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Dying Wildlife on a Warming Planet

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Authors: Meena Miriam Yust and Arshad M. Khan

The emaciated polar bear, a sorry remnant of magnificence, raiding garbage cans in an iconic, even infamous photo, is one consequence of global warming.  As the September (2019) National Geographic cover story displays depressingly, Arctic ice collected over winter is sparser, thinner, and now disappears completely during summer in parts of Canada.  If the effects of global warming are staring us in the face, then only the woefully or willfully ignorant – like Trump – can ignore them.  

One more aspect of warming on Arctic ice has been reported recently.  As we know, two-thirds of an iceberg lies under water.  As sea water warms, melt increases and scientists have made measurements to discover that submerged parts of icebergs and glaciers entering the sea are melting significantly more than was previously believed, contributing to rising sea levels.

Researchers are warning that permafrost collapse in the Arctic is releasing nitrous oxide, methane, and carbon dioxide.  The store is vast: nearly 1,600 billion tonnes of carbon lies trapped in the frozen soils of the permafrost region as a result of decaying organic matter over millennia.  That is almost double the quantity in the atmosphere.

The environmental costs of global warming appear in yet other unexpected ways.  A new paper in Science reports the threat to coral reef reproduction.  Free-spawning marine species synchronize spawning as a way to ensure reproduction.  In this way the gametes developed are so numerous that some escape their predators, ensuring species survival.  Global warming is now affecting this reproductive synchrony, threatening coral reef recovery.

Rising ocean temperatures impact fish, plankton and crustaceans, in turn affecting the creatures that feed on them.  So now sea birds, like the puffin, are struggling to stay alive.  These are striking birds with black and white plumage, bright orange legs and feet, and, during the mating season, orange beaks.  This past May, it was estimated that between 3,150 and 8,500 puffins starved to death in the Bering Sea, their emaciated bodies washing ashore on the Pribilof Islands, some 300 miles west of mainland Alaska.  Prior to the mass deaths, there was a documented period of elevated sea surface temperatures in the eastern Bering Sea according to scientists.  The unfortunate result was a shift in zooplankton composition and in forage fish distribution, both food sources for the puffin.

In Iceland, too, puffins are in trouble.  Researchers discovered that thousands of puffin chicks had died from starvation in the summer of 2018.  It turns out rising ocean temperatures have pushed cold-water fish farther north leaving the baby pufflings with little to eat.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) has categorized the Atlantic puffin (Fratercula arctica) as vulnerable on its red list.  

Rising ocean temperatures are also affecting food availability and the habitat of many Arctic creatures, including the walrus, polar bear, gray whale, arctic fox, and ice seal.  Some are starving to death, some wandering long and far in search of food.  Polar bears rely on sea ice to hunt seals at their breathing holes.  When the sea is not covered in ice, breathing holes become unnecessary as the seals can come up anywhere for air, and are no longer easy for polar bears to snatch up.  The World Wildlife Fund has reported a 40% drop in number of the southern Beaufort Sea polar bears between 2001 and 2010.   Worse still, scientists forecasting global polar bear populations estimate a high probability that 30% of polar bears worldwide will be gone by 2050.

Declining sea ice is also harming seals. Baby harp seals lie on the ice during their fragile first few weeks of life.  Without a thick and stable span of ice, seal pups may drown or be crushed by broken ice.  In 2007, a then surprising 75 percent plus of pups died due to thin ice conditions; in 2010, nearly all.  “Some years, when there’s poor ice in a given pupping ground, essentially all of the pups don’t make it,” says Duke marine biologist David Johnston.  As temperatures continue to rise, seal survival becomes precarious.

The Pacific walrus population is in decline with only 129,000 animals left.  Due to climate change, the floating summer ice that walruses used to haul themselves upon to rest is now way up north.  Consequently the animals are swimming ashore and taking to land in huge numbers.  Unfortunately their feeding grounds are far away from shore, forcing a 250 mile round trip.  In addition to exhaustion from traveling long distances and food scarcity, walruses also face threats from being on the beach in vast crowds.  In 2014, 35,000 walruses were seen together on the shore near Point Lay, Alaska.  The animals, which can weigh as much as 1.5 tons, can be frightened easily by loud noises like airplanes, causing stampedes and mass deaths by trampling, especially of young calves – as many as 500 in one incident.  If ice continues to diminish, their future looks bleak.  

Then there are the gray whales.  Their favorite crustacean is the amphipod – a small flat morsel with segments and antennae resembling a grasshopper.  These lipid-rich crustaceans are devoured by whales in bulk.  Over the past 30 years, as currents have warmed and sea ice has melted, amphipod populations have declined in the Bering Sea whale feeding area.  As a result, gray whale mothers and babies have had no choice but to swim north through the Bering Strait and far into the Arctic Ocean in search of an alternate food supply.  They are so hungry they are eating krill and mysid shrimp, but as it takes an enormous quantity to match the calories of lipid-rich amphipods, the whales remain hungry.

The North Atlantic right whale, a species federally classified as endangered, is also affected by the rising ocean temperatures.  The Smithsonian reports that right whales eat more than 2,000 pounds each day, mostly copepods.  Their favorite copepod, the Calanus finmarchicus, has dramatically declined because some of the deep waters of the north Atlantic have warmed almost 9 degrees Fahrenheit since 2004, forcing right whales to migrate elsewhere in search of food.  Several right whales have been found dead in Canadian waters in recent months, and a sixth dead whale was found in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in July of this year.  The steep rise since 2010 in the deaths of these whales from shipping vessel strikes as well as entanglement with fishing gear is attributed to the animals moving into new and unexpected areas where speed restrictions for vessels are not in place.  With some 400 right whales left (out of 500 in the early 2000s) and about 100 breeding females, the species may face extinction if these trends continue.  Researchers are hoping to use satellite technology to detect whales in new territory, allowing for faster responses in moving fishing nets and large vessels.

Creatures large and small face threats from melting ice.  Lemmings are like hamsters of the tundra – small, furry rodents with faces and whiskers as adorable as the childhood pet.  In winter, northern Norway lemmings burrow under the snow for insulation and protection from prey.  During good snow seasons, they reach population peaks and their young prosper.  But in Norway in recent years, rising temperatures are causing repeated thawing and icing periods resulting in poor snow conditions for the lemmings.  The resulting altered and reduced population cycles mean lemmings are no longer reaching population peaks. 

The arctic fox relies on lemmings as a primary food source, and scientists believe lemming decline has contributed to sharp declines and breeding failures in the arctic fox population of Norway.  Arctic foxes also face threats from the red fox, a larger more aggressive animal, which historically lived south of the arctic fox habitat.  Due to climate change and warming of the Arctic, however, the red fox is encroaching on arctic fox areas.  Warming is also converting the tundra to shrublands, a habitat the red fox desires.  The poor arctic fox faces loss of habitat, decreased food availability, increased competition for food, and possible displacement by the red fox.  And with the Arctic continuing to warm, these changes will only become more extensive.  Small wonder then that the arctic fox often has to travel long and hard to find food.  One female captured all our hearts as it traveled 3,500 km from Norway to Canada in 76 days, its remarkable journey including 1,512 km on sea ice.

These few examples demonstrate the impact of global warming on diverse forms of life — from coral reefs and lemmings to the right whale.  We learn that changes in plankton and tiny crustaceans can starve a giant whale and diminishing ice cover can cause polar bears to lose their primary food source, and we begin to register the intimate interconnectedness in the web of life.  Human well-being too is tied to this chain of life.  If fish decline, so does a food source for humans and the water birds that feed on fish, and as insect pollinators decline, so do our crops and the plants around us.  A study suggests that 40% of insect species are in decline.  And the U.S. and Canada have lost three billion birds since 1970.  In this anthropocene age, humans are not rapacious owners but stewards of our planet, holding it in trust for succeeding generations.  It is what the young led by Greta Thunberg are forcefully making clear to their elders.   

Author’s note: This piece first appeared in CommonDreams.org.

Meena Miriam Yust is an attorney based in Chicago, Illinois. Educated at Vassar College and Case Western Reserve University School of Law, she published a draft Migratory Insect Treaty with commentary in the Case Western Reserve Journal of International Law.

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Grey whale’s disappearance from Atlantic Ocean holds clues to possible return

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By  SOFIA STRODT

Youri van den Hurk is preparing for a possible big welcome-home event – the return of the grey whale to European waters after an absence of about 500 years.

The grey whale disappeared from the eastern Atlantic in the 15th century and from the western Atlantic around the 17th to 18th century, according to van den Hurk.

A research fellow at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), van den Hurk is part of a project inspired in part by several sightings in the Atlantic Ocean over the past decade of individual grey whales from the North Pacific population.

‘The grey whale is the only whale species that has completely disappeared from an entire ocean,’ he said. Van den Hurk is part of the Horizon-funded Demise of the Atlantic Grey whale project (DAG), which is looking into whether the species might eventually return to European waters.

A better view of the future, of course, requires a clearer understanding of the past. That’s why DAG is also assessing the causes of the grey whale’s eradication in the eastern Atlantic five centuries ago, seeking information on factors that might lead to a return of the coastal cetaceans.

Grey whales can grow to as many as 15 metres long and weigh up to 40 tonnes – equal to the combined weight of about 20 cars. Their lifespan is generally 50 to 70 years.

Baleen whales

They are part of a class of whales whose mouths feature comblike plates of bone known as baleen rather than teeth. All baleen whales eat by filtering plankton, krill and small fish out of the seawater. 

Grey whales suck food from the sea floor while swimming and rolling on their sides, a practice known as bottom-feeding uncommon for other baleen whales. The resulting “mud plumes” are important to the ecosystem because they churn up nutrients and crustaceans that enrich other sea

Located in the North Pacific, the population of grey whales totalled around 27 000 in 2016, according to the U.S. National Marine Fisheries Service.

Grey whales have one of the longest known migrations of any mammal, leaving their Arctic feeding grounds in September-October and swimming south as much as around 10 000 kilometres along the coastline to breed in the warm waters off Mexico.

‘It’s unclear what triggered their disappearance from the Atlantic – whether it’s an environmental factor, a human factor or a combination of both,’ van den Hurk said.

Researchers do know that the population of Atlantic grey whales began to decline gradually approximately 50 000 years ago – a process that the experts suspect was driven by environmental factors. By the 16th century, various whaling cultures were active across Europe, leading van den Hurk to suspect they contributed to the whales’ extinction.

Still, determining the exact factors that caused this eradication remains the basic challenge.

Answering this question will be crucial to conservation efforts in Europe should the species return, according to van den Hurk.

Under the supervision of Dr. James Barrett, a historical and environmental researcher at NTNU, van den Hurk analysed the collagen preserved in the whale bones found at sites that various tribes across Europe, including Spain, south-western France, Normandy and Scandinavia used to inhabit. His total sample amounted to 717 bone fragments, including 109 from grey whales. 

‘Where people lived they often took bone remains of the species that they caught or it could also be that the whales stranded at the shore and that the locals took their bones with them to their settlements,’ van den Hurk explained.

The samples were taken to a laboratory at the University of Cambridge in England where researchers performed mass spectrometry, an analytical technique used to measure the mass-to-charge ratio of ions. A bone protein known as collagen plays a central role in the analysis.

‘We look at the collagen that is preserved in the bone,’ van den Hurk said. Subtle differences make it possible to tie the collagen to a specific whale species.

Furthermore, the stable isotopes preserved in bones sheds light on the migration routes of the grey whales.

Malign influences

Once the results have been compiled, the next step will be to model the whales’ migration routes to provide information on malign influences such as plastics pollution or ship noise, which are likely to affect any repopulation of the eastern Atlantic. 

Noise from vessels is the research focus of Jakob Tougaard, a professor at the Department of Marine Ecology at Aarhus University in Denmark. As part of another Horizon-funded research project called SATURN, he has been examining the responses of marine mammals to underwater noise from whale-watch boats.

‘Lots of noise, most of the time, that’s a problem,’ said Tougaard. ‘In open waters, the main source is commercial shipping and closer to shore it’s small, private boats.’

Such disturbances reduce the time whales spend hunting for food or feeding offspring, threatening their survival, he said.  

The SATURN project advises regulators and stakeholders on acceptable limits of vessel noise and best approaches to reduction of underwater radiated noise.

Underwater noise

While enacting new shipping regulations can generally be ‘a painfully slow process,’ he anticipates the implementation of tougher European rules to limit underwater noise.

‘I’m optimistic – there are many people who are screaming for action now,’ Tougaard said. In the coming years, he expects to see agreements within the EU setting new limits on ship noise.

Back in Norway meanwhile, as van den Hurk of NTNU contemplates the possible return of the grey whale to European waters, he thinks climate change may increase the chances.

As a result of rising temperatures, the Northwest Passage – the sea route between the Atlantic and Pacific via the Arctic – has been open for longer. This has prompted at least four whales to take a wrong turn in North Alaska, leading them into the Atlantic rather than back into the northern Pacific, according to van den Hurk.

In the summer of 2021, a grey whale ended up off the coast of Morocco and was spotted close to France and Italy as well.

Hopeful message

It could take decades for grey whales to reclaim their habitat in the eastern Atlantic, according to van den Hurk. In any case, the mere prospect of their return sends a ‘hopeful message,’ he said.

‘It shows that the impact we have on our surroundings can potentially still be reversed,’ van den Hurk said.

Research in this article was funded via the EU’s Marie Skłodowska-Curie Actions (MSCA).  This article was originally published in Horizon, the EU Research and Innovation Magazine. 

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Five ways media and journalists can support climate action while tackling misinformation

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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.

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Youth Pessimistic Attitude and Their Noteworthy Role as Climate Justice Norm Entrepreneur

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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.  

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