A much-needed wake-up call

August 12, 2021 09:41
Photo: Reuters

The UN Secretary-General termed it a “code red for humanity”.

The official IPCC statement declared that “climate change is widespread, rapid, and intensifying.”

Above all, evidence ranging from the flooding of coastal areas and the surge in number of extreme storms – unequivocally points to the fact that climate change not only is real, but that it is high time that we realised how little time we had. The wake-up call was unpleasant, cacophonous, and could not have come at a time any worse than it did, given the downward spiral in geopolitical tensions and international animosity between the two largest players in town. Yet it is what it is: we are at imminent and substantial risk of hitting 1.5 degrees (the threshold of “tolerable” global heating) in the near term.

What would the trajectory look like, if we were unable to reverse course?

Drastic melting of ice caps, surging sea levels, substantially more frequent heatwaves, that would place a hefty burden on food security, our environment, and, indeed, our civilisation. As Toby Ord noted aptly in The Precipice, the threat posed to humanity by climate change by far exceeds a plethora of other, more ominously sounding threats – including a meteor shower, an asteroid collision, and, of course, total war. Complacency is not an option. It is imperative that we act now.

So what’s to be done? Conventional measures – e.g. advancing more recycling, promoting reductions to carbon emissions, engaging in shift towards renewable energy (cf. China and its booming electric vehicle industry), these are all existing measures that have long been adopted. Dialling them up obviously could work, and would ameliorate the situation somewhat. To do away with them would be deeply foolish – that these reforms have not had as drastic or apparent an impact, is not a case for ditching them altogether. Yet it also suggests that more must and ought to be done, both in confronting the calamities that are due to befall us, as well as repairing and addressing the damage that has already been wrought in the past.

A more substantive solution would be one where countries – through international agreements and multilateral institutions – came to a new consensus over dialling up reduction targets (for emissions) and accelerating the development of renewable energy and substitutes to existing, emission-heavy industries. Much of this requires not only research and development across the board, but also collaborative venturing and partnerships across national borders. This, in turn, would be impracticable in a climate (pun intended) where scientists and leading researchers are targeted with suspicion and paranoia. Nor, indeed, would bundling climate change with geopolitical and strategic risks and concerns be a wise move – we need to de-politicise climate change, as opposed to re-politicise it.

On a more granular, policymaking-centered level, it is imperative that governments invest more aggressively into the construction of adaptive and defensive architecture that enables cities to acclimatise and adjust to the rapidly shifting conditions. Habitability is of course a concern – yet this is by no means a concern that cannot be redressed through artificial or anthropogenic measures. From stilted housing to creative rezoning of land, from relocating at-risk populations from low-elevation lands and plains to areas in which they can (at least for now) reside relatively safely, these are necessary but insufficient measures that must be promptly undertaken. For coastal metropolises like New York, Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Singapore, the emphasis must now be placed upon sustainable and pragmatic developments of new townships and settlements that can withstand the challenges posed by the meteorological transformations.

Cities across the world could take a leaf or two from exemplars – including but not limited to Shanghai, Hong Kong, Amsterdam, Sydney, and Singapore, which have spearheaded or pioneered significant efforts at reducing domestic carbon emissions and promoting broader environmental awareness. The sustainable development industry in Hong Kong is thriving thanks to a combination of innovative civil society initiatives and the foresight of corporations, which have stepped up in working with the administration in advancing initiatives aimed at improving Hong Kong’s sustainability and resilience in face of adverse climate conditions.

Above all, environmentalism, or the combating of climate change, must begin at home. It must begin with the individuals – with citizens, who must step up to take matters into their own hands, where established interest groups and governments have failed. Individual action matters – it matters in holding those in power responsible, but also in pushing forward changes in stalemates and quagmires, where none can be found.

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Editor-in-Chief, Oxford Political Review