Worldwide Voices on Climate Change
As a part of the Reduce the Juice: Connect programme, University of London students submitted essays on climate chance and environmental problems in their communities.
Earlier this year University of London students were invited to write personal essays reflecting on climate change and environmental issues where they live, as part of Reduce the Juice: Connect, our sustainability engagement programme. Dozens of students have written passionately about the changes they want to see to tackle the Climate Crisis. The result is a collection of thought-provoking accounts about how climate change and environmental degradation harms communities around the world – and, crucially, the solutions needed to ensure a sustainable future.
At a time when the mainstream climate movement is increasingly being criticised for failing to represent the perspectives of the nations and communities most impacted by the Climate Crisis, the responses submitted by University of London students provide a much-needed reframing of the issue. The participants, from across six continents, spoke about the crisis not in the abstract terms that tend to dominate international policy discussions, but in terms of the impacts they observed or experienced directly. The systems of excessive consumption and fossil fuel-based growth that are causing global temperatures to rise also result in toxic air and water quality, extreme weather patterns, the annihilation of natural habitats, and mountains of untreated waste being dumped into communities. The areas that suffer the most are typically those least responsible for the problem.
The responses show that climate change is not just an environmental issue, but a deeply personal one. For Whittal Conrad, based in Accra, Ghana, the toxic fumes produced by the open burning of waste are something he and other residents must endure on a daily basis. “Members of society are forced to keep their windows shut all day long, preventing them from even breathing in fresh air. I'm a victim of this”, he wrote. Central to this problem is the fact that formal waste disposal is too expensive, meaning that many residents have no other option but to burn theirs, despite the grim living conditions and health problems this causes.
In a similar vein, Mosawar Azami, from Afghanistan, described devastating health impacts for residents in Kabul, where a lack of clean energy provision means that many homes are reliant on high-polluting fuels for heating: "households [...] use poor quality coal, wood for heating purposes and some households and factories use plastic as well. This leads to increased pollution in the city, the air quality is so hazardous that citizens get sick and lung related deceases increase." Without affordable, sustainable and clean energy systems to meet the needs of all households and businesses, residents are suffering while concentrations of greenhouse gas emissions continue to rise.
From Malaysia, to North America, to Pakistan, lack of adequate environmental regulations or accountability for polluting companies was a universal concern. "This river is described as borderline radioactive if you ask anyone who has even driven near it. It has a rotten stench that spreads in the summertime and it is often joked among locals that 'if you were to fall in you would come out with an extra limb,'" wrote Anthony Almeida Coelho, referring to the heavily polluted Passaic River outside Newark, New Jersey, USA. The lack of sanctions on fossil fuel companies was identified as highly problematic by many participants, owing not just to a global rise in temperature, but equally to the impact these companies have on the people who live in the shadow of their operations.
However, the responses make it clear that there is nothing inevitable or insurmountable about any of these challenges. All the participants put forward creative and achievable ideas for fighting back against pollution, boosting ecosystem health, and building climate resilience.
For Maleesha Gunawardana, a Laws student from Sri Lanka, nature-based solutions are the obvious way forward for protecting her geographically vulnerable nation from extreme weather events like tsunamis, storm surges and flooding. She described how mangroves and coral reefs offer protection of the coastline and are also highly effective carbon sinks. Their conservation and restoration, therefore, has benefits at both a local and global level. Maleesha detailed how coastal ecosystem conservation requires a multi-faceted approach, engaging stakeholders from all areas of society, through “awareness and skill development among communities, strict enforcement of laws against illegal fishing practices that damage coral reefs, promotion of ecotourism within the private sector, and [strengthening] research programs on ex-situ cultivation of coral species.”
Many participants outlined how tighter environmental governance and policy interventions would alleviate many of the environmental problems that cause so much global suffering. “Factories causing pollution should be penalized and their production should be stopped unless they use environmentally friendly consumables and machinery”, wrote Mosawar Azami, speaking in the context of industrial activity in Afghanistan. His response was echoed by participants from around the world, who expressed a desire to see their governments taking more responsibility for regulating industry, stabilizing landfill sites, and cleaning up areas saturated with toxic waste.
Participants also highlighted the need for governments to incentivize and enable more sustainable ways of living. Omer Ashraf, who expressed frustration at the “easily preventable” prevalence of cars in Bahrain, outlined how “a congestion charge of $1 for all commuters on the Shaikh Khalifa Highway during rush-hour can generate around $2 million for the government, which can then be used to invest in more efficient public transportation.” Subsidies to promote electric car use, expanding clean and affordable energy systems, and levies on environmentally harmful goods like single-use plastics were also frequently mentioned as positive steps policymakers should be taking. As the responses illustrate, it isn’t a lack of viable solutions that prevents high-level action on climate change, but a lack of political willpower and ambition – something that communities on the ground understand all too well.
Solutions don’t only come from top-down policy, however. As many of the participants identified, grassroots action has an important role to play, and there are many encouraging examples of citizens taking matters into their own hands when it comes to protecting their local environment. Caitlin Spies, from South Africa, described how she is working with other community members to protect and conserve coastal ecosystems. “We have already established a plan for regular beach clean-up walks, as well as looking into the idea of signs to prohibit foot-traffic on the dunes. With these few changes, we could see a massive improvement in the quality of our beaches, as well as teach people the value of maintaining the natural ecosystem”. She described how these actions could easily be scaled up, providing a low-cost solution to environmental degradation along the entire coastline.
The need to include all members of society in climate and environmental governance was also made clear in the responses. “I would like to upgrade the multitude of artificial recreational parks into elegant flower gardens […] [which] may also include Centres for Sustainability Education, with experts and activists regularly engaging the public (young and old) on the multi-dimensional issue of climate change”, wrote Jofintha Joseph from Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. By embedding sustainability engagement and education into the fabric of social life, many participants hoped that citizens would be inspired to make positive changes in their daily actions, and that this in turn would push governments towards meaningful policy action.
The diversity and depth of the responses show the value of the University of London’s distance and flexible learning community. The importance of international network-building and collaborative problem solving is widely acknowledged, but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the global community needs to find dynamic new ways to facilitate this, without the barriers of long-distance travel, elite conferences and prohibitive costs that exclude so many. For an issue like the Climate Crisis, which is disproportionally impacting regions and communities typically denied a voice on the international stage, it’s more important than ever that we develop new models of inclusion. At the University of London, our well-established distance and flexible learning model and our global reputation for digital excellence enable us to foster important international conversations. Through our expertise in this area, we’re determined to play our part in forging the connections so urgently needed to ensure a better planetary future.
We’d like to thank everyone who participated in this project. We’ve learned so much from our community! To get involved in Reduce the Juice: Connect and join the conversation, visit our website and sign up to our mailing list.