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Jean Lambert London's Green MEP

Climate, Education and Unions

Jean Lambert’s Speech from the NUT Conference, 7/4/2007

In the European Parliament, I am a member of the Employment and Social Affairs Committee, concerned with issues such as training, working conditions and social inclusion. I am also a member of the SAARC (South Asia) delegation and, having seen that other speakers will be talking about their experiences in Indonesia post-Tsunami, I wanted to speak about my related experiences. I spent Easter 2005 in Sri Lanka and the Maldives as a part of a delegation visit to look at the effects of the Tsunami, as well as other issues relating to the conflict in Sri Lanka and Human Rights in the Maldives.

In Sri Lanka, we saw the area near the capital, Colombo, where a quirk of geography had resulted in a relatively small part of the coast being hit but at enormous cost. We visited the school en route to Galle where water had swept through and destroyed the headteacher’s house; as it was a holiday, he and his family had been away, and luckily none of his pupils had been lost. He had visited many of his pupils’ families, urging them to return their children to school on January 10th – the start of the new term: a few parents would sit by the gates, unwilling to be far from their children – just in case.

We visited a less populated area further along the coast, closer to a conflict zone. We could just make out the remains of the floors of houses –everything else had been swept away. We saw a few remaining small fishing boats being repaired and were shown the wells – now unusable as they were contaminated by salt water: it is estimated it will take up to ten years for the underground aquifers to be replenished by fresh water. This a growing issue in many coastal areas following fierce storms – likely to be an increasing occurrence in the face of climate change

Everywhere, we saw evidence of local aid efforts and international aid organisations – some already in the country due to poverty levels and conflict. UNHCR was, for the first time there, working with people displaced by environmental disaster. It is unlikely to be the last

In the Maldives, the loss of life had been less severe (fewer people hit by or entangled in rubble). The wave had also been more a swell across the low-lying islands (the highest natural point is 1.8m above sea level), possibly cushioned by the outlying coral reefs. In the capital, Male, it was also felt that the effect had been lessened by the improved sea defences, built by the Japanese in order to help mitigate the possible effects of climate change.

The Maldives are part of the Small Islands Group – likely to disappear as sea levels rise. The day of the tsunami, they had just left the category of “least-developed nations”: the tsunami probably put them back there.

As the IPCC report made clear yesterday: Don’t be poor if you face environmental disaster. The poor have fewer resources and fewer choices.

The Maldivians had already been planning for climate change: aiming to alter the topography of their main islands to provide a rise at the island edges to protect the land behind. They were then considering the need for a high point on each island as a “safe point” in the event of a tsunami warning. Now they have to plan for natural disaster as well as man-made ones.

It is not clear what environmental lessons are being learnt in Sri Lanka. Certainly, the post- tsunami period has not seen a move to reconciliation and peace, as we have seen in Aceh.

The UNEP, WWF and other organisations all felt that the “greenbelt effect” of coral reefs and mangrove swamps helped to lessen the effects of the tsunami, just as they have helped to reduce the effects of cyclones and severe storms.

Up to half the world’s mangrove swamps have disappeared in the last 20-30 years because of the development of tourist resorts, transport infrastructure and commercial prawn fishing (Cripps, WWF in Associated Press 07.01.05). Bangladesh is losing its mangrove swamps, which are a protection against coastal flooding and a source of livelihood and biodiversity.

Globally, coral reefs have been hit by wastewater from new developments, dynamite fishing and warmer waters due to climate change.

The lesson is that all countries are having to re-adapt to nature. We are having to reconsider our ideas of development, responsibility and solidarity. The latest IPCC report reinforces that need.

The large amounts of money donated post-tsunami may be used for climate-proofing reconstruction, although I am not totally hopeful, but climate change will not be addressed simply through money. It requires a change in behaviour and an understanding of cause and effect, as demonstrated in Christian Aid’s excellent campaign. Turning off the lights becomes not only good domestic economics but an act of international solidarity.

The world’s poorest countries are suffering the effects of the rich world’s careless lifestyle.

We also need to understand that the effects will not only be felt abroad (out of sight, out of mind as it were ) but also at home. I’m from Essex, so I think of Canvey Island, Thames Gateway which are at sea level – not just Bangladesh. Research from the Association of British Insurers makes sober reading. This really is an international issue: think global, act local – takes on a new resonance.

We also need to be “climate-proofing” our development: in our own lives, our places of work and in what we teach.

The EU’s revised Sustainable Development Strategy now recognises the importance of education and training. It says: Education is a prerequisite for promoting the behavioural changes and providing all citizens with the key competences needed to achieve sustainable development. Success in reversing unsustainable trends will to a large extent depend on high-quality education for sustainable development at all levels of education… .

Alan Johnson’s recent statements on teaching about climate change will not just affect the geography curriculum but also science, technology, religious studies and, most certainly, citizenship.

Teaching about climate change and working on the practical consequences has a real purpose and urgency. Education, across the age range, really has the power to transform our lives and our world. You have the power to help effect that change.