A lawyer by profession, a humanitarian by nature and an outspoken academic by design, Prof. David Attard's efforts won Malta international acclaim for its role on climate change. On the eve of the climate summit, he speaks to Caroline Muscat.

Back in the 1980s, when climate change was described as science fiction, a young Maltese professor was busy conceiving a strategy to combat a problem which came to the fore several years later.

David Attard's role then as his country's adviser to the UN was so significant that Malta was subsequently one of only 12 countries to be invited to a secret meeting to draw up the rules.

His effort helped establish climate change as "the common concern of mankind" in 1988, in the first UN General Assembly Resolution on Climate Change.

Now, sitting in his office at the International Maritime Law Institute (IMLI) at University, Prof. Attard tells The Sunday Times that the future of Malta depends on a positive outcome in Copenhagen.

"As an island state, Malta is at the forefront of the negative impacts of climate change," Prof. Attard says.

Sea level rise, water shortages, desertification, reduced agricultural yields, unbearably hot temperatures, are all among the impacts predicted for Malta (see page 10,11).

Because there is so much at stake, he says Malta's effort to influence the international debate needs to be reconsidered.

He praises Malta's "respected" Ambassador on Climate Change, Michael Zammit Cutajar, who has long been at the centre of negotiations for the summit.

But then, Prof Attard turns to political will.

"In 1988, Malta had two extremely committed personalities: Eddie Fenech Adami and ÄŠensu Tabone... Malta still participates, it hasn't disappeared, but I don't believe it is as high profile as it was back then."

Prof. Attard's view carries weight. Every year some 30 governments from all over the world send their brightest legal advisers to be trained under his wing. One of the countries that calls on his expertise in international law is the Maldives - a country facing the threat of being wiped out by rising sea levels.

The Maldives' call for the world to pay attention to its cause grabbed media attention, particularly when its President recently held a Cabinet meeting underwater to prove a point. After Nepal's Cabinet met at the Mount Everest base camp last Friday, perhaps Prime Minister Lawrence Gonzi could make use of Filfla to draw attention to Malta's shrinking coastline. Perhaps not. But Malta could do with a rallying cry, he says.

Prof. Attard says Malta's efforts in the 1980s are worth revisiting, particularly the moment when Dr Fenech Adami, who was Prime Minister, received a call from the then French Prime Minister Michel Rocard.

"Malta was one of 12 countries called to a secret meeting to come up with a blueprint to create an agency empowered to take measures against offenders."

The opposition at that time, "when climate change was seen as science fiction", meant the resultant Hague Declaration was watered down. But Malta planted the seed over 20 years ago. Now, he says, the big world economies took over:

"For the first time in the history of environmental politics, we have taken the economic and free market route. Today, you can go to the London Stock Exchange and trade emissions like you trade gold. This is too vital to allow the free market to take care of. I think we need to revisit regulation, which was the basis of the Malta government intervention in 1988."

That is why the effort in Copenhagen is important. Climate change is a global issue that has local consequences. And these efforts on the international front are also linked to immigration flows.

"Africa is facing the problem of desertification and water shortage, so the pressure on human beings to go to wealthier economies is on the up. Policies such as mitigation of the negative effects help to reduce the pressure of economic refugees."

This is an issue the Prime Minister, who will join world leaders in Copenhagen, also raised in Parliament.

But when it comes to garnering international action, Prof. Attard says "it appears that more attention is given to one (immigration) over the other (climate change)."

While immigration is a hot issue in Malta, there has also been a formidable increase in consciousness on climate change. A Eurobarometer survey published last Wednesday shows that 60 per cent of Maltese think it important to fight climate change.

As a nation, Malta also has to meet its obligations at home, Prof. Attard says. Greenhouse gas emissions must be reduced and renewable energy encouraged. Energy efficiency is fundamental, he says: It's a win-win situation.

"We are going to live with the idea that unless we change our efficiency habits there will be consequences, not just of an economic nature," he adds.

He believes in the potential of intelligent technology to combat climate change, saying the adoption of smart meters will encourage efficiency and reduce theft.

Prof. Attard, however, is less enthusiastic about efforts currently in place to reduce energy consumption: "Taxation is not necessarily the best way to change habits." Incentives work better, he insists.

The answer to reducing energy consumption, he insists, is not necessarily the one adopted now, by making it too expensive for people to use.

"When you consider that oil is so expensive, particularly in Malta if you do manage to get your calculations right, there is a considerable amount of saving in foreign exchange to be made if you get people to reduce oil consumption."

What Malta could save from buying less oil could be invested as incentives towards energy efficiency, he says.

He feels Malta must also instil in its young citizens the idea of energy efficiency: "Schoolchildren have to start being taught the values of sustainable development, the importance of efficiency, of saving resources. I really believe we have to become aggressive on this front."

The benefits are obvious, he says, and Malta cannot afford not to take the step. He says the time when the science was dubious is over. He refers to the conclusions of the body set up to provide an authoritative view on the science of climate change - the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which has been awarded the Nobel Prize for its work.

It concluded that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal and is very likely to be due to the observed increase in greenhouse gas concentrations, resulting from the burning of fossil fuels.

The effects on the world are already being witnessed. He refers to a statement made last week by Helen Clark, the administrator of the UN Development Programme, that "developing countries are bearing the brunt of climate change now. It is not something that might happen in 10, 20, 30 years' time".

This inevitably leads to the recent 'Climategate' scandal, when thousands of sensitive documents and e-mails were stolen from the Climatic Research Unit of the University of East Anglia, UK. The documents were anonymously disseminated over the internet, and climate change sceptics asserted that the e-mails showed collusion by climate scientists to withhold scientific information.

Other prominent climate scientists have dubbed the incident a smear campaign and an attempt to sabotage the Copenhagen global climate summit.

Prof. Attard thinks this development is, "at most, embarrassing". But it does not jeopardise the IPCC's credibility - when it was set up "we ensured that it wasn't just scientists; it includes diplomats, economists and lawyers."

He goes back in time to the original effort in 1988: "I was seeking a commitment by the Assembly to adopt a future international treaty to combat climate change. I met formidable opposition from industrial states and oil-producing states. They argued that the scientific evidence was uncertain. But now we know that the tragedy is just too great to take the risk."

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