Commentary

Bringing home story of how climate change is playing out around us

These days, the world seems to be given to extremes.

Populists and political hardliners are gaining ground in many countries; the exchanges between trade officials from China and the United States get ever more testy; and then, of course, there are the early-morning, exclamation-mark-laden tweets from the American President himself!

All around us, droughts and floods are getting more severe, while hurricanes and heatwaves hit with greater intensity, wreaking more havoc.

In short, there seems to be disruption all round, from politics to economies and industries, as well as the weather and climate.

While the news of the day is often dominated by the most immediate concerns, it is the longer-term challenge of global warming and climate change that might have the most lasting impact on all our lives.

Consider this: the United Nations' World Meteorological Organisation (WMO) published its annual greenhouse gas bulletin last Thursday, which showed that concentrations of the key gases in the atmosphere that are pushing up global temperatures reached a new high last year.

Carbon dioxide levels reached 405 parts per million (ppm) last year.

"The science is clear. Without rapid cuts in CO2 and other greenhouse gases, climate change will have increasingly destructive and irreversible impacts on life... The window of opportunity for action is almost closed," said WMO secretary-general Petteri Taalas.

Climate change is happening here, and now, affecting people and communities. Given the significance and scale of the challenge, The Straits Times embarked earlier this year on one of our biggest journalistic efforts ever, to tell this important story.

"The last time the Earth experienced a comparable concentration of CO2 was 3-5 million years ago, when the temperature was 2-3 deg C warmer and sea level was 10m-20m higher than now," he added.

I did a double-take when I saw that report. After all, I recall that just a few years ago, when I used to lead a global project on the Future of Energy for Royal Dutch Shell, which looked at how to meet the world's growing energy needs in a more sustainable way, the number that was much bandied about by the climate experts was 380.

That was the concentration of C02 - in parts per million - in the atmosphere that was deemed to be perilously close to the upper bound if the world was to keep global warming in check.

Indeed, an article in the British newspaper, The Guardian, in December 2008 had noted: "The CO2 level is currently over 380ppm, up from 280ppm at the time of the Industrial Revolution, and it rises by more than 2ppm each year. The government's official position is that the world should aim to cap this rise at 450ppm."

It went on to add that experts believed that doing so could offer an even-money chance of limiting the eventual temperature rise above pre-industrial times to 2 deg C, which the EU defines as dangerous.

Alas, 380 ppm now seems a distant memory, and some worry that hopes of curbing the seemingly relentless rise in C02 levels are becoming increasingly vain.

As Professor Corinne Le Quere of the University of East Anglia put it to the BBC recently: "I am very concerned that the three greenhouse gases most responsible for climate change (CO2, methane and nitrous oxide) are all rising upwards unabated.

"CO2 concentrations are now well above 400ppm - levels were 321ppm when I was born, that is a big rise in a human lifetime!"

The implications of this continuing upsurge in greenhouse gases are serious for all of us in Singapore, as well as the rest of Asia and the world.

As Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong pointed out when he spoke at the launch of this year's Clean and Green Singapore carnival earlier this month, Singapore is already feeling the effects of global warming, having recorded its hottest year and second driest year over the past few years. He also cited the threat posed by rising sea levels as an area of especial concern.

"Many South-east Asian countries, including Singapore, are also vulnerable to rising sea levels because of our long coastlines and low-lying areas," he said, adding that government agencies here would come up with long-term plans to prepare and protect the country.

Rising sea levels and temperatures could hit fish stocks and food supplies, add to the incidence of tropical diseases and see homes washed away by devastating coastal flooding.

Indeed, previous international reports have noted that South-east Asian countries could be among the world's most vulnerable, given that many communities in the region are coastal and poor, rely heavily on fishing and agriculture, and are also less resilient in the face of the rising incidence of disease and environmental degradation that climate change gives rise to.

 
 
 

In other words, climate change is happening here, and now, affecting people and communities.

Given the significance and scale of the challenge, The Straits Times embarked earlier this year on one of our biggest journalistic efforts ever, to tell this important story.

We tasked our correspondents in the field to bring home the stories of how climate change is playing out - here and now - in our part of the world.

Over six months, about 20 ST journalists travelled to over 20 hot spots around the world which are feeling the greatest impact - where taps threaten to run dry, where homes are being washed to the sea in their thousands, where rice crops are dwindling and where deadly disease, fuelled by a warmer planet, is spreading.

Their reports - in words, pictures, videos and graphics - have formed part of our six-week series, Climate of Change, which has run on our website and in our Insight pages on Sunday over the past weeks.

But, significantly, it is not all doom and gloom. Our reporters also uncovered how scientists are working hard to push back, from creating hardier strains of rice to finding new ways to dull the sting of mosquito-borne illnesses. Governments are finding ways to make the switch to greener energy and organisations are building flood-proof homes in villages, for instance.

As Environment and Water Resources Minister Masagos Zulkifli said in an interview with The Sunday Times: "The whole commitment on climate change is very difficult, very difficult to achieve. But if people embrace the way forward... it will be a new world for everybody, it will also be a better world."

This series of reports is all the more topical and significant since the issues raised will feature in discussions at the upcoming COP24 meetings in Poland next month, when countries hope to hammer out a detailed global plan on how to keep global warming in check.

ST's environment correspondent Audrey Tan will be there to report on the proceedings, while our team in the newsroom, led by science editor Chang Ai Lien and assistant foreign editor David Fogarty, will make sense of the discussions.

ST will continue to cover this important story, to try to help us all come to grips with one of the greatest and most pressing challenges facing our planet - and people - at this time.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 25, 2018, with the headline 'Bringing home story of how climate change is playing out around us'. Print Edition | Subscribe