Feng Zengkun

Towards a sea change in approach to global warming

With experts warning of the far-reaching effects of global climate change, Singapore is looking for ways to protect itself

Air temperatures hot enough to melt plastic bottles, storms not seen in 250 years, weather so cold that escaped convicts beg to be let back into prison.

All these have happened in the past year, and a landmark report released on March 31 by the United Nations says the worst is yet to come if nothing is done.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) says climate change is real and already having sweeping effects everywhere - on land and in oceans.

Singapore has not been spared, though its woes pale in comparison to recent disasters like Typhoon Haiyan - said to be unparalleled in strength - that devastated the Philippines last November.

February, said the National Environment Agency (NEA), was Singapore's windiest month in 30 years. It also had the lowest rainfall in nearly 150 years; a mere 0.2mm of rain was measured at the Changi climate station, the NEA's reference station, although it rained more in other parts of the island. This was far below the previous 6.3mm record in February 2010. February is often drier than other months.

But how exactly has climate change caused the recent extreme weather? And how can a little red dot like Singapore protect itself?

A hotter Earth

GLOBAL warming linked the weather events, said Dr Kevin Trenberth, who shared the IPCC's 2007 Nobel Peace Prize for its work on climate change awareness.

He told The Straits Times: "The surface temperatures of the oceans are now generally 0.6 deg C above levels prior to the 1970s. As a result, the air above them is warmer and more moist.

"The warmth and moisture fuel storms and heavy rain, as in Britain and Brazil, and even heavy snow, as in Japan. In Australia and Brazil, the extra heat leads to heat waves and increased wild fire risk. Droughts are worsened."

The sea level has risen near the Philippines by 20cm since about 1998, indicating deep warm waters there. "This fuelled Typhoon Haiyan and led to a much worse storm surge. So part of that is climate change too," said the Distinguished Senior Scientist at the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research.

But Dr Chris Gordon, director of the Centre for Climate Research Singapore, said the climate's natural year-to-year variability makes the causal link "not a straightforward issue". Other factors may be causing the extreme weather and more analysis is needed, he said.

Warning signs

THE experts warn of more trouble on the horizon if nothing is done. The IPCC says sea levels could rise by up to 0.82m by 2100, depending on greenhouse gas emissions. According to the panel, the most aggressive climate change scenario includes a rise of up to almost one metre by 2100. The global mean sea level between 1986 and 2005 was used as the reference point.

In Indonesia, some 42 million people living up to 3km from the coast will be vulnerable if the sea rises by 0.9m, says the Asian Development Bank. Rising waters claimed 24 small islands off Aceh, North Sumatra, Papua and Riau between 2005 and 2007.

Sea rises that heighten coastal flood risks should also concern Singapore. Most of the island is within 15m above sea level, and almost a third is less than 5m above the water. The Earth Observatory of Singapore added that an expected earthquake in West Sumatra - sometime in the coming decades - may trigger a gradual sinking of Singapore's land.

"Climate models... show a very consistent signal of increasing heavy rainfall events in our region over the coming century," said Dr Gordon, adding there may be more - and more intense - dry spells "but the modelling evidence (for this) is less conclusive".

A 3 deg C rise in temperature - "a reasonable estimate by 2100 if global emissions are not substantially reduced" - would affect eco-systems here and heighten health risks of heat-related stroke and exhaustion.

Higher temperatures and less rainfall make fires and haze more likely. Dengue cases may rise as warmth reduces the virus' incubation time in mosquitoes.

Climate warming in the tropics also causes a rapid rise in bacterial decomposition, said senior lecturer Terence Goh at SIM University. "Waste decomposition could breed pests and flies that cause disease", and Singapore's dense population could worsen this.

Keeping ahead of the curve

WHILE countries such as United States have struggled to come to terms with climate change, Singapore has been ahead of the curve, said Assistant Professor Winston Chow of the National University of Singapore's Department of Geography. "US officials and politicians are still discussing whether climate change is real," the weather researcher noted, whereas Singapore set up the National Climate Change Secretariat in 2010.

The secretariat leads and co-ordinates the country's domestic and international policies, plans and actions on climate change.

In 2011, the Government mandated all newly reclaimed land to be at least 2.25m above the highest recorded tide level - more than twice the IPCC's latest sea level rise projections. The Building and Construction Authority has hired a consortium to study coastal protection methods. It aims to complete this by 2017.

Singapore, which imports over 90 per cent of its food, is exposed to global crop failures. So the Agri-Food and Veterinary Authority (AVA) has been working to boost local production and diversify sources.

Last year, it organised sourcing trips to China, Denmark, Indonesia and the Philippines to help food industry players here build connections. It also urged Singaporeans to accept substitutes like frozen meat, liquid eggs and egg powder, to mitigate supply disruptions and price increases.

Future challenges

STILL, an AVA spokesman said "switching food sources can be challenging". She explained: "We may be competing with other, larger markets with greater purchasing power. Producers from alternative sources may need time to meet our demand."

The changing climate also hampers efforts to use historical data to predict weather events, said Dr Gordon. His centre and others are upgrading to more sophisticated climate modelling systems.

On the global stage, efforts to tackle climate change have been stalled by politics and vested interests. Recent international talks failed to produce a binding deal to limit climate change and eliminate the possibility that the most aggressive scenario would occur.

The Global Legislators Organisation (Globe), which comprises national parliamentarians from over 80 countries, found a small ray of hope. It said 66 countries, accounting for 88 per cent of global carbon emissions, had passed nearly 500 national climate laws.

"While current national legislation does not yet add up to what needs to be done to avoid dangerous climate change, it is putting in place the mechanisms to measure, report and verify emissions, a pre-requisite for a credible global climate treaty," Globe said.

All eyes will be on the UN talks in Paris in December next year, when a global climate change agreement covering all countries is expected to be adopted.

One attendee may be Mr Naderev Sano, the Philippines envoy to a UN meeting in Poland last year. At the meeting he made a tearful appeal in the shadow of Typhoon Haiyan's destruction.

"What my country is going through as a result of this extreme climate event is madness," he said. "The climate crisis is madness. We can fix this. We can stop this madness."