Hope lives in the younger generation… | Martin Galea De Giovanni

Prospects do not look good in the global battle against climate change. But environmentalist and Friends of the earth director MARTIN GALEA De GIOVANNI argues that youth activism represents the last bastion of hope, in a scenario that offers only gloom

Friends of the Earth director Martin DeGiovanni
Friends of the Earth director Martin DeGiovanni

Recent examples of extreme (and also unusual) weather seem to have reinforced the message that global warming is: a, an undeniable reality, despite climate change scepticism and; b, a threat that may conceivably wipe us all out. But… how much truth is there to that? Was the recent gale, with its 100+kph winds, really a symptom of climate change in action?

First of all, the phenomenon is more a case of ‘Global warming and climate change are used as interchangeable terms, yet they do not have the same meaning’. Global warming does not imply that climate everywhere around the globe will become uniformly warmer, but that the temperature of the Earth’s atmosphere is rising. This rise in temperature is what causes climate change, which manifests itself in melting glaciers, shifts in harvesting seasons, and changes in long term weather patterns. I’m not a climatologist, and it’s not easy to explain the full complexity of climate patterns in an interview. But weather is just what you experience on the day. It can vary quite drastically. Climate is measured over longer periods of time. To acquire accurate data on climate requires decades of research. Any change to the climate is going to affect weather patterns; but the effect is not obvious. Just because average temperatures are on the increase, it doesn’t follow that the weather, on any particular day, will get warmer. It could do the opposite, quite frankly. There are too many factors to go into, but just to mention one: ocean currents. Extreme weather, in parts of the world, is affected by warm current streams encountering colder temperatures… so global warming can and does cause extreme weather…

Fair enough, but it doesn’t follow that all extreme weather is caused by global warming. Let’s face it, we’ve always had violent storms in winter before…

Yes, undeniably. Storms do happen, and there were extreme gales in the past that we still talk about today… like the October 1982 storm, in which four people died…

… not to mention St Paul’s shipwreck in AD60…

[Nodding]… and there were even storms that caused a lot of damage in the time of the Knights. One famous storm caused a lot of damage even in the Grand Harbour, costing the Knights around half their fleet. It was before the breakwater existed, naturally… but still it must have been pretty extreme. So storms do happen, and have always happened. What stands out today, however, is not just the severity of individual storms… but their frequency. It is increasing. Weather patterns are also changing: especially in terms of rainfall. Malta, for instance, is experiencing extremes in rainfall: either drought, like we faced during the last few winters… or heavy downpours causing flash-floods. Our climate is becoming more arid; more ‘desert-like’. Our rainfall patterns are just like those of a desert. Very little annual precipitation; but when it rains, it literally pours. This is incidentally causing a lot of concern in Malta’s agricultural sector. Bee-keepers, for instance, are particularly concerned. So while we can’t talk of individual storms as examples of climate change… the increased frequency does indicate a pattern. It all points in a very clear direction. The scientific consensus is that, unfortunately, we really have reached the ‘do-or-die’ stage…

That indeed is the consensus of the scientific community. But as we all know, climate change scepticism remains rife… and there are also enormous vested interests in resisting measures to reduce emissions, etc. In a nutshell, our entire economic model – basically, consumerism – seems to be geared up to perpetuate the problem. Yet when it comes to proposing solutions, the suggestions always seem to translate into a burden to be borne by the individual consumer: i.e, the end-person buying the product or using the service… not the system itself. Is that an accurate assessment, first of all?

I would say that capitalism was the system that brought a lot of problems to nature and the environment; and climate change is only one of them. To be honest, I don’t think that the same system will ever be the one to solve this problem. It is built in such a way that ‘economic growth’ eclipses all other concerns. That approach will not get us anywhere, quite frankly. So, I do think that alternative systems [to capitalism] need to be explored. But I’ll come back to this later. The other part of your question touches on a myth that I think needs to be exploded. There is this perception that in a consumerist society, the consumer can solve the problem by simply consuming less, or consuming different products. But it’s a myth. A myth that was built into the same system, actually. Because basically, the only ones who can bring about the change are the owners of the means of production. Now: this doesn’t mean that the consumer can’t make any difference at all. We do support alternative, eco-friendly products; in fact, we support small scale initiatives which supply, Fairtrade, plastic-free and organic goods, and so on. We have to be careful, however, not to buy into the perception that initiatives such as this, on their own, can somehow ‘solve’ climate change. Obviously, if you can avoid using plastic, please do so. It does help. But on its own, without any change to the system that brought about the problem, it is not going to be effective…

But if the world’s global mega-corporations are (or feel) unaffected by the threat… if the oil industry continues to generate billions in profit, and pays lobbyists to counter scientific advice on climate change with propaganda… what impetus do they have to change their own work practices?

Well, there are two sides even to the capitalist model. Some global industries are unconcerned – for now – but that is beginning to change. Certain sectors are beginning to worry about their future profitability. Agriculture, for instance… and I mean the international giants of the food industry, not just the small-scale, artisanal sector… and especially insurance. These sectors know they will suffer. They are now very worried, actually. But then, on the other side, the oil producing companies remain very sceptical. And they are now also distracting from the issue, by diversifying into ‘renewables’. To be honest, the global media has also played a part in this: they did not do a great job of projecting the scientific principle of evidence-based research. It was more like: ‘Here’s the expert, and here’s the climate change sceptic’. In other areas, this sort of ‘balanced’ approach might even work. But not with scientific issues. There is a difference between a scientific observation, and a personal opinion…

And yet, ‘capitalism’ also hinges on the principle of ‘demand and supply’. There is an argument that, if the demand for harmful products does drop, as a result of greater awareness, etc… so will the supply. An example of local relevance might be electric cars. A few years ago, it was almost unheard of for Maltese people to ’want’ an electric car. Today, importers are bringing them in by the cargo-load. Isn’t this an example of capitalism bringing about change?

It’s actually a good example of what I’m saying. I had an electric car myself, up to a few years ago. If you ask me, electric cars merely shift the problem to somewhere else. They still require power; and unless you know as a fact that the energy you use comes from solar, or wind… for all you know, you might still be relying on fossil fuels. Ultimately, an electric car is as ‘clean’ as the source of its electricity. If the energy is being imported through the interconnector, and we don’t know the original source… in our case, we don’t really get to see where our interconnector is getting its energy from. I tried to obtain this information myself, without any success. So it could be nuclear… coal… anything, really. So even if the cars themselves pollute less, they still contribute to global pollution. And there are other issues: traffic congestion, parking problems, and other such issues which will not be solved by electric cars. They might even make matters worse: most electric cars are, in fact, bigger than conventional ones. And when you see a truck pumping out black clouds of exhaust… you can see the pollution with your own eyes. With electric cars, it’s out of sight...

… and therefore, out of mind. I see what you’re saying, but at the same time it doesn’t leave us citizens with many options. If individuals are powerless to have an affect through their own choices, and the economic model has no intention of reforming itself… it suggests that change can only be achieved through a thorough, radical shake-up of the entire system. How realistic is that? And is it really a case of drastic measures for drastic times?

We must be realistic about how drastic the problem really is. Unfortunately, we are now bracing ourselves for the next stage: a total collapse of eco-systems. This is now already being mentioned in the mainstream media as well. Since the 1970s, around 60% of all mammals, birds, reptiles and fish have been completely wiped out. Not in terms of species going extinct; but in terms of populations… More recent studies are now showing that the same or even worse is happening with insects.

At the risk of a controversial question: how much does the global human population, in and of itself, contribute to the problem? There are seven billion human beings on the planet, all plugged into a system that promotes consumerism at all costs…

I’ve been meaning to write about the population factor for some time now. To me, the issue has more to do with inequality, than the global population in itself. To give an example: there are individuals – individuals, not countries – in places like the USA, who consume as much power and resources as an entire small community somewhere else. A single super rich individual can cause as much damage as an average person does in five years. I don’t have the exact figures at my fingertips, but this clearly shows that there is a huge gap between high-end and low-end consumption. It’s astonishing, quite frankly. Then there’s also a question about energy poverty. Friends of the Earth Europe was recently involved in a study which measured the energy poverty levels in the 28 EU member states. How much energy is needed to heat or cool homes; how much clean energy is used for transport, etc. We then gave a score based on the sustainability of the energy model. Malta, for instance, came in at 17, out of 28 countries…

Not a very high score… out of curiosity, how did other countries do?

At number one, with 95%, was Sweden; Bulgaria was at the bottom of the table…

This raises the question of what Malta is doing – or even what Malta can do, given its size – to counter climate change. As I recall, we still have Kyoto Protocol targets to reach by 2020 – next year – and it Is an open secret that we are not going to meet them, or even come close. Is it simply too late to do anything now? And if not: what can tiny Malta do, anyway?

Let’s be honest: even if Malta did go 100% green and renewable… it would still have negligible impact on the global production of CO2. But while we are too small to make a tangible impact, we are not too small to be an example to the rest of the world. Malta could make a difference, if it showed the world that a small country can still meet its international obligations on climate change. But you’re right, we’re not going to meet them. There was a letter in the papers just yesterday, by Maltese academics, complaining about the inaction that led to this very fact. It might not have been the most forceful statement ever made; but it was good to see Maltese academia taking a clear stand. More significantly still, from my perspective, we also saw Maltese youths participating in a global initiative organised by students. That was particularly refreshing, because there used to be a lot of apathy among University students in the past. To be fair, though, it does seem to be changing. So yes, there are still things we can still do. As for whether it’s too late… I don’t think it’s too late to start implementing and enforcing existing laws, for example. Malta enacted a climate change law some years ago; and on paper, government is obliged to do all sorts of things that it is not doing…

I hate to say it, but the picture you paint is still rather bleak. Governments don’t abide by the treaties they ratify; industry has no motivation to change… and in the local scenario, we also have an entire regulatory framework that is designed to perpetuate the status quo. The Planning Authority sanctions illegalities, the ERA turns a blind eye to environmental and resources issues… yet you talk of hope. What hope is there, really?

As you can see from the poster on the wall behind me, ‘Hope’ is in fact what we are working on right now. I wouldn’t give up hope just yet. It might be the only thing we have left [laughing] But yes, I am hopeful that change will come from younger generations. The student protest I mentioned earlier is a case in point. I was relieved to see such a turnout: not just because past environmental protests have traditionally been poorly attended, but because it indicates that attitudes, among the young, are changing. The only thing I didn’t like was the sight of all those politicians jumping on their bandwagon. They weren’t exactly ‘youths’… most of them, at any rate. To be honest, I myself chose not to attend. I think my generation and earlier should be very ashamed of not having done very much, in so many years. But that, to me, is where hope lies. The younger generation sees things differently. They will be the ones leading communities in future; and I believe that change – if it comes at all – will come from within communities, not from the present, failed system.

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