By Mark Montegriffo
Any haste in tackling the disgraceful state of our climate is welcome. But the Climate Emergency only goes so far. It lacks substance in policy terms and it lacks an attempt at reflecting on an honest story why sufficient action has not been taken. Conveniently, the story surrounding the degradation of the climate is the same in every part of the world: elite economic interests do not align with measures to save the planet.
In America, the Green New Deal is the holistic analysis that explains the connection between the political and the economic. It explains the power structure that has enabled fossil fuel bosses to fund climate-denying think tanks to lobby government and prominent institutions. It essentially explains that the purest logic of free-market capitalism is more comparable with the pirates of yesteryear, than it is with any long-term concern for the environment. This time it is not just the seas that are being exploited, but it’s the air, the land, and the worker. We must have a similar conversation in Gibraltar where we honestly contextualise the causes of the state of our environment today.
Instead, we have a climate emergency announced by a government that still carries out a policy of chucking raw sewage into the sea. We still have air quality that is among the poorest Europe. ‘Ah, but we have Commonwealth Park! Ah, but the Chief Minister is driven around in a Tesla!’ These are clearly welcome steps, but they are relatively small steps. Small steps are good and should continue to be made where possible, but emergencies do not get solved without larger systemic steps. The small steps are often cosmetic.
On the foundations of our society that are most unsustainable, we are too silent. But we cannot truly influence change in the environment if we do not also engage critically with the economy. A significant part of our economic success is based on Cat 2 high net worth individuals buying empty property on a limited piece of land that is getting more and more crowded by construction projects. This harms our environment while also preventing those apartments from going to those who need it, from Moroccan families without adequate accommodation to those on the seemingly infinitely long housing list. Gibraltar does not have infinite land. It is, by definition, an unsustainable model.
Every nation has a strong national mythology that extols its virtues, while simultaneously shutting off creative solutions to existential problems. The deeply felt American perception of liberty, for example, provides many citizens of the USA with a sense of belonging and purpose regardless of whether this liberty actually materialises in their lives, while also potentially shutting them off from the fact that there are also many people who are too poor or too discriminated against to feel this sense of liberty (or people who cannot even make it into America, such as with the Muslim ban).
A part of our current national mythology is that our economic model is squeaky clean and that anybody wanting to improve economic sustainability is somehow undermining Gibraltar and feeding the enemy. It gives a lot of us a sense of belonging, but we are in denial if we do not recognise its danger in good faith. Being complacent is far more unsustainable than taking radical steps to move our economy in a direction that gives greater weight to sustainability. When the status quo becomes unsustainable, radical solutions are required to achieve some form of economic structure close to sustainable. We are not going to get far enough with planting a few more trees, or pushing through bit-part reforms. They need to be bigger and they need to be honest.
Our collective future depends on implementing policy, even if it is against private corporate interests. At a long-term view, it is in everybody’s interest that we have air that is not causing harm to our health and a habitable climate for our descendants. If we engage with this in the right way, collective action on the environment has potential to be an incredibly unifying agenda. But it requires policies beyond piecemeal reform and cosmetic facelifts. This means congestion charges on petrol and diesel cars. This means regulations that make polluting cars more expensive and electric cars cheaper so we can lower our shameful level of air pollution. This means enforcing laws that prevent surplus oil from bunkering to be sold on for profit. This means greater use of renewable installations and solar panels.
Ultimately, this means recognising that while we should do all we can as individuals, real change will only happen collectively. Token policy won’t cut it. It starts with having a frank public discussion that connects the environmental with the economic, from bunkering and the tobacco trade, to cat 2 status and tax arrangements. You could say we are merely playing the game of global capitalism. After all, we have no agricultural base in our economy so we have to make do somehow. But the game of global capitalism is killing itself, because it is killing the climate. This was the message of many protestors in the climate strikes that took place in London and across the world. Real change begins with a collective consciousness. It begins with using the power of democracy to represent people and the future of our environment over short-term private interests.
There is a climate emergency to be declared, but if we do not give it the wider societal problem a diagnosis and then a prognosis, we’ll only ever be tinkering at the edges. As March’s climate protest communicated, ‘there is no planet B’. This means critically engaging with the context that has leaded us to this point, what kind of sustainable society we are willing to build, and what sort of structural changes are genuinely necessary to get there.