Climate change has struck a chord with Lankans although we haven’t taken to the streets: Activists

by Published on SundayTimes on 29.09.2019 

This week saw a global wave of protests in many parts of the world with hundreds and thousands of youth and adults taking to the streets holding placards and shouting slogans. They all had a common cause–demanding action to tackle climate change.

This global movement, Climate Strike, was initiated last year by a Swedish youngster, Greta Thunberg who skipped school to protest against the inaction on climate change in front of the Swedish parliament. Since then her actions have inspired schoolchildren and adults alike around the world to take up the fight, which peaked this week to coincide with the UN Climate Action summit.

Although strikes are not new to Sri Lanka with a wave of ongoing strikes almost crippling the public sector, there is little participation by Sri Lankans in this global action against climate change. The Sunday Times contacted a number of local environmental activists to find out why there seemed to be little interest when even neighbouring countries such as India, Bangladesh, Pakistan have joined the global action.

Students strike for climate change awareness in Sydney, Australia

“Our House is on Fire” a climate strike at Berlin, Germany

“Youth engagement is vital in creating change and it is even more important and urgent, when addressing impacts of climate change. The action of Greta Thunberg and many other youth have brought attention to the critical issue of climate change globally and in Sri Lanka also there is a strong call for climate action. The fact that Sri Lankans haven’t taken their climate concerns to the streets as much as other countries does not necessarily mean that the general public is not concerned about climate change,” says Vositha Wijenayake, Executive Director of Sri Lankan Youth Climate Action Network (SLYCAN) Trust.

The SLYCAN Trust conducts several programmes to get Sri Lankan youth engaged in climate issues. MsWjenayake pointed out that there are multiple ways youth could contribute to addressing climate change including taking individual and collective action to create awareness among youth and the public on the need for urgent climate action.

“When we started working on climate change over a decade ago, many efforts were initiated to ensure that youth voices will be included in climate change processes, nationally and internationally. Today, I believe, we have come a long way, and the importance of youth’s role is accepted by almost all,” Ms.Wijenayake added. It is important that we create avenues for youth and engage them constructively in climate action, and to provide them with the technical capacity, and knowledge on climate change impacts which will help them in their efforts, she added.

A symbolic protest in Colombo – Sri Lanka is ranked the second-worst affected country in relation to extreme weather events in 2017. The intensity of rainfall has increased causing floods more frequently

Sri Lanka's global strike for Climate - threats to SL

“Raising awareness and communicating a topic like climate change is complex. There are many facets of climate change, so it is a time consuming, slow task to get people engaged. One off protests such as the Climate Strikes are only about 5% of this communication process” said Nalaka Gunawardene, a specialist on Climate Communications. Mr. Gunwardene pointed out the importance of having more scientific research to bring out the localised impact of climate change, so it would be easier to convince people here that climate change is at their doorstep too.

Prof. Mohan Munasinghe who was the former vice chair of UN Inter-governmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) that was honoured with a Nobel Prize says it is heartening to see that youth are showing their concerns about the future through Climate Strikes. However, we face many problems, and different people may have differing priorities across the world and I believe that the youth in developing countries like Sri Lanka have a different and more balanced perspective than their counterparts in richer countries,” Prof.Munasinghe said.

The poor youth in developing countries where millions are dying of starvation may feel that poverty, inequality, hunger and disease etc. should be given equal or even greater priority than climate change. Global warming will certainly make their problems worse in the future, but they will not be alive in that future unless they deal with their immediate threats and needs. So it is important to look at the problems in more broader perspective and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) is a way forward for countries like Sri Lanka to engage in these issues,” Prof.Munasinghe pointed out.

The Climate Strike actions That was launched on September 20 to coincide with world leaders coming together for a Climate Actions Summit held on September 23 in New York, This high level summit was convened by the UN Secretary General to accelerate actions to implement the Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed during the 2015 climate summit held in Paris among other things.

Sri Lanka is ranked the second-worst affected country in relation to extreme weather events in 2017, only next to Puerto Rico, in the report, Global Climate Risk Index 2019, produced recently by the climate think-tank, Germanwatch. According to the report, storms and their direct implications – rainfall deluges, floods and landslides – were a major cause of damage in 2017. Of the 10 most affected countries in 2017, four were hit by tropical cyclones, with a clear link being found between climate change and record-breaking downpours and hurricanes.

“It is unfair that developing countries like Sri Lanka have to face the brunt of climate change though extreme weather events etc. even though the country has not contributed to the problem. We need more funds to bear the brunt of climate change. Despite many promises of global funding, it has not yet materialised to the expected level,” prof.Munasinghe pointed out.

Extreme weather events are getting increased

Greta Thunberg to lead youth climate strike in 150 countries

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