News analysis

Narrowing the gap between awareness and action on climate change

Singapore is embarking on a new approach to tackling climate change. By designating the year 2018 as its Year of Climate Action, Singapore wants to raise awareness among people through campaigns, in hopes of spurring them to act.

Minister for the Environment and Water Resources Masagos Zulkifli announced this at an international climate change conference in Bonn, Germany, last week.

This approach is considerably "softer" than Singapore's current suite of regulatory strategies, which affect mainly industries. Amendments to the Energy Conservation Act, for example, slap harsher punishments on large polluters for being energy-inefficient.

But the soft touch is crucial, especially when it comes to changing mindsets.

Climate change is a topic that is heavy politicised and debated in countries such as the United States.

But many Singaporeans appear apathetic about it, even against the backdrop of increasingly frequent and more extreme weather events, which scientists say is symptomatic of climate change.

For instance, this year's pre-Budget feedback exercise conducted by government feedback unit Reach showed that issues such as family support, job security and employment prospects were topics that gripped the nation's attention instead.

That is not to say that Singaporeans are totally unaware of climate change, though.

In 2013, the National Climate Change Secretariat did a public perception survey of 1,000 respondents. It showed that about seven in 10 people were concerned about climate change.

The trick, then, is to narrow the gap between awareness and action.

The way to do this, says Miss Pamela Low from the Singapore Youth for Climate Action, is to get people to feel "confident and empowered that they can make a difference to climate change".

Climate change refers to the human-induced warming of the earth, due to deforestation and the excessive consumption of resources that results in the production of heat-trapping greenhouse gases.

It may appear daunting and inexorable to many people, but the fact is that every individual can play a part, by simply reducing the amount of resources one uses.

The Ministry of the Environment and Water Resources would not be drawn to reveal details on the types of outreach activities that would be conducted next year, saying only that it would work with a range of stakeholders on the topic.

But non-governmental groups such as the Singapore Youth for Climate Action and the Singapore Environment Council already have some ideas, ranging from campaigns to talks in schools.

However, Ms Nor Lastrina Hamid, co-founder of the Singapore Youth for Climate Action, believes there is room for something bolder.

"With regard to the tactics employed in Singapore so far, I think most have been keeping it mild by organising talks, workshops or online campaigns. I think there are opportunities to expand this to other forms of tactics or... forum theatre, or mass street action.

"The citizen action on climate change can be a bit more engaging and entertaining to the larger crowd," she told The Sunday Times.

Indeed, conventional campaigns, such as the Earth Hour campaign by the World Wide Fund for Nature, have been ongoing in Singapore for years. Their success at spurring action, however, may be limited.

For instance, Singapore has done poorly in recycling, with a domestic recycling rate of 21 per cent last year, even though there are recycling bins in every one of the 10,000 or so Housing Board blocks here.

In comparison, Taiwan has a household recycling rate of 55 per cent. Germany's recycling rate for municipal waste is 64 per cent and that of South Korea is 59 per cent, according to statistics from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development.

So, Singapore has some way to go in spurring climate action, and more creative campaigns could be just the thing. With the new focus on outreach, however, 2018 could just be a year of change.

Find out more about climate change and how it could affect you on the ST microsite here.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on November 19, 2017, with the headline Narrowing the gap between awareness and action on climate change. Subscribe