Commentary: Climate change needs better storytelling to address severe threats
The World Economic Forum says extreme weather events are the most likely and most severe threat facing humanity in 2018 yet climate change doesn’t get the attention it needs, says one expert from the Earth Observatory of Singapore.
SINGAPORE: The story about climate change arguably got its first big public hit more than ten years ago with Al Gore’s documentary about global warming An Inconvenient Truth.
But maintaining public attention and keeping the heat on climate change action have been tough.
People are hungry for news about the risk of climate change but boring, technical jargon is alienating them, said the United Nations top environment official Erik Solheim in December 2017.
People need to be excited and inspired to take action and change their behaviour, he added.
Yet “the language of environmentalists has been boring, so uninspiring ... If we just speak a technical language, with many acronyms and politically-correct phrases, no one will listen,” he said in an interview during a Bonn conference on landscapes.
Perhaps the consequences of human-driven climate change seem abstract, technical or too far away in the future.
Do these in turn cause readers to look at climate change news, shrug and then move on to other stories?
There’s a strong case to be made about the importance of communicating the priority we need to place on climate change.
Recent extreme weather pattern are giving us a glimpse into the catastrophe we might find ourselves in if we fail to act.
EXTREME WEATHER IN EARLY JANUARY
The start of 2018 has been marked by extreme weather with widespread impact on public safety, transport, energy and health around the world.
A major winter storm hit the United States Atlantic coast in early January, battering coastal areas with heavy snow, blizzards and strong winds and a drop in temperatures.
Boston suffered coastal flooding after it saw the highest ever recorded tide since 1921.
Flash flooding and deadly mudslides took place in southern California because of intense rain, in areas where protective vegetation have been destroyed by devastating wildfires in late 2017.
In Asia, central and eastern China saw heavy rain and snow in Shaanxi, Henan, Hubei, Anhui and Jiangsu provinces in early January, with monthly maximum rainfall levels broken in 92 counties.
In the southern hemisphere, Cape Town is running out of water, because reliable winter rains have vanished — a phenomenon one meteorologist calls a once-in-628-years weather event.
Australia was gripped by intense heat, with the weather station in Sydney reaching 47.3°C on Jan 7, the hottest in 80 years.
Flash floods, strong winds and hailstones in Singapore coupled with a bout of freakish cool weather, the longest cold spell experienced here in at least a decade showed we were not immune.
GLOBAL WARMING A KEY CULPRIT
These extreme weather events were both signals of a dangerous, human-made shift in Earth’s climate as much as they were a natural stretch of bad luck.
Monsoon surges that bring cool weather partially explains what transpired in Singapore.
Natural climate cycles, especially the interplay between upper atmospheric conditions over polar regions and mid-latitude conditions over the oceans and on land, were primary forces driving the extreme weather globally.
HOTTER, WITH RISING SEA LEVELS
The Earth is getting warmer, with significantly more moisture in the atmosphere. Decades of data show that a long-term build-up of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is trapping heat and warming up lands, oceans, and the atmosphere.
17 of the 18 warmest years in the 136-year global temperature record all have occurred since 2001, with the exception of 1998.
The year 2016 ranks as the warmest on record globally and here in Singapore, which had a mean annual temperature of 28.4°C.
2016 was an El Niño year, and mainland Southeast Asia encountered its warmest monthly mean surface air temperatures in April 2016 since record-keeping began.
Apart from surpassing national temperature records in mainland Southeast Asia, this event disrupted crop production, imposed societal distress and resulted in peak energy consumption.
El Niño might have exacerbated the situation, but the temperatures would never have happened without the human-made shift in Earth’s climate.
Some models have predicted that the warming of the Earth’s climate could increase the average strength of hurricanes and typhoons.
Scientists are confident that rising sea levels are leading to higher storm surges and more floods - and the mean sea level in the Strait of Singapore has increased at the rate of 1.2mm to 1.7mm each year in the period 1975 to 2009.
By the end of the century, the average world temperature could increase by 5 °C, depending in part on how much carbon we emit between now and then.
The latest climate models concluded with high confidence that with continued warming projected for the rest of this century, Singapore and other countries in Southeast Asia will experience more frequent, record-breaking hot Aprils, just like the extreme weather event of 2016.
MOST LIKELY AND MOST SEVERE THREAT
The Global Risks Report 2018 of the World Economic Forum (WEF) states that extreme weather events are the most likely and most severe threat facing humanity in 2018 – because scientists expect the frequency of extreme weather events to increase substantially.
The trend towards more frequent extreme weather events only underscores how important it is that we enhance our ability to predict and manage them. So what can we do?
The solution has been clear for more than two decades: Governments must take aggressive action to curb greenhouse gas emissions. The extreme weather lends greater urgency to climate change initiatives like those under the Paris Agreement.
An essential key to meeting the challenge of extreme weather is critical environmental intelligence.
Just like the intelligence of the security world, intelligence in the environmental arena combines data, analysis, modelling, and assessment.
The smart approach to extreme weather is to attack all the risk factors, by designing crops that can survive drought, buildings that can resist floods and high winds, policies that discourage people from building in dangerous places - and of course, by shifting our economy to greener energy sources and reducing our greenhouse-gas emissions.
Singapore has taken steps to reduce the impact of extreme weather events by improving drainage to reduce flood-prone areas, developing weather-proof technologies, and cooling the island by growing urban green spaces such as rooftop gardens.
Where climate change poses a real danger, we cannot take the attitude that it’s someone else’s job to sort out.
Indeed, the biggest challenge we must guard against in this battle against climate change is people tuning out to the message about global warming.
Erik Solheim mentioned this when he said:
For this to happen, we have to speak in a different language that is simpler and breaks down the science to explain to people what climate change really means for them, in their daily lives, here and now.
As individuals, we should seize everyday opportunities to reduce our greenhouse gas emissions. We can recycle, reuse and reduce. Whenever we can, we should use public transport and walk.
Quite literally, small steps can lead to large-scale change when we, citizens of the earth, act together.
Professor Benjamin P Horton is principal investigator at the Earth Observatory of Singapore at Nanyang Technological University.