Warning in a circled hour-glass: a new Maltese generation demands action on climate change

The extinction symbol – a circled hour-glass – is fast becoming the brand for a global rebellion triggered by the threat of mass extinction. Activist Samuel Muscat speaks about the relevance of the new movement to Malta

Like a growing part of his generation, Samuel Muscat is frustrated by lack of action in his own country. “Where is the grand plan to decarbonise? Where is the plan to reach net zero emissions ideally by 2025, but at least by 2050?”
Like a growing part of his generation, Samuel Muscat is frustrated by lack of action in his own country. “Where is the grand plan to decarbonise? Where is the plan to reach net zero emissions ideally by 2025, but at least by 2050?”

Climate change is no longer something which can be relegated to an apocalyptical but distant future. June 2019 was the hottest ever recorded locally and in absence of action, scientists are warning of a snowball effect which may lead to the breakdown of civilisation and possible mass extinction.

“We are at a stage where the climate is 1 degree warmer than it was in the Holocene epoch, the period in which our civilisation developed, and it is warming at a pace of 0.18 to 0.24 degrees Celsius a decade. We are in uncharted territory, and if we do not limit warming to 1.5 degrees, our world is going to change radically in the span of our lifetime,” says Samuel Muscat, with the sense of urgency characteristic of the new global movement of which he forms part.

Climate change also means a change in everyday life, with certain pests surviving milder winters and adding another strain on Malta’s farming industry. Millions of people will have to migrate to have a chance of survival, given diminishing zones of habitability that 3-5 degrees of climate change will entail.

Muscat is a 26-year-old chemistry graduate who cycles on a regular basis and grows trees at home so they can be used in afforestation projects. He also forms part of the Green Party, having unsuccessfully contested local elections in May. Together with a small number of other activists he has set up a Maltese ‘branch’ of Extinction Rebellion, an international movement that uses non-violent civil disobedience in an attempt to halt mass extinction and “minimise the risk of social collapse”.

The movement hit the headlines in 1 October 2018, when activists, including prominent scientists, assembled on Parliament Square in London to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK Government. In the next few weeks 6,000 activists, including Greta Thunberg, who inspired the school strike for climate movement, converged in London to peacefully block five major bridges across the Thames.

Like a growing part of his generation Muscat is frustrated by lack of action in his own country.

“We should be witnessing a huge push towards renewable energy, adapting our infrastructure, greening our urban areas to reduce the urban heat island effect… Instead we have a war on trees, carbon emissions that continue to rise, and a minister who praises himself for concreting over more and more of the island.”

We have to be clear: individual action is like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol. We need to overhaul the system

He also presents a clear demand to the Maltese government: that of declaring a climate emergency.

“Where is the grand plan to decarbonise? Where is the plan to reach net zero emissions ideally by 2025, but at least by 2050?”

Samuel Muscat and fellow activists have participated in protests against the uprooting of trees in Attard and Santa Lucija. As a science graduate he refutes the prevailing logic of pitting “emotional” tree huggers against all-knowing technocrats.

He warns that induced demand will limit the effectiveness of road-widening. “The scientists and experts will tell you that road-widening is futile and will only lead to negative effects, they will tell you that we need to urgently act on climate change and carry out large scale mobilisation to do so. Current policy is not done with the advice of scientists and academics, but business interests who stand to profit from it”.

And he questions the prevailing idea of progress. “We are very much in favour of progress; it’s just that the people making decisions have a very different definition of what progress is. For them progress is increasing GDP at all costs – which doesn’t mean better quality of life, just the rich getting richer – ad infinitum, as if our economy can just grow forever”.

Extinction Rebellion hit the headlines on 1 October 2018, when activists, including prominent scientists, assembled on Parliament Square in London to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK Government
Extinction Rebellion hit the headlines on 1 October 2018, when activists, including prominent scientists, assembled on Parliament Square in London to announce a Declaration of Rebellion against the UK Government

He is taken aback by arguments that those arguing against road widening should consistently give up on any activity harming the environment.

“Yes. It is quite difficult to reply to such inane arguments. A case in point is that after the protest against the central link project they came out of the woodwork saying, ‘Aha, but you wrote on cardboard did you not? Checkmate!”

In reality we are all “thrown in a society based on fossil fuels and then we are made to feel guilty for participating in it, for even existing, while the industries that orchestrated the environmental damage are left off the hook… And while we are all testing each other’s’ purity, the main polluter is forgotten.”

Those making such arguments also perpetuate the stereotype that environmentalists are just a group of “privileged elites” who do not understand that people’s livelihoods depend on polluting practices.

“The reality is that the working-class and the most vulnerable in society will suffer the most from climate change, while the people profiting from polluting can buy their escape from it. This is why we can’t just ask people to change their lives but need systemic change and a just transition”.

Therefore, for Muscat there is “no need for the perfect” and “any step is a positive one.”

But individual actions on their own will not solve anything.

“We have to be clear: individual action is like trying to put out a house fire with a water pistol. We need to overhaul the system.”

Extinction Rebellion is still in its infancy in Malta. But they already have a date in mind when they are organising the International Climate Strike and that is on 20 September.

But why another environmental NGO in a country where there is already a crowded field?

Muscat argues that having many NGOs is in itself a reflection of the times we live in.  “This speaks volumes of the dire straits we are currently in and the government’s negligence of environmental policy.”

What distinguishes Extinction Rebellion from other NGOs is its focus on “climate crisis and ecological collapse and carrying out direct action to pressure the government to act”. The other difference is that in identifying with a recognisable global brand. “People can easily associate us with what is happening abroad, this is after all a global issue.”

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