After a major UN report last week warned about the impact of human-induced climate change, environmental experts help Fiona Galea Debono forecast the worst-case scenario for Malta.
It is 2100. After little effort to cut emissions, the world is 3.3˚C hotter and in Malta, beach days have become a thing of the past – most people shelter indoors to avoid heatstroke.
Those who do brave the water could find they are swimming with alien new arrivals, some venomous and toxic, attracted by higher sea temperatures.
Neither would you be able to tuck in to a plate of spaghetti ai ricci, as sea urchins have become a casualty of the hotter water.
Other items have also begun to disappear from the menus as agriculture loses its heated battle.
While more intense summers impact tourism and the economy, things are not looking much brighter for winter.
When combined with rising sea levels, extreme storms, resulting from higher sea surface temperatures, will damage coastal properties, severely impacting local business.
Government spending is redirected to clearing and repairing more frequent and intense infrastructure damage.
According to environmental experts who spoke to Times of Malta, this is a burning snapshot of life in Malta at the end of the century if humanity continues to ignore the “code red” sounded by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report published last week.
By 2100, it will not be very different from living in parts of the Middle East, according to Prof. Louis Cassar, director of the Institute of Earth Systems at the University of Malta.
Drawing comparisons, he recalls from experience drivers keeping a stationary car engine running for over an hour so they can enjoy the air conditioning.
The scenario here is heading in that direction and not-so-distant future generations will “not be holding us in high esteem for the environmental devastation they are to inherit,” he maintains.
“Our legacy will be just that.”
Whichever way they choose to fill their days between 9am and 4pm, it would have to involve an air conditioner, piling even more pressure on the electrical grid.
The outdoors would be a no-go zone as the island, in time, would either become uninhabitable for many or require adaption to a very different lifestyle, with related hardships, he predicts.
Cassar described the impending situation as “dire”, with much suffering ahead, adding that people do not understand the gravity.
“I am not an alarmist; I deal in science not melodrama, but it is also about social justice and the negativity that will emerge from this,” he states.
In a worsening climate scenario, some of the first to suffer economically would be people who work outdoors.
Cassar also expects the welfare gap to widen considerably, with the poor becoming poorer, coupled by “unimaginable” daily hardships and higher water and electricity tariffs, which few governments could afford to subsidise.
The long-term prognosis for a small island state without rivers, lakes or snowmelt is “not a jolly one”, Cassar suggests, pointing out that the Maltese use water like the island has all these resources.
A switch from semi-aridity to hyper-aridity will see far less naturally occurring freshwater in the system, which will have an impact on vegetation, agriculture and domestic needs, he forecasts.
If Malta switched off every bulb and light source today, it would make a negligible difference on the level of the planet, Cassar admits.
But if the country preserved open green spaces and created appropriate woodlands in and around urban areas, the chances of minimising the influence of ‘urban heat islands’ would be far greater.
Unless we change our lazy, let’s-take-the-easiest-way-out attitude and the endless fake-green policies, we are going to be living in a much harsher Malta
Built-up areas become much warmer than areas with soft landscaping, and vegetation tends to reduce the health risks associated with exposure to heat.
Unless “real” mitigation measures are introduced immediately, Cassar is not optimistic about local outcomes, saying upcoming generations will not be as pampered as today, thinking they can always turn to the government to solve their problems.
Among these future inhabitants will be environmental resource manager Brian Restall’s four-year-old son – 84 in 2100.
“It may seem far-fetched, but it is looking more likely that this is where our children will end up,” Restall admits.
“I am obviously concerned and considering all options for him already.”
Restall’s major concern remains disruptions in world trade routes and food supply, so teaching children resilience, basic food production and scouting skills becomes important.
Higher temperatures underwater are another hazard to marine living communities, which are already subjected to multiple stressors, says Malta’s Ocean Governance Ambassador Prof. Alan Deidun.
Expect an already evident influx in Maltese waters of non-native species originating from the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Think highly invasive lionfish, blue swimmer crab, nomadic jellyfish – their survival is becoming more viable, the marine biologist warns.
The incidence of heat-related deaths is likely to increase, especially among the elderly, says James Ciarlò, a post-doctoral fellow with the International Centre for Theoretical Physics in Trieste.
The predicted worst-case scenario of a rise in 3.3°C is a global mean temperature increase, which suggests pockets of even higher increases, he explains.
Malta will be an area of higher temperatures because of its climate. Moreover, the duration of these high temperatures throughout the day will be longer and last for days.
That is why he predicts it would be more dangerous to go to the beach, with higher chances of heatstroke and hospitalisation.
As some countries are more heavily impacted by climate change, this will lead to a rise in migration in the Mediterranean too, he predicts.
He warns of more frequent and intense summer heatwaves, like those experienced so far this year.
Precipitation will decrease, especially in summer, with increased droughts leading to a higher risk of fires, especially in protected nature sites.
The biggest challenge is that desertification is a slow change – a process that has been happening for 100 years and is getting even worse now.
With an increase of 1.09 °C in the global surface temperature, the future is looking “very unpleasant” for Ciarlò too.
“Unless we change our lazy, let’s-take-the-easiest-way-out attitude, and the endless fake-green policies, we are going to be living in a much harsher Malta,” Ciarlò warned.
“The ‘paradise island’ we enjoy bragging about so much will be nothing but a dream of the past.”
What exactly is desertification?
The phenomenon of desertification is not about shifting sands, camels and bedouins.
As opposed to desert environments, which occur naturally and are formed mainly through climatic conditions and complex weathering processes, this is about the change that results from a breakdown and subsequent loss of biological productivity, Prof. Louis Cassar explains.
“The drier the prevailing climate, the more likely it is for dryland degradation to occur, whether through natural dynamics or mismanagement of land resources, therefore, abetted by humankind.”
Deforestation, habitat fragmentation, accelerated soil erosion due to agricultural malpractices, induced changes in groundwater regimes and alteration of soil chemistry are among the primary triggers of desertification, Cassar points out.
A phenomenon that has long impacted Malta, it is now very likely to exacerbate, he warns.
The heat is on
The landmark IPCC report warned that the 1.5˚C temperature increase limit of the Paris Agreement would likely be breached around 2030 – a decade earlier than it had projected just three years ago.
Presenting five future pictures, based on how much the world manages to reduce carbon emissions, in the worst-case scenario, it could be around 3.3˚C hotter than now by the end of the century.
The most optimistic saw global temperatures overshooting the 1.5˚C target but dropping back to 1.4˚C by 2100.