you? How easy could you transition your home to solar or think about getting an electric vehicle? And you know, what will be the benefits? That’s the kind of thing [it will show] and could be just as true anywhere in the world,” he highlights.
The calculator does not mention climate change on its website, but it motivates users to switch to cleaner energy because of the benefits they might get.
“In the case of developing countries, the most important new information to convey is about risk, environmental risk, flood risk and also energy opportunities. And this is very different from the way journalism operated when I was a lot younger,” Mr. Revkin explains.
Indeed, in a handbook for journalists, UNESCO states that contrary to popular belief, climate is an issue full of knock-on concerns that can sell newspapers and attract new audiences online, in print and on the airwaves; journalists don’t really need to put ‘climate’ in their headlines to tell good climate change stories.
3. ‘Get local’ and think more about climate justice
The IPCC scientists have also recognized how “explicit” attention to equity and justice is important for both social acceptance and fair and effective legislation to respond to climate change.
By analysing local contexts and social factors, journalists can also create stories related to climate justice.
“Energy risk is not just about stopping fossil fuels if you are in a developing country that hasn’t contributed any greenhouse emissions at all, if you are living a life of 0.1 tons of CO2 per year in rural Rwanda… So, anyone who’s writing simplistic stories about fossil fuel use is missing [the point that] that energy vulnerability matters too,” Mr. Revkin says.
He also gives as an example the Durban floods and landslides in South Africa earlier this year that left nearly 450 dead and displaced some 40,000. A local geographer, Catherine Sutherland, studied the areas where people had drowned and where the worst damage had occurred.
“That problem [was about so much more than] climate. It was about vulnerability created by racial and poverty drivers. Where do you live when you have no money and no power? You live in the places where no one else will live because they know they’re going to get flooded. So that’s the story. That’s where the whole idea of climate justice comes from. It’s too simplistic to say it’s just about fossil fuels,” the journalist adds.
Mr. Revkin underscores that energy decisions and climate vulnerability are largely a function of local conditions, which means they are a “very important part of the story”.
“For example, the World Weather Attribution Project has been doing a rapid analysis of how much global warming contributed to the recent disaster in Pakistan. Journalists focused on climate change because it is important, but each of those reports also has a section on the other drivers of loss, like where and how people were settled, government policies related to how water damns are handled, and flood infrastructure that is too vulnerable.”
For the Columbia scholar, it is important to build a community of local journalists that has a “climate risk lens” in their reporting toolkit.
“Everyone will be better off because you’ll be able to navigate all these factors more effectively and potentially with more impact for your community,” he explains.
4. Build trust and engagement that can combat dis/misinformation
Early in the COVID-19 pandemic, journalists from The Atlantic realized that there was a flood of unreliable information online and so, with the help of some epidemiologists, they created a COVID-19 tracker which became a vital tool for people.
“The Atlantic is best known for doing nice narrative articles about things… but to me, the COVID-19 tracker exemplifies this other possibility, and the same can be said for climate,” Mr. Revkin notes.
He mentions the work of geographer Stephen M. Strader, which examines the “expanding bulls-eye” of climate hazards.
“Every year there’s typhoons, hurricanes and cyclones…But when a cyclone hits the shore the losses are [based on] of how many people are there, how much stuff is there and how prepared they are for taking a hit.”
Mr. Revkin provides as an example the case of Bangladesh, which he deems a remarkable success story.
“When I was a kid they had horrific losses, hundreds of thousands of people killed because of flooding related to cyclones. And while every death is terrible, the [fatalities] are now measured in the dozens, and from the same kind of storm [or stronger]. So, there is a way in which you can actually not just tell people and policymakers how big the storm is, but tell them what the expanding bullseye is, and not just report on the climate part, but the losses driven by the [overall] landscape.”
According to Mr. Revkin, normalizing and creating a simple way to have a “risk formulation” in journalists’ stories would be a major tool to combat misinformation.
“You build trust, you build engagement, and you get around this idea of “it’s a hoax” because you’re talking about risk…There will always be ideological arguments around that, just like there are around vaccination, I have a close relative who never got vaccinated. I love him, you know, but I’m not going to change him with a story. So, then I have to think at the community level. What can I do?”.
For him, a good example is the Solutions Journalism movement, which investigates and explains how people are trying to solve widely shared problems.
“I think a lot of traditional reporters think of solutions journalism, and they think ‘oh you’re like selling happy talk’, but no. [Taking into account the] expanding bullseye, for example, we can inform communities about practices that can foster resilience where vulnerability is greatest. And it’s still society’s responsibility to grapple with that, but it just makes it easier for them to figure out what to do”.
For Mr. Revkin, climate change is a complex and multidimensional issue. Thinking of that, he realized when he worked for The NY Times that sometimes a blog could fit the issue better than a “classic front-page story”. In that spirit, he created Dot Earth, which ran from 2007 until 2016.
“Who will succeed [in journalism] is the one who is more like a mountain guide after an avalanche than a traditional stenographer. Meaning that you have people develop an understanding and trust in you as an honest broker, amid all this contention and you know, conflicting arguments, and follow along”.
He calls it “engagement journalism”, reporting that gets past “the headline approach” and that emerges from a dynamic conversation with the community.
“I’d like to see ways for the big media, such as BBC, to adopt or integrate and give voice to the community of local journalists more, instead of [them] having to own the story,” he emphasises.
Another way to create this conversation, he argues, is to move away from an advertising business model and into a more subscription-based one.
“A tool and a portal through which communities can identify more clearly the risks and solutions around them… You’re not buying a story. You’re buying a relationship with a guide you know. I think that’s …how I would love to see that mature, as a real viable model for journalism going forward in a changing climate.”
5. Be guided by science and embrace ’yes’
Mr. Revkin talks about a shifting relationship between journalism and scientists that he sees as positive.
“It used to be me with a microphone interviewing you the glacier expert. Increasingly, you’re seeing these examples of scientists coming into the newsroom and helping to build models whether it’s COVID or climate. I’m sure there are many outlets around the world that have started to do this, so that requires a whole new learning curve.” he explains.
The journalist underscored that looking back over the more than 30 years of his experience, the story of environmentalism was for decades framed by the word “stop” (stop polluting, stop fracking), but has now shifted into a call for activism and is framed by the word “start”.
“For example, in the United States, there’s now 370 billion to spend in 10 years on clean energy. But how does that happen after decades of ‘stop’? How do we have more transmission lines? How do we do that in a way that is just for people who tend to be the dumping ground for all our infrastructure? That’s the news story. It’s a ‘start’ story … a ‘yes’ story. It’s activism of ‘yes’ and it’s for journalists. It’s been too easy to write the scary stories”.
Indeed, UNESCO tells us that coverage of climate change means several things. At the local level, it can save lives, formulate plans, change policy and empower people to make informed choices. Through informed reporting, journalists can shine a light on the wealth of activities that people are already undertaking to prepare for climate change.
On an international level, journalism can also bring regional stories to global audiences and help encourage the rich and powerful countries, their citizens and the companies based there, to act in solidarity with climate-vulnerable communities.
Youth Pessimistic Attitude and Their Noteworthy Role as Climate Justice Norm Entrepreneur
“What we do or don’t do right now, will affect my entire life and the lives of my children and grandchildren. What we do or don’t do right now, me and my generation can’t undo in the future” – Greta Thunberg At the TEDxStockholm on November 23, 2018
That is just one of the many discordant statements voiced by Greta Thunberg (19) on behalf of her generation in order to respond to the inability of world leaders who are more likely to provide “lip service” yet lack of action to deal with the current climate crisis. According to her, the agenda of international climate negotiations is merely an opera, full of nonsense pledges and false hope, because behind it developed countries are still trying to find a way out to maintain their status quo and do not have to proceed with bigger sacrifices. Even though the world has collectively launched its commitment to Net Zero 2050. Net Zero by 2050. Blah, blah, blah”. Thunberg’s threw criticism again.
What is the importance of climate change for the youth?
Youth is a demographic category aged 15-25, according to the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs definition. Kegan (1982) argued that youth have belief systems, values, views of the world, hold hope for the future and are at a stage where they actively try to connect themselves with their environment. Then why do they have a high awareness and concern for the climate? Based on the 2013 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report, 2050 will be the time when children born in 2000 will live with CO2 concentrations across the atmosphere of 463 and 623 parts per million volume (ppmv), higher than 400 ppmv in 2016. They will live crammed on an earth that is 0.8 oC – 2.6 oC hotter with sea levels rising 5 – 32 cm compared to 1990s. Thus, what today’s world leaders decide, will borne by future generations. In addition, based on the narratives of Strazdin and Skeat, some scientists think that young people’s concern for the issue of climate change is also caused by the spread of ideas related to the adverse effects of climate change.
Thunberg doesn’t seem to be the only young person worried about the future. Based on the results of a collaborative study by Bath University with five other universities (2021) on 10,000 young people aged 16-25 years, 60% of them are worried and very worried about their survival in the future. Many of them also feel betrayed, ignored and even discarded by politicians in the form of adults.
As a logical consequence, nowadays, climate change activism is enlivened by the presence of young people. Name it Fridays For Future (FFF), for instance. This movement is a follow-up to school strikes for climate by school children in Sweden. No one thought that Thurnberg’s decision to skip school every Friday to demonstrate alone in front of The Riksdag (Swedish Parliament) on demand towards the government’s seriousness in dealing with climate change could give rise to a movement that is currently growing very rapidly. Relatively new, FFF has been able to attract 14 million people from 7,500 cities around the world (Fridays For Future 2022) to work hand in hand fighting the climate crisis and structural problems that surround it. The birth of Fridays For Future in 2019 represents the rise of a new face for the movement against global climate change (Moor 2020). Through a five-day consensus in Lausanne Switzerland in August 2019, Fridays For Future has adopted the Lausanne Climate Declaration with three points of demands to world leaders (Fridays For Future 2022). First, maintaining the increase in global temperature to remain below 1.5 oC compared to pre-industrial era levels. Second, ensuring the realization of climate justice and equality. Third, urges all stakeholders to not be anti-science and be guided by the existing epistemic community. Furthermore, Thunberg’s FFF is not the only attribute of the young generation’s struggle against climate change, besides encouraging stagnation of decision-making at the international forum. There are other great young figures, such as Vanessa Nakate, Mya-Rose Craig, Xiuhtezcatl, Nyombi Morris, Lycipriya Kangujam, Xiye Bastida, Lasein Mutunkei, Luisa Neubauer, Xiyun Wu, Daniel Koto Dagnon and Autumn Peltier. They are also struggling to prove the real power of youth as agents of change, and participate in fighting for climate justice for their communities and the world.
Youth as Climate Justice Norm Entrepreneur
Talking about climate change means talking about justice. This is validated by David Pellow’s opinion which states that climate change is an issue of justice. Justice requires recognition that allows marginalized groups to follow participatory decision-making procedures in a system. Climate justice is seen as a norm that must be agreed upon before combating the impacts of climate change. Norms in the science of International Relations are defined as standards of appropriateness of action that are accepted and mutually agreed upon or a set of collective expectations regarding actions that are considered appropriate by international actors. And youth can be considered as norm entrepreneurs. In her research, Dorota Heidrich explains that climate change activists by global youth (represented by Thunberg) can be categorized as norm entrepreneurs. Heidrich considered two things. First, do their activities meet the criteria to be called norm entrepreneurs? Second, do their activities provide a significant stimulus to encourage action by states, international institutions and the international system as a whole?
Answering first question, youth climate activism meets the requirements of norm entrepreneur. The most prominent character of their movement is the massive use of social media and the label of marginalized groups with unheard voices in the political space of adult domination as validation of their actions. Youth as a norm entrepreneur is present as a new element in the public sphere that enhances the process of formation, diffusion and internalization of norms, especially climate justice. Heidrich refers to the constructivism assumption, that actors with certain identities and interests have the capacity to bring changes in the structure. Climate change activism by youth can stimulate decision-making by other international political actors, particularly states and international governmental organizations. As tangible evidence, look at how Thunberg has been involved in various prestigious international climate forums, criticizing world leaders right in front of their eyes with her fierce shaming communication technique. Then she also personally met with big figures such as Barrack Obama, Jeremy Corbin, Pope Francis, Antonio Guterres to Angela Merkel for one purpose. Crystal clear, realizing climate justice for the sake of her generation.
A Healthy Environment is Now a Universal Human Right: But What Does the Recognition Mean?
On July 28, 2022, the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) adopted a resolution that “recognizes the right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment as a human right” and emphasizes its connection with “other rights and existing international law”. The resolution also calls upon “states, international organizations, business enterprises and other relevant stakeholders” to “scale up efforts” to pursue this new human right.
The resolution is based on a similar text adopted in October of last year by the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), a group of 47 UN member states, which equally called upon states, international organizations, and business enterprises to scale up efforts to ensure a healthy environment for all. The recent UNGA resolution has been praised as a “landslide vote”, as “historic”, and as a “victory for the environment”. Yet, UNGA resolutions, even though they become part and parcel of international law, are not legally binding for any member states – a typical UN paradox.
Humanity faces a “wicked” crisis
UN Secretary-General António Guterres welcomed the UNGA decision as a milestone in the “collective fight” against what he called “the triple planetary crisis of climate change, biodiversity loss, and pollution”. However, while this statement was well-intentioned, it may not entirely reflect the true nature and extent of the “wicked” crisis humanity finds itself in just two decades into the 21st century.
Firstly, even the term “quintuple crisis” would not do justice to the perfect storm of planetary disturbances and destruction that 200 years of intense extractive capitalism and 50 years of largely unregulated economic globalization have brought to Earth and mankind. In addition to the three crises mentioned by Guterres, the oceans, freshwater resources, soils, and land cover are all under attack, and pandemics, food, and energy crises are on the rise.
Secondly, if there really was a “collective fight” against this perfect storm, we would notice it and, among other things, see a tangible decline in annual carbon emissions, biodiversity loss rates, or amounts of plastic found in the oceans. But rather, we are yet to see measurable improvement in any of the many alarming trends and trajectories of global environmental pollution and destruction – because most nations still do not fight against these trends. They do too little too late, or nothing at all, or prefer lip service and downright disinformation over real action.
The elevation of environmental health and sustainability to the international legal status of a “universal human right” by many of Earth’s worst polluters also raises the question of how well human rights are actually being respected, observed, and implemented these days and what is being done to sanction trespassers. The UN adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in response to World War II and the Holocaust in 1948. The entire set of UN human rights has never been legally binding and so depended on national governments and courts at various levels to litigate and sanction human rights violations.
The exercise of universal rights is in crisis, too
In recent decades, the list of human rights has been expanded, now including the rights of children, indigenous peoples, and persons with disabilities among others. In 2010, access to clean water also became a universal human right. But does the codification of these “rights” by the UN actually guarantee real and measurable freedoms, dignity, and safety for all? Unfortunately not, as the list of obvious violations of the UN Declaration of Human Rights and the International Bill of Rights by countries that have signed and ratified these treaties is shockingly long.
Too often, individuals are detained and prosecuted for exercising free speech, free expression, or even academic freedom. Recently, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights formally stated that China’s treatment of the Uighur minority may constitute a “crime against humanity”. Similar statements were made after the recent coup in Myanmar. And Russia’s brutal illegal war against Ukraine is in gross violation of a whole set of human rights. Sadly, all too often despots and perpetrators are getting away with their violations and crimes despite international human rights law and its institutions.
So, does the mere existence of a new universal human right on environmental health and sustainability mean that all countries that voted for it in the UN, actually respect, ensure, and defend it? Likely, no. In a way, this latest resolution of the UNGA might rather be more cause for concern than relief. Too often in recent years and decades has the UN system been misused by its own members as a talk shop deluxe, a place of hollow announcements and declarations – usually after lengthy and tough negotiations – with little action or measurable progress on the promises made. For example, seven years after the adoption of the much-revered Paris Agreement, greenhouse gas emissions are still on the rise and the 2022 UN conference for the protection of the oceans ended without a decision. Governments and corporations spend huge amounts of money for PR campaigns and lobbying – only to cover up their inaction.
Global crises need a new type of action
The science is clear that the world is fast running out of time to act on climate change. There is literally no time left for more of the same endless conference cycles, hollow statements, and watered-down compromise declarations, and symbolic “rights” that are not enforced with hard sanctions. This is the time for civil society to stand up where governments fail to act responsibly, and businesses keep profiting from extraction and pollution. We need a worldwide movement, a global alliance of “citizens of Earth” leading to a new social contract on planetary boundaries, limits to growth, and respect for nature and other species, to transform the age of extraction into a new age of renewable, sustainable stewardship. It is unclear whether the UN is still an effective venue for the much necessary action in the face of environmental crises since, despite the move to engage nine “Major Groups” in processes related to sustainable development, it remains a closed club of nation-state governments, a majority of whom are not elected by their people. Rather, in the age of #MeToo, #BlackLivesMatter, or #FreePalestine, global social movements show that real change is possible.
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