nce a fringe issue, climate change is becoming mainstream. As rising global temperatures trigger extreme weather events across the globe - more severe and prolonged droughts in some places and intense rainfall in others - it is difficult to ignore the signs that something is amiss with planet earth.
On 20 September 2019 millions of people abandoned school and work to join mass protests calling for action against climate change before a United Nations Climate Action Summit in New York. The demonstrations started in the Pacific Islands before rolling out across the world. In Singapore, over 1,700 participants turned out for Singapore’s first climate rally at Hong Lim Park despite the haze. All in, a total of four million people gathered for the largest rally for the planet in history.
For the young who are at the forefront of the global movement led by Swedish teenager Greta Thunberg, climate change is an existential issue. For them there is no planet B.
Time is running out to avert global disaster and avoid climate chaos. Based on calculation of land elevation using satellite readings, US based Nature Communications’ research shows that some 150 million people are now living on land that will be below the high-tide line by 2050, three times more than the previous projection. In 30 years, southern Vietnam where almost a quarter of the country’s population live could be under water along with India’s financial capital Mumbai, Egypt’s Alexandria and Iraq’s second largest city Basra.
Until now Singapore has been spared from the adverse effects of climate change even though it has become warmer and drier. The year 2019 was one of the warmest on record, with the annual mean temperature hitting 28.4 degrees Celsius. A mean temperature of 27.94 degrees Celsius from 2010 to 2019 also made it the hottest decade ever.
In his National Day Rally on 18 August 2019, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong remarked, “Climate change may seem abstract and distant for many of us, but it is one of the gravest challenges facing humankind.”
Like many small island states, Singapore is vulnerable to the effects of climate change and global warming. A low-lying island, the city-state has no buffer should the sea level continue its inexorable rise.
As Mr Lee observed, in the 1960s and 1970s, Singapore used to flood especially during the rainy season, but the issue was resolved through improved drainage system and building requirements - buildings were built on higher platforms, at least three metres above mean sea level. This gave Singapore a one metre buffer during high tide when water levels could go up to two metres above sea level. However, should the sea level rise by a metre with global warming, Singapore would literally be in deep water if heavy rains were to coincide with a high tide. Based on current projections, the sea level will rise by up to one metre by the end of the century, but scientists’ estimates are being steadily revised upwards.
While there are good engineering solutions to defend Singapore against the rising waters, it will cost the country a tidy sum – S$100 billion or even more over the next 50 to 100 years.
For starters, new developments will have to be built higher. For now, they must be at least four metres above mean sea level, with critical infrastructure such as Changi Airport Terminal Five and the Tuas port built at least one metre more at five metres above mean sea level.
Beyond localised measures, Singapore will have to build its coastal defences. Like the Netherlands it could build polders – having low-lying reclaimed land protected by embankments – or dykes, or it could reclaim offshore islands.
Climate change also has far reaching impact on water and food supplies and spread of diseases like dengue.
Mr Lee’s timely reminder to Singaporeans: “We should treat climate change defence like we treat the Singapore Armed Forces -- with utmost seriousness ... These are life and death matters.”
“Everything else must bend at the knee to safeguard the existence of our island nation.”