Ice-Blog: Time for a “new environmentalism”?

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DW-bannerWhat are these cuddly marmots doing on an exhibition stand at Green Week, Europe’s biggest environment policy gathering, being held this week in the Belgian capital Brussels?

They have the honour of decorating the stand of the Swiss-based World Resources Forum, not just because they look cute, a representative tells me, but because of their resources-saving, nature-friendly lifestyle. The “marmies” (I have enjoyed their antics many times while hiking in the Swiss Alps) are the hibernating, vegetarian type. They eat enough in the short alpine summer to see them through the winter, which they spend in burrows on the hillside.

Meanwhile, we humans consume the planet’s resources at a disastrously unsustainable rate and pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at a rate that is threatening to change the planet beyond recognition, melting polar ice, destroying much of our biodiversity, raising the sea-levels, making the oceans more acid at the same time and devastating many regions with extreme weather, storms, floods and drought.

Swiss ambassadors to Brussels Green Week. (Irene Quaile)
Swiss ambassadors to Brussels Green Week. (Irene Quaile)

Hm. Small wonder this year’s Green Week kicked off with a high-level debate on whether we need a “new environmentalism”. James Murray, editor of the London-based online “businessGreen” magazine, who chaired the “summit”, says “environmentalism is in crisis” and green economic models are not becoming mainstream fast enough.

Keynote speaker Jeffrey Sachs, Director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and environmental guru to many, said fighting climate change certainly had to become priority No.1. In this connection, he picked up on President Obama’s move to break the climate deadlock by capping coal power plant pollution through the EPA.

Last time I spoke to him at a meeting in Abu Dhabi last year, he was very frustrated about his country’s stance on emissions and climate. Understandably he is delighted by the new move. We have the technology, says Sachs.

Conference mascot Richard Rubbish needs a break. (Irene Quaile)
Conference mascot Richard Rubbish needs a break. (Irene Quaile)

These new regulations would force US states to come up with concrete plans to reduce emissions. What we need, he says, is political determination backed up by a firm plan and timetable.

UNEP chief Achim Steiner was also here in Brussels for the gathering. He told me in an interview he didn’t think we need a “new environmentalism”. The environment movement has to keep evolving to meet the challenges of the respective age, he says. And we shouldn’t do down the achievements of environment campaigners to date. He too is upbeat about the Obama administration initiative – and the possibility that China could be prepared to put a cap on its emissions. Nevertheless, even this most optimistic of UN officials has to admit we lack satisfactory answers to many of the sustainability-related challenges of our time.

Marco Lambertini, new DG of WWF International, with whom I conducted an interview when he took office, was addressing the forum for the ngo community. He told me then and repeated here that WWF is changing its campaigning style to reach the masses of people who are not “the converted”. We have to leave our comfort zone, as he puts it. And social media play a key role, he says. He talked about Earth Day and how it has turned from an ngo thing into a local community-driven mass event, thanks especially to the power of social media. He also argues for abandoning what he calls “post-colonial environmentalism”, i.e. money from the north to fund projects in the south, in favour of a more inclusive, local-to-global approach. Only mass pressure from millions can really change the system, Lambertini argues.

Sandra Steingraber, American biologist, author, film-maker and anti-fracking campaigner went furthest in her considerations of the state of the environment movement. Reminding the forum that improvements in the US climate record were thanks to the use of environmentally irresponsible fracking, she says the world is being held hostage by the fossil fuels industry and “we need a vigorous new environment movement to engage in hostage rescue”.

Prizewinning recycled suitcase armchair by Gabriela Saykova. (Irene Quaile)
Prizewinning recycled suitcase armchair by Gabriela Saykova. (Irene Quaile)

In a week where my attention is shifting between the debates here in Brussels on just what we need to bring about a circular economy and protect strained resources and a stressed environment, and the talks at home in Bonn aimed at a new international climate agreements, it becomes clearer than ever that the issues are completely inter-connected. The increased attention shown by my media colleagues both at DW and amongst the other stations and publications in both the Green Week and the UN talks in Bonn makes me feel optimistic, on the one hand. Environment and climate have come into the mainstream. On the other hand, that demonstrates how seriously they are under threat.

Please see also my DW article on Green Week, the UN climate talks and environmentalism and my interview with Germanwatch political director Christoph Bals on the prospects for those Bonn climate talks.

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Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

Scots-born journalist Irene Quaile works as Correspondent for Environment and Climate Change with Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster. She has also worked for German national radio, Radio Netherlands, the BBC and ABC Radio National, Australia. Irene has received several international radio prizes , including a New York International Radio Festivals gold medal and a United Nations gold award for outstanding radio. She has travelled widely to countries including Mongolia, Laos and Tanzania, working on development and environment-related issues. Since 2007 she has been specialising on the Arctic and made trips to the Arctic regions of Scandinavia, Alaska and Greenland, making radio and online features on climate change and its impact on ecosystems and people. The Ice Blog was created during a trip to the Alaskan Arctic in 2008. Read Irene Quaile's articles

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