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Feature

The rising tide of climate change

Rising sea levels due to climate change threaten to engulf Singapore, but hope glimmers as NTU students warm up to the idea of changing for the climate
by Foo Jie Ying

For illustrative purposes only

Icicles hanging from roofs. Snowmobiles zipping around in place of e-scooters. Students decked out in winter wear as they trudge to classes at The Hive. If you thought that is what climate change could mean for Singapore, dream on.

The reality is, as the planet continues to heat up, what is more likely to happen is flooding on our island-state as Singapore becomes a hotspot for sea level rise.

Being located at the equator means Singapore could receive up to 30 per cent more than its usual share of water. This is because as the ice sheets at the poles melt, the force that draws the surrounding seawater to the ice sheets weakens, explains Prof Benjamin Horton, Chair of NTU’s Asian School of the Environment.

As a result, water flows away from the poles towards the equator instead.

In his National Day Rally speech in August, Singapore’s Prime Minister, Mr Lee Hsien Loong, prepared the country for the grave threat of a 1m sea level rise by the turn of the century.

If tropical storms at sea bring surging waters while a heavy rain inland brings rainwater that cannot be drained, the sea level could rise to almost 4m above the mean sea level. This means that if The Hive was located at mean sea level, you may have to swim your way around the building.

“If the entire ice sheet in Antarctica collapses, Singapore will be flooded, and this country will cease to exist. And that’s just one example. Climate change is the biggest challenge that society faces,” says Prof Horton.

We will have to act on this climate calamity, come hell or high water – the longer we wait to implement solutions, the more it will cost, warns NTU coastal hazards expert Assoc Prof Adam Switzer.

“We really only have two options: we can adapt, or we can retreat. And in Southeast Asia, there’s no doubt, we will have to do both,” he said at the World Economic Forum in August.

No time to waste

We should be getting hot and bothered – the world is 1°C warmer than pre-industrial levels in the 19th century, no thanks to record-breaking levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide since some four million years ago. Humans are the only culprits – most of the emissions come from us powering our modern life.

There is no time to waste – we are well on our way to crossing the 1.5°C mark if we don’t dramatically reduce our carbon footprint. We have 11 years to toe the line, says the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in a 2018 report.

Otherwise, expect to live through more hot days, a higher prevalence of insect-borne diseases such as dengue fever, more expensive food as crop yields shrink, and water shortage as rivers dry up. Across the globe, tens of millions more people could be exposed to life-threatening heat waves and coastal flooding.

Our country will then have to spend more money on infrastructure and less on other services to try to protect Singapore from these problems, predicts Prof Horton.

“Climate change is one of those aspects with a social inequality to it. So the poor, infirm, young and elderly will suffer first.”

Universities should take the lead, NTU Earth scientist Prof Simon Redfern points out. “Everyone coming through NTU will be a leader, a decision maker, a thought generator of the future. They are the ones who will live with the consequences of climate change, so it’s important that they are agents of change for a better future.”

Last year, NTU banned the giving out of free plastic bags on campus, a move that could save nearly 10 million plastic bags a year. Littered on the campus are also recycling bins for various types of waste, including electronic and food waste.

Beyond integrating eco-friendly habits in your daily routine, there needs to be a sea change in our mindsets – the recognition that humans are just one of the millions of species sharing the planet, says Prof Horton, who recently co-authored a paper on the topic.

This means developing sustainability can no longer be about learning how to better exploit and control nature, he says.

And it’s only when we live in harmony with nature that we can let it take its own course.