Climate change cannot be fought with empty words

It is highly revealing that – according to the latest Eurobarometer survey – climate change is now regarded as the top “global problem” by a relative majority of Maltese.

Eight years ago, the same issue was regarded as the world’s greatest problem by just 13%.

One way of interpreting this sudden increase is as a sign of growing environmental awareness in recent years. If so, there are other corresponding indications: including mounting unrest at local environmental issues, that – while not necessarily related to climate change concerns – are nonetheless symptomatic of the same underlying problem: the despoilment of nature for economic gain.

But it could also be down to growing perceptions – if not downright alarm – that the world’s climate is, in fact, changing along the lines predicted by scientists for decades.

Last June was the hottest ever recorded in Malta; and we have also experienced more erratic (and in some cases, very severe) weather patterns – drought, torrential rain, windstorms bordering on hurricane levels… none of which can realistically be taken as ‘proof’ of the reality of climate change; but all of it has compounded the fear that the stability of our entire planet may be on the brink of collapse.

Whether this alarming perception is rooted in fact or mere speculation, there can be little doubt that Malta has not ‘done its bit’ in the global fight against climate change.

The Labour government had promised to make this fight a central plank in Malta’s environmental efforts but in practice, it has done very little to achieve the CO2 reduction targets of the UN’s Kyoto Protocol.

Like most other European countries, Malta has already missed its previous deadlines. Unlike some others, however, Malta is still on course to missing the next deadline in 2020. And while the problem has been acknowledged, the fact remains that nothing is being done about it even today.

This, too, may explain part of the growing environmental activism we have recently witnessed. When governments fail in their duties, it falls to civil society and individuals to make amends in the best way they can.

This usually entails public protests – of the kind that are now taking place everywhere else in the world, as part of an international effort spearheaded by Swedish teenager Greta Thurnberg – but it also takes the form of individual lifestyle choices.

But while individual efforts to safeguard the environment are important to raise awareness and instil personal responsibility, it remains unclear how the fate of an entire planet can be salvaged by such small-scale endeavours as ‘Beach Clean-ups’, or an individual’s personal choice to avoid single-use plastics in future.

This alone will not address the pressing climate change emergency. Naturally, efforts like picking up plastic straws from beaches remain commendable – indeed, we must also question why Malta remains such a litter-prone country, despite the increased awareness – but they also risk being reduced to simple exercises in greenwash, unless accompanied by policy changes.

The truth is that effective and meaningful change can only come about by drastic policy decisions that force industries to change their practices. Part of the reason Malta has failed to meet its targets is, in fact, because Maltese governments are traditionally wary of radical changes that may ‘shock the system’.

While Malta is far from a net contributor to global CO2 levels, our single largest source of emissions remains motorised traffic. This government, like all its predecessors, has proved very timid when it came to confronting this reality. Rather than coming up with inventive ways to reduce our dependence on cars, it has maximised it by increasing road-space – often at the expense of trees and farmland; resisting alternative public transportation systems; placing administrative hurdles for cyclists; and postponing a fuel stations policy reform.

These are not the actions of a government that is serious on its commitment to fight climate change. On the contrary, it is indicative of a government that is in league with the same industrial issues that make the battle against climate change so hard to fight in practice.

But such reforms can never do more than impart a positive message, in a country where there are no other major sources of greenhouse gases. The reality is that climate change is a global emergency, that has to be dealt with at a global level.

And in this, the EU has an important role to play. Regulations such as those spearheaded by Labour MEP Miriam Dalli that were approved this year, and which curb CO2 emissions from new vehicles – provide the basis for direct and widespread action.

But those regulations have to spread to other transport sectors such as shipping and aviation.

At the same time, efforts must be undertaken to address the impacts of climate change so that countries and communities can be helped to adapt.

This comes at a cost that countries, companies and taxpayers must shoulder. So, in addressing the emergency, care must be taken not to burden those in the lower strata of society.

Achieving this balance, at a time of urgency, is not easy. But with the ominous risk of our planet losing its balance, no effort should be spared in working towards change.