The Climate Crisis Hasn’t Arrived?
The issue of climate change rarely comes up in conversations with my friends, which I suspect is the case for many Singaporeans. When it does, many will simply say things to the tune of “honestly the environment is the last of my concerns”, which is frustrating and depressing to me given how we are in the midst of a climate emergency. However, something a close friend said stuck disturbingly with me: “Why care so much about the future, care for ourselves now”. This remark implies that climate change is only a threat to future generations, but not really an urgent issue to us now. Yet, this constitutes a big myth of climate change which many believe: that it is something in the far-flung future. Of course, a warming world poses serious consequences in the future, and things are only going to get worse if we carry on with business as usual. But here is the crux of the matter: climate change is in the here and now, and a world with rapidly warming temperatures and extreme weather is already the current reality.
Indeed, just this year we have encountered a spate of extreme weather events, such as the heatwaves causing roads to melt in Japan, India and China, and sparking terrifying wildfires in Europe, which saw its worst heatwave in 2 centuries. Temperature records have been shattered in many places such as the UK and parts of the US, and many countries have reported multiple deaths and hospitalisations from the sweltering heat. Climate change has contributed significantly to catastrophic droughts in East Africa, leading to millions being at risk of severe hunger and famine. Intense rainfall has also led to severe flooding in Sydney, Malaysia, Pakistan and China. All of these events are at least partially attributed to the changing climate. Even in Singapore, where we are used to heavy rainfall and blistering tropical heat, it is getting hotter and rainier, right now. Clearly, the recent weather in many parts of the world is not that of a normal summer’s day, but a sign of extreme weather brought about by climate change. It should be alarming that weather projections in Europe for 2050 are already happening right now. What we are seeing this summer is evidence of a climate emergency which has led to the loss of lives and the destruction of property. The science is clear: heat waves, droughts and flooding that used to be rare extreme weather events are now more intense, more frequent, and lasting longer, an ominous warning that a warmer world has arrived.
In Singapore, while our infrastructure has shielded us from the effects of climate change so far, it will not tide us through the worst which is yet to come. This is particularly as rising sea levels, which would disproportionately affect Southeast Asian cities, pose an existential threat to us as an island nation. This then begs the question of why many Singaporeans are not concerned about climate change, and what we can do to make people care more.
There are several reasons for this, some psychological, others political. Firstly, perhaps because Singaporeans are used to the tropical heat due to our well-designed infrastructure and the prevalence of air-conditioners. We are also insulated from climate disasters such as hurricanes and tornadoes. Thus, many Singaporeans, except foreign manual laborers, National Servicemen and those who cannot afford air-conditioners, generally do not feel that climate change is a big issue beyond the thermal discomfort. They tend to treat climate change as an abstract concept instead of something close and real to us, an effect psychologists call the Construal Theory of Psychological Distance, where they think “it can’t be that serious, I don’t feel anything changing around me”.
Secondly, the apathy that many Singaporeans display could fall into what many scholars and experts call Climate Doomism, where we turn to apathy as a coping mechanism against something we feel is inevitable. An overwhelming sense of hopelessness and powerlessness leads us to apathy and inaction, where we shrug our shoulders and say- “there is nothing we can do anyway.”
Thirdly, is what behavioral economists call discounting, where we discount the effects of the future for present benefits, in other words being impatient for immediate rewards and valuing the future less. Classic examples of this can be seen in how people prefer to spend money now rather than save for retirement, or overeating instead of exercising. In the context of climate change, this translates to how many people, corporations and governments are unwilling to make any significant sacrifices or investments now to combat climate change, which they (falsely) see as a future occurrence. This notion of discounting also translates to climate policy due to the long time scale of climate change. The discount rates adopted by governments are a reflection of how societies value the future damages caused by climate change economically, and how much they are willing to trade off the present for it. Discounting and discount rates are therefore instrumental in influencing how governments choose to price carbon and determine the value of carbon taxes, and minute differences in discount rates can have large implications on carbon policy and pricing. Using a zero discount rate would force governments to place a higher weight on the long-term benefits of climate mitigation.
Lastly, while individual psychological reasons are key, we do not exist in a vacuum, and the media we consume as individuals is vital in shaping our views and understanding of climate change. In western countries like the US, UK and Australia, the Murdoch media empire (owning the likes of right-wing news outlets like Fox News and The Daily Telegraph) has fed climate disinformation to its viewers for decades, ranging from outright denialism to narratives meant to delay the transition to a green economy and society. Additionally, even non-Murdoch News outlets are not portraying climate change as the crisis that it is, failing to convey the urgency of climate change, and portraying a form of false balance in its coverage by employing a form of ‘bothsideism’. By platforming climate disinformation alongside credible scientific climate sources to achieve a false sense of neutrality, they undermine climate science and progress towards combating climate change. Even the most recent heatwaves in Europe have been trivialised, best encapsulated by this video clip juxtaposing a real world news interview with the disaster satire film “Don’t Look Up”. In Singapore, while the scourge of the Murdoch News Empire does not have free rein, our media outlets can definitely be more proactive in highlighting the links between extreme weather events and climate change, as well as Singapore’s role in continuing to support fossil fuel companies.
Knowing all these disparate reasons, how do we get people to care and call them to action? This post offers a few non-exhaustive suggestions. The first is to double down on what we have always been doing: to constantly raise awareness of its severity and repel disinformation and the myth of it being a far-flung event. Emphasising that climate change is already happening and wreaking havoc in many parts of the world helps to reduce the proximity and psychological distance of climate change. By doing this, we can also neutralize the effects of discounting because people recognize that climate action is not a tradeoff between future and present, but is actively saving the present and preventing an even more disastrous future. Doing this would require a colossal effort by environmental activists and NGOs, but it also requires the mainstream media to drive home the message on the severity of climate change. Since our first climate rally in 2019, climate change has become mentioned more often in the mass media and the government’s policies, illustrating the importance of activism and raising awareness.
Secondly, raising awareness must also be paired with providing concrete suggestions on what individuals can do, such as but not limited to lifestyle changes, sharing posts on social media to raise awareness, organising and educating others, writing and petitioning to politicians to implement systemic changes, and many more. Bombarding viewers with huge amounts of information about the climate crisis and getting them to care without providing concrete actions to take will only lead to a form of compassion and empathy fatigue. This can manifest in apathy and inaction when viewers get overwhelmed and numb themselves to future information as a form of a defense mechanism. Providing a list of concrete actions people can take gives them a sense of agency that they have a part to play, instead of just being sitting ducks to the crisis. The recently-passed climate bill in the US, though flawed, is proof of what continued organising and people power can achieve, and how it is pivotal to guide people to channel their concern and anxiety towards action and change.
Lastly, our activism and messaging should be hopeful, to avoid doomism and fatalism which can backfire and undermine the progress made. A message of hope can jolt people out of apathy towards action, from climate anxiety to urgency and agency. Doomism sends a message of despair and hopelessness which is self-defeating and also scientifically inaccurate. There is still much to fight for and much to be done, and catastrophising our current situation into one where nothing is left to be done inadvertently advances the interests of the fossil fuel industry. Our activism must be truthful, radical and be on the side of justice, but critically it must be hopeful, positive and charismatic to spur people to take individual and collective action.
Make no mistake, climate change is not merely a future threat. Its impacts are already here upon us, and the science is crystal clear and has been for decades. The pressing issue is not how to improve the accuracy and veracity of scientific theories, models or data, but how to improve our messaging, communication and activism to be clarion calls to action. As activists and people generally concerned about the environment, these are difficult questions we must grapple with. Hopefully we will be able to make our activism more effective and to get more people to care and take action, for the climate requires it.