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Opinion & Analysis

Turning words into deeds

Monday’s blaze in the hills between Algeciras and Tarifa left 130 hectares scorched. Photo by David Parody

A week ago, the United Nations warned that no one in the world was safe from the accelerating effects of climate change. On Monday afternoon, a column of black smoke trailing over the Strait of Gibraltar seemed to ram that message home.

The forest fire, which destroyed some 130 hectares of protected natural parkland on the coastline, started when a car burst into flames in the searing afternoon heat. The blaze spread swiftly because the vegetation was tinder dry.

Scores of firefighters were deployed to the area, supported by planes that scooped water in the northern end of the Bay of Gibraltar and dumped it on flames in nearby hills between Algeciras and Tarifa. Time and again, they swooped down to the sea, just metres from the refinery and its tall chimney stacks pumping out a different type of toxic black smoke.

As firefighters worked in arduous conditions to tackle the fire, officials in the Campo were keeping a close eye too on water levels in the region’s reservoirs, which are down to 38.5% of capacity according to the Junta de Andalucia. Unless that changes by October, the Junta will consider declaring a drought in the Campo and implement restrictions on water consumption.

By 5pm on Monday, thermometers had reached 37 degrees Celsius. It was the hottest day of the year.

But on the shore in Gibraltar, the cooling respite of a dip in the sea came with a health warning. There were swarms of jellyfish around the Rock, an increasingly common phenomenon in recent years, and another indication, scientists say, of changing eco-systems as water temperatures rise.

Can we link all of these things together under the umbrella of climate change? Many will argue not and insist these are unrelated events that are not at all uncommon. But while that may sound like fair analysis, it rings hollow. Because like it or not, the evidence points in one direction only.

Last week’s report from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), written by 234 scientists, said global warming of about 1.1 degrees Celsius has brought many changes in different regions – from more severe droughts and storms to rising seas.

Those will all increase with further warming, but it is not too late to cut climate-heating emissions to keep temperature rise to internationally agreed goals of "well below" 2C and ideally 1.5C - which would help stop or slow down some of the impacts, the report said.

In the meantime, the scientists warned of the urgent need to prepare and protect people as extreme weather and rising seas hit harder than predicted.

It may be tempting, given Gibraltar’s size, to conclude there is little we can contribute to the global effort to tackle climate change, and that the impact of this community is so small as to be negligible.

But that would be to adopt a ‘head-in-the-sand’ attitude that ignores stark realities.

Dr John Cortes, the Minister for the Environment, was blunt when he said recently that Gibraltar would be “on the front line” of many of the effects of climate change.

“This is no joke,” he said. “Those of us who are parents or grandparents need to realise that this is the world – the Gibraltar – facing those young people and children who we love…The effects of climate change are the ones most likely to see the end of Gibraltar as we know it. In my grandchildren’s lifetime.”

So what to do? The Gibraltar Government is finalising an action plan to reduce Gibraltar’s carbon footprint drastically in the coming years, while also analysing the potential impacts of climate change on coastal infrastructure and ecosystems in order to best mitigate them.

But there is a need too for individual action and increased awareness of the fact that our personal decisions and choices have repercussions.

The challenge, of course, is that few people welcome change, even on the small things that might have a huge impact on our quality of life here and signal a wider desire to embrace a more sustainable way of life. As individuals we demand action on climate change and champion green initiatives, who wouldn’t? But we also, to cite a glaringly obvious example, throw our arms up in despair at any suggestion we should leave our cars at home. Often, it feels like we talk the talk on environmental sustainability, but we simply don’t walk.

Sir Joe Bossano, the Minister for Economic Development, believes the problem of building a sustainable future runs deeper than just shifting to a greener economic model. The green economy, he said recently, only addresses how the world – Gibraltar included - produces what it consumes. “It says and does nothing about the fact that we consume too much,” he said.

Sir Joe spoke of the ‘circular economy’, an economic model that seeks to cut out waste and pollution, keep products and materials in use, and regenerate natural systems.

It was a concept for which he found support on the Opposition bench, where Elliott Phillips, who shadows the environmental portfolio, echoed the sentiment despite his criticism of much of the government’s record on the environment. “Why can't we, as a modern progressive country, look at all the research available and lead on the circular economy in a real way, instead of sitting on our hands and letting the rich get richer without a thought to how we can do things better that will have a real impact on the way all of our citizens prosper in a cleaner and sustainable way?” Mr Phillips asked.

Sir Joe said Gibraltar, like the rest of the developed world, suffered from “compulsive consumption disorder”. In layman’s terms, we collectively buy too much and dispose too easily, replacing the old with things that are newer, shinier, bigger, in an endless cycle of materialistic consumerism with little regard on future impact and sustainability.

Sir Joe spoke of the need for “a really disruptive approach” that combined new technologies with a more frugal view on life, not just globally but here too.

“At the simplest level, can we make people understand, in what is little more than a village of 30,000, which is what we are, that we cannot consume more than we produce?” he said.

“That we cannot take more from the planet than we put back into it?”

“Can we give leadership to people by telling them that it is not possible to have more of everything every year?”

Sir Joe said the Gibraltar Government’s national economic plan would have the concept of the circular economy at its core, encouraging inward investment projects and local initiatives compatible with that objective.

“We are not going to change the world, but we have to be where the world needs to be if it is to survive the climate catastrophe that is threatening life on earth,” he said.

It’s a laudable aim, but likely elusive too given our tendency to avoid deep self-reflection to instead point anywhere but at the mirror. The challenge, as for the rest of the world, is to turn words into deeds, both collectively and, perhaps more importantly, as individuals.

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