Writing off future generations

Our actions today are a first draft in designing the future. They are tomorrow’s blueprint. Our future as well as that of future generations.

The ice sheets are melting at a faster rate than ever before. The resulting sea-level rise will obliterate coastal settlements around the globe. Even the Maltese islands will be impacted by a sea-level rise, irrespective of its magnitude. The larger the sea-level rise the more severe the impacts.

On a global level the sea is rising around 3 millimetres per annum. This varies with region. This variation may be insignificant to the naked eye and as result many would not even notice it.

No one can state with certainty as to how much the sea level will eventually rise. It is however clear to the scientific community that an increase in the mean global temperature is a major contributor. Islands and coastal communities all around the world will bear the brunt of this sea-level rise.

In the Pacific Ocean the sea has risen at a rate of three times the global average. A number of low-lying islands have already disappeared below the sea.  In the Indian Ocean, The Maldives, a major touristic destination, risks losing 77 per cent of its land with a 50-centimetre sea-level rise. It will completely disappear if the sea level rises to a metre or more.  

There is a time lag between our actions and sea-level rise such that we can substantially decrease sea-level rise in the future if we act appropriately now.

This is the reason underlying the EU’s policy of carbon neutrality, that is taking steps to ensure that net carbon emissions are reduced to zero by 2050, preferably earlier.

The Mediterranean Sea is a hotspot of climate change. Mediterranean experts on climate and environmental change within the framework of the UNEP Mediterranean Action Plan have drawn up a report entitled “Risks associated to climate and environmental changes in the Mediterranean Region”. This report points at the enormous challenges facing the Mediterranean due to the projected rising temperature in the region.

Without policy change it is estimated that the Mediterranean Region will, on average, be 2.2 degrees warmer in 2040 than it is today. This will have a considerable impact on water resources, agricultural production and health, amongst other issues. By 2100 without meaningful policy change this could lead to a one metre rise in sea level impacting severely the coastal communities in the Mediterranean.

The tourism industry, with most of its facilities situated along the coastline, will be obliterated. The impacts of climate change will be so severe that Covid-19 impacts will seem to be child’s play in comparison.

All over the world governments have been reluctant to act and take definite action on climate change to limit the potential temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius and definitely to not more than 2 degrees Celsius. The commitments made at the Paris Climate Summit in 2015 are a welcome first step, but they are certainly not enough.

It has been estimated that if all commitments made in Paris are adhered to, we would still be on track to hit a temperature increase in excess of the two-degree limit. This would lead to a global disaster.

The first to bear the brunt will be islands all around the globe followed closely by low-lying coastal areas. This is the reason for island states being so vociferous in Climate Change fora, insisting for more action. It is unfortunate that Malta’s voice is not sufficiently heard in such fora. It is about time that we get our priorities right. Our relative silence is writing off future generations in the Mediterranean.

published in The Malta Independent on Sunday : 3 January 2021

The chihuahua that roared

During the Cancún Climate Summit Bolivian President Evo Morales emphasised that “nature has rights”. He insisted on a 1°C rise above the pre-industrial-age temperature as the maximum permissible.

Stripped of his trademark anti-US remarks the Morales input at Cancún would not have led to any radically different conclusions at the summit. Who can dispute his declaration in favour of families already deprived of water because of drought, or islanders facing the loss of their homes and possessions as a result of rising sea levels? His plea was one to buttress arguments in favour of mandatory reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Realistically, however, there was never a chance of this being accepted.

Participants at Cancún opted instead for declarations which though very important as a political statement served to postpone decisions to the Durban Climate Summit towards the end of this year. It is this postponement which led to the Morales outburst equating lack of definite action with “ecocide which is equivalent to genocide because this would be an affront to mankind as a whole”.

Cancún went one step further from the declarations of the past. Agreement in principle was reached on the need for inspections in order to account for commitments made. As to who will eventually carry out the monitoring, reporting and verification this is still to be determined. Maybe this will be concluded at Durban later this year on the basis of the agreement in principle sealed at Cancún.

Climate change diplomacy is moving although at a very slow pace.

In the words of BBC Cancún correspondent Richard Black one can compare the 2009 Copenhagen summit to a Great Dane which whimpered while the Cancún 2010 summit can be compared to a chihuahua which roared. Much was expected from Copenhagen but little tangible results were achieved. On the other hand while there were no great expectations from the Cancún summit, foundations for a comprehensive settlement in the future were laid. Whether this will be achieved at Durban or possibly later is still to be seen.

At Cancún pledges by countries to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions were formalised. Developing countries for the first time agreed to look into possible cuts in their own emissions. They made no formal pledges yet they moved one step forward towards a more reasonable application of the “common but differentiated responsibility” principle in climate change diplomacy.

Countries represented at Cancún gave formal backing to the UN’s deforestation scheme REDD (Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation). As a result of REDD rich countries will pay poor countries not to chop down forests on their territory. This will compensate them for their lost income and further encourage the production and use of sustainable timber. The developed countries will thus be paying for protecting biodiversity as well as for the service which forests are rendering as carbon sinks. Details of the REDD scheme have still to be worked out. Maybe by the Durban Climate Summit these will be settled.

The Cancún agreement has acknowledged for the first time in a UN document that global warming must not exceed pre-industrial temperatures by more than 2°C. While being a big step forward, this is clearly not enough. In fact exceeding pre-industrial temperatures by more than 1.5°C endangers the very existence of a number of islands as well as low-lying coastal areas.

Small island states and coastal areas are already feeling the impacts of climate change: millions reside and earn their livelihood in such areas. If temperature rises are not contained within the said 1.5°C increase these millions risk becoming climate change refugees.

The first climate change refugees have already left their homeland. Those displaced by sea level changes have already left the Carteret Islands and Kiribati in the Pacific Ocean.

Drought has been playing havoc with the lives of various African nations resulting in escalating tribal conflicts which have displaced millions of human beings. In Malta we have direct experience of this through the boat refugees departing from Libyan shores, a number of whom end up in Malta.

Depending on the actual rise above pre-industrial temperatures, current projections indicate that in the long term more than one billion human beings could face losing their homes and possessions in islands and coastal areas as a result of sea level rise. Millions more will be displaced as a result of the impacts of changing weather patterns. Availability of water will change as a result of a varying frequency and intensity of rainfall. As a result this will impact agriculture, sanitation and the quality of life in the areas affected.

Mr Morales is right. Nature has rights. It will strike back in defence of these rights if current greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced substantially. Maybe the roaring chihuahua will alert policy makers around the globe that there is no alternative to substantial reductions across the board.

 

Published in The Times of Malta : January 1, 2011