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25 April 2014

Threats Of climate change to our culture

 - Wednesday, 23 November 2011, 00:00 , by Martin Scicluna

Delegates from 193 countries will meet for the 17th Climate Change Conference in Durban, South Africa from 28 November to 9 December. On the agenda is a ‘pathway’ towards a cut in carbon emissions, a fund to help poor countries deal with the effects of climate change and protection measures against the effects of deforestation

After the huge disappointment following the much-hyped Copenhagen Conference two years ago, the prognosis for Durban is more modest. Yet the scientific evidence of global warming and climate change is now overwhelming and the need for action more urgent.

It is not too dramatic to state that if global warming continues on its upward path, and if climate change is not mitigated by reducing greenhouse gas emissions, Malta will be, at best, largely unrecognisable from the island we know today and, at worst, an arid, thirsty, over-heated rock.

No one can predict the outcome of climate change, or its effects, with complete certainty. There are, indeed, legitimate concerns over particular details and effects. 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 of climate change will lead to more extreme and haphazard weather patterns, with prolonged Saharan-style heat waves more intense rainy periods and longer dry spells. The escalating rise in temperature will be accompanied by severe water shortages as rainfall over the central Mediterranean is drastically reduced by as much as 30%.

The biggest impact will be to exacerbate our problems with our water table, which is already not being replenished quickly enough. Lack of water and moisture in the soil and rising sea levels will lead to increased salinity, crop yields will be diminished and the process of desertification will become unstoppable. The effects on our natural heritage landscapes, flora and fauna will be devastating- literally changing the physical appearance of our island.

The acceleration of climate change will sweep away the near-perfect climate to which we have become accustomed. 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, security and the environment itself.

I have recently had the privilege of representing Din l-Art Ħelwa in Victoria, Canada as a member of the Executive Committee of the International National Trusts Organisation (known in short as INTO). INTO occupies a unique role within the global heritage movement, bringing together natural and cultural heritage organisations from around the world, representing a constituency of well in excess of six million individual members across some forty-five countries, and growing. Through alliances and affiliations with other organisations sharing a common concern for the global environment, the INTO voice speaks for tens of millions of people globally.

In Victoria, we returned to the issue of climate change which we had last addressed in Dublin two years ago, in preparation for the presence of a delegation from INTO in Durban in a week’s time. Our discussions focused on the aspect of climate change which we felt had hitherto been ignored by world leaders. This was the essential need for a necessary reform of United Nations procedures to incorporate far more effectively into the language of climate change a firm recognition that the integrity and survival of the cultures of all the peoples and nations around the world are threatened by climate change.

In the course of climate change debates and descriptions of its possible effects, world leaders frequently speak of consultation and seeking community consensus. Yet invariably climate change is simply expressed, as I have just done in this article, in terms of impacts on the physical environment (even though efforts are sometimes made to draw links to human health and welfare). But this is to miss the wood for the trees. As a consequence of this limited perspective, communities are disconnected from understanding the full implications of climate change.

If the threat of climate change is largely described in terms of impacts on the physical environment, then the prospect of achieving global consensus for action to avert climate change will always fall short. However, if the effects of climate change are also couched in terms of culture – of societal values, customs, civilisations and achievements of particular peoples – then there is likely to be greater responsiveness across the global community.

Put in terms of cultural heritage and sustainability, the path to wider community 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.

In the light of the realisation that the failure hitherto to communicate the threat of climate change in terms which describe the dire implications for cultural sustainability and that this fundamentally weakens the prospects for global reform to combat climate change, the Victoria Declaration on the Implications for Cultural Sustainability of Climate Change (www.internationaltrusts.org) was adopted by members of INTO, including Din l-Art Ħelwa, in order to underline to world leaders assembled in Durban in December that what is at stake is not just economic and political, but that cultural heritage is in jeopardy and social sustainability is at risk.

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, and that 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 if the world does not change its ways, but are also confident that, through the grace of God who has always preserved us so far, we can somehow be spared the worst consequences of global warming.

But the reality is that climate change will affect social sustainability. It will fundamentally jeopardise cultural practices, in our case practices which are uniquely Maltese. It will undermine connectivity with place – what makes Malta what it is. If the integrity of the world’s cultures is destabilised then social dislocation and social instability will follow.

In the words of the Victoria Declaration: “For the sake of future generations, we must collectively tackle climate change not just because of changes in the physical environment, not just for reasons of sustaining human health and welfare, but to recognise that the core strength and connectivity of all the socio-economic systems of human-kind, lies in maintaining cultural sustainability”.

Martin Scicluna is the Director General of Malta’s only independent think-tank, The Today Public Policy Institute. He writes here in a personal capacity”

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