By Anne Lee Steele
This article was written with and supplemented by quotes and notes by Zaninka Ntagungira.
As the United Nations asks if 2021 will be a “crucial year in the fight against climate change” leading up to COP26, just next door at the Graduate Institute, students were (virtually) asking the same questions at Sustainability Week Switzerland’s National Opening Ceremony.
After being canceled during the 2020 season due to the onset of the coronavirus pandemic, the 2021 ceremony was hosted online through the Webex platform. Titled “Climate Crisis – Out of Balance: Confronting Equity and Sustainability”, the event aimed to highlight the role that global inequality plays in climate change, kicking off a month of sustainability-oriented events at 35 different universities across 15 cities in Switzerland.
Sustainability Week Switzerland began in 2013 in Zurich, with the goal of “integrating sustainable principles in Switzerland’s institutes of higher education”. Since its founding, SWS has grown into the country’s biggest student-led sustainability movement, reportedly reaching 96% of all students in Switzerland according to its external communications. While this opening ceremony marks the beginning of the National Sustainability Month, the Geneva Week will take place from the 25 to 27th of March.
Featuring Dr. Oyun Sanjaasuren, Director of External Affairs at the Green Climate Fund, Adenike Oladosu of Fridays For Future Nigeria, and Marie-Claire Graf, President of the Swiss Association of Student Organisations for Sustainability (VSN-FDD-FSS) and founding member of SWS’s national team, the event was moderated remotely by Dr. Anne Saab, Associate Professor and Co-Director of the LLM. in International Law.
The ceremony began with a statement by Arveen Sodhi, a first year MA candidate in Development Studies, who then introduced Directrice Marie-Laure Salles, the event’s opening speaker. Dr. Salles began in earnest by speaking about the historical role of the Institute “as a child of multilateralism”, albeit qualified by its historical lack of diversity, and noted what has changed since its founding.
She went on to talk about the role that climate change plays for peace and peacemaking, as the “trends that endanger the sustainability of our societies, policies, and natural environment are natural risks for peace”, implicitly referring to Geneva’s status of the “global capital of peace”.
Referencing her ongoing Collectif project at the Institute, Directrice Salles also highlighted the role of youth within this conversation, and ended with a call to action for “today’s version of a better world, a sustainable world”.
After Directrice Salles’ opening speech, Dr. Saab opened the panel discussion with a question about how the “climate crisis [is] revealed in the inequities that already exist”.
Dr. Sanjaasuren began with concrete examples from her home country of Mongolia: “As Mongolia is home to nomadic herders that depend upon and live in harmony with nature”, she points out that their lifestyle is sustainable by default.
However, because Mongolia has already warmed by 2.4 degrees, far more than the global average of 1.7, this has caused desertification and climate disasters, as well as hot summers and cold winters that have killed livestock and the herder’s historically sole source of income. Sanjaasuren points out how this represents “concrete examples of how people who have barely contributed to climate change” ultimately suffer its consequences.
Graf, following Dr. Sanjaasuren’s remarks, spoke from the perspective of her background in youth organizations, noting that “young people are excluded from decision making [because] their voices are not heard”. She said while young people will be “disproportionately affected by the climate crisis, [they are also ] a disproportionate part of the solution”. Advocating for “[young people] to be integrated into the decision-making process, she notes how youth actors are “standing up and asking their leaders to work”.
Due to connectivity issues, Oladosu was not able to answer this question.
Following up on these responses, Dr. Saab asked how to prioritize climate questions amongst other issues such as armed conflict and economic [inequality], and how “we can make sure that the world can deal with these issues simultaneously”.
Dr. Sanjaasuren began by saying that “it’s not about trade offs, yes or no, this or that, it’s a question of how do we do things differently”. She noted that the ongoing pandemic has created not only a global health crisis, but a financial one as well.
Because of this, countries worldwide have needed to develop financial stimulus packages, many of which have included environmental or sustainable themes. Using an example of airline bailouts, she cites the way in which financial support can be coupled with low carbon fuel strategies, as a way of “embedding green solutions [while] supporting companies”.
At this point in the event, Oladosu attempted to answer the question posed, but was unable to due to sustained connectivity issues. The floor was given to Marie-Claire Graf. Graf took note of the implifies of this: “Although the youth is particularly digitally literate, this does not change the fact that [internet] access remains a problem, which makes it particularly difficult for frontline actors to participate in international forums such as this. This only exacerbates the disproportionate effects of climate change”.
Graf goes on to note that “tackling climate change” requires “addressing the roots” of the problem: “if the root causes are not fixed – for example a very unsustainable economic system – we will never be able to make it”. She advocates for a multi-stakeholder approach, acknowledging that “the layers of this problem [are] very complex, [from] the natural to the political sciences,” alongside the cultural, historical and other contextual elements.
As Oladosu continued to have connectivity issues, Saab continued with the panel, moving on to personal questions. She asked Dr. Sanjaasuren about the “capacity of common people, or everyone and anyone, to contribute [to] decision making” for environmental policymaking, citing Sanjaasuren’s experience as the first President of the United Nations Environment Assembly.
Addressing the ongoing current of civic distrust, Sanjaasuren argues that “[politicians] don’t just sit in a parliament building… [they] take these opportunities and positions seriously”. She emphasized the need to increase civic engagement in governance protocols through “writing an email or letter,” saying that “political will and public attitudes” are integral for institutional change.
Dr. Sanjaasuren also noted how much has changed in discussions of climate change and sustainability due to public pressure: “Even 10 years ago, the environment and sustainability was not as much of a priority [compared to] interstate conflict, security, terrorism, and economic challenges,” as noted in the World Economic Forum’s Global Risk Report.
In her view, addressing the “urgency of these challenges” means that “youth stay active and [are] a part of the decision making process”, acknowledging that while “youth have been actively invited, and are being involved more and more,” they are perhaps not involved enough.
At the UN Environment Assembly for example, civil society organizations participate as observers, and ended with a Mongolian saying: “When I was young, [people said] that you can’t influence much, [and] it’s just those high up. But that’s not true, things are changing, and youth understand that very well”.
Dr. Saab then turned the floor to Graf, asking her about the role she sees “students, faculties, and administrators in higher education… in contributing to climate action”, asking for specific actions that they might take.
In response, Graf takes note of Dr. Sanjaasuren’s answer regarding civil society and youth involvement, but cites institutional histories as “traditional, hierarchical [and] very male dominated” as barriers for true involvement. While acknowledging that “more and more young people are invited and consulted,” she said that end decisions ultimately might not align with the objectives of youth actors.
Graf said “there is still a gap in actually giving students the power they can actually use, like a real space in highest decision making, [such as] vetoes, or [making] boards in universities that are multi-generational”. Ultimately, Graf advocates for a “focus on radical transformation”, saying that “we are only going to achieve [it] if we have multi-generational decision-making”.
As Dr. Saab thanked Graf for her answers, Oladosu’s connectivity problems were resolved. In a moment of innovative problem-solving, perhaps a sign of climate or technological solutions to come, her statement was broadcast through Sodhi’s cellular device on WhatsApp, which was recording through her the Webex platform streaming on her computer, to the audience attending the ceremony.
Oladosu began by introducing herself and her work as an “ecofeminist and eco-journalist [that works] in the Lake Chad region”. She immediately points to the “loss of livelihoods due to the climate crisis, which has directly led to “armed groups expanding their reach”.
“Africa is disproportionately affected by the climate crisis,” Oladosu said, “which has caused problems like forced migration”. As the “food basket” of the continent, she also notes that her region has been affected by ongoing conflicts between farmers and armed groups: “Both groups need water, land, and good enough climatic conditions to make their livelihoods. This affects food security, [and] the loss of livelihoods is the biggest weapon for conflict”.
Oladosu continued with a number of challenging questions: “How do we address this collectively? How do the challenges and solutions differ based on [individual] experiences [or] based on where you are?” She said that while collective action is a necessity, demonstrations and political actions have varying implications for those involved. Citing an example from her home country of Nigeria: “for massive rallies, we need security. We need to make sure that we do not resemble armed groups. While in the West, this is not an issue to consider. Sometimes, we even use our own funds [to plan or attend rallies]”.
She goes on to say that while the climate justice movement is being “empowered… we need sustainable investments, for example using and installing renewable energy. People are ready, but can’t afford it.” She uses the example of fossil fuels, which are subsidized in Nigeria to increase access, and remain less expensive (and ultimately less used) than green energy. Ultimately, Oladosu concludes with the need for “common but differentiated responsibilities” in climate governance, balancing cost and curbing emissions.
Common but differentiated responsibilities is a principle used in international law that “establishes that all states are responsible for addressing global environmental destruction [yet] are not equally responsible”. The principle is used within the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change.
After thanking Oladosu for her answer, Dr. Saab builds upon the notion of common but differentiated responsibilities for the final question, asking the panelists for a brief statement: “What are your impressions/thoughts on how this concept is applied today?”
Graf notes that “in the climate negotiations, [CBD] is not well implemented, [particularly] with regards to [greenhouse gases]. She notes that Switzerland “does not produce, but consumes… This is a huge inequality going beyond the climate sphere. We aren’t doing our fair share”.
Dr. Sanjaasuren notes her agreement with Oladosu’s statement, and adds that the Green Climate Fund “allocates finances to projects in more than 140 developing countries, [while] the majority of contributions are from developed countries… 10 billion USD were raised from 30 countries, most of which are OECD countries. Local finance must also be aligned with low carbon development. We can’t just change with internal climate finance”.
Concluding the panel discussion, Oladosu addresses climate funding, noting the need to “see that something is progressing [when you channel finance into a project]”, especially in the long term. She advocates that the principles of “CBD [are] also a form of transparency, a way of taking action… and a call for transparency and accountability”, and points to how CBD may enable a global environmental governance system that “helps us to fix our policy and other issues… [and] help [us] on our path to sustainability”.
After thanking the panelists for their answers, Saab concluded the panel with a question from the audience regarding climate change literacy, and how it can be leveraged for climate change action.
Graf answered by discussing the possibility of climate change literacy becoming compulsory at both the Swiss and European level, invoking the advocacy work currently being undergone in Italy and other countries. Dr. Sanjaasuren added that sustainability and climate literacy exams are being developed, and that climate change is embedded into school curriculums in Mongolia. In contrast to this, Oladosu says that “in Nigeria, not everyone knows that there is a climate crisis”, and concludes with her own experience.
“It’s only when I started researching it more myself that I realized that this is a climate change crisis that can lead to ethno religious wars,” Oladosu said. “It means that these conflicts that we see in Nigeria are not because of religion. They are because of the loss of livelihoods, land degradation and everyone looking for greener pastures.”
The ceremony ended with an announcement about the winners of the event’s photography contest, titled “Lens on sustainability”. The winners were announced as Simran Singh, Aloïs Aguettant, and Seraina Nadig.
Sodhi concluded the event with a statement about how events at Sustainability Week Switzerland are “crucial for environmental action” at higher education institutions and beyond, inviting Shathu Vasa of the SWS national team to share the group’s impact report. When Vasa was not able to connect, Sodhi concluded the ceremony by thanking the audience for joining the event remotely at the Graduate Institute.
Despite the connectivity issues, the event proved to be a success – perhaps due, in part, to the fact that speakers were able to join remotely from across the world. As the event marks the beginning of sustainability weeks nationwide, only time will tell how SWS influences actions both locally within universities, and more widely across the variety of youth actors, at COP26 and beyond.
SWS is organized by Schweizer Verband studentischer Organisationen für Nachhaltigkeit (VSN)–Fédération Suisse d’Organisations Etudiantes pour un Développement Durable (FDD)– Federazione Svizzera delle Organizzazioni Studentesche per lo Sviluppo Sostenibile (FSS) or VSN-FDD-FSS, also known as the Swiss Association of Student Organisations for Sustainability.
Note: Events planned by Graduate Institute students for Sustainability Week Switzerland will be covered throughout the week, and linked here. As the SWS Geneva event schedule is released, this article will be updated accordingly.