What we talk about when we talk about climate change

The way Western hegemony relates to small island states on the subject of migration leaves a lot to be desired, a recent paper by sociologist Godfrey Baldacchino finds

Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino
Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino

The ongoing conversation about climate change, and more crucially, the global initiatives that are put into place to safeguard its encroaching implications, are missing the boat when it comes to so-called Small Island Developing States (SIDS).

This observation emerges from academic papers published in the most recent edition of the International Journal of Climate Change Strategies and Management, in a special issue dedicated to small island states and how they are meant to be dealing with the implications of climate change.

However, what emerges most strongly in Prof. Godfrey Baldacchino’s paper in the same issue of the journal is that small island states are disempowered on this front by proxy, given how certain rhetorical cliches and ineffective practices continue to be the status quo.

In the article ‘Seizing history: development and non-climate change in Small Island Developing States’, Baldacchino (Department of Sociology, University of Malta) expresses his belief that the more sizeable cultural and political hegemonies seek to patronise SIDS through political and market-based manoeuvres which tend to pay lip service to the same islands’ needs in the face of climate change, but which however offer no tangible benefits in the longer term, and which may even be detrimental to the islands.

The migration quandary

One of the key factors to all of this – in a world order which Baldacchino recognises as becoming increasingly more comfortable with aggressive notions of nationalism – is the dynamic of migration, which does not sit comfortably with the overriding political and popular feeling in most countries.

“A large supporting cast of researchers, consultants, journalists, activists and celebrities are at hand to consolidate the plight of SIDS people as climate change victims, but not as environmental refugees, lest this nomenclature implicate other countries with responsibilities”.

Indeed, one does not have to look too far ahead to notice just how volatile a notion migration is even locally – given how the ‘Ghaqda Patrijotti Maltin’ thought it appropriate to organise a ‘national protest’ against “foreigners in Malta” based on as-yet unverified claims regarding the supposed criminal behaviour of a Malta-based Bulgarian teen. However, Baldacchino argues that migration – previously characterised in the less contentious terms of ‘nomadism’ – was seen as an acceptable response to adverse natural phenomena.

But the current status quo dictates otherwise, resulting in an overarching tendency to expect SIDS to simply ‘pull their socks up’ and cultivate an attitude of “resilience” in response to their problems – an insidious back-handed compliment which, according to Baldacchino, has been doing serious damage.

“It is only the current historical epoch that has engendered the mainstreaming of mitigation and adaptation: with its array of states jealous of their territorial reach and border control and culture of ‘technological solutionism’ bred from the advances of science and engineering and their resulting hubris,” Baldacchino writes.

Resilience: an insidious narrative

Characterising the narrative of ‘resilience’ as largely an externalised imposition by the Western hegemony, Baldacchino observes that even at best, such an interpretation of the modus operandi of SIDS is inherently disempowering.

“There is no resilience without underlying vulnerability; the former exists because of and feeds off the latter. Adaptation and mitigation measures to boost resilience merely affirm, lock in and naturalise a condition of insecurity and threat; they do not interrupt or transcend the perennial state of emergency which prevents even the idea of a different, more emancipatory kind of collective agency.”

While Baldacchino’s observations are primarily culled from the dynamics of Caribbean Islands – predominantly St Lucia – he foregrounds these concerns against an overarching cultural attitude that can leave its impact on small island states of all stripes, not least because even the example of “successful” small island states is rarely held up as a model of advancement for those who are struggling.

“The four European small states of Cyprus, Iceland, Ireland and Malta have all progressed away from being net recipients of UN or other multi-lateral largesse; yet, their impressive economic successes in recent years, hiccups notwithstanding, rarely feature in small state analysis as potential exemplars of ‘good practice’,” Baldacchino writes, adding that an insensitivity to the economics of scale inherent in small island states leads to the proposal of complacent and ultimately inefficient “solutions”.

“What this means is that the optics trump the efficiencies: spending a dollar of international aid in a small island state may be more visible but ultimately produces a poorer return on investment than if the same dollar were invested in a larger state.”

Need to address specific realities

All of this points to the need for a more sensitive and contextual understanding of the nitty-gritty realities of small island states, in favour of wide-ranging efforts pushed forward by international “elites”, but which would have little or no impact on SIDS as they prepare for the fallout of climate change. Baldacchino identifies this tension as arising from a contrasting view of the future and the present. The impacts of climate change are often pitched within the framework of “the future”, while SIDS would be more burdened with securing their present, Baldacchino argues.

“In a sense, the future has arrived with a very solid knock on the door of the present, thanks to climate change action: no other current and well-funded projects, programmes and pursuits seek to impact on development agendas with a view to future (rather than present) scenarios as much as climate change,” Baldacchino writes, noting the irony implicit in this reality.

While Malta appears to be somewhat ‘exempt’ from the more explicit challenges of its Caribbean counterparts on this front, its vulnerability to climate change remains a tangible reality.

A recent article published in The European Journal of Agronomy which considered the level of preparedness of Gozitan farmers for climate change posited a stark warning.

“Adverse climatic impacts... make small island states [Malta and Gozo included] amongst the most vulnerable countries in the world to climate change, where national adaptation efforts are often constrained because of their resultant cost,” the paper penned by penned by Charles Galdies, A. Said, L. Camilleri and M. Caruana (University of Malta), stated.