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Accountability And Collective Responsibility In The Face Of Global Crises

New Bwogger and first-year student Joanna Yu attended the keynote event, From Refugee Children to Climate Change: Global Challenges in an Age of Nationalism, hosted by the DART Center for Journalism and Trauma of Columbia Journalism School. 
The featured speakers were Her Excellency María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, the president of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, and Deborah Amos, a Peabody award-winning journalist and international correspondent for NPR. An introduction made by Michael Feigelson, the executive director of the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, which was one of the sponsors of this event.

When I entered the World Room and took a seat, graduate students and presumably important journalists and reporters began to walk in with plates of food and cups of wine and beer. As eager as I was to scavenge for free food, I was sandwiched in the middle of a row so I decided that it was best to avoid annoying people by clambering over them. As the room continue to fill, the speakers, Her Excellency MarÍa Fernanda Espinosa Garcés, the president of the 73rd United Nations General Assembly, and Deborah Amos, the international correspondent for NPR gave their opening remarks, and the sponsors were introduced.

The second speaker, the executive director of the Bernard Van Leer Foundation, Micheal Feigelson, opened with engaging the audience in an eye-opening exercise. He asked the audience to stand and to pay attention to their breathing. He then instructed the audience to double, and then triple their rates of breathing to demonstrate the difference sheer difference in volume between how much air adolescents and young children take in compared to adults. He discussed the damaging effects on toddlers and babies in ninety five percent of the world that does not have access to clean air. This includes but is not limited to cognitive deficits, asthma and other respiratory issues, an increased risk of cancer and weakened immune systems. This past summer, the United Nations announced the “Clean Air Initiative.” According to the Union Nations website, this initiative calls on “national and subnational governments to commit to achieving air quality that is safe for citizens, and to align climate change and air pollution policies by 2030.” The effects of poor air conditions, as well as other climate-related deteriorations in areas around the world, are the primary drivers of forced migration.

According to Feigelson, there are 130 million people in need of humanitarian displacement aid, 5 million of whom are pregnant women and 22 million of whom are children.

“We often forget them because they’re so small,” says Feigelson of the child migrants and refugees. Then the question must be asked, how do we adjust our point of view to their level? Current issues should not be taken from a purely bureaucratic approach, according to the speakers, and we must rededicate our commitment to fixing what we can while we still have the time to.

Amos asked Espinosa the question of how we have failed the current generation by worsening climate change. For Espinosa, emphasis needed to be placed on the collective responsibility of not only governments and organizations like the UN, but on individuals in the context of their local communities. We must first ask ourselves what each of us can do to take responsibility for reprehensible actions and to take leadership against such actions in the future so that the situation can improve.

Journalists especially have a large role to play in shaping discourse around climate change. Reporting on areas of crisis involves translating difficult and traumatic situations to the general public. But how can journalism achieve the task of rousing the public to action while maintaining credibility? As a fledgling journalist, This question made me stop and think: if we are not representing the situation in the light of those who are underprivileged, are we also at risk of losing integrity? What is the right balance in such a portrayal?

In consideration of the Climate March that took place on the same day as this event, with the imminent danger of a real climate crisis is in our faces, yet there are still those in power who refuse to look around and take the situation at face value. But, amidst challenges from global leaders, the United Nations still seeks to represent a humanitarian mission.

Maybe talking in this room, and seeing the focus and determination of the audience as well as the shared attitude of urgency, it seems as if a real change could happen easily. However, discourse is much more difficult to implement outside of an academic setting, where national and state interests are at stake, and there seem to be refugees and migrants who are considered “foreigners”. Espinosa brought up how countries have a responsibility to grant protection to their refugees.

“There is so much danger of radicalization…They are human beings, entitled to their fundamental rights and dignities”, says Espinosa, and while it is true that preventative measures must be taken early on to ensure a smooth transition for refugees, governments are reluctant to let immigration policies dominate their focus on domestic issues.

During the question-and-answer portion of the event, a seven-year-old climate change activist brought up the issue from a child’s perspective. She demanded age-sensitive policies in considering designing climate solutions and proposals. It was mind-blowing to hear how articulate she was, and I felt a little bad about myself for not doing more about global issues when I was seven. But then again, my parents never took me to panels like this at Columbia University.

Overall, I was left with the sense that as much as global, and even local communities throw their hands up in the air and stay rooted in inaction, there is a serious need for a shift in perspective from the vantage point of the observer to placing one in the situation of the other. Independent global issues like Lake Chad drying up leaving thousands displaced, and rising sea levels may seem like localized incidents, but the global community needs solidarity and understanding to push past their own prejudices and presuppositions for the greater good.

As a new Bwogger, I was grateful for the opportunity to attend such an important and ~formal~ event. This was the most intellectually stimulating  Friday night I’ve had in a while, but maybe after I’ll take a walk in the park just to enjoy the view before it’s completely submerged by the flood.

Some nice stained glass via Joanna!

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