Climate change: Planet will survive, but what about mankind?

Children cooling off at the Skanderbeg Square in the Albanian capital of Tirana in August, amid a heatwave in Europe. Global warming is increasing the likelihood of more frequent and intense extreme weather events.
Children cooling off at the Skanderbeg Square in the Albanian capital of Tirana in August, amid a heatwave in Europe. Global warming is increasing the likelihood of more frequent and intense extreme weather events.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

Awareness growing of urgent need to act as climate change affects more lives worldwide

Forests and tundra are aflame. Tropical cyclones have slammed into nations ringing the Pacific and Atlantic. India is wilting in the heat, and rising seas are forcing people to move inland.

These underscore the urgency in a message that scientists have been trying to say for decades: The climate is changing, humans are to blame, and the time to act is now.

Ms Cynthia Elliott, an associate at the United States-based think-tank World Resources Institute's (WRI) climate programme, said there is growing awareness of the extent of climate change impacts and the risks of inaction. "As climate change impacts are now being felt by more and more around the world, there is growing recognition that urgent action is needed."

There have also been a raft of scientific reports on the issue, but Singapore University of Social Sciences associate professor of economics Walter Theseira said these may not be behind the urgent need to take climate action. "I suspect people trust more what they can see and feel themselves directly. The scientific evidence then becomes a good explanation of what they perceive."

Carbon dioxide, emitted when humans burn fossil fuels or clear forests, is a greenhouse gas - it traps heat on the planet. All the excess heat in the system is altering the radiative balance of the planet and throwing the climate system out of whack.

It might be difficult to link individual extreme weather events to climate change. But just as how a baseball player on steroids can hit more home runs than one without, so too is global warming increasing the likelihood of more frequent and intense extreme events.

BENEFITS OF ACTING NOW

Research shows that ambitious climate action can deliver US$26 trillion (S$35.5 trillion) in economic benefits through 2030... That said, we need to act now - delay will only make the transition riskier and more costly.

MS TARYN FRANSEN, a senior fellow in the climate programme at the US-based think-tank World Resources Institute.

CAN WE WAIT?

Here in Singapore, people have been relatively cushioned from the calamities elsewhere.

As temperatures climb, air-conditioners are turned on. Escaping the haze is simply done at the click of an air purifier's button. And how could dry weather be threatening Singapore's water supply, if the life-giving liquid streams out of the tap every time it is turned on?

Last month, a friend who had listened to the impassioned speech by teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg to the United Nations asked: "Why is she so passionate? Did she personally undergo a climate tragedy?"

Lives may be hanging in the balance elsewhere, but here, debates rage on about the low-hanging fruit, like whether people should be charged for plastic bags.

Mr Harjeet Singh, global climate lead for non-governmental organisation ActionAid, said that in the Global South - a term used by the World Bank to refer to low-and middle-income countries in regions like Asia - climate change is not an issue for the future.

"It is already devastating millions of people's lives, with women and young people the hardest hit," he said. "As the current generation of young people grow up, their future is frighteningly uncertain."

Not everyone will be swayed by the moral argument. But the impacts of climate change may not be that far away. Even wealthy countries like Japan have been caught flat-footed by extreme events, with Typhoon Hagibis pummelling the East Asian country last weekend.

Countries like Singapore are looking into building up their coastal defences. But adaptation does not tackle the crux of the issue.

A spokesman for international climate group 350.org said: "The fossil fuel industry is at the very root of the climate crisis. The pursuit and valuing of perpetual economic growth above the well-being of people and the planet are among the greatest obstacles we face in halting climate breakdown."

Climate scientist Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University said: "Only collective action and systemic change in the form of governmental policies can achieve the dramatic reductions in carbon emissions that are necessary."

Some may question the necessity of climate action, saying human ingenuity could solve the challenge of climate change just as it had numerous other obstacles before. But, as a social movement is aptly named - We Don't Have Time. Not when global emissions are growing at an unsustainable rate, forests are still being cut down, and technologies to suck carbon out of the air are infantile.

Indeed, in the earth's 4.5 billion-year history, the climate has changed numerous times before due to other natural factors. The planet righted itself each time, but many life forms went extinct during each transition. There have been five mass extinction events, and biologists have said we are now going through the sixth. But a difference between climate change throughout the earth's geological history and now is the rate of change.

The planet can adapt - but can mankind do so quickly enough?

As a recent article in Time magazine said: "Stopping global warming isn't about saving the planet; the earth will survive no matter how much the climate changes. It's about saving humanity."

ECONOMY VERSUS ENVIRONMENT

The constant barrage of reminders from scientists, environmentalists and young people may not in themselves solve the problem. But they have highlighted the need to start discussing the tough questions.

A key one is this: In a world that is only going to become warmer and more extreme, should some economic growth be given up to tackle climate change?

WRI's senior fellow in the climate programme Taryn Fransen said it may be a mistake to view decarbonisation and economic growth as being at odds with each other. "Research shows that ambitious climate action can deliver US$26 trillion (S$35.5 trillion) in economic benefits through 2030... That said, we need to act now - delay will only make the transition riskier and more costly."

But there is also the issue of trade-offs, said economist Euston Quah, Albert Winsemius Chair Professor and head of economics at Nanyang Technological University.

This includes the trade-offs between generations, such as if future generations should be protected at the expense of present ones in poverty, or if funds should be invested in air pollution reduction or coral reef restoration.

"Because we have these trade-offs, we have to make good choices in allocating resources," Professor Quah said, highlighting the need to price externalities (carbon) and non-market goods (clean air, water), as well as conduct cost-benefit analyses and environmental impact assessments to better determine where precious resources should be allocated.

Prof Theseira said: "The biggest obstacle is actually convincing the public that serious measures to address climate change will be costly and involve far more pain than giving up plastic straws, will require some changes in lifestyle, and are important and necessary."

He added: "World leaders play a role in doing that convincing. But it's unfair to blame them alone. The truth is that all of us are to blame for not taking this seriously enough to ask for change, and to accept the costs of that change."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Planet will survive, but what about mankind?'. Print Edition | Subscribe