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Fight against climate change must start at primary school, Mary Robinson says

Published 10/07/2016

Mary Robinson has been visiting Ethiopia
Mary Robinson has been visiting Ethiopia

UN envoy Mary Robinson has called for schoolchildren to be taught more about how their lives directly impact climate change.

At the end of a trip to Ethiopia, which has suffered its most severe drought in half a century, the former president of Ireland said youngsters born today will live through a potentially existential crisis.

The east African nation is among the countries worst affected by climate change - a devastating reality aggravated by the recurring misery of the El Nino weather system that disrupts and stops vital rains in the tropics.

The survival of tens of millions is threatened further by the ensuing La Nina cooling system which is expected to spark flash floods at the end of the year, washing away thin, arid soils.

"We have to be able to climate proof everything we do," Ms Robinson said.

"Everyone now, and I mean everyone, has to think about climate in the context of who they are and where they are.

"And we need to have a strong input into education, starting in primary schools."

Ms Robinson is to report to the UN later this year in her role as envoy for climate change and El Nino.

Her argument for more education is backed by startling figures that it takes 88 Ethiopians to emit as much carbon dioxide as one Irish person.

She was also told 10.2 million people are crying out for food aid in Ethiopia; the funding needed to save lives is £400 million (468 million euro) short; and 3 million youngsters have stopped going to school because of hunger.

Ms Robinson marked the crisis as "the emissions problem of a rich world punishing a poor world".

She said: "We have to really realise that we are into a potential existential problem where future generations, and when I say that I mean children born today, will live through the whole cycle ... they will potentially have incredible problems."

Ethiopia's foreign minister Tedros A Ghebreyesus added: "We have not contributed to the damage of our climate, nothing... we are the victims."

Every village Ms Robinson visited across Tigray - the vast northern region worst hit by the famine of 1984 - has stories of migration.

Seasonal rains failed in the last year leaving smallholders without enough wheat, maize or cereal crops to get through the Hunger Season - the traditionally lean months from March to September.

The vast majority of the six million people in Tigray are now surviving thanks to the distribution of seeds and nutrient rich parcels added to daily meals of soup and porridge.

Most of the trip saw the envoy on the ground talking to the mothers and farmers who eke out an existence on arid farmland, usually less than half a hectare for a family of five.

She toured the region with aid agencies Concern, Trocaire and Goal and witnessed first-hand the life-saving initiatives they support, including monthly nutrition and health clinics for hundreds of thousands of breastfeeding mothers.

The charities pleaded for world powers to do more to stop the drought in Ethiopia leading to the worst food emergency since the mid-80s.

Reflecting on Europe's response to the refugee and migrant crisis, Ms Robinson added: "If parts of the world warm more quickly and become unlivable, where do they do go?"

Ms Robinson will take her mission to Honduras and Vietnam before reporting on the crisis and efforts to plan for the future.

The UN said during her trip that 100 million people would be affected across the tropics by El Nino and La Nina.

"I think we have to understand the need to factor in the reality for millions of people, particularly children, of climate change in general but in particular when aggravated by El Nino followed by La Nina effect," Ms Robinson said.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights also said she met Nick Hurd, under secretary of state at the Department for International Development, in London in the week before she travelled to Ethiopia.

She said he gave an assurance that the UK would not renege on its commitments to spend 1% of GDP on overseas aid, regardless of Brexit.

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