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Time for a 'new environmentalism'?

Irene Quaile, Deutsche Welle

What are 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 honor 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” 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.

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 onlinenbusinessGreen 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 Environmental Protection Agency.

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.

These new regulations would force U.S. 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.

United National Environmental Program 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 director general of World Wildlife Federation International, with whom I conducted an interview when he took office, was addressing the forum for the national governmental organization 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” -- money from the north to fund projects in the south -- in favor 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.”

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.

This story is posted on Alaska Dispatch as part of Eye on the Arctic, a collaborative partnership between public and private circumpolar media organizations.