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Updated Wednesday, 16th December 2009

Kriton Arsenis, a member of the European Parliament, takes time out from the UN Climate Change Conference to talk about how he is representing Greece on environmental issues.

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Kriton Arsenis: So I’m Kriton Arsenis. I come from Greece. I’m a newly elected member of the European Parliament.

Interviewer: Congratulations.

Kriton: Thank you very much. In the Socialist Party, Socialist and Democrats Party, and my background, I come from the NGO movement in Greece, and my work mainly in the Parliament is doing my best to make my five years there of service to the planet and to help addressing, tackling the global environmental threats.

Interviewer: How did you first get involved in environmental issues? What first triggered your interest there?

Kriton: So, I’m not sure, you know, everything starts from the family. I was with my family often going to, climbing, mountain climbing or to the sea and spending time in nature, so I guess this it has a huge footprint in a child’s soul. Although my parents were never involved in environmental action, they were, they loved nature, so this love it’s very easily to communicate with a child and to have an imprint as a child.

Interviewer: Absolutely, I feel the exact same way. Where in Greece are you from?

Kriton: From northern Greece but it’s been a year now that I live in the islands, in Cyclades Island, in Syros.

Interviewer: Beautiful.

Kriton: I mean when I can because again my main focus is to be as much as I can be of service, and I’m mainly, over the weekdays I’m in Brussels, or in Strasbourg, and many weekends I’m really travelling wherever I have to be to help.

Interviewer: So can you talk a little bit about your relationship with your constituents and how you bring that message to the European Parliament?

Kriton: In a way I think that my constituency is the whole of Europe. So of course I have a special responsibility on Greece, and I’m trying to communicate and to listen with people and from people in Greece. I was working in the journals for five years, heading an awareness raising campaign on sustainable development, so then you could see the problem of people face the dilemma between giving their lands to build new houses, which it’s very, there’s a lot of profit if you do that, or keeping it for more sustainable activities that will allow your children, your children’s children to keep on living this with these beautiful places, and this place to be kept beautiful, and everyone being proud of being from there. And, you know, you get to face very difficult problems because you have a lot of immediate income from the one side of the story and on the other side you have the long-term benefits of more, let’s say, humanistic values, human values but, and this is sometimes the dilemmas we face in all the environmental problems.

Sometimes it’s quite far more easy to work on the environment, to be of help to the environment than just, from the European Parliament we see things on this broad scale. When you go, always the local scale, at the local level, it’s there where there, it’s the difficulties, because it’s there that you have to change, to face the inertia of people, to change the mentalities, to come into conflict sometimes with very big immediate short-run personal government interests, and so both are very important.

Interviewer: Can you talk a little bit about the difference between, say, if there is one I should say, between the interests of the Greek islands versus the mainland? Is there any tension there or is that a, does everybody feel adequately represented?

Kriton: Not much. No, no, it’s very homogenised, and the main difference is that people in the island regions in Europe and in Greece, which has a very big proportion of its population also in the islands, have less access to many of, everyday public services that people in the mainland do have access to and also a higher cost of living.

Interviewer: So how do you see your role as a parliamentarian addressing those issues?

Kriton: So insularities or the environmental threats issue, the global environmental threats?

Interviewer:
Oh let’s take them in turn, so insularities first and then global issues second.

Kriton: So I’m right now heading an interparliamentary group for, an interparty group anyway for islands and mountains, mountainous areas, and we’re going to go through also the changes that the Lisbon Treaty brings to the insularity issue because the insularities mentioned in the treaty, so it should be, and we are going to push actually the European, the Commission to incorporate insularity and change the regulation, many regulations so that we have a specific, more, let’s say more focused regulations taking into consideration insularity.

So it’s different when you’re planning transport, you have transport planning of a country. If it’s only continental or if part of it it’s island territory, you should do things differently and you should have different incentives, and these incentives are often provided by European regulation.

Interviewer: How do you see, on that note, how do you see European regulation affecting the global environmental issues that you were speaking about a second ago?

Kriton: It has a huge effect, both good and bad. We’ve seen that it’s often, many of the European Union’s policies have led to huge environmental degradation, so. Although it’s absolutely necessary to keep agricultural production, and some kind of agricultural subsidies are necessary, but you should always see that these are in line with environmental protection. So that in reality the long-term interest of the farmers, which is also the long-term interest of every citizen, are protected. Because if we just react to the short-term interests of people then we will face many problems in actually addressing the long-term interest, which is the real interest.

Interviewer: Absolutely.

Kriton: But going to the environmental threats, in the Parliament I have, I’m focusing on an issue which is not so much discussed; it’s the issue of forests. Forests and natural ecosystems, we destroy this world because of using our ingenuity and planning all these beautiful technologies that are, were there for us to conquer Earth and that really allow us to move mountains and do many things but, on the other hand, we cannot save this world using the same mentality and the same processes we use to destroy it. So we’re still very fixed on the, very focused on the technical fix to address climate change.

Interviewer: And you see forests playing a special role?

Kriton: Exactly, I believe that what we are taught in school that the plants through photosynthesis sequestrates the carbon dioxide and then they emit the oxygen, which is life for us, and they keep carbon to make the leaves and to make the trunk, to make, you know, the roots, everything. And then when the leaves fall to the ground we have the earth, we have the mud and the ground, and this procedure’s so important. We still have three times more carbon sequestrated into the rest of the ecosystems than in leaving what carbon sinks in the biosphere than there are in the atmosphere.

So it’s very important that, and also every, each year 50% of our emissions come with nitrous oxide emissions and other greenhouse emissions are sequestrated by the natural ecosystems. So we really need to protect the forests of the Earth and Europe has a lot of endangered places of the Mediterranean and the Eastern European forests that are under threat but also of course the main forests are in the tropical areas.

Interviewer: You speak very knowledgeably about this, is your background in sciences?

Kriton: It’s just that I feel that this is a very important issue so I’m trying to learn more and more on that. Actually it’s not only this is more and more on that or I study more. In a sense we don’t have an understanding of how this planet works, there are so many interconnections, and you will see people trying to find answers with this solution and the other solution, but we still are missing the integrated answer. We have to understand how this planet works in order to be able to give this answer, to provide answer, to work on this answer. And so my …

Interviewer: And it requires lots of different people to come on board; you need policymakers, you need researchers, you need scientists, you need everyone.

Kriton: You need everything. But having the privilege of being in the Parliament for these five years, having if you want the opportunity to make a difference, I have no excuse but to study a lot and to try to find out what knowledge is already acquired by the scientists and try to put all of this together so that we create the right policies.

So this is why I understood that the natural ecosystems are so important. If you read closely the IPCC report, they don’t say that we should reduce, we should limit the global warming to 2° Celsius; they actually say that we should stop emitting. If we cannot do that, the least we should do is try to limit the global warming. But in truth they only say that we should stop emitting. Now we as humans have decided that we will not stop emitting but we will gradually reduce emissions and eventually stop. Because if stopping emissions emitting now it’s going to be a huge change in our living, way of living, style of living, in our commercial culture, if you want, that we have.

So if we are just to decrease the amount of our emissions and gradually reach low carbon economy, in order that we don’t see the worst of climate change, we should start sequestrating. We should start finding ways to sequestrate the emissions that we are emitting to the atmosphere. And of course there are many technical solutions to that have, usually technical solutions has an enforcing consequence. And because we try to invent new things but we have already found, discovered the most perfect sequestration machine, the most perfect machine of life, it’s the trees, it’s plantation. It’s what as we said through photosynthesis the oxygen emissions and the carbon sequestration.

So this is important and the single, it should be protecting the natural ecosystems and improving, not improving but making like increasing through afforestation projects, through natural procedures though with no commercial purposes, increasing the forest coverage and plantation coverage of this planet should be priority in climate action, in climate mitigation.

Interviewer: Is this something that you personally have come to Copenhagen to fight for?

Kriton: Yes, and I actually had some amendments in the European Parliament resolution that were approved by all parties, and they actually established what we said that we as parliament ask for the European Commission and the Council to finance afforestation projects, to finance the protection of forests and that afforestation projects should not have a commercial scope. They should have a scope to protect biodiversity and to protect and address climate change.

Interviewer: Where is this project going to take place?

Kriton: It’s not. We as parliament asked for, we have a resolution asking the Commission to set its negotiation targets like that. So we are pushing the Commission to do its job, and the council.

Interviewer: So what work do you have left to do here then?

Kriton: It’s still talking to people. You know, everyone might be interested to know that I’m working on social change from when I was 14, and I’ve been doing lot of fighting in Greece on many issues that we consider impossible, and sometimes we gain a lot, in some we’ve made the impossible possible, and talking to people it’s a very powerful way to do that, especially that people are not used to having the right arguments around. So if you can provide the right arguments to people this can have a strong effect, and I would seriously encourage every fellow citizen listening to us to do that.

Interviewer: Okay. I have two more questions for you.

Kriton: Yes.

Interviewer: First question is: are you an optimist or a pessimist when you look forward to the next ten years?

Kriton: As it’s been said also if you look at the data on climate change, and not only climate change, what we do to all the environmental resources, if it’s water, soil, everything, use, they have a mind, it cannot be on your mind if you’re an optimist. But if you look at the global movement, if you look at how many people are here fighting, people that are coming here, like priests, Catholic priests or Christian priests or Orthodox priests, and like from the ecumenical patriarch to people in indigenous communities fighting for this cause, and very grassroots movements fighting for this cause, so many of them, so much energy given to this, if you are not an optimist then you don’t have a heart, and this is true.

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