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Stephen Lewis Seeks “Moral Anchor” for Climate Change

October 29, 2008

Former United Nations Ambassador Stephen Lewis called this “a desperate moment in time” as climate change science matures and the world economy falters, during a speech to students today at the University of British Columbia.

Lewis was speaking at a rally on behalf of Students for Sustainability, a 30-day tour aimed at combating climate change across 21 University campuses across Canada. And while the organization emphasizes  public transit and energy efficient appliances, Lewis argued that personal actions are “ultimately insufficient.”

“This planet will ultimately be doomed” unless world governments slash carbon emissions and switch to alternative energy. Lewis said, “there’s no way around it.” Citing studies by the economist Nicholas Stern and journalist George Monbiot, Lewis said the consequences of inaction are clear. “If we don’t move with enormous, almost supernatural rapidity,” he said, “I think there’s going to be a cataclysm between 2030 and 2050.”

The recent economic collapse adds significant pressure to move the agenda away from the environment. Rather than sidelining climate change, Lewis said that economic turbulence is an opportunity for change: “it’s necessary to zero in at this moment and make the alternative case” for sustainability.

Lewis is best known for his work as the UN’s Special Envoy on HIV/AIDS in Africa. He punctuated his speech with stories from his extensive diplomatic experience, especially the 1990s, when the UN sponsored several international conferences to set millennial targets on a variety of issues.

His speech immediately followed Severn Suzuki, environmentalist and daughter of David Suzuki. Before speaking, Suzuki showed her infamous speech to the UN’s 1992 Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, when she was only 12.

“A 12 year old could give that exact same speech today,” Suzuki said, noting that the clip has recently received hundreds of thousands of hits on YouTube. Suzuki has since trained in ethnobotany and spoke about “the current mass extinction,” the decline of biodiversity, and the speed of ecological change.

Suzuki said that she still believes the same message 16 years later, despite a very different world and a lack of action taken on environmental issues. “What has transpired since the year of the Summit,” Suzuki said, “has been a huge intergenerational injustice.”

Rising to the podium after Suzuki, Lewis called the 1992 Earth Summit “a hoax from beginning to end, except for Severn.” Lewis argued that the Earth Summit “was a very calculated design” by multinational corporations attempting “to give the impression of movement on climate change.”

Lewis also noted implications of climate change for humanitarian reasons, particularly in the African subcontinent. Lewis said that “there are 150 thousand deaths a year as a result of climate change” due to factors such as the rise in dengue fever and intensification of drought. “What in God’s name has happened to the moral anchor in this world?,” he asked.

While Lewis expressed ambivalence about techniques used to cap carbon, he argued that political will is most desperately required. Lewis said, “I don’t care what you use, it’s just that it has to be done.”

The Students for Sustainability Campus tour is sponsored by the David Suzuki Foundation, the Sierra Youth Club, and the Canadian Federation of Students. Vancouver is the second to last stop on an itinerary which ends tomorrow at the University of Victoria. In its other stops, the tour featured David Suzuki, George Strombolopolous, and Maude Barlow. Vancouver was the second stop to feature Lewis.

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