Voices of the Children Haunt Policy Makers
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Daejeon, 19 August 2009 - When Erik Solheim, Norway's Minister for the Environment spoke to the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) about the importance of reaching a climate agreement in Copenhagen, he said it was for his children and all the children in the world. When asked about what he thought about climate change, Hanif Kureshi, the British novelist, playwright and film director, first looked at his son Kier and then urged world leaders to "Seal the Deal!" in Copenhagen for Kier's sake. Calling world leaders to "Seal the Deal!" or create a climate friendly agreement in Copenhagen this year was a call that came from the bottom of these fathers' hearts.
It's a message that the Nigerian mother Florence I. Oti gave at a climate conference early in the year in Nairobi, when she asked that world leaders "Seal the Deal!" in Copenhagen, for her children and those children yet unborn. More and more of today's policy makers are being championed as the guardians of the future rather than short term preservers of the status quo. However, it's the children who are equally demanding big steps from leaders this year as well as from parents, voters and ministers.
Hopeful, dejected and prophetic voices came through in a recent painting competition facilitated by UNEP's children and youth programme, Tunza. The theme of this year's environment painting competition was Climate Change: Our Challenge. The competition attracted participation from a staggering 2.4 million children aged between 6 and 14 from over 100 countries. As part of their award the first and second prize winners recently travelled to Daejeon, South Korea, where they are currently participating in the Tunza Conference, one of the most important forums on children, youth and climate change in the run-up to the Copenhagen climate negotiations this December.
The conference is an opportunity for global leaders of the future to learn more about the environmental issues relating to the world they are inheriting. Their thoughts and concerns will not go unheard in the political arena. At the Tunza Conference the participants will prepare a youth statement pushing their governments to reach a scientifically credible and far-reaching new climate agreement in Copenhagen this December. The statement, which will be available to read on the UNEP website on Thursday, 23 August, is one of the most politically significant acts taken by children (aged 10-14) and youth (aged 15-24) in the run up to a conference that will shape the world they live in.
Addressing world leaders, the winner of this year's UNEP painting competition, Ludmila Balovneva from Russia, said: "I wish they would realize that they are a part of this planet and if they are destroying it they are destroying us. I wish they would understand that we are the needy and need the planet because we do not have any other place to go."
Ludmila comes from Novosibirsk, one of the most forested areas in Russia. She knows the value of forests, where she says she enjoys going berry picking. She also plants trees with her grandmother to beautify their village. As such, she holds much common ground with the other children and youth selected to participate in the Tunza Conference by merit of their environmental vision and projects.
They represent a significant demographic. There are one billion people in the world aged 15 to 24 and more than 27 percent of the world's population is under 15. A significant proportion of the 2.4 million paintings submitted for the painting competition depict a less than beautiful world, certainly not one that could immediately be described as "childlike." In fact many of the children's paintings mirror the often bleak scientific descriptions of a post-Copenhagen world, if no substantial agreement is reached.
The concerns of these young artists should come as no surprise. Many children in today's world exist within a harsh reality, one that is becoming harsher as a result of climate change. During times of drought, flooding and extreme weather conditions it is children that are the most vulnerable. According to Save the Children approximately 175 million children will be affected by climate change induced natural disasters every year over the next decade. This is 50 million more than during the ten years to 2005, which have already ruptured the lives of families and created tens of thousands of orphans. These statistics come to life in the art.
The second prize winner in the children's painting competition, Eesha Chavan, says she was inspired to paint because of her experience of floods in Mumbai. She explained: "I had never seen such rain before and I trembled as I heard the loud thunder and could watch water flowing with great force everywhere from the balcony. I could see the water carrying cars and uprooted trees and could hear cries of people screaming for help. It made me realize how important it is to take steps to stop these climate changes or reduce their effects."
In the July 2007 floods in Bangladesh over four million children were affected. In Haiti 300,000 children suffered the negative affects of hurricanes. Factors that play a role in climate change, such as emissions from vehicles and factories significantly affect children's health. According to UNICEF deaths from asthma, which is the most common chronic disease among children, are expected to increase by nearly twenty per cent by 2016 unless urgent action is taken. Changes in the way that we produce energy could result in less smoke being produced in many households, a factor that leads to the deaths of nearly 800,000 children each year. Connie Hedegaard, Denmark's minister for Energy and Environment, believes that the chance to make such changes is December in Copenhagen. "Don't believe we'll get another chance soon," she said.
At the Tunza conference Ludmila Balovneva and Eesha Chavan stand with 800 children and youth whose joint statement will be presented to the guardians of their planet. Decision makers cannot be deaf to the voices of children and youth in the run-up to a conference that will shape the world they are to inherit.