Pope Francis has been called the “superman Pope”. But can he inspire action on climate change? He has just published a powerful indictment of the developed world’s unsustainable consumption, calling it “a dominant moral and ethical issue for society”. In an encyclical to 1.2 billion Catholics on climate change and human ecology, On the Care of Our Common Home, he has urged the world to act on moral and scientific grounds.
He will be addressing the United Nations General Assembly on the subject. And he will call a summit of the world’s main religions to make all people aware of the state of the global climate. He is placing the Catholic Church at the forefront of a new coalition of religion and science.
It is the Pope’s wish to influence directly this year’s crucial UN climate change meeting in Paris in December, when countries will try to conclude 20 years of fraught negotiations with a universal commitment to reduce carbon emissions from 2020 onwards.
For the conference in Paris to succeed, the major economies of the world – the US, China, Europe, India and others – must be ambitious about curbing greenhouse gas emissions. Clarity and certainty must prevail, so that every country knows what has to be done and business can see where to invest. It must be fair for all its participants, with time allowed for transition to new low-carbon technologies and to underwrite adaptation for those countries that will be worst affected by the impacts of global warming.
As to Malta, it is not too dramatic to state that if – as the science predicts –global warming continues on its upward path, within the next decades Malta will be, at best, largely unrecognisable from the island we know today and, at worst, an arid, thirsty, over-heated rock.
Adam Fenech, a climatologist at the University of Prince Edward Island in Canada, recently gave a stark warning of what lies in wait for Malta as a result of alterations in temperature over the next three decades, which he forecasts will see a further gradual increase of two degrees by 2050 (on top of the increase of almost one degree which has occurred since 1984).
He has made a strong plea “to implement policies now to start addressing the creeping impacts of climate change… The [forecast] increase in temperature is significant, dramatic and unprecedented.”
No one can predict the outcome of climate change, or its effects, with complete certainty. There are, indeed, legitimate concerns over particular details. But scientists now know enough to understand the risks. Global warming is no longer a theoretical phenomenon. Its potential damage is no longer an abstract proposition.
Global warming will affect Malta in many ways. The impact will lead to more extreme and haphazard weather patterns, with prolonged Saharan-style heatwaves, more intense rainy periods and longer, dryer spells. The escalating rise in temperature will be accompanied by severe water shortages as rainfall in Malta is drastically reduced “by some 12%, which is significant when the aquifer is already in a critical state”.
If global warming continues on its upward path, within the next decades Malta will be, at best, largely unrecognisable from the island we know today
Moreover “the predicted sea level rise could transform the landscape and affect buildings that are close to the sea in low-lying areas”, an impact which “would be further compounded by strong winds and storm surges battering the coast”.
Lack of water and moisture in the soil and rising sea levels will lead to increased salinity, crop yields will be diminished and “desertification” of the Maltese countryside will become unstoppable. The effects on our natural heritage landscapes, flora and fauna will be devastating.
Put starkly, climate change threatens the basic elements of life for people around the world, effects from which Malta will not be immune: access to water, food production, health, use of land, the economy, the impact on security through increased migration from people fleeing their climate-hit countries, and the ecology itself.
We would not be Maltese if we did not recognise intellectually the likely physical effects of global warming while, at the same time, being unwilling to acknowledge that our own lives will alter. If climate change goes unchecked, our way of life and the very culture of Malta would be profoundly altered. We might be afraid of the impending disaster, but are also confident that we can somehow be spared the worst consequences of global warming.
The central message which Fenech strongly conveyed was that Malta should start preparing now for future climate change impacts. A long-term adaptation and mitigation plan to cope with the effects needs to start now. This includes, inter alia, identifying the areas which will be prone to sea flooding and building appropriate flood defences; drawing up a comprehensive water policy framework plan to ensure the survival of the mean sea level aquifer; and developing comprehensive mitigation and adaptability plans to protect our cultural heritage.
By their nature these are costly long-term infrastructure projects. But the temptation to postpone them must be resisted. As Fenech said, we should “start now and increase [our] efforts over time”.
Invariably, climate change is simply expressed, as I have just done, in terms of impacts on the physical environment, health, security and welfare. But this is to miss an important part of the bigger picture. If the threat of climate change is largely described in terms of the physical environment, then the prospect of achieving global consensus for action to avert climate change will risk falling short.
However, if the effects are also couched in terms of “the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor”, as the Pope has done, the path to wider international understanding – and thus support for climate change action (be it mitigation or adaptation) – should be more achievable. There will be a greater willingness to embrace essential reforms if the effects are seen in terms of the cultural, human and societal impacts.
The reality is that climate change will affect social sustainability. It will fundamentally jeopardise cultural practices. It will hit the poorest in the world. It will undermine connectivity with place. If the integrity of the world’s environmental heritage is destabilised then social dislocation will follow.
What is needed is a properly conducted and comprehensive climate change risk assessment of Malta’s cultural heritage and a management plan of those important historical sites exposed to climate change or natural disaster hazard.
The management plan should form the basis for the implementation of effective preventive or adaptive measures: the adjustments needed in response to actual or expected climatic changes with a view to mitigating them.
We need to take these steps and possibly incur costs now to avoid the risk of very severe consequences on our cultural heritage in the future.
Concern about the undoubted effects of climate change should lead to a comprehensive programme of adaptation and protective conservation measures being put in place now, rather than later. We cannot afford complacency where something as fundamental as a country’s own physical landscape, cultural heritage and identity are concerned.
This is how a sensible government, genuinely concerned about the Maltese environment, would act – rather than exploiting it and slapping nature in the face as is currently happening, motivated by greed, at Żonqor Point and elsewhere.