UN World Citizens

Saturday, July 17, 2009

The administrative staff at my previous high school asked me to join a movement hosted by the World Citizen Organization — a branch in correspondence with the United Nations — which invited pupils to write essays (long or short) on topics related to or on global warming and climate change. This is what I’ll be sending to them. If any of you feel like writing anything similar, please don’t hold back. It can be written in any language and can be any length. Make yourselves heard!

Global Warming From the Youth’s Perspective

Global warming. The first time I came across this term was in third grade. Ms. Peak was lecturing our assembly on a Monday morning about how our age, our generation, compared to the ‘Space Age’ of the 70’s and the ‘Pop Age’ of the 80’s, was now known as the ‘Waste Age’. Now, I’m not sure if that was an official term or a derogative term thought up just to strike guilt into us six-to-13-year-olds. All I know is that looking back on that faithful Monday morning almost ten years ago, I must admit, they were right.

That morning, Ms. Peak went on about how much our planet was slowly being changed by greenhouse gases, and how all of this was due to our irresponsible littering, reckless spraying of deodorant, and burning of firewood during the winter. Us boys, and some girls, laughed loudly at the prospect of us having to use roll-on deo-sticks instead of our usually Ego (now called Axe) deodorants just to save a few trees. We were 10, who cared about all this global warming hoo-hah or whatever it’s called. We were living our own happy lives completely unaware of the consequences. To us, greenhouse gases just sounded like another funny term we could use to describe the gas coming out of our backsides. Needless to say, I took that entire morning as a joke. And I would’ve continued to think that way if not for the then-to-be headmaster of Hurlyvale Primary School, Mr. Thom. Our Mr. Thom casually walked on stage, took the microphone, and with the simplest of metaphors completely changed my point of view:

“Have you ever seen American Western Films?” Mr. Thom asked into the microphone, “The ones where you see cowboys and such? The scene is usually set in a desert.”
We nodded, waiting for him to get to the point.
“Well, whenever there’s a gust of wind in those movies, do any of you recall seeing stacks of hay tumbling around?”
I nod again, unsure of where all this is leading.
“Children, here in South Africa we have that too; here in Johannesburg we have that too.”
We were silent and confused.
“But,” he continued, “Instead of those hay stacks, we have plastic bags flying around.”

We all laughed. But after a while, somewhere between all the laughter and commotion, I suddenly stopped laughing. I caught a glimpse of the expression on Mr. Thom’s face. I didn’t have to be a mind-reader to know that he wasn’t the least impressed with our reaction. The severity of the situation struck me that day, and my views on global warming took an unexpected turn.

That same year, South Africa implemented the pay-for-your-bags policy, meaning that shoppers at major supermarkets would now have to pay a small fee if they wanted a plastic bag for their goods, or they could bring their own shopping bags.

To be honest, the plastic bags were still awfully cheap and pretty much affordable to anyone. But the policy worked. The amount of plastic bags flying around were reduced by a fantastically large amount. At the same time increasing the sales of material shopping bags, which were bigger and didn’t break as easily; it was a win-win for everyone.

That year back in South Africa was the year my awareness for global warming began. I stopped carelessly littering, stop using plastic bags at supermarkets, stopped using deodorant and other CFC-related products (in correspondence with the Montreal Protocol), and that year in July was the last time our family would ever burn firewood to keep ourselves warm in winter. From then on, electric heaters were bought and used.

I had no idea how all of this was going to help with the matter of global warming, because frankly, I had no clue what global warming actually was or what it did. But they said doing the above would help save Mother Earth, so I did.

All that was ten years ago; hopefully this year can be somebody else’s first.

Now, 10 years on. I’m living in Taiwan, and global warming affects Taiwan too. I guess the term “global” was no joke after all. During my years in Taiwan, I would learn much more about global warming. Much more than I thought I would ever want to learn. The cruel figures of millions who starve, and even more that are under the threat of being displaced. I only recently realised why Taiwan was so much more eager to deal with the issue of global warming, and the realisation came as a hammer blow. Because according to climate change researchers, similar to the threat on the Maldives, Taiwan will soon be hit by the first wave of climate forced displacement. Thus turning the Taiwanese people, and others, into the first group of environmental migrants (or climate refugees).
I quote:

“A climate refugee is someone displaced by climate change induced environmental disasters. Such disasters are the result of incremental and rapid ecological change and disruption that include increased droughts, desertification, sea level rise, and the more frequent occurrence of extreme weather events such as hurricanes, cyclones, flooding and tornados.”

In Taiwan I often see demonstrations by environmentalist about preserving the environment and preventing the further spreading of global warming. In the beginning, I couldn’t really link the two together. Global warming and cutting trees? Global warming and pollution? Global warming and driving cars? All this was so foreign to me, and I didn’t realise how the small things we did had such a big impact on our environment. Back in primary school, I couldn’t find the connection, for example, between burning firewood and increasing greenhouse gases.

“But it’s just a little bit of smoke, dad. Look! You can’t even see it anymore. It’s gone!”
“Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there. And it only looks like a little bit of smoke because it’s only our house you’re looking at. John, South Africa has over forty million people. Can you image how much smoke there would be if we all lit fires?”
I could.
My father always took my silence as a sign of acknowledgement. And soon after we stopped burning firewood, I stopped burning dry leaves for fun in the garden too. Just because you can’t see it, doesn’t mean it’s not there.

When I’m asked about global warming these days, I usually answer with the simplest geographical explanation I can think of: cold places get colder and hot places get hotter. And that’s just the simple way of explain it.

Extreme weather is attributed to global warming, and rightly so. In recent years, the Earth has experienced events that are shaking just to think about.
I remember picking up a copy of the morning paper one day and finding a column in it about natural disasters. More specifically about the disasters that seemed to be continuously occurring month after month.

For me, the big shocker came on August 8, 2009. After half a year of moaning from Taiwanese citizens about the serious lack of rainfall, Mother Nature responded in the cruelest of ways.

Stage right, typhoon Morakot. For three weeks, the television set was filled with destruction. CNN, BBC and local news websites broadcasted the event in enough detail to convince me of the severity. Six hundred plus dead and hundreds more missing. Entire villages buried, literally, as heaven opened its floodgates. Record amounts of rainfall as flooding washed away everything and everyone caught in its wake.

Living in Taipei just a few hundred kilometers away, with my electricity, drinkable water, food, warm bed and a school to go to. How does one not feel ashamed? It could have – and should have – been prevented. It was not an earthquake or a volcanic eruption. It was a typhoon which was forecasted days in advance. But the government’s lack of urgency together with the locals’ ignorance made the situation worse than it should’ve been. The only thing we could do in Taipei was watch; watch and weep as the scenes unfold on the television.

“I’m afraid to turn on the television,” My geography teacher would say, “I cry every time I do.”

After Taiwan’s Morakot came China’s flooding, then Manila’s. After that was Europe and America’s usual freeze. Eurostar trains stuck in the Chunnel and cars spinning on ice on America’s highways. In 2010 came Haiti, then Chile. America’s flooding came next, and Iceland’s volcano chain followed soon after. China and Guatemala’s sinkholes made the news soon after Deep Horizon’s oil spill incident in the Gulf of Mexico caused the greatest environmental disaster ever recorded in US history.

By request of my geography teacher, the oil spill became a personal project I had undergone just to let my class know what had happened. The news in Taiwan seriously lacked reports on international events, so I thought I could do a little something to enlighten them about the situation in the West. It was important, so important in fact that people would be surprised to learn that the spill is still ongoing and has already destroyed countless precious environmental recourses which cannot be salvaged…the list of disasters go on.

Natural disasters are obviously worsening. Year after year the rainfall count increases as typhoons in Asia reap havoc everywhere they go. Maybe it’s because we’ve taken too much from nature, or perhaps we’re just unlucky to have met such devastating scenarios. One way or the other, nature is biting back, ruthlessly.

Populations are growing; cities are being shaken into rubble. Lakes are shrinking; forests are disappearing. Conflicts are rising; nations are still invading. People remain clueless, we stay ignorant.
In 2010, the film entitled ‘HOME’ enlightened me. If not through this film, I would have never realised the true potential of man. I had no idea solar capturing technology was readily available in such large quantities. I had no idea Denmark’s wind farms produced so much energy. And I had no idea that there were governments like Costa Rica’s, who were smart enough to divert military spending to education, eco-tourism, and the protection of its forests. Through education, global warming and its solutions became as bright as day to me. And it is education that can allow the rest of the world to be in step with the world we’re living in and the crises we face.

“It’s too late to be a pessimist; it’s time to come together. What’s important is not what’s gone, but what remains. We still have half the world’s forests, thousands of rivers, lakes, glaciers, and thousands of thriving species. We know that the solutions are there today. We all have the power to change, so what are we waiting for?” — “HOME

One important person in my high school education was my geography teacher, Mrs. Luo. She was as informed about global warming as anyone could ever be. Not because she was paid to be, but because she had an overwhelming sense of responsibility, a kind which I too hope to acquire in the not so distant future, no matter what field I’m in. As an educator, she felt the urge just to let us know. And she made absolutely sure that we knew everything there was to know about this disaster.

My first geography lesson was filled with acronyms. Some which I understood and others which I wished I understood.
“Morning, Children.” She said smiling in the beginning of her first lesson.
As we responded, she picked up her chalk and wrote the letters ‘I’ and ‘Q’ on the board.
“Can anyone tell me what this stands for?” she asked.
“Intelligence quotient!” I shouted.
“Yes, good. How about this?” She said, writing the now the letters ‘E’ and ‘Q’ on the board. “What does this mean?”
“Emotional quotient,” replied someone else.
“Very good. Now, both IQ and EQ are very important things! One cannot do without them. But today I would like to introduce you all to something which I think is equally important.”

I will never forget the day that Mrs. Luo introduced GQ (not the magazine obviously) to us. Geographical quotient, or a measure of one’s geographical knowledge, seemed interest me right from the off. I had never heard of it before. For all I knew, she could have made it up herself. But in my years with under Mrs. Luo, GQ would be crucial in my decision to make global warming known to those around me.

Mrs. Luo introduced different organisations to us, including some house-hold names like WHO, WTO, UN and ASEAN. Mostly the organisations she thought we ought to know about and the ones that have a direct impact on our lives. Throughout the two years that she taught us, we learned about global warming and its related topics on a massive scale. She commented positively and negatively where appropriate, making sure we knew the difference between well-done environmental conservation and poorly-done environmental conservation. In the end, we came to find that global warming was essentially everywhere. In every chapter of every book; all things led to and from global warming, and this major climate shift was the reason behind all the different conflicts in the world today.

That’s exactly what I think is necessary in today’s education: brave educators. People who are not afraid of saying what is right and true. It doesn’t matter which country you’re teaching in, be it East or West, if it’s important, if it’s right, then spread the message. Let the students, the young generation or “the future”, as we have been called so many times in the past, let us know what we’re facing and what we need to do to improve. If you believe America is being naïve about CO² emissions and they alone could lessen almost a third of the effects of global warming, then voice it. If you think China’s overgrowing population is dangerously causing the depletion of the Earth’s food, water and other valuable resources, then let yourself be heard. Voice it to the population, so the population can voice it to the world. Voice it through education.

Opinions, ideals, concepts, theories. These are the driving forces behind any revolution. And, by God, we do need a revolution. It’s been long overdue and has been brewing for too long. So rally up the troops and think up the strategies. Education is by far our strongest weapon. The children, the world’s little soldiers, are ready. Too many of us lie in darkness unattended and unarmed; in Africa, Asia, Europe, Oceana and the Americas. This is not a racial war, nor is it a cultural or religious war. This is not about different peoples, just as it’s not about different nations. This is a global war against a common enemy, and the cause is ironically just to ensure that in 50- to 100-years’ time, we will still have a planet we can call “home”.

I hope the plea of one can voice the plea of a million. So forget your guns and forget your nukes. Make use of the untapped potential that lies within every child. If we are indeed the future, as they say, then arm us; education us. In the war against global warming, help us, so we can help you. JSF.