Climate change exacerbates all other environmental threats and imperils human health and safety. As a small, low-lying island, Singapore is vulnerable to climate-related events such as prolonged heat waves, increased flash floods and rising sea levels. If global temperatures were to rise by 4 deg C as predicted by scientists by 2100, four million square feet of office area across 13 buildings in the Central Business District (CBD) may be under threat.
However, Singapore ranks 117 out of 180 countries on its progress in combating climate change, according to the 2020 Environmental Performance Index (EPI). Given the severity of the climate crisis to Singapore, it is reasonable to ask why Singapore is not doing more.
Since the 2018 Global Climate Strikes sparked by Swedish teen Greta Thunberg, many Singapore climate activism groups have also started calling for greater climate action from the government. It is unsurprising that the youth are worried about the Earth that is being handed to them after decades of neglect and destruction. The 21st century is plagued with new challenges that the traditional systems are no longer able to handle.
Kate Yeo, also known as @byobottlesg on Instagram, is a 19-year-old youth activist that has been actively involved in Singapore’s climate scene. In 2018, Ms Yeo spearheaded her very own ‘Bring Your Own (BYO)’ campaign to urge the public to bring their own bottles rather than purchasing plastic cups.
“I would see people on Instagram posting photos of their metal straw but it would be in a plastic cup with a plastic bag and I just thought it was so ironic,” Ms Yeo told The IAS Gazette in an interview in April this year.
Despite encountering difficulties with taking time off from school, Ms Yeo was passionate about her advocacy projects and hoped to work with more schools, businesses and organisations to raise environmental awareness.
She said: “Environmental advocacy isn’t just a ‘project’ or extracurricular activity, it’s quite literally a fight for our collective future. That’s more important to me than a couple of hours of school.”
One recent environmental movement Ms Yeo had been involved in was the Re-Earth Initiative. The Re-Earth Initiative, previously known as We the Planet (WTP), is a global youth-led campaign that started in light of the 50th anniversary of Earth Day this year (April 22). It managed to mobilise thousands of people to participate in global digital protests, as well as to make two climate pledges – one individual, and one systemic.
The Re-Earth Initiative’s mission is to make the climate movement accessible to all by providing a wide range of avenues for people to be part of the climate movement. In doing so, the organisation wishes to drive real concrete change for climate action, and push for a more sustainable world. The Re-Earth Initiative has garnered over 100,000 participants across the world, and is supported by the United Nations (UN), Amnesty International, Extinction Rebellion as well as many celebrities.
Ms Yeo is just one example of a young climate activist fighting for her future. The social and political impacts brought about by climate activism cannot be denied. The real question here is whether climate activism alone is enough to pressure politicians and world leaders to genuinely enact more concrete climate policies.
To dive deeper and untangle the complex web of climate change, The IAS Gazette brought in the expert opinions of Research Fellow at the Energy Studies Institute (NUS), Ms Melissa Low, and Chief Sustainability Officer of City Developments Limited, Ms Esther An.
Not to Hear, but to Listen
The rise of social media in recent years has furthered the cause of climate activism. However, climate activists are often not taken seriously and even portrayed in a negative light by both the public and traditional media for being too “aggressive” or “extreme”. There is a tendency among more conservative citizens and politicians to spin a toxic narrative and framing of climate activists. This negative response can isolate activists from “normal people”, creating an illusion of two separate civil entities that stunts mature and informed climate conversations.
Furthermore, while the term “inclusion” is often talked about, many public and civil society institutions rarely go beyond platitudes about “dialogue” and “collaboration”. For systemic and structural changes to be made, a bond must be forged between citizens and state leaders.
According to Ms Low, the current situation is very polarised as each side takes on an offensive rather than defensive stance. “The government hasn’t quite embraced the youth voice yet as the authorities do not give enough credit to the young environmentalists. They simply find excuses to brush them off,” she said.
“The government is clearly worried and they want to engage the youths, but obviously the trust deficit is going to be an impediment to any meaningful engagement. The government-environmentalist relationship is very bad because the young environmentalists have become cynical and contentious with the government. Young people don’t want the government to sugarcoat issues.”
The distrust that young people have of public institutions dominated by older elites is apparent. They have been disillusioned with politics, and disappointed in the conduct of many politicians. There needs to be more engagement with and inclusiveness of the youth in political conversations – the dismissal of voices is no longer feasible with the rise of social media advocacy. It would be wise to listen more closely to their views, to understand what needs to be done and gain their respect and trust.
Only when the government starts being more transparent with its citizens will the trust deficit reduce, enabling more constructive environmental talks.
“We do not inherit the Earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.”
Accountability and Transparency
Roadblocks in ensuring accountability and transparency in climate governance are another impediment in solving the climate crisis. However, the issue of climate transparency is inherently a complex and fragmented one as it requires both national and local commitments, as well as multilateral cooperation.
Integrity and forthrightness in climate disclosure demand a careful design of the delivery method of climate-related information, as well as its content matter. This means that the information should be widely accessible electronically on an open platform, and its content be accurate and standardised.
Singapore has always advocated to be forward looking, but with the opaque policy making process, it is nearly impossible to push the country to become more environmentally friendly without access to its current procedures and strategies.
“In Singapore, the emissions intensity is calculated by dividing total emissions by GDP. Singapore’s emissions grow at about two per cent every year but our GDP grows between two to four per cent annually,” Ms Low explained. “This is already setting ourselves up for failure in terms of environment because the metric used is fundamentally flawed.”
More importantly, the disclosed information has to be comprehensible to the laymen for any value to come out of transparency efforts. In the case of Singapore, it can be perplexing for an average citizen to comprehend the calculations of carbon intensity emissions and the true impacts of solar energy on society.
As we see it, citizens who think critically can potentially be the boon and bane of any government. Nevertheless, governments must rise above these temptations to find a delicate level of disclosure and instil critical thinking in its people. Only then can substantial discourse start to take place.
Justice Louis Brandeis, an American lawyer and associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States (US) in the 1900s, was a pioneer in the movement for transparency. His famous expression – “sunlight is the best disinfectant” – referred to the importance of transparency and openness about the workings of the government. The phrase is perhaps fitting here.
For the government, meeting the demands of climate accountability and transparency can no longer be a conciliatory one to merely placate the masses. Instead, governments need to approach the issue with a genuine intention to solve the climate crisis.
National Economic Interests
The “economic growth versus tackling climate change” discussion has been central in the climate cause. Proponents of “degrowth” often talk about the decoupling of economic growth and environmental effects, citing Germany as a success story in absolute decoupling. Although empirical research has shown the decoupling hypothesis to appear highly compromised, activists often continue to pressure governments to enforce harsher actions on corporations and sectors that are emissions-heavy.
Ms Yeo, for example, argued: “We can’t talk about Singapore being environmentally friendly without addressing our petrochemical industry. Globally, the fossil fuel industry is increasingly being viewed as a sunset industry.
“We need to start thinking about alternative jobs for all our workers in the oil and gas industry. Like what Meerabelle Jesuthasan wrote, ‘Divestment may seem radical, but it’s a question that will need to be reckoned with sooner or later.’”
Unfortunately, such requests are arguably flawed as they skim past many strategic issues. Greening the economic growth trajectory depends much on a country’s resource endowments, comparative advantage, geographical size and location, as well as its level of development.
As a tiny city-state of only 725.7 km², Singapore’s resource and productivity endowments are not very promising to chart a conventional green economy. Hence, the Singapore government faces the arduous challenge of having to keep the country competitive by priding itself on quality human capital and economic power.
The petroleum and chemicals industry is a strategic one for Singapore, as it maintains its comparative advantage in the region. As the third largest exporter of refined petroleum, the industry is important in ensuring local employment and government revenue. But, what are the implications of these characteristics?
Immediately, renewable and nuclear energy is simply not feasible, with the possible exception of solar energy. Singapore’s dependency on the petroleum and chemicals industry, as well as its role as a host to big industry players such as Shell and Exxonmobil, indirectly creates “off-boundary” topics on the fossil fuel and big oil issue in the country. This might elucidate why the country remains hesitant to put a ban on plastic bags, as well as its inability to move past the topic of single-use wastes into the realm of energy.
The point here is clear – there lies a pragmatic reason behind every action and inaction of a government. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to green growth. If true progress and effective discussions are the ultimate goals, it may therefore be a fruitless endeavour for environment advocates to stay obstinate in pushing their overgeneralised and idealistic green solutions to the government.
The Future of Climate Action
Fortunately, the world still has many things to look forward to. With US President-elect Joe Biden taking office next year, we can anticipate possible advancements to climate legislations and his economic stimulus plan that will invest generously in energy and climate justice. The 2021 Conference of the Parties (COP 26) happening next year is also said to be the “most significant climate event since the 2016 Paris Agreement”.
Governments around the world need to start listening genuinely and educate its people on the difficult and strategic issues they face. Undoubtedly, the role of policy makers is not an easy one. Public officials can be put in a tight spot when the public demands for a movement that might be inherently antagonistic to a nation’s economic growth path.
Activists, on the other hand, must understand that climate activism is never a lost cause. However, they must leave their moral high ground and remain level-headed to provide constructive support in this long journey. In short, climate activists must be able to ask difficult questions, while having deep empathy for public servants.
Indeed, the climate challenge is both a global and domestic one. However, it should not rest only on the shoulders of multilateral treaties, governments and activists.
Domestic private sectors have been stepping up their efforts to make an impact on the climate cause. Ms An shared how bankers, investors and insurers can create significant impacts on corporate businesses by incentivising them to change their business models.
For instance, banks have the power to conduct more stringent assessments of a company’s Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) performance and increase lending to socially and environmentally sustainable economic activities. Investors must also make the effort to understand their investment implications of ESG factors and incorporate them into their investment portfolios. Less well-known is the role of insurers – for example, in the construction sector. By pegging premiums of property insurance to the resilience of buildings, insurance companies can reduce ESG risks.
The climate crisis has never been a straightforward one and it requires more than mere activism. Bringing about enduring progress in climate engagement must entail breaking down the silo mentality and harnessing a culture of open dialogue and forbearance.