Interview with Michael Zammit Cutajar: Climate change

“There is a link between climate vulnerability and poverty.”

Michael Zammit Cutajar discusses the impacts of climate change on both developing and developed countries, and how to address these impacts despite public skepticism. He also provides insight on how we can bridge the gap between scientists and humanitarian policy makers to better anticipate and respond to the increasing damage caused by climate change.

Mr. Cutajar is the former Executive Secretary of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).

Read interview transcript
Why does the public of large developed countries remain so skeptical about climate change?

I think the US is a very particular case. I don’t think there’s anything like it anywhere else. In Europe, generally speaking, people are more inclined to look favourably on the case that there is climate change, (but) maybe not too happy about doing things about it. In the US it’s become a very political issue, partly because of the existence of the strong economic interests which are sort of lobbying against the sort of action that is needed to reduce emissions – I’m thinking of the coal-mining interests, the people who transport the coal and railroads and of course, petroleum, oil and gas, in particular – petroleum. So all of that is a pretty powerful lobby which has means of expressing itself and it tends to find its way into politics.

What can be done to address the root causes of climate change and its consequences?

Much of the message about climate change can be put in economic terms that appeal to the pocket, to the housekeeping budget. It pays to save electricity because you pay less on the bills. It pays to invest in more efficient domestic appliances or a more efficient car because in the long run, you will pay less on electricity or fuel. It’s not enough but it gets you quite a long way in the direction you want to go.

Why are developing countries the most hard hit by climate change?

I see a very close link between climate vulnerability and poverty, that’s evident. If you are living in Florida and there’s talk about sea level rise, you have the resources and the time to do something about it. If you are living in the delta of the Ganges in Bangladesh, you don’t have the resources. If you’re living in the Maldives, you may have, but your country might just disappear.

How are industrialised countries affected by climate change?

There are some specific cases where developed countries will be affected in the same way as developing and there I have in mind – desertification, the spread of deserts, aridity and lack of rainfall. Spain is one of those where the water stress issue will be a very important one in future years, driven by climate change. The USA is as well, that’s what the Climate Vulnerability Monitor is telling us.

How can we bridge the gap between scientists, development and humanitarian policy makers?

It’s important to note that the reports of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which is the main scientific vehicle, do not recommend anything but they provide information, estimates, forecasts, scenarios. The decision on what to do is then political, and here come in the development policy makers, the economic policy makers, in all countries. The sort of situations in which you go with humanitarian assistance are quite coterminous, they sort of overlap with the areas where you see the effects of climate change. And there’s a lot to be gained by making sure the policy makers on humanitarian relief are aware of climate vulnerability.