The flight secret behind Malta's UN climate change initiative

Malta’s 30-year-old climate change initiative would never have gone ahead, according to its author, had he not been sat next to its main opponent on an eight-hour flight. 

“I had been trying to sit next to this man for six months but he would have nothing to do with me... when I found out he was in the airport VIP lounge, I made sure to get bumped up and then there was no escaping me,” David Attard told a University seminar yesterday.

Prof. Attard’s role as the island’s adviser to the UN was so significant that Malta was subsequently one of only 12 countries to be invited to a secret meeting to draw up the rules. 

He recounted how Mostafa Tolba, an Egyptian scientist who at the time stood at the helm of the UN’s Environment Programme, had been staunchly against the Malta initiative. 

It took Prof. Attard the duration of a flight from New York City to Amsterdam to convince him otherwise.

“Had I not, we wouldn’t have been able to press ahead. When we landed we were best of friends,” he said, adding that it was an ex-student who he happened to meet that day who had pointed Dr Tolba out to him at the airport.

The gathering was held to celebrated 30 years since the island’s UN climate change initiative. 

Malta’s 1988 initiative in the UN General Assembly had proposed the concept of “conservation of climate as part of the common concern of mankind”. 

This led to the 1990 decision to start the process that resulted in the UN climate change convention.

Back in the 1980s, when climate change was described as science fiction, a then-young Maltese academic, Prof. Attard was busy conceiving a strategy to combat a problem which came to the fore several years later.

The impact mankind was having on the planet was seeing changes that had taken nature huge spans of time. 

Earlier during the seminar, Malta’s current ambassador on climate change, Simone Borg, said that the legacy of the Malta initiative lived on. 

Today, perhaps more than ever before, the world was realising that it was time to stop pointing fingers as to who was to blame for climate change and start asking how we could individually make the difference.

She recounted how those pushing for anti-climate change initiatives had had to run an uphill course. 

“Some still say climate change is all a hoax,” she said.

And even once the scientific research was irrefutable, other challenges such as the political hurdles also needed addressing. 

However, Prof. Borg said today the global community was moving towards a “popular movement” to combating climate change.