The people have their say on climate change
Given that climate change is something that affects us all, it's not surprising that we want to put our views forward on how to tackle it. In June, citizens had the chance to do just that when 500 people from all over Europe were invited to discuss the issue with members of the European Parliament, international experts and EU policy-makers.
Europe needs to take firm and fast action to stop climate change – that was the key message from those taking part in the two-day discussion, known as an Agora, after the ancient Greek word for marketplace, where public debates took place.
The European Parliament's Agora involved members of 'civil society', the name given to the many voluntary and non-governmental organisations, community groups and social movements active all over the European Union. Workshops focused on five themes: resources, techniques, solidarity, economy and governance, each producing a series of recommendations.
Input from citizen experts
It was clear from the outset that European citizens have a lot to say on the subject. European Parliament Vice-President Gérard Onesta said he was very encouraged by the quality of participation from the “citizen experts”.
There was overwhelming support for Europe to cut its greenhouse gas emissions not by just 20% compared with 1990 levels, by 2020 – which is already EU policy – but by the more ambitious target of 30%, regardless of whether other parts of the world follow suit.
A voice for young people
But 21-year-old Micha Poszvek, from the Scout Movement, was disappointed that there were not more young people involved in the Agora debate. “I would really like to have seen young people in every working group, in the plenary sessions, and raising their voice in the Parliament. It’s important for us to take part in the decision-making process because it’s our future,” he explained. “It’s not the future of the people who are currently making the decisions. We are motivated, organised and there to participate - and we are often better informed than our parents.
“Young people need access to proper education, and through that they can start to change their personal behaviour. Like everyone else, they can start by using environmentally friendly means of transport, reducing their energy consumption at every level and being aware of what they buy in the supermarket. The youth of Europe is actually doing a lot already, and the more awareness that is given to them, the more interest they show in their personal environment.”
Added Micha, “Lord Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouts, wrote in 1945: ‘Leave this world a little better than you found it,’ and that’s what every Scout tries to do each day. Everyone must try his or her best, because there is only one world for all of us.” Other speakers also highlighted the huge contribution of many different volunteers across Europe in raising awareness and combating climate change.
Education for change
Several participants emphasised the crucial role of education in the long-term climate change battle, not just in schools but also in workplaces and throughout the media. “Climate change education should be introduced and developed at all levels, from small children up to secondary school, in lifelong learning and professional training,” said governance workshop reporters Tamara Flanagan and Isabel Aspe-Montoya. “This would enable people to start changing their attitudes.” The workshops asked for new educational tools and an exchange of best practice across Europe
Global solidarity and support for developing countries was a key theme, with a call for European and international watchdog organisations to be set up to arbitrate in transnational environmental disputes, and to punish those responsible for cross-border pollution. Participants asked the EU to explore introducing personal carbon quotas, whereby each individual would monitor the amount of greenhouse gas he or she generates.
The impact of climate change on health deserves to be taken more seriously, argued Dr Bettina Menne, Medical Officer for Global Change and Health from the World Health Organisation’s European Regional Office. The effects will be unevenly distributed, she warned, with poorer communities, the very young, elderly or infirm being most vulnerable. So health systems need to gear up for the challenge. “If we expressed climate change policies in terms of years of life gained by implementing measures to halt global warming, it would take us forward,” she suggested. “We can set an example together in promoting equity and peace around the world.”
A new industrial revolution
Jeremy Rifkin, President of the Foundation on Economic Trends and advisor to a number of European governments on environmental and economic issues, put forward a vision of a Third Industrial Revolution in the second half of the 21st century, to follow the manufacturing and communications revolutions that have shaped our Western world. Smart technologies should redesign power generation to enable millions of local renewable energy producers to share more abundant resources than those currently generated by centralised coal, oil and gas generators – the source of large quantities of greenhouse gases.
European Commission Vice-President Günter Verheugen, responsible for enterprise and industry, urged people to abandon the “old thinking” that what is good for the environment is necessarily bad for industry and the economy. “In the 21st century, competitiveness and sustainability go hand in hand,” he argued.
The Agora initiative is a new way of directly involving ordinary people and giving them a voice at the heart of Europe. The first debate, on the future of the EU, took place in 2007 and there was lots of support for strengthening this direct means of consultation that, although still in its “test phase”, is becoming a tradition. The climate change debate was broadcast worldwide via the internet, and Mr Onesta said it demonstrated the removal of barriers between EU citizens and institutions. Those taking part thanked the organisers for “making democracy more lively”.