The Health Impact of Global Climate Change

By Lewis, Stephen | Our Schools, Our Selves, Fall 2009 | Go to article overview

The Health Impact of Global Climate Change


Lewis, Stephen, Our Schools, Our Selves


This is an edited version of Stephen Lewis' keynote address to the 5* World Environmental Education Congress, May 10, 2009, in Montreal

Back in the 1990s I had the privilege of organizing an international initiative called "The Consequences of Armed Conflict on Children." I coordinated the work of an expert appointed by the United Nations. She was a magnificent African woman named Graça Machel: an astonishingly charismatic and intelligent woman given to immense generosity of spirit. She was the former first lady of Mozambique, the former minister of education in Mozambique, now married to Nelson Mandela.

For two years, Graça and members of her group travelled to every conflict imaginable around the world: from Cambodia to Gaza to Burundi. We all analyzed, as closely as possible, what was happening to children over the course of a conflict, and when we sat down to write the report, which became a centrepiece of the United Nations activity thereafter, Graça decided on the opening recommendation.

That recommendation was simply this: whether a child is in conflict or coming out of conflict, what that child most wants is a school. It doesn't matter whether it's a formal school or in a community centre, or a religious environment, or a school under the trees in the countryside. That's what children feel most deeply about.

I hope, as educators, that you fully recognize that. This yearning to be part of an educational environment is immensely intense in the life and mind and curiosity of young people and you have the opportunity to shape these minds.

You're dealing with the most important issue on the planet a subject that lies at the heart of survival of this planet.

In 1988, I was fortunate enough to chair the first major international conference on climate change. We had between three and four hundred scientists and politicians gathered together over several days. The debate was of enormous intensity and at the end of it, a declaration was drafted, the opening words of which read as follows:

Humanity is conducting an unintended, uncontrolled, globally pervasive experiment whose ultimate consequences could be second only to a global nuclear war. The earth's atmosphere is being changed at an unprecedented rate by pollutants resulting from human activities, inefficient and wasteful fossil fuel use, and the effects of rapid population growth in many regions. These changes represent a major threat to international security and are already having harmful consequences over many parts of the globe.1

More than 20 years later, that opening portion of the declaration is an adequate and entirely legitimate representation of the way people feel about the onset of climate change and global warming today. More than 20 years ago, the aspects of the impacts of global climate change were itemized thus:

These changes will imperil human health and well-being; diminish global food security through increases in soil erosion and greater shifts in uncertainties of agricultural production particularly for many vulnerable regions; change the distribution of seasonal availability of fresh water resources; increase political instability and the potential for international conflicts; jeopardize prospects for sustainable development and reduction of poverty; accelerate the extinction of animal and plant species upon which species survival depends; alter the yield productivity and biological diversity of managed and ecosystems, particularly forests.2

This itemization of the impact of global wanning has been authenticated time and time again over the intervening 20-plus years. We have done very little, I point out, to address those problems in a way that can be seen to confront climate change and to reverse the consequences.

Interestingly, the most vivid moment of the conference occurred when the minister of the environment for Indonesia took the platform. Emil Salim was a very gentle and sweet man, and he looked out at the authence and said: "If you think that Indonesia is going to curtail its economic growth in order to compensate for the environmental degradations of the western world, you're crazy.

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