Commentary: I care about climate change. I don't wish to live in a Waterworld like Kevin Costner
Singapore, ASEAN and other parts of the world, facing sea level rise, must do more, says Singapore Youth for Climate Action co-founder Nor Lastrina Hamid.
SINGAPORE: My paternal side of the family can trace back our history to the Riau islands in Indonesia. My father and his siblings grew up on Pulau Sekijang Pelepah, or what is now known as Lazarus Island in Singapore.
Growing up, I have always felt a connection with the sea.
When Waterworld starring Kevin Costner aired in the mid-1990s, the primary school kid that I was thought that the post-apocalyptic future with the complete melting of the polar ice caps, and sea levels rising above 7,000m covering all the continents was cool.
Two decades later, after taking geography in school, actively volunteering on environmental issues, and learning about climate change, I am very certain I do not wish for such a future to ever befall us.
SEA LEVEL RISE PROJECTIONS
In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius.
It mentioned the accelerating rise of sea levels rise in response to climate change, with risks projected to be the highest in South and Southeast Asia, assuming no upgrade to current protection levels, for all levels of climate warming.
It also emphasised that 136 megacities are at risk from flooding due to sea level rise unless further adaptation is undertaken.
Many of these cities are located in South and Southeast Asia.
The IPCC released another report this week, highlighting sea level rise could reach 0.61m to 1.1m by 2100.
In the latest IPCC Special Report, IPCC chairman Dr Hoesung Lee said:
If we reduce emissions sharply, consequences for people and their livelihoods will still be challenging, but potentially more manageable for those who are most vulnerable.
ASEAN has a coastline that spans more than 170,000km. More than 640 million people live in this region. That is a lot of people to protect and manage in the face of rising sea levels.
WHAT THE SINGAPORE GOVERNMENT IS DOING
In July 2019, at the Partners for the Environment Forum, when Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli announced that the Centre for Climate Research Singapore will be launching a S$10 million National Sea Level Research Programme over the next five years to strengthen our understanding of sea levels around Singapore to help us develop more robust sea level rise projection, I was pleased.
This announcement suggested Singapore is serious about protecting our low-lying island from sea level rise.
Additionally, in August 2019, when Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong spent about a third of his National Day Rally on climate change, including highlighting how the country is preparing for rising sea levels, for example, possibly building polders to protect our eastern coastline, that same feeling of assurance that the Government is doing whatever they can to protect the country and its people rose in me.
THE CLIMATE ACTION SUMMIT
Speaking as someone actively volunteering in the Singapore environment scene over the past decade, I have seen a lot done over the years by our leaders - in terms of public efforts to address climate change, and engaging businesses, academic institutions, groups and community leaders.
These efforts are drawing more attention to the enormity of our climate change challenge and galvanising ground-up support, which is reaching a tipping point looking at the recent Singapore Climate Rally held at Hong Lim Park just over this weekend.
But Singapore cannot tackle climate change by ourselves.
In his speech at the Climate Action Summit, PM Lee acknowledged the catastrophic consequences of climate change, and reminded the audience Singapore contributes only 0.11 per cent of global emissions.
He then highlighted several local actions such as the implementation of a carbon tax and the development of a long-term low emissions development strategy, as well as what we were doing for the region such as contributing S$5 million to the ASEAN Specialised Meteorological Centre, based in Singapore.
He then concluded calling for member-states to redouble efforts to mitigate and adapt to climate change.
Perhaps that speech was apt for the purpose of a UN Climate Action Summit session touching on Towards a Resilient Future, and for other countries to hear and learn from.
For me though, it was a narrative I have heard before. A part of me wished he had mentioned the rally over the weekend and how Singaporeans from all walks of life are now sitting up and taking serious notice.
SOUTHEAST ASIA AT THE CLIMATE ACTION SUMMIT
Aside from PM Lee, three other Southeast Asian Leaders spoke this week at the Climate Action Summit, signalling greater political recognition and resolve to address climate change.
Indonesian Vice-President Jusuf Kalla highlighted the reduction in Indonesia’s forest cover from 150 million hectares 50 years ago to 90 million hectares, what Indonesia is doing to restore peatlands and protect coastlines, and how they are transitioning away from fossil fuels to cleaner energy.
Surabaya Mayor Tri Rismaharini focused on Surabaya and shared several initiatives including having a city bus where passengers can pay using plastic bottles.
Thailand Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha delivered his statement on behalf of the 10 ASEAN member states. ASEAN is highly vulnerable since most people live in low-lying coasts and plains.
He underscored ASEAN’s commitment to global climate actions, and how all members have submitted their Nationally Determined Contributions. He also highlighted that ASEAN has exceeded its energy efficiency target, reducing energy intensity by more than 21.9 per cent compared to 2005, well ahead of its 2030 target.
Overall, all the speakers including PM Lee emphasised the need to work together to tackle climate change in various ways.
We can do much more to save our region and our people. I foresee the issue of ASEAN climate refugees, for example, being a very real possibility in my lifetime.
THE HUGE OIL INDUSTRY
While I acknowledge that Singapore is doing a lot to address climate change, I also cannot ignore several things.
For example, on the Economic Development Board (EDB) website, we pride ourselves in refining 1.5 million barrels of oil per day. More than 100 global chemical firms are located here and this sector employs more than 25,000 people.
I am grateful for the jobs created and the workers’ contribution to the economy. But I wonder if there are any long-term studies being done to monitor the health of our workers in this sector, and the regular citizens living around them.
I worry also about the impact of these industries on the environment and whether as a country, we are living up to our creed to shift away from the fossil fuel industry and minimise our carbon footprint.
SO WHAT CAN WE DO SINGAPORE?
I hope everyone spends a minute today to ask ourselves what is most important to us, and what we can do to change things for the better.
Individual actions go beyond simple actions like using less water and less electricity, taking public transport, and bringing our BYOs. Individual actions can have the potential to influence others and create systemic changes.
There are several initiatives in Singapore that need more public involvement. The public can practise active citizenry and be more involved in climate action.
First, the National Climate Change Secretariat is calling for views on how Singapore can work towards becoming a low carbon global city-state. Anyone can give feedback online via the REACH website.
Second, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth has launched a Youth Action Plan. Many things are happening here. The Youth Action Challenge: Environment is part of the SG Youth Action Plan and designed to support youths to influence policy change and start ground-up initiatives. Youths should sign up for these discussions.
Third, Singaporeans should familiarise ourselves with Singapore's Fourth National Communication and Third Biennial Update Report. Specifically, we can learn more about what mitigation measures Singapore is taking.
As individuals, we can reach out to decision-makers at firms we work at or care about, to minimise energy wastage and control emissions.
Fourth, Singaporeans should recognise that adapting to climate change is a long-term effort. Significant investments will therefore have to be made early. As individuals, we can start talking to more people about how we are going to finance this and be prepared for future policy changes.
Fifth, as individuals, another way we can influence more people and create systemic change is to reach out to our Members of Parliament and get them to actively raise climate questions at Parliament, or have working groups with their constituencies to push for more changes at the grassroots level.
Regardless of age, language, and religion, everyone has to play our part in climate action. I feel it is critical for individuals to feel immersed and empowered to do more.
This is also where I see the importance of actively engaging with others on environmental issues and getting to know people who can strengthen our collective efforts.
A Waterworld scenario may sound extreme now, but we are slowly heading towards that.
There is not much time left. We must do what we can quickly.
Nor Lastrina Hamid is co-founder of Singapore Youth for Climate Action.