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After Copenhagen, what now?

Pollinators, such as this honey bee visiting an almond tree in flower, are indispensable for life on earth, yet climate change may wreak havoc with nature's pollination clock. Photo: Alfred E. Baldacchino

Pollinators, such as this honey bee visiting an almond tree in flower, are indispensable for life on earth, yet climate change may wreak havoc with nature's pollination clock. Photo: Alfred E. Baldacchino

In Copenhagen last month, what was supposed to be a climate accord to save the Earth crashed amid anarchy and rioting. Delegates were downcast when all they could come up with was an agreement that was noted, yet unendorsed, to try again next year.

International relations are now challenged by a far more complex global reality. In the run-up meetings ahead of Copenhagen there was a noteworthy change of tone in exchanges between the world's biggest polluters - the US and China.

A new security agenda is appearing, as stressed ecosystems are less able to deliver the goods on which human life depends. Even before the expected upheavals of climate change actually happen, collapsing ecosystems are already competing with issues such as water shortages. The effect of accelerated glacier melt in the Alps on hydroelectric energy output is of regional concern.

The European commitment to increase its emission reduction target by another 10 per cent depends on the rest of the world coming on board, but this is where the process has stalled. But eco socialists maintain that environmental devastation will not be stopped in conference rooms. They believe that only mass action can make a difference.

A symposium on national responses to global climate change, organised by the University of Malta's department of International Relations, recently brought home just how fragile life on this planet really is.

A serious problem is the disbelief in the reality of climate change. Denial is "ideological, difficult to change and often rooted in rightwing sources", economist Lino Briguglio said at the symposium. On the other hand, Simone Borg, a lecturer in international and environmental law, noted that "the international community has never had to deal with regulating a threat of this magnitude".

If what geologists say is true, we are about to be set back by 20 million years because we are living beyond our sustainable resources.

In the not too distant future we are likely to have a unipolar world with just one ice cap. At the current rate of ice melt, the Arctic ice-sheets, which are already smaller than the vast Antarctic shelf, will be completely lost, possibly destabilising the world's climate.

It happened before, around 20 million years ago. The question is, assuming the planet will still be a habitable place, how well will humans cope?

Runaway global warming could surpass survival thresholds if we fail to act. Although there is some uncertainty it now looks as if it might happen at some point.

Even a five per cent risk is high enough to make us want to change direction.

Even without predicted disruption in rainfall patterns, with precipitation becoming less frequent but more intense, our groundwater is being exploited at a faster rate than natural sources can replenish it. Aquifers may start to dry up sooner for reasons other than the negative effects of climate change.

Since 1990, our power-generated CO2 emissions have risen by 47 per cent, as Enemalta can confirm. During the symposium, Chris Ciantar, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Resources and Rural Affairts, spoke of the economic and social costs of meeting the EU targets: "We cannot expect to protect the planet and retain our lifestyles."

Solar water heaters, even at half their price, failed to get enough people interested, with the take-up figure being only 2,200, when 4,000 were projected. The government is still waiting for proof that geothermal underground sources would provide sufficient heat and energy if tapped.

When the ministry monitored the movements of 16 groundwater hawkers, the hawkers were furious at the action.

AD environment spokesman Carmel Cacopardo remarked on the conflicting message given by a government which gives subsidies to those who are extracting water illegally.

"We pay... we get the stick, they get the carrot," he said, referring to the financial burden of unregulated water use by certain industry operators being transferred to the general public.

An increase in the price of energy may be the only thing that gets people to change their behaviour. A reported decrease in electricity consumption may have been a result of the recession rather than anything the government has achieved toward reaching targets.

Smart meters will provide Enemalta with a tool to offer different tariff schemes to moderate consumption patterns. Cutting back is the main message, even while confidence remains low.

Commenting on isolated observations at Portomaso Marina that the sea might be falling rather than rising, geologist Peter Gatt said that this could be due to vertical changes in land motion at that particular site.

Caroline Muscat, who is an assistant editor at The Sunday Times, noted that it was not the media that had failed, but the politics. "Climate change is a slow developing catastrophe," she noted. "It is difficult to communicate a crisis that is not happening quickly." She described Malta as being at the bottom of the renewable energy league.

David Cilia from the Chamber of Commerce chose to be optimistic about being small, dynamic and energetic as a country. "Civil society is expanding... maybe we can make it."

The variety of life underpins our social and economic wellbeing and will be an increasingly indispensable resource in the battle against climate change. However, our consumption and production patterns are depriving ecosystems of their capacity to withstand climate change and deliver the services we need from them.

As we understand more about the ways that climate change is impacting biodiversity, it becomes clear that we cannot tackle the two crises separately. Their interdependence requires us to address them together.

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