A couple of weeks ago, and following a perfunctory spot of the requisite bickering, Parliament voted unanimously to declare a climate emergency.
Now I tend to raise an eyebrow every time our MPs find nothing at all to disagree about and vote quickly and unanimously. My antennae tell me that if even Edwin Vassallo is on board, something must be the matter.
The climate emergency vote is a case in point. The reason why Parliament was so loving and united is that the declaration is facile and hollow. I’d also call it inconsequential, except I think it actually does the cause a great disservice. So yes, there is a cause, and I am not about to deny that climate change is a serious issue.
In one of his essays, Bertrand Russell tells the story of a country parson who was in the habit of terrorising his flock with assurances of an imminent Second Coming and end of days. Things were getting fairly out of hand, and some parishioners took to spending their days in hushed prayer, away from work. That was until someone spotted the parson planting a tree in his garden.
From that moment on, his sermons were met with yawns and giggles.
The parson has spoken, so it’s worth looking at some examples of the kind of extreme emergency measures put into place in the days following the declaration.
Two weeks ago, the Malta Business Aviation Association held its first ever Malta Aviation Conference and Expo.
The Prime Minister and Minister Ian Borg assured the delegates that the government was busy creating the right conditions to make Malta an aviation hub. Among other things, this would involve ever-growing air traffic and landings.
Much the same was said by Minister Konrad Mizzi at another conference a couple of days earlier. Air Malta was on track to secure a new seasonal record. The number of flights had gone up by seven per cent in a year, and the airline was working to make possible ever-growing numbers of inbound and outbound tourists.
Last Sunday, Michelle Muscat’s Marigold Foundation held an event as part of what it calls ‘Movember’, a public awareness campaign for the prevention of prostate and testicular cancer. It involved a sort of rally in which up to 200 4x4 cars and trucks snaked their way on and off road from Birżebbuġa to Ħondoq in Gozo.
Hollow declarations of a climate emergency are the surest way to disaster. They effectively condition people to switch off
The logic was flawless: an event that has to do with plums must involve 4x4 kings-of-the-road, as opposed to bicycles and such. (Fairly sissy, those)
The point, however, is that Mrs Prime Minister mobilised a fleet of some of the most polluting vehicles that exist, plus a couple of carbon-happy ferry crossings, barely a week into the climate emergency.
Two weeks are an eternity in L-Aqwa Żmien, and I could go on giving examples of things done since the declaration that would turn Greta Thunberg’s hair white.
To declare an emergency is not simply to say that there is a problem. Rather, it is to emphasise urgency and to establish a moment, a turning point of some sort.
If I said that people sometimes fell ill and died, no one would think that was a medical emergency. Many might, if I said someone was about to die and rushed to phone an ambulance.
To declare a climate emergency and then proceed to do nothing drastic and urgent about it, is to peddle vacant rhetoric. The easiest way to appease the climate protestors is to give in to their one demand that does not require anything in particular, and certainly not in the present. Minister Jose Herrera assures us that, “by mid 2020, the government will declare a date when internal combustion engines will be banned”. Thus proving my point.
That’s the nice bit. Things get more serious when we think back to the country parson, and to the yawns and giggles that plagued him until his very own end of days.
As is, and for reasons that have been rehearsed to exhaustion, climate change is easy to shrug off. Bleaching corals off Australia and desertification in the Sahel are distant troubles when your most pressing challenge is how to beat the traffic to get your children to school on time.
No one particularly minds a longer Indian summer, and air conditioning is a push of a button away. And so on.
Which is why it is often said that the most difficult part of action on climate change is to get people to take it seriously.
It’s also an essential part, because no government will or can impose, say, taxes on air travel unless there is a strong popular and political consensus.
Hollow declarations of a climate emergency are the surest way to disaster. They effectively condition people to switch off (not in that sense, unfortunately). If I said my house was on fire and sat around eating a pie, people would understandably figure I was imagining things. If they called emergency at all, it would not be for a fire engine, but rather an ambulance.
‘There he goes again’, will the flock have said of their parson. It’s exactly what people say when their government declares a climate emergency one day, and an aviation hub and 4x4 rally the next. That, and the Business Aviation Association has promised to plant a tree for every single private jet that lands in Malta.