Part of the solution | Michael Zammit Cutajar

As Malta joined 171 countries in signing the Paris Agreement on Climate Change last week, UN executive MICHAEL ZAMMIT CUTAJAR outlines the significance of the historic deal

Michael Zammit Cutajar
Michael Zammit Cutajar

Not long ago I ran into an old friend while out and about on a spectacularly sunny day… in the middle of January. We both commented on the extraordinary spell of good weather we were having for that time of year… and this friend of mine cracked a joke that would get stuck in my memory.

“It’s a pity we’re talking about ‘global warming’, and not global freezing,” he pointed out. “If the news was all about how winters were going to get colder and more miserable, we’d probably already have solved the problem by now. But weather like this? Who would want to change that?”

He was joking, of course… yet there seems to be an element of truth to his observation. Last week, Malta became one of 171 signatories to the Paris Agreement on Climate Change; but even as countries agree on a common strategy to counter global warming, scepticism continues to run high.

Not only is the global economy still largely dependent on fossil fuels – and (in the case of many countries, including Malta) still very far from achieving their UN renewable targets – but there is also a perception that various cataclysmic predictions have so far failed to come true.
And even if cases of extreme weather – or, in our case, extreme drought – seem to have become more commonplace, they are notoriously difficult to put down exclusively to global warming; and even then, to conclude that the warming is itself down exclusively to human intervention.

Just before this interview with Michael Zammit Cutajar – who, in 1991, helped set up the interim secretariat that would eventually become the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) – I watched a short UN-produced documentary he sent me on the subject. Informative though it was, there were nonetheless several admissions that various effects of global warming (such as, for instance, rising ocean acidity) are impossible to actually predict.

There seem to be too many ‘don’t knows’ in this equation. Even if scientists worldwide are in almost unanimous agreement on the issue, the abundance of question marks makes it too easy for people (and, more pointedly, countries) to adopt a ‘wait-and-see’ approach.
This creates added problems for people like Zammit Cutajar, whose job is in part to convince the world – through the United Nations – that this really is a global problem that requires urgent attention. Does he encounter this kind of resistance himself… and how does he respond to it?

“It is very difficult to get the point across,” he concedes. “Take the Paris agreement itself, for instance. On paper, it binds signatories to limit global warming to within 2 degrees. What is 2 degrees? To most people it sounds like nothing; it’s the sort of temperature change that happens every day, between morning and evening. And yes, warmer winters are not an unattractive prospect… even I myself commented earlier this year about ‘what a wonderful winter’ we had in Geneva. In fact, we didn’t have a winter at all. So it’s true that, at first sight, it might not seem so bad. But the reality is that we are looking at long-term trends…”

As for responding to scepticism, he prefers to leave that to climate change scientists. “I’ve been immersed in this issue for 20 years… but not as a scientist. In my case, it’s more a question of whether I have trust in the process that produces, every five years, a scientific assessment by the intergovernmental climate change panel. The answer is yes. There are masses of scientists contributing to this: they can’t all be conspiracy theorists. The ratio of those who think this is a problem, against those who think it isn’t, is immense. As Al Gore pointed out in his film ‘An Inconvenient Truth’, it is something like 900 to 10….”

How does he account for so much resistance to the idea, then?

“I don’t think there really is all that much resistance. I’m afraid to say that climate change scepticism is partly a product of journalism: journalists love to say, ‘on one hand’, and ‘on the other’… just like economists. They will always bring out the other view, even if the other view has no credibility…”

As an example he points towards an article that appeared that same morning in the Financial Times. The headline was: ‘Clouds over Paris agreement’.

“There’s nothing new in what the article actually says, though; it just points out that there are 55 countries, that between them account for 55% of global emissions, which have yet to ratify the agreement. That’s not a ‘cloud’. That’s part of the conditions…”

Apart from journalists and economists, politicians too are often the cause. “If you follow the language of the IPPC reports, they’re extremely prudent. They don’t want to come out with a politically charged statement that can’t be proven. Otherwise, they’d be accused of looking for a political headline. But that, typically, is what politicians want. The yearning for a soundbite along the lines that ‘the world is going to end tomorrow’. But scientists will never tell you that. I remember, for instance, former British prime minister Gordon Brown saying: ‘This is our last chance to save the world’ at the Copenhagen summit in 2009. Of course it isn’t: the world is not going to disappear. But with politicians it is always cataclysmic, one way or the other. And the scientists keep plodding along in the background, hardening the evidence they have accumulated over the years…”

At the same time – not to stick up for politicians, or anything – they’re also the ones who have to take all the difficult decisions… not to mention shoulder the responsibility afterwards. Couldn’t all this scientific prudence therefore be counter-productive? Wouldn’t it be more direct and to the point for scientists to spell out exactly what politicians should be doing?

“That is another thing scientists will never say. They won’t tell you what to do… still less who should do it. Instead, they will say: ‘this is the likely result of this set of actions’. Then it’s up to governments to get the results they want. Even the targets that were agreed to in the Paris agreement are the result of political negotiations; they were set by countries, not scientists. They represent a political judgment, not a scientific opinion, on what can be done.

Speaking of which: the Paris Agreement has been hailed as a crucial step forward, even if (as Zammit Cutajar earlier pointed out) there has been conflicting coverage in the international press. But how important is it really?

“The agreement itself is a big political success, in that it brings all countries aboard the same boat. It will build on nationally-determined ‘best efforts’, strong accountability and five-yearly stocktaking aimed at increasing ambition. The details still have to be negotiated, but it definitely puts us all on the first step of a potential ‘Stairway to Heaven’…”

Nonetheless an agreement it remains. “When you sign an agreement, it means that it is your intention to ratify it and put it into effect. As yet, there isn’t the legal obligation to do so. Signing is largely symbolic, even if it is a politically important symbol…”

For Zammit Cutajar, however, the negotiations leading up to this agreement were arguably more revealing than the outcome.
“You can see that we’ve come a long way. At the beginning, some 20 years ago, I remember clearly how countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran, Venezuela and so on used to dismiss global warming as ‘nonsense’. Then you had China claiming it was ‘caused by sun-spots’, or something similar. This sort of thing has stopped. The Saudis no longer question the science behind climate change during negotiations. I think the younger generation of Saudi leaders are starting to look for ways to do things differently. They are reading the signs. And they have masses of solar power… if they can export it.”

Other previously sceptical countries have also changed their stance: some more recently than others. “A few weeks ago there was an under-the-counter move by a Third world lobby group that is very much against the agreement, arguing that it would be better to wait for the details to be hammered out before signing. This group was completely overridden by China, and later by India. China and the USA issued a joint statement – which they have been doing on this issue for some time now – to the effect that they intended to sign, and bring the agreement into force as early as possible.”

Does the agreement go far enough to address the problem, however?

“That depends on how individual countries go about implementing policies. If there is political consensus – as there is, now – that we need to do something about it, it follows that we have to look at policies that give incentives for certain actions and disincentives for others. A carbon tax, for example, so that what you pay for a car depends on its petrol consumption. Incentives to insulate buildings with double glazing… there are all sorts of measures that can be taken.”

Ultimately, he adds, this is an economic issue more than an environmental one.

“The underlying challenge is how we power our economies. On the surface it is also a scientific issue – albeit a different type of science – and there is a lot of investment in research and technology. But the most important thing is government policy. If governments sit back, there would be no economic incentive to find the new technology. But if you start steering the market towards the need for that, there would be a much greater response. Technological developers are in it to make money, at the end of the day; they are not philanthropists. The challenge, then, is to make it economically sensible to do the right thing.
Up until now, he adds, it has always been more economically sensible to do the wrong thing.

“This is why the Paris agreement is so important.”

Despite this apparent consensus, outstanding issues linger. “There are questions concerning the ratification of the agreement, which is done differently by different countries. Malta, for instance, will ratify the treaty; but the United States will not. This is because ‘ratification’, in the US, involves approval by the Senate. And there is a fear that the Senate – which is controlled by the Republicans, who also aspire to have a President soon – might block it. So the Americans have worked the whole thing out so that the agreement is covered by existing international commitments under the 1992 convention, or by existing US legislation. There’s nothing ‘new’ about it, so there’s no need for Senate approval. And because US approval was so indispensable for this agreement, that’s the way it was done… the quantitative conditions are not binding.”
This brings us to its local impact. Malta has added its signature to the 171: on paper, we have bound ourselves to the same conditions imposed on much larger and highly industrialised countries like America, China, and so on.

This may give rise to scepticism of a different nature: I myself have encountered arguments locally, along the lines that ‘climate change’ is not a problem that can conceivably be solved by small countries like Malta… whose actual contribution to greenhouse gas emissions (if you don’t count our national shipping register, which is among the largest in the world) is negligible.

So (these people argue – and I must stress that I don’t share their views) why should small countries like Malta ratify a treaty that will bind it to targets that are a) unrealistic, and b) ultimately useless anyway?

“First of all – not that it answers the question, but worth mentioning all the same – it was Malta that first put the item on the international agenda in 1988. It was one of the first international gestures of the incoming Nationalist government… which had done the same thing 20 years earlier, with the ‘law of the sea’. In that case, it was Avid Pardo; in this one it was David Attard – now a chancellor at the university – who was advising [foreign minister] Censu Tabone at the time. So if nothing else, one reason why Malta should take this issue seriously is that… we invented it.”

Does this mean that no one else had ever mentioned climate change before Malta brought it up in 1988? “No, it was being discussed at the time… earlier that same year, for instance, states acting through the UN environment programme had set up the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But procedurally speaking, the state that first placed it on the UN agenda was Malta. So 1988 was the year it all bubbled up, so to speak…”

Historical reasons apart, Zammit Cutajar rejects the view that Malta’s contribution would be in any way negligible.
“Malta is part of humanity; it is part of the international community, it is part of the EU. We have to do our bit. Our bit may be small, because we are so few in number. But there is a responsibility involved; it’s the same with human rights, and other global issues. We can’t sit back and say ‘this is not our problem’.”

But the most important reason to take action is another. “Malta will be affected, particularly insofar as our water supply is concerned. If we don’t join the movement towards action, however small our action may be, we will be shooting ourselves in the foot…”
This brings us to the question that science is traditionally reluctant to answer: how, exactly will Malta be affected?  Zammit Cutajar resists the type of apocalyptic scenarios portrayed in films like ‘The Day After Tomorrow’. “It won’t be cataclysmic; but it will make life more difficult. Malta has always had a water problem; the aquifer needs rain to be replenished; if there isn’t enough rain, we will have to produce more water from the sea… which consumes a lot of energy. There will undeniably be a cost. We are not in quite the same danger as a country like Tuvalu – which might disappear altogether, along with other Pacific island states. I would definitely not exaggerate the danger faced by Malta; but there will be consequences.”

Some might argue that these consequences are already being felt. Geneva is not the only country to have missed out on a winter; Malta is currently experiencing an unprecedented drought that has precipitated (ahem) public prayers for rain…
“Less rain is certainly one of the consequences… another is the possibility that with sea levels rising, the salinity of the aquifer will be increased. Having said this, I spoke to a local expert about this, and he argued that the possibility is remote. Since the Mediterranean is all but closed off, it has its own dynamics. All things told, Malta is not an island facing extinction; but we are facing the same desertification problems experienced by North Africa.”

On top of the immediate impact of rising temperatures, there are social and geopolitical consequences too. Global warming is a major push-factor in migration, for instance.

“In Bangladesh, there are large parts of the country – home to millions of people – which might be entirely underwater soon, because of a combination of rising sea levels and larger tidal waves. Those people will have to move. Desertification is also a prime contributor to migration in Africa, as is extreme weather everywhere – droughts, floods, and so on. There are plenty of reasons why all countries, Malta included, should be concerned. Naturally, it is not our action that will make the difference – as you say, we are too small to solve the problem – but we definitely have to be part of the movement towards a solution.”